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Civil War and Reconstruction
Reconstruction and Rights
The Absolute Equality of All Before the Law

This speech presented by William Dickson in 1865 describes an approach to Reconstruction that involves giving both African Americans and former Confederates the vote. What arguments does Dickson put forth to support this approach? What arguments against his approach does he anticipate? How well does he counter these arguments? Why or why not?

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The fact is, and we might as well look it squarely in the face, with a few unimportant exceptions, the Southern whites yield sullenly and reluctantly to the decision of the sword. They are conquered, not converted.

Do not mistake me; I ask them of no unmanly self-abasement. I would not have them otherwise than proud of the prowess they have exhibited in the contest. But before I would give them a voice in the affairs of the nation, a vote to control your and my concerns, I would have a guaranty that this voice and this vote would be directed to the common good, that these would not be merely new and more dangerous weapons in their hands, to carry on the war against the Union. . . .

At the commencement of this war, it was a common declaration of those who were in sympathy with the rebels, that the rebellion could not be put down; that history did not furnish an example of eight or ten millions of people determined on independence being conquered. These opinions were generally held by the rulers of Europe. But there was one important element left out of the calculation, namely, nearly one half of the population of the rebel States, were the determined enemies of the rebellion, and this half constituted the laboring class . This half neutralized, in the long run, the other half. . . .

. . . I would have it continue this good work. I would so reconstruct the Southern States, that while I gave to the disloyal half their full equality before the law, I would paralyze their disloyal purposes by giving a like equality to the loyal half. What wrong is there is this? I give to the men who, for four years have been to destroy the nation full rights--the same which you and I have. The only condition imposed, is, that their loyal follow citizens shall have the problem of reconstructions is full harmony with the representative principle and all our institutions. It will in a brief time remove pro-consular governments, and restore the normal condition of all the States. The country can then rest satisfied that a full guaranty against any efforts of the rebels to do injury, under a restored government. This solution introduces no new element, no new principle into our government. It is but the complete application of the principles of our fathers, set forth in the declaration of independence.

The exception which they reluctantly permitted against the negro is removed. It gives representation to those whom we subject to drafts an taxes It rests upon the golden rule of right. It is but doing unto others what we would that they should do unto us.

Why shall it not be adopted? And here the false theory of State rights is again thrust forward, by certain parties, in the precise same sense, and for the same purpose with which it was introduced at the beginning of the warm, to support the proposition that the government had no right to defend against rebellion. Then the Government had no power to resist those who sought its life! now these being captured, it has no power to require them to give bonds to keep the peace! Here again the true relation of things is perverted. Grant indeed, not Lee, has surrendered; the Union forces, not the rebels, have been disarmed.

It is no part of my present purpose to elaborate the argument, establishing the power of the government to impose conditions, looking to the public safety, upon the rebels. If it has no power to do this, it had no power to make war. The one follows from the other. The rebels well knew, when they appealed to the tribunal of the sword, what the judgment must be, if the decision should be adverse to them. By the universal laws of war, the conquering power may impose such conditions of settlement, looking to its own safety and welfare, as it pleases; only these must not be in violation of the laws of humanity. This principle clearly gives the Government power to adopt the plan of reconstruction proposed. . . .

It is said, however, that the blacks could only vote at the point of the bayonet, that the Southern whites would not otherwise permit them. Then the rebellion is not subdued; we have a truce, not lasting peace. If this is the case, the sooner we know it the better; at least it were better to know it before we disband our armies.

But I do not believe this; doubtless the masters are averse to the negroes voting; not any more however, than they were to their freedom. They profess to acquiesce in the latter, they will also in the former. The rebels are not now in a condition to fight the United States and the freedmen at the polls. And in a short time the soldiers of the Government can be safely removed. Every day the negro will acquire knowledge and power, all of which will be respected at the polls. This thing of fighting is an easy matter to the armed dominant party over his unarmed subordinate. But between equals, it is a very different affair....In those rebel States in which the negroes are the more numerous, the whites will be slow to provoke a contest. They will, everywhere, rather endeavor in a different way to control the negro votes; they will seek them by kindness. Such is human nature. I expect to see the day when a Southern Democrat, will be seen "carrying" arm in arm to the polls, two negro voters. For the white race has no monopoly of worthless men. They belong to all races.

Again, it is objected, that the Southern negro is ignorant and unfit to vote. He seems to have been intelligent enough to be loyal, which was more than his master was. But I do not deny the ignorance; their condition of slavery forbids that it could be otherwise. Yet they share this ignorance in common with the poor whites; and I would be willing to apply to both these classes an educational test. Still I would not recommend this. Freedom is the school in which freemen are to be taught, and the ballot-box is a wonderful educator. . . .

. . . As the force of the negro must enter into the formation of our civilization, it is to the interest of the white man not less than of the black man, that this force should be for good. It cannot be, however, unless the negro is moral, intelligent and industrious. How can we give him these desirable characteristics? We have only to consider the conditions under which white men have become moral, intelligent, and industrious, and apply these to the black man.

Our proposition thus becomes very simple; we must educate him and place before him the rewards of good conduct and the penalties of bad conduct. We must give him entire equality before the law and all these things will follow. Let not the law be a respecter of persons. The humbler the man the greater the necessity that the law should not oppress him. The rich and great can take care of themselves. With all the opportunites of equal laws, the poor man's lot is hard enough. He requires the protection of the law and the self respect which an equality of right before the law engenders. In a country where equality is the rule, we cannot have an exception founded on caste. The ballot is here the evidence of manhood; when we deny it to a race we at once degrade that race in the respect of others, and what is of greater consequence, in its own respect. Every man, the humbler he is the more, requires the right of suffrage for his protection. And the negro, as the most unprotected of all, needs it most of all. We must educate him, and give him the condition of self-respect, if we would have his influence for good upon our civilization.

But while we thus see the necessity of giving to the negro equality before the law, even upon the assumption that his presence is a necessary evil, let us not forget that this is indeed far from the truth. We need his labor in the South and we need the protection of his ballot against the ballot of his former traitorous master.

And further, if we educate him and place him in a position in which he will respect himself, we may expect the most gratifying results to the common good. In an economic view this is a matter of the greatest moment. The increased production of an intelligent, self-respecting and industrious population can hardly be estimated. In the South thrift will take the place of waste; voluntary labor directed by an enlightened self-interest will take the place of compulsory labor directed by the lash; provident abstinence will save for a reserved fund, that which has heretofore been lost in careless expenditure. Fixed capital will thus arise; towns will spring up; the industrial arts will be cultivated; and prosperity and wealth will abound where want and poverty have prevailed. That rich southern soil with its generous climate, is a mine of untold wealth. It needs but the hand of free industry to bring it forth. All this would greatly contribute to lightening the load of our debt. These grateful people would gladly aid in the payment of the ransom for their redemption.

My friends, every consideration which ought to influence human conduct, requires that the ballot should be given to the black man.

The protection of the black man himself requires it; gratitude for his devoted loyalty requires it; the protection of our civilization from the influence of a degraded and barbarous element requires it; the protection of ourselves from the insidious rebel ballot requires it; the speedy restoration of the rebel states to their proper relation to the General Government requires it; the fundamental principles of our Government require it; the Golden Rule of our most holy religion commanding us to do unto others as we would that they should do unto us, requires it. Can we withhold it?
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