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CHAPTER ONE What Were They Reconstructing? 33 The Duty of Congress, 1865 When the Thirty-­ Ninth Congress convened on December 4, 1865, the great question facing the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives was how to rebuild the nation. During the war, Congress had addressed Reconstruction policy, but victory was the paramount concern of the government. Now the war was over. On that December day, the Congress met for the first time since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Reconstruction replaced the war as the top policy priority. The initial movements of the Congress reveal how senators and representatives understood their task. Immediately after the House of Representatives was organized, the newly elected Speaker of the House, Republican Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, delivered a short address. The subject of his address was Reconstruction policy. The duties of Congress were “as obvious as the sun’s pathway in the heavens”: “Its first and highest obligation is to guarantee to every State a republican form of government. The rebellion, having overthrown constitutional State government in many states, it is yours to mature and enact legislation which, with the concurrence of the Executive, shall establish them anew on such a basis of enduring justice as will guaranty all necessary safeguards to the people , and afford, what our Magna Charta, the Declaration of Independence, proclaims is the chief object of government—­ protection to all men in their inalienable rights.”1 In specifying this obligation, “to guaranty to every State a republican form of government,” Colfax quoted directly from Article IV, Section 4, of the Constitution. The “first and highest obligation” of Congress warranted by the Constitution is to guarantee the establishment and maintenance of PART I THE REPUBLICAN ARGUMENT 34 a certain kind of political regime in each of the several states. Immediately next, he said that the governments of the insurrectionary states were not constitutional . They were not constitutional because they lacked governments that were republican in form. They had deviated from that form of government ; they had revolutionized. Following the defeat of the combined insurrectionary states in war, the yet unchanged fundamental political condition of these states encumbered Congress with the duty to exercise its “highest obligation,” to fulfill and maintain the constitutional guarantee of republican government. If the new state governments were to renounce rebellion, their renunciation would not by itself meet the standard of constitutional or republican government . More was expected, and Colfax explained how those states could meet the standard. When Congress enacted legislation reorganizing the state governments so that they met the “chief object of government-­ protection to all men in their inalienable rights,” then those state governments would be regarded as constitutional, that is, republican in form, per Article IV, Section 4. In other words, to Speaker Colfax, the principles of the Declaration informed the meaning of that clause in the Constitution. A government that protects inalienable rights is one that meets the definition of republican. The governments in the insurrectionary states had not met that standard. After Congress successfully discharged its duty, Colfax continued, new loyal members from the former insurrectionary states would take their places in the House of Representatives, “their hearts devoted to the Union for which they are to legislate, jealous of its honor, proud of its glory, watchful of its rights, and hostile to its enemies.” His vision of patriotic unity and loyalty shared by representatives from the reconstructed states would be expected to follow the establishment of true republican government in those states, not to come before it. Colfax linked the states’ prospective loyalty, the desired effect, to the successful establishment of republican government, the cause. In so doing, he tacitly linked the cause of those states’ disloyalty to the absence of republican governments in those states. Difference between the political regime in and among the insurrectionary states and the political regime in and among the loyal states accounted for national division and disharmony. Composed of dissimilar, geographically separated political regimes, national union could not hold together . The cause of secession and the Civil War rested upon this difference. The presence and absence of slavery in the different parts of the Union constituted a salient difference between the loyal and insurrectionary states and CHAPTER ONE WHAT WERE THEY RECONSTRUCTING? 35 correlated to a difference in political regimes. The success of Reconstruction was predicated upon first recognizing the regime difference, which might not disappear after the imminent constitutional abolition of slavery. Colfax was pointing Congress in the direction of changing the political...


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