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Harper's Weekly, April 29, 1866, Page 242

Radicalism and Conservatism

In every political contest in a Constitutional system the names of Conservatism and Radicalism will be applied to the opposing policies, while the history of such governments show that the policy which truly conserves the principle and spirit of a free system is that which is called Radicalism. In the conflict of opinion in England before our Revolution George III and Dr. Johnson were the stiffest of Tory Conservatives, and saw in the doctrines and policy of Edmund Burke nothing but Radicalism and the overthrow of the monarchy. But Burke was the true Conservative. His policy would have saved the empire upon its own principles.

In this country at this moment both Radicalism and Conservatism, as the names of a policy of national reorganization, are very easily defined and comprehended. Thus Radicalism holds that the late rebel States should not be suffered to take par in the government of the Union which they have so zealously striven to destroy except after searching inquiry into their condition, and upon terms which shall prevent any advantage having been gained by rebellion. By the result of the war the suffrage of a voter in South Carolina weighs as much as the vote of two voters in New York. Is that a desirable state of things? Would any fair-minded voter in South Carolina claim that he ought to have a preference in the Union because, however honestly, he has rebelled against it? Radicalism, therefore, favors an equalization of representation as a condition precedent to the full recognition of the disturbed States, and every citizen of those States who sincerely desires national unity and peace will favor it also.

Radicalism holds that equal civil rights before the law should be guaranteed by the United States to every citizen. It claims that the Government which commands the obedience of every citizen shall afford him protection, and that the freedom which the people of the United States have conferred the people of the United States shall maintain. Is that a perilous claim? Is any other course consistent with national safety or honor?

Once more: Radicalism asserts that, as the national welfare and permanent union can be established only upon justice, there should be no unreasonable political disfranchisement of any part of the people. It denies that complexion, or weight, or height are reasonable political qualifications, and it refers to the history of the country to show that they have not always been so regarded even in some of the late slave States, and remembers that both President Johnson and his predecessor were friends of impartial suffrage. Holding this faith, Radicalism urges that while we may honestly differ as to the wisest means of securing political equality, yet that all our efforts should constantly tend, with due respect for the proper and subordinate functions of the States in our constitutional systems, to protect those equal rights of man with whose assertion our Government began, and in consequence of whose denial that Government has just escaped the most appalling fate.

This is Radicalism. Is it unfair? Is it unconstitutional? Is it anarchical or revolutionary? It denies no man’s rights. It deprives no man of power or privilege. It claims for the National Government nothing which is not inseparable from the idea of such a Government. Does it demand any thing that every prudent and patriotic man ought not to be willing to concede? The views of Mr. Thaddeus Stevens and of Mr. Sumner, sincerely entertained and ingeniously defended as they are, are not the Radical policy? Mr. Stevens holds that the disturbed States are conquered provinces in which the land should be confiscated, as that of Ireland has been three times over without giving Ireland peace. Does any body suppose that even the House, which respects Mr. Steven’s sturdy fidelity to his won convictions, agrees with him, or that the National Union party holds his view? Mr. Sumner holds that equal suffrage should be required of the absent States as a condition of representation, and in a Radical Senate which passed the Civil Rights Bill over the veto by a vote of 33 to 15, Mr. Sumner’s proposition obtained 8 votes. These gentlemen, of course, support the Radical policy, but they do not shape it. The opinions of the Union party are to be found, as President Johnson says, in the party platform. The policy of the Radicals is to be seen in the measures they adopt; and of the forty-two bills which at the time of the last veto they has presented to the President, he had signed forty.

In our present political Conservatism is the policy which declares that the late rebel States are already in a condition to resume their full functions in the Union, and which denounces Congress for presuming to inquire whether that opinion is well founded. It denies to Congress¾ that is, to the representatives of the loyal people who have maintained the Government¾ the authority to look behind the credentials of any man who comes from a State still panting with rebellion, and ascertain the origin and validity of the authority that issued the credentials. It objects to the legislation of Congress while eleven States are unrepresented, without reference to the reason of their absence, thus virtually maintaining the monstrous proposition that a combination of States, by refusing to be represented, may prohibit national legislation. It denies that the United States ought to protect the equal civil rights of citizens before the law, and would admit the absent States to Congress before requiring their assent to an amendment equalizing representation. Conservatism is the policy which, forgetting that the United States are bound by every moral obligation to secure the freedom which they have conferred, apparently believes that that freedom will be best maintained and the national peace most truly established by leaving those of every color who were heroically faithful to the Government during the rebellion to the exclusive mercy of those who sought to destroy it.

These are the distinctive points of the Conservative policy. Are they agreeable to an honorable and intelligent people? And of what is this policy conservative? If of the Constitution and Union, it will of course be earnestly supported by their true and tried friends. Is it so supported? Who are the present Conservatives? Who shout and sing and fire cannon and ring bells in jubilant exultation at every measure in supposed accordance with this policy? The reply is, unfortunately, unavoidable. The Conservative party, or the supporters of the policy we have described, is composed of the late rebels and of those who justified and palliated rebellion, with a few Republicans. And who oppose this policy? Who are the Radicals? The great multitude of those who believed in the war and supported it, whose children and brothers and friends lie buried in the battle-field in every rebel State, whose sentiments are now as they have been for five years expressed by the Union press of the country, and whose voice speaks in the vote of Union Legislatures and in the result of the spring elections.

It is useless for Conservatism to claim that conciliation is essential to reorganization. Nobody denies it. But the cardinal question is, not what will please the late insurgents, but what will secure the Government. If it be said that the Government can not be secured by alienating its late enemies, the reply is, that it certainly can not be secured by alienating its unwavering friends. If conciliation contemplates the filling of national offices in the South by know rebels to the disregard and exclusion of Union men, thereby rewarding rebellion and discrediting loyalty¾ if it proposes to leave free-men of the United States to the Black Codes of Mississippi and Carolina, and to recognize the fatal spirit of caste which has been our curse¾ then conciliation is simply a name for ignominy, and Conservatism may see its fate in that of Secession.

Radicalism has not a single vindictive feeling toward the late rebel States, but it does not propose to forget that there has been a rebellion. It has the sincerest wish, as it had the most undoubting expectation, of working with the President to secure for the country what the country has fairly won by the war, and that is, the equal right of every citizen before the law and the full resumption by the late insurgent States of their functions in the Union only upon such honorable and reasonable conditions as Congress might require. All reasonable men who support that policy will not lightly denounce those who differ with them. They will strive long for the harmony of those with whom during the war they have sympathized and acted. They will concede minor points of method, and bear patiently with impatient rhetoric leveled at themselves. But they will also bear steadily in mind the words of Andrew Johnson when he accepted the nomination which has placed him where he is: "While society is in this disordered state and we are seeking security, let us fix the foundations of the Government on principles of eternal justice which will endure for all time." The Radical policy was never more tersely expressed; and it will unquestionably be maintained, for it is profoundest conviction of the loyal American people.


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