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States’ Rights vs. Federal Authority

"THE GREAT STRUGGLE," August 19, 1865 "Our Duty in Reorganization," June 24, 1865 "Reorganization of States," June 17, 1865 "Making Haste Slowly," June 24, 1865

Another contentious point of division among Republicans was the debate over which should trump the other: states’ rights or federal authority. The debate spawned largely from the debate over voting rights. Some Republicans believed that the only way to protect their power and reconstruct the Southern states was through the use of federal authority. They believed that the Southern states could not be trusted and if given the chance, would revert back to their prewar political structure and policies. They believed that the only way to prevent this from happening was by imposing harsh policies on the South in order to cripple the Confederate administrations and allow for the expansion of the Republican Party. The Harper’s Weekly represented one extreme in the debate. They were very outspoken about the need for federal authority to usurp any state's rights in order to protect the freedoms of African Americans and poor whites. Harper’s Weekly stated, “The doctrine of State Sovereignty, which would be the present ruin of the United States, of civil liberty, and of civilization, has been for thirty years and more aiming to engross the Government”(Item 2739). Others believed that the only way to enact long lasting change was through the will and support of the local populace. Republicans such as President Johnson believed that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to usurp state authority in order to reconstruct the South and expand the Republican Party.

Harper’s Weekly represents the views of those Republicans who believed that the federal government must take control of the Southern states and reconstruct their governments in order to avert disaster. Harper’s Weekly stated, “The principle of State rights, like that of country rights and town rights, is a good one. But the principle of national rights is the paramount and essential principle of the present situation”(Item 925). This view held by Republicans who believed that all governmental rights were subject to federal authority. They argued that the federal government was fully competent enough to reorganize the former Confederate states and if the state governments were allowed a say, it would only end in disaster. Harper’s Weekly expressed their views on this policy as it pertained to North Carolina as follows, “There is no more reason, except in an imaginary view of policy, why the national Government should authorize white loyalists alone to reorganize the State government of North Carolina because the voters in that State were formerly white”(Item 925). Republicans believed that because the Southern states sought to enslave and control African Americans they did not support the values of a democratic republic and could not be entrusted with Reconstruction efforts. As Harper’s Weekly bluntly stated, “It is better policy to govern the State directly by the national authority than to relinquish it to such a class”(Item 925). The issued came down to whether or not the federal government had the authority to allow African American suffrage in the Southern states. As Harper’s Weekly points out, “suffrage is a matter left by the Constitution to be regulated by the States”(Item 2721). For many of the Southern states, including North Carolina, the state constitutions were annulled by the federal government. This left the door open for those who argued in favor of increased intervention by the federal government. Harper’s Weekly believed, “The State can therefore be reorganized only by the supreme power of the Government. ‘The people’ who are henceforth to constitute the State are to be designated by the nation. It is the necessity of the case”(Item 2721). The views of the Harper’s Weekly represent one side of the debate within the Republican Party on the issue. The Republicans who supported this line of thinking did so because they believed that the use of federal authority was the quickest and easiest way of securing the Republican Party in the Southern states. By forcing the states to accept African American enfranchisement, the Republican Party would gain valuable voting power in the Southern states and maintain their national grip on power with little opposition.

The Harper’s Weekly went back and forth on its opinion of Presidents Johnson and his policies toward the South. In some instances Harper’s Weekly praised the President for his strict policies toward the South. Meanwhile, in others it criticized him for not doing enough. In one article of praise, the Harper wrote about President Johnson’s refusal to bow down to North Carolina’s wishes. The article wrote on President Johnson, “saying only that Governor Holden would continue to act as Provisional Governor until relieved from Washington, and not by the result of the election ordered by the Provisional Convention”(Item 2720). Harper’s Weekly praised President Johnson for asserting federal authority over North Carolina for his refusal to allow his appointed governor, William Holden, to be replaced by men who held no loyalty to the federal government. The Harper’s Weekly supported politicians that believed in the power of the federal government and criticized those who refused to use federal power to reconstruct the South and protect the values of the Union. More often than not, President Johnson found himself on the wrong side of Harper’s Weekly with his policies and beliefs. In reality, President Johnson often took the side of those who supported states’ rights in the debate over Reconstruction.

Other Republicans, like President Johnson, did not put as much faith in the federal government’s powers as a cure all for the Southern states. In fact, many of these Republicans believed that some of the policies supported by their brethren were down right unconstitutional. President Johnson believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution. He vetoed the Civil Rights Act because he believed it violated states’ rights. He believed that no legislation affecting the South should be passed until Southerners were fairly represented in Congress. Abbott states, “Johnson’s determination to limit federal intervention in the South pleased Southern former Confederates and also satisfied Northern Democrats but alienated the vast majority of Republicans, who favored federal protection for blacks in the South”(Abbott 1986, 50). President Johnson and more moderate Republicans were in favor of admitting the Southern states without any further conditions and as quickly as possible, while radical Republicans insisted that the states be admitted only after they had been reconstructed economically and politically. Moderate Republicans feared that the prolonged military occupation of Southern states, confiscation of property, and disfranchisement of former Confederates would be met with hostility by Southerners. The reason, “Many of these moderate Republicans still hoped for the support of Southern whites, and, like Lincoln, did not want to alienate them unnecessarily”(Abbott 1986, 51). Instead they proposed more moderate paths that gave more power to the Southern states. On the topic of African American enfranchisement, they proposed that Southern states gain seats in Congress by enfranchising African Americans and lose seats if they did not. By doing this, “Republicans hoped that Southern whites would voluntarily agree to enfranchise blacks rather than lose strength in Congress”(Abbott 1986, 55). By allowing Southerners more power in deciding their fate, moderate Republicans made a calculated move to prevent any further animosity toward the Republican Party. They also made a concerted effort to once again court white Southern voters in an attempt to lure them into the Republican Party and protect the party’s national dominance. The debate over states’ rights versus national authority boiled down to deciding who should vote, as well as whom to ally and whom to alienate.

States’ Rights vs. Federal Authority