Echoes of Reconstruction: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Defense of the 14th Amendment

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain outside the Bowdoin College campus where he once served as college president.

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain became Governor of Maine on January 2, 1867. He had risen to prominence as a heroic Union officer at Gettysburg. In his first Annual Address, the former general discussed the meaning of the Civil War and the purpose of the 14th Amendment. Chamberlain described the result of the war and what it was fought for:

The result of the war has been the vindication of the country’s cause, as against that of section; of manhood over the system of master and slave ; of the liberty which means law, right, humanity, over that which is lawless, barbarous, and insolent. The people have carried out the pledge inherited from the fathers, to defend the foundations of this Government with life and fortune and sacred honor.

Echoing Carl Schurz, Chamberlain said that in the immediate aftermath of the Confederate surrenders, the South was ripe for successful Reconstruction:

At the close of the war, the secession element was completely disorganized and broken. The South as a faction was disintegrated. The war for secession had revealed the selfish motives and reckless means of its instigators, and had bred bitter dissensions. The Confederacy was held together only by military force. And when vanquished with its own weapons, it laid down its arms, its people were ready, looking at their necessities and their interests, to accept such terms as they knew they could expect from a victor whose magnanimity was proverbial to a fault.

The Maine man warned that Southern whites were uniting to renew resistance to the Federal government:

Now, however, the distracted elements have been united, *the spirit of the rebellion has been revived to hopes it had abandoned, and with its diverse passions harmonized and excited to the key note of a battle-cry, the South stands to-day in solid and bristling phalanx.

Chamberlain saw the wave of anti-civil rights violence sweeping the South as a destructive element by some Confederate partisans. For readmission to Congress, the Southern states merely had to renounce secession and protect the rights of Blacks:

The terms which have been proposed were neither hard nor humiliating. We did not place ourselves on the extreme boundary of our rights, nor plead the precedents of conquerors. But with a magnanimity without parallel, the people of the United States in the proudest moment of their victory, had been willing to forget the sorrows and burdens precipitated upon them by the rebellion, and restore the seceding States to the fellowship of the Union upon the simple condition that the pretensions of secession be repudiated, and that the providential and inevitable results of the war as affecting the rights of American citizenship should be recognized in good faith, and practically embodied in enactment and institution… But these good intentions were thwarted, and so it happens that today the duty is still before us of securing the great results which Providence, and not our own foresight, has placed in our hands, and of which the same great Power will hold us to strict account…

Chamberlain responded to the charge that the Republicans destroyed liberty through centralization:

There are those indeed who raise the cry that we would destroy State rights and centre all power in the National Government….They claim that the tendency of all Republics has been to centralization of power, until the spirit and even form of liberty was lost. But history does not tell of liberty won and lost. Men and nations have striven for it indeed, and failed because they were unworthy. There has been no perfect liberty yet… We move onward, not in perpetual rounds. We have a higher part to act than to imitate the examples of former greatness, or take warning by the fate of lost Republics. We work by deeper principles, by better comprehension, by wiser faith in manhood ; and we have other destiny than to be slaughtered by the old syllogism—centralization, corruption, ruin. The theory we have established is not that the nation is all and the States nothing; it is rather this, that on all questions involving the rights and interests of all the States, we owe a paramount allegiance to the Union, in short that the ultimate authority of the Government is not the will of each State as such, but in the people of the United States. The great safeguard in this principle of the majority is not in the barbarous maxim that might makes right, but in this, that in a country like ours the capacity and opportunity for forming just opinions is so universal that it is more likely that each individual should be right than that he should be wrong.

Governor Chamberlain explained the origins of the proposed 14th Amendment:

And the people have now made themselves the ”Great Expounders of the Constitution.”…They have shown what they mean by the declaration that all men are created equal. They have decided that this is a Republic of the People, and not a Republic of Municipalities, like those which in ancient Greece and medieval Italy gave token how unstable is even Liberty when it does not represent the broad and deep ideas of humanity. They have not, however, abridged the rights of States. If they have insisted on the duties of States as well, it is because they are parts of a concentrated system, where there are centripetal as well as centrifugal laws. One without the other would ensure ruin….The rights of States, therefore, every lover of his country will jealously and vigorously defend. This being the case, it cannot but be desirable that the States of the Rebellion should return to their relations of perfect equality with the other States as soon as will be consistent with the public welfare, and the proper securing of the objects for which the country was founded and defended. …But we are struck with amazement, and thrown upon our guard when we see those who with scorn and contumely spurned the Constitution, and defied the Government, and sought with violence and cruelty to destroy the Union, now demanding, with equal effrontery and the same spirit of violence, without an apology for the past, without a guaranty for the future, the unconditional restoration of their rights under the Constitution, their place in the Union and their prestige in the Government. This is so little in the spirit of surrender as to seem like mockery of triumph. It is Catiline, who instead of being banished for his treason, comes into the Senate and shares in the public counsels.

Chamberlain said that when the Confederates rebelled, they abandoned certain rights they had as citizens:

Gentlemen, an appeal to arms is a desperate resort. It involves the suspension of certain privileges, the abandonment of certain rights, the forfeiture of certain claims. The old relations cannot be restored without a new treaty. They who resort to this highest arbitrament known to nations, must take upon themselves, whether willingly or not, its legitimate and inevitable consequences. War is not a game where there is everything to win and nothing to lose. Those who appeal to the law of force should not complain if its decision is held as final. When men stake their cause on their strongest arguments and fail, it is poor logic to urge weaker ones. And when men make arms their arbiter and are defeated, they can neither expect to dictate terms to the victor, nor to plead with effect the original rights and privileges which they abandoned for a more decisive trial. What they may claim are the terms which honor may ask of valor or mercy of power.

The Civil War was not fought to restore the country to the status quo antebellum:

[W]e accepted this gage of battle not simply to restore certain States to their former prestige—to force them back to the exercise of the high privileges which they held of so little worth—but to preserve the integrity of the Union as a necessity of our National existence, to keep faith with our fathers, to vindicate the ideas on which the Nation was founded, and which we believe are yet to work out for it a high destiny. And in this view we are disposed to be neither vindictive nor exacting. But we do demand that the States lately in rebellion shall concede to the loyal spirit of the land the guarantees essential to our future safety as a Union. Less than that we cannot ask without danger and dishonor. Whether we ask more or not depends on the spirit in which we are met. The Constitutional Amendment submitted to the people at the last session of Congress has been received at the Executive Department, and it will become my duty to lay it before you. Imperfect as this was, as hazarding one of the very fruits of our victory by placing it in the power of the South to introduce into the Constitution a disability founded on race and color, still as it was the best wisdom of our Representatives in Congress, and at least a step in the right direction, at the same time that it smoothed the way for the returning South, and especially as it was the declared issue in the recent elections, good faith doubtless requires us to support it. If we are willing to ratify this and abide by it, it will surely testify our conciliatory disposition.

The amendment, however, seems to be received with marked disfavor by a majority of the Southern States, and as a measure of policy towards those States, may yet fail. Be it so. If our magnanimity was too great or premature, the South will have saved us the trouble of receding. By their rejection of it the question will again become an open one. Our next proposal will not be less regardful of the rights of humanity.

Chamberlain predicted a long period of Reconstruction and warns Northerners to not settle for the mere appearance of change:

If the complete settlement of these questions is long delayed, it will doubtless be for some deep reason, as were our checks and reverses in the early stages of the war. We shall thus be forced to make thorough work of our reconstruction, and establish ourselves on foundations that will stand.

10 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Defense of the 14th Amendment

  1. Great post as usual, Patrick. You are a passionate, and Involved historian! But God, was Chamberlain a pious gasbag! Like Harrison at his inaugural address, like Edward Everett (who?) at Gettysburg, he was a master of the windy, self-righteous Victorian emissions so popular during that age. He loathed the rebels’ parochialism, barbarism, insolence and lawlessness, but got warm and fuzzy when thinking about their servility learned at gunpoint, and the necessity of their learning wisdom from the “magnanimous” victors. Essentially, if the southern white folk just had the sense to ignore the logistical devastation that was their own fault anyway, and became northern American white clones, or no doubt, better yet, Bowdoin men, all would be well! Talk about a naif who didn’t grasp the anger in the congregation he preached at, or the thinness of his northern post war resources and allies. But that being said, I love your engagement with this utterly crucial period in our history!

    1. “Essentially, if the southern white folk just had the sense to ignore the logistical devastation that was their own fault anyway, and became northern American white clones, or no doubt, better yet, Bowdoin men, all would be well!” I’m glad to see you got the gist of his message!

  2. Chamberlain is restating the rationale for the Constitituion, adapted to a nation of men, not white men. Which is the point of the 14th Amendment: the equal protection of the law, of citizenship not defined by race. As far as cloning, well, slavery was gone, nation wide Other than that I’m not sure what cloning he’s advocating. Chamberlain received criticism for being nice to his opponents, and was a lot nicer than a lot of Union officers.

  3. We forget the other part of “Reconstruction” – the Native American part. Sherman and Sheriadan were not really paragons of virtue ….”Manifest Destiny” which was a shared imperial ideology of both the North and South – Slavery was officially over, but “mission accomplished” (where had I heard that line before?) was not a reality. the North cut its losses and ran. It would take another 100 years or so to overtake for the notion of “inequality” that dominated the Southern “heritage”(and by some Northerners) shared by the majority of the South (the remnants endure tragically so). The most difficult “terrain” to conquer is the six inches between the ears….

  4. How very true, to quote Peter Kaiser’s statement, “The most difficult terrain to conquer is the six inches between the ears.” Old grudges, life losses, life style, and disaffections “die hard” because we are human. In the case of our Civil War, ‘To the victor go the spoils, to the vanquished go the __________, _________, ________, etc., etc.” (fill in the blanks or add more.)

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