"Views of an Old Abolitionist"

Wendell Phillips

In the following excerpt from The North American Review, Wendell Phillips argues that Reconstruction was not a failure. He argues that if the Radical Republicans' plan to give the Freedmen land had been acted upon, the Freedmen would have been successfully launched as productive citizens. Asterisks [***] indicate edits of the original document by Michael O'Malley.

Negro suffrage has not been a failure. Only the merest surface judgment would so consider it. Though his voting has been crippled and curtailed throughout a large part of the South during half the time he has been entitled to vote, the negro has given the best evidence of his fitness for suffrage by valuing it at its full worth. Every investigation of Southern fraud has shown him less purchasable than the white man. He has wielded his vote with as much honor and honesty--to claim the very least--as any class of Southern whites; even of those intellectually his superiors. For nine fearful years he has clung to the Republican party (which at least promised to protect him) as no white class, North or South, would have done. Want and starvation he has manfully defied, and asserted his rights till shot down in their very exercise.


The South owes to negro labor and to legislation under negro rule all the prosperity she now enjoys--prosperity secured in spite of white ignorance and hate. The negro is today less ignorant, superstitious, and helpless than the same class of Southern white men; yes, than a class of whites supposed to be immeasurably his superiors.

The South would not have disfranchised the negro if his suffrage had been a failure. Its success is what she fears and hates. When lawless and violent men attack any element of law and civilization, and can only succeed by destroying it, does not that very assault prove the value and efficiency of that obstacle to their lawless purpose?


If negro suffrage has been in any particular or respect a failure, it has not been the negro's fault, nor in consequence of any want or lack in him. If it has failed to secure all the good it might have produced, this has been because of cowardice, selfishness, and want of statesmanship on the part of the Government of the United States.


Negro suffrage has not, therefore, been a failure, even in any trivial degree, from any lack of courage, intelligence, or honesty on his part. And let it be remembered how early the Ku-klux assaulted him; how incessant have been the attacks upon him all these years; how brave and unquailing has been his resistance. Let it be kept in mind also that, meanwhile, one half of the journals of these forty States have been against him; and seven-tenths of the Federal officers and the whole organized power of the white South. All this while the negro has accumulated property, risen in position, advanced marvelously in education, outrunning the white man in this race. He has proved himself equal to any post he has gained. On the floor of Congress the Southern white has more than once quailed before negro logic, sarcasm, and power of retort.


Treason should have been punished by confiscating its landed property.... Land should have been divided among the negroes, forty acres to each family, and tools--poor pay for the unpaid toil of six generations on that very soil. Mere emancipation without any compensation to the victim was pitiful atonement for ages of wrong. Planted on his own land, sure of bread--instead of being merely a wages-slave--the negro's suffrage would have been a very different experiment.

Source: The North American Review, March 1879, pages: 257-260 (emphasis added).

Arguments for Confiscation
George Clemenceau
J. McKaye
Abolitionist Wendell Phillips
General Rufus Saxton
Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens

History 122

HIST 122 Syllabus


End of Page.