- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the two most revered men in the South were Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Wade Hampton III. Lee soon accepted the presidency of Washington College and kept his political thoughts mostly to himself until his death on Oct. 21, 1871.Hampton, although barred from holding office for many years, tried his best to steer South Carolina into an honorable transition back into the Union.
After the war and for the rest of his life and he lived until 1902 he advocated full rights for blacks. Even before the war, he never believed slavery was a viable economic system. How could a man who owned thousands of slaves before the war and probably was the richest man in the South at the time hold these views? One reason is that he and his father before him respected their slaves as human beings.
As a state senator, Hampton agreed with his friends that a state had the constitutional right to secede but held "that action in this direction was inexpedient and without sufficient provocation." As for slavery, he wanted to limit the institution and eventually abolish it.
The federal government in 1807 outlawed admitting (importing) slaves after 1808, but at the Southern Commercial Convention in 1859 in Vicksburg, Miss., a plan to reopen the slave trade was endorsed. Hampton argued against it. "I confess to a strong desire to place upon the record my unalterable and uncompromising opposition to a measure that is, I honestly believe, fraught with a greater danger to the South than any other that has ever been proposed," he said.
He reminded colleagues that the 1807 debate had very nearly split the Union, and he declared that "even if it were practical to re-establish this trade, it should not be done it would institute a traffic which would necessarily involve cruel and inhuman practices and infect with evil influences the whole system of domestic slavery as existing in the United States." He concluded, "Cannot some platform be found broad enough and strong enough to sustain us all?"
The speech was noted in the North. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, called it "a masterly piece of oratory," but a majority of the loudest Southern voices were for the extension of slavery and for secession.
At the time of the attack on Fort Sumter, Hampton was in Mississippi, and although he had opposed secession, this was different. This was war. He hurried home to South Carolina, where he offered to enlist as a private soldier, but Gov. Francis Pickens secured for Hampton a colonel's commission, and he raised a 1,000-man "legion" at his own expense.
His performance during the war was outstanding. He attained the rank of lieutenant general and succeeded the slain J.E.B. Stuart as chief of cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia. He was wounded five times, and one son died in his arms.
After the war, with the South devastated, there were massive debts against all his properties. At this time in South Carolina, blacks outnumbered whites 402,000 to 291,000, and many freedmen thought the government would support them or that their former masters' lands would be given to them.
The Freedmen's Bureau toiled to establish the Negro as a self-supporting citizen, but even a Northern radical such as Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts hesitated before advocating the enfranchisement of the largely illiterate former slaves. He finally concluded, however, that there was "no substantial protection for the freedman except in the franchise."
President Andrew Johnson was trying to follow the merciful reconstruction plan that Abraham Lincoln had envisioned. On May 29 with Congress not in session he granted amnesty to all Confederate soldiers and sailors except officers of general rank and those who had owned taxable property in excess of $20,000.
This eliminated Hampton on both counts, but Johnson also provided that provisional governments of native citizens should govern the Southern states. He appointed noted Unionist Benjamin F. Perry, a friend of Hampton's, as provisional governor of South Carolina. Under the president's plan, the provisional governors would be appointed and conventions would be held to draft new state constitutions that would include guaranteed voting for Negroes, provide for general elections and eventually return the state to the Union.
Hampton wrote and spoke in favor of the plan even if he could not participate directly. He wrote to convention delegates, "It is our duty to support the President as long as he manifests a disposition to restore our rights as a sovereign State." Hampton specifically urged that the right of Negroes to vote be guaranteed, with an educational qualification to be applied impartially to both races. In a speech he said, "As a slave, he was faithful to us, as a freedman, let us treat him as a friend."
Many in the South at this time agreed with Hampton in advocating a clear recognition of Negro citizenship rights. The new state legislature soon ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery and permitting South Carolina to be admitted to the Union as the 24th state in the new order.
Congress convened in December, and the radicals did not like what Johnson had been doing all summer. For the next 12 months, Republicans, led by the vengeful 73-year-old Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, gradually were driven to acceptance of a radical reconstruction refusing to recognize the Southern congressmen who had been selected by their states.
When some of the Southern legislatures unwisely passed laws to limit Negro liberties, the House and Senate exploded with anger. Gen. Jacob D. Cox, a former Hampton opponent at Gettysburg who was then a candidate for governor of Ohio, went so far as to propose that South Carolina be made a territory exclusively inhabited and ruled by Negroes.
Hampton noted that the very people who previously had contended that the Southern states had never really been out of the Union (because secession was illegal) now stated that those states had seceded and could gain readmission only at the North's pleasure.
Early in 1866, legislation was passed in Congress to make the Freedmen's Bureau more powerful and of indefinite existence. This law also awarded free lands to blacks and guaranteed them military protection wherever they were denied rights equal to those of white citizens. Johnson vetoed it because of the military jurisdiction clause, and it failed an attempt to pass it over his veto. Johnson felt the bill dangerously limited the rights of the states. Soon a second bill was passed giving Negroes full citizenship rights, and it authorized the use of federal troops to enforce the act. Johnson vetoed this bill, too, but on April 9, 1866, the House and Senate passed it over his veto.
There is one aspect of Reconstruction that is not often considered. The Southern states, when readmitted, would come back into the Union with increased congressional representation because of the elimination of the three-fifths rule. Because the South was strongly in the Democratic camp, this would mean about 15 more opponents of the Republicans. Southern leaders, including Hampton, already were making overtures to Northern Democrats, and the Republicans feared that with more representation, Southerners could repeal the onerous measures.
With feelings running high, Hampton tried to conciliate by making a stirring speech pointing out the inconsistencies of the North's position but stating that "the deed has been done" and declaring that he would "never wish to see" the Fourteenth Amendment, granting citizenship and equal rights for blacks, revoked.
"Nor do I believe that the people of the South would now remand the Negro to slavery if it had the power to do so," he added. The rest of the Southern states, however, refused to ratify the amendment, and Congress, in retaliation, passed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which eliminated the state governments organized under the Johnson plan, divided the South into military districts and put the South under an army of occupation.
That began eight years that poisoned the Southern whites' attitudes and negated the constraint Hampton had tried so hard to establish. Elections were determined by the black majorities organized and greatly influenced by Northern radicals who flocked to the South. Much legislation was conducted through bribery, and state officials openly stole funds.
Most galling of all to the whites in South Carolina was the military occupation, in which the militia was made up almost entirely of blacks, many of whom were former slaves. For most of the whites, the misfortunes of war were borne more easily than the humiliation of Reconstruction.
Hampton expressed his feelings in a letter to a friend: "The War was full of sorrows and grief for me, but peace has been worse. I often wish I had fallen when our flag was waving in triumph."
This situation continued until the 1876 election, in which Hampton won the South Carolina election for governor with heavy black support over the carpetbagger incumbent, Daniel H. Chamberlain. In office, Hampton attributed his victory to 17,000 black voters and fulfilled his promises to them by appointing 80 blacks to office, endorsing justice and education for blacks and advocating fuller economic opportunities.
Such racial moderation brought a storm of protest from the more radical whites, who were long past having much tolerance for restraint. After Hampton vetoed several bills that would have restricted black citizenship, the legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1879, probably more to get him out of the way than anything else.
During his years in the Senate, Hampton became known as the most polished man in Congress, respected by both Democrats and Republicans and with increasing influence. Then, in 1889, a financial panic hit the United States. The Farmer's Association took over the state Democratic Convention in 1890 and nominated Ben Tillman for governor.
Hampton's candidate was Joseph H. Earle, who had served as the state's attorney general. Tillman was elected governor, and his candidates gained control of the legislature and sent one of their men to the U.S. Senate. Hampton was gravely hurt by his rejection, and many Republicans expressed their regrets at his defeat.
Nowhere was the axiom "action and reaction" more clearly demonstrated than in South Carolina after the Tillman forces assumed power. In answer to the turbulent and frequently corrupt years of Reconstruction, the new regime went on to pass laws that assured Jim Crow for the next 80 years.
Hampton was not happy with these events but kept his own counsel, for the most part. He served for a time as a director of the South Carolina and the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston Railroad.
Hampton died on April 11, 1902. Most historians hate to play the "what if" game, but it is interesting to speculate what might have resulted had Hampton not been barred from holding office during the Johnson period of Reconstruction. There is no doubt that had he held an authoritative position; his moderate views would have received more attention and might have prevented the more radical Southern Democrats from attaining power.
It is certainly true that had people of both the South and the North stopped to listen to what he was saying, the country might have avoided the bitter lesson of Jim Crow segregation.

David J. Bean is a California writer and a member of the Long Beach Civil War Round Table.

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