Letter from Judge Underwood

September 4, 1866


A response to District Court Judge Underwood's scathing letter on the treatment of freedmen, their future treatment, and the rights of former rebels. Suggests that without the Freedmen's Bureau and other Republican policies the life of Freedmen in the South will be worse than it was before slavery. The editorial calls the letter shameless lying that is to be expected from Radical Republicans.


Underwood Writes a Letter. As a part of the history of the times, we publish this morning Judge Underwood's letter to KELLY, the Radical, of Pennsylvania. Never was such a letter written by a United States District Judge. For malignity and brazen-faced, shameless lying, it is quite up to the demands of radicalism. Letter from Judge Underwood Alexandria, Va., August 27, 1866. Hon. William D. Kelly: Dear Sir,--Thanks for your kindness in hoping to see me among the loyal delegates to the convention in Philadelphia on the 3rd of September. Great is the temptation of exchanging the most unpleasant office of district judge on this outpost picket station for the more quiet and desirable place of United States Senator for the long term by a speedy restoration of this State to its ancient relations. But god forbid that it shall be restored rebel end foremost, or without regard to the safety of tried and faithful loyal men, both white and black. It is perfectly manifest that the President's clemency to the rebels, instead of being returned with consideration towards those of their fellow citizens who stood by the Union during the war, has incited towards all who were faithful a vindictive cruelty and proscription unexampled in any civilized people under the heavens. Our restored rebel courts are so saturated with passion, prejudice, hatred, and revenge for their defeat in arms, which they charge upon our failure to support the cause of the rebellion, that they seem strangely impervious to all ideas of jus tice, not only to the colored men, whom they blame for wanting freedom, but to the loyal whites, whom they stigmatize as galvanized Yankees." It is utterly impossible for a Union man, in any ordinary case, to get justice in these courts, but, on the contrary, they are prosecuted and indicted for any aid they may have given as guides, or scouts, or soldiers in the armies of the Union: and when a Union man is killed by a rebel, as very many of this State have been during the past year, there is no hope of punishing the murderer in our State courts. If the present at tempted restoration becomes assured, persecution and assassination of Union men will be the order of the day throughout the south, and the riots of Alexandria, Norfolk, Memphis, and New Orleans will be repeated, until, except in a few localities where their numbers are large, every Union man who is not willing to submit to absolute silence and social and political insignificance will only have his choice between death or exile. Indeed, such is already the panic among Union men that many of them are now selling their property at great sacrifice, and leaving for the North and West. Large numbers if Quakers are going from North Carolina also; and they assure us that they cannot endure returned rebel insolence and persecution. How shall we escape the barbarities which are grinding us to the dust! Are the northern and western States prepared to receive and shelter all the victims of this relentless proscription? We are many; greatly outnumbering the French Huguenots or the persecuted sons of the Emerald Isle. By the census of 1860 it will be seen that the eleven states lately in the rebellion, together with Kentucky, which but for the presence of the northern bayonets would have gone the same way, contained just about six millions of whites and four millions of colored people. Of the six millions, one-third are of the slaveholding aristocracy, and owning most of the real estate, being in fact land monopolies and having always held the political power and offices of their States, have made all our troubles and were the authors or the rebellion. As in all aristocratic countries, there are a great many miserably poor and ignorant people living on the outskirts of the plantations wholly dependent on the planters and their willing tools. In the South this class of whites is about equal in numbers to the planter class, and with no higher ambition than occasionally to rub against the planter's carriage wheels or look into his kitchen. They are his natural allies: vote for him, and fight for him content with barely enough "hog, hominy, and whiskey" to keep soul and body united. It is thus that the extremes of our society meet: and it is difficult to say whether the two millions at the top or the two millions at the bottom are morally and intrinsically most worthy. Between these two classes there is a middle stream of about an equal number of two mil lions principally non-slaveholding, and of some conscientious slaveholders by accident, of some property and education, who work for a living, and thus tame their pride and passions, who are naturally Union and liberty living, and who would nearly all be your friends and allies if sustained by the government. Not one of this class, any more than of the negroes or poor whites, was represented in the late Philadelphia Convention. But they will be represented in the convention of the 3rd of September. Are you of the North and West pre pared to receive as exiles these 2,000,000, together with the 4,000,000 colored men? Or are you willing to see these 6,000,000 of loyal men crushed by the 2,000,000 aristocrats and their tools, aided by reconstructed rebel State governments, which are not how, and never were, republican, either in form or fact. These governments are essentially aristocratic, and all the blood and money of the late war may be fairly charged to the account of the unfulfilled constitutional duty of securing to these States a republican government. The enlightened people of the loyal States, though properly anxious for a speedy restoration of peace, will near consent to the infamy of permitting the men who aided in overthrowing the rebel lion and to whom the faith of the martyred Lincoln and of all true men of the nation is pledged, to be made the victims of rebel tyranny and usurpation. When you promised the colored men freedom on condition of their aid, you meant freedom in fact, and not the mere mockery of the name. But the condition to which they will be reduced under the present reconstruction, as soon as the Freedmen's Bureau is re moved, will be much worse than their former slavery in every in every particular, except in the privilege of escaping by emigration from their oppressors; and the condition of earnest and consistent white Union men will be miserable beyond conception. The three hundred thousand white and colored soldiers of the Union, in these twelve southern States, under this proposed re construction, must be reasonably look forward to hopeless insignificance or unrelenting cruelty and injustice to themselves, their children, and their children's children, simply for the reason that they had the courage and manliness and the patriotism to defend the flag of a country that would them in the day of their trial and suffering. It is difficult for our distant friends to appreciate our situation, because they can hardly conceive the influence so well described by Jefferson, of arbitrary power in the formation of ferocious and despotic characters and dispositions. God grant that they may never know by experience our trials in this regard and, God pity them if they should. In what other land could the tortures of Salisbury, Libby, Belle Isle, and Andersonville be inflicted? in what other land could men--for no crime but defending the flag of their country--be compelled to dig their own graves and be shot and buried like dogs, or our people were by a distinguished and honored member of the late Philadelphia Convention? That there are individual exceptions of kindness and justice on the part of the rebel aristocracy should be cheerfully admitted, but unfortunately the exceptions are only enough to prove the rule. It is certainly the Intention of the great majority still to live on the sweat of others' brows, and to prove the truth of their old predictions, that emancipation will be a curse to the colored people. But the late convention of southern rebels and their allies in Philadelphia promises to take care of our poor people. That is precisely what slavery and despotism always promise, while the Christian Democracy, which we profess, proposes to secure to the people the right and power of protecting and taking care of themselves. This, too, will undoubtedly be the aim of the convention of the 3rd of September, and I sincerely regret that the duties and proprieties of my official position will prevent my active cooperation with the brave, patriotic, and persecuted men who will meet on that occasion pre pared, I trust, to plant themselves on the firm ground of impartial justice and equal rights to all loyal men, and, in the language of Andrew Johnson when Governor of Tennessee, determined to " make treason. odious" by the exclusion of leading traitors for a reasonable time from the, control of both our State and National Governments. . Can there he anything wrong or vindictive in compelling men who have struggled for years to overthrow our free government furrowing the whole land with loyal craves, and filling it with tears and groans of widows and orphans, to desist from laying their hands upon the ark of our liber ties until they have had time to wash from them the blood of treason and murder? This is all we ask. We would not advocate the stern and extreme measures of "impoverishment" and "confiscation," or the "social and political" proscription argued by Andrew Johnson two years ago when a candidate before the people ; but we would insist upon the milder expedient of a conditional and temporary relief of the leading rebels from the cares of high official duty, as provided by the constitutional amendment proposed by Congress, because we believe it is absolutely necessary to the protection of southern Union men from persecution and exile, as well as to the safety of the interests of pensioners and public creditors. And, finally, would it not be well for us of the South seriously to consider whether the evils under which we are now groaning are anything more than the wise chastisement of our beneficent Heavenly Father, who is, in this way, determined to make us as willing to level up our poor brethren whom we regard as beneath us as we are to level down the proud aristo crats who are resolved in the future, as in the past, to wield the rod of their despotic tyranny alike overall? With great respect, your obedient servant, John C. Underwood
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“Letter from Judge Underwood,” Reconstructing Virginia, accessed February 4, 2023, https://reconstructingvirginia.richmond.edu/items/show/301.