Letter from Hon. Reverdy Johnson

January 9, 1868


Hon. Reverdy Johnson states in his letter that he supported the "reconstruction bill" although it was unconstitutional. He believes the "reconstruction bill" was the lesser of two evils and meant for the bill to prevent the South from further destruction.


Letter from Hon. Reverdy Johnson Generals Johnston, Beauregard, &c. approve his Vote for the Reconstruction Laws: Washington, January 6, 1868. My Dear Sir,- * * * Before the veto message of the President of the "reconstruction bill" was sent to the Senate I had voted for the bill, and stated my reasons for so doing in a speech delivered February 20th, 1867. In that speech I repeated my opinion that the bill was unconstitutional, but that I gave it my vote for the sole purpose of saving the South from total destruction. Sure as I believed to be the result if that measure was not accepted. My association with the members of Congress of both parties, and particularly with those of the majority, who almost entirely fashioned the policy of the party, satisfied me that, this measure failing, such destruction would be inevitable, and from legislation which I was apprehensive-and this apprehension has not since been remedied-the judiciary would be impotent to redress. I had in vain used every effort in my power to induce my political friends in the House to accept the bill as it was passed in the first instance by the Senate, I did this because I believed that if it was not done it would be modified by the dominant party so as to be much more objectionable and injurious to the South. In this I was not mistaken. It was so modified when it was returned to the Senate. The President vetoed it; and on the 2d of March, in a short speech, I assigned my reasons for continuing to vote for the measure. That speech, as well as the one of February, and the one in reply to Senator Buckalew, are published in a pamphlet, with a short explanatory note, and with this you will receive a copy. In no part of either speech did I pronounce any opinion contained in the veto message to be " unconstitutional doctrine." On the contrary, so far from thinking so, the President maintained the unconstitutionality of the bills upon grounds substantially the same as those which I had urged upon the Senate when the measure was first before that body. I did state, in the speech of the 2d of March, that I regretted the tone of a part of the message, it being, as I thought, calculated to exasperate the majority in Congress, and not necessary to his constitutional argument. I also said that it contained some legal propositions which I believed to be unsound, but these had nothing whatever to do with the question of the constitutionality of the bill. So far from assailing him in that speech, or any other made by me in the Senate or elsewhere since Mr. Johnson became President, I have, with a full conviction that it was his due, given him credit for purity of motive and a patriotic desire to secure to the States and the people everywhere every right to which they are entitled ; and I am glad to know that he has never for a moment questioned my determination to give to his Administration every proper support, and to serve the whole country to the full measure of my ability; and I am also glad to know that the confidence reposed in me by my party associates in the Senate and the House remains undiminished. And what, if possible, is more gratifying, my course in relation to the measure was approved by most of the intelligent citizens of the South. This was made known to me soon after my vote by many letters from civilians in that section and from gentlemen who had belonged to the Confederate army, whose devotion to their local interest is not to be doubted, they having periled life and fortune in the endeavor to achieve for their States a separate independence. Amongst the names of this class were Generals J. E. Johnston, Beauregard, Longstreet, Taylor, and Chalmers. May I not, therefore, be permitted to say that my conduct cannot be properly considered as a voluntary abandonment of the rights of our southern brethren, or a disregard of their welfare. When it was sanctioned as wise and patriotic by those immediately concerned, and whose intelligence and knowledge of the actual condition of their States made them peculiarly capable of forming a correct judgment; and, in conclusion, I add, that if reelected to the position which I now hold I shall (as I have done in the past) devote myself with untiring industry to the protection of the rights of all the States, to the maintenance of the just authority of the General Government, and the welfare of our whole country. I remain, with great regard, Your obedient servant, Reverdy Johnson. Hon. John Lee Carroll, Annapolis.
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“Letter from Hon. Reverdy Johnson,” Reconstructing Virginia, accessed June 1, 2023, https://reconstructingvirginia.richmond.edu/items/show/764.