The Next Step
While the military strength of the rebellion remained unbroken, we opposed, as unwise and unnecessary, any proffers of peace to the rebel leaders, or any ostentatious tender of "terms" to the rebel army. So long as the rebel government held its seat in the capital, and was backed up by the compact and powerful army of Gen. LEE, the great mass of rebels had something at once to lean upon and to fear. They were, willingly or unwillingly, subjects of that government, and any step they might take toward breaking away from their allegiance to it would subject them to such punishment as absolute and irresponsible power, driven to desperation, of necessity inflicts. The one indispensable condition for their return to the Union was the destruction of the rebel army : until that was accomplished, all proffers of peace from us seemed to them like mockery, and all tenders of mercy were far more likely to sting and exasperate than win over to the Union cause.
But now the case is very different. All the circumstances of it are changed. The rebel army has been substantially destroyed. It may still be formidable for local mischief, - but as a bulwark of the rebel Government, it has ceased to exist. It no longer affords shelter for the rebel authorities. Those authorities themselves are fugitives. The rebel President and Cabinet have fled before our troops. They have no longer a capital, - they have no power or authority. The rebel Government de facto is extinct. Our army is now in condition, practically, to release the great mass of their people from the abject allegiance in which they have hitherto been held. And, therefore, we think the time has come for doing it. Unless we are mistaken in overrating the magnitude of GRANT's recent victory, and the importnace of the rebel flight from Richmond, our authority is so far restored over all the rebel territory as to justify its assertion and its practical exercise. We can no longer be taunted with issuing proclamations which we have no power to enforce, - with making promises which we have no power to keep. We are no longer offering mercy to men who neither ask nor need it, and to whom, therefore, such offers are insults. We can, moreover, now justly and properly draw a line of distinction between the army and the people - between the leaders of the rebellion and those whom they have betrayed. And the sooner we draw that line, and make it the basis of our policy in dealing with this question, the sooner shall we make a beginning in that great work of social and political reconstruction which lies before us.
We should now, therefore, welcome a PROCLAMATION from the President to the Southern people as earnestly as we should have deprecated it a month ago. If issued then it could only have reached the Southern leaders; now it can reach every town and neighborhood in the Southern States. We do not yet think the time has yet come, nor are we certain that it will come hereafter, when a complete amnesty, including restoration to all the rights of citizenship, may wisely be promised to the leaders of the rebellion. But to the the great mass of the Southern people, to the rank and file of the rebel army, to all except those who have made themselves directly and personally responsible for the gigantic crimes and sufferings of this war, no assurances of pardon and of protection can be too earnest or too broad. What we want of the Southern people is not simply obedience, acquiescence, submission to the power of the national government; we want their confidence in its justice, their pride in its flag, their faith and devotion to the republican principles on which it rests. We have convinced them of its strength; we want now to convince them of its beneficence. We have proved that it is useless for them to resisit its authority - we want now to show them that it is for their best and highest interests to stand by and sustain it to the end of their days. The only way to bring this about is to relieve their hearts from the feelings of fear and apprehention which the penalties they have incurred may well engender, and then to open promptly and broadly for their use the channels of trade and industry by which their old prosperity may be restored.
For after all it is by deeds rather than words that we are to do the needful work of reconstruction in the Southern States, and the sooner we can lift the heavy hand of military power from Southern towns and Southern trade, the far better for all concerned. The government especially should lose no time in waiving all those rigid regulations which fall with crushing weight on the helpless families of those hitherto engaged in the rebel service, while they fail to touch the offenders themselves. It is unwise as well as inhuman to wage war on women and children, whom the armies have left behind, after these armies have been routed and destroyed. Magnanimity is always the best policy for nations and great communities, even more than for individuals. Nothing so degrades the character and dims the glory of any government as needless cruelties inflicted upon the helpless and unresisting. And while even now nothing should be done by our governemnt inconsistent with its dignity and permanent security, the time has certainly come when it can consult other necessities than those which are purely military, and aim at other objects than those which war along can accomplish.