“What would you do, if somebody by force kept you and your partners out of control of your business for several years, prevented the courts, by threats and intimidation, from giving you any redress, and not only permanently, injured your firm but, dishonestly borrowing huge sums of money in your name, in spite of your noisy protests at the illegality of the proceeding and your equally insistent avowals that you would never pay a cent of it, then spent the money, in riotous living while neither you nor the business profited from the borrowed money?” Were this lengthy question hurled as a broadside at any sensible citizen of these United States, whether banker or day laborer, clergyman or lawyer, politician or reformer, the answer, it is safe to say, would be emphatically the same.
And yet, in spite of this fact, for a generation and a half a multitude of voices has chanted a chorus of advice, pleading, remonstrance, and threatenings to the people of certain of the Southern States, because they., too, in an actual and not hypothetical case, gave the same answer.
Recently the subject has come up again from a new angle. Mr. Winston Churchill, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a speech in the House of Commons early in 1926 said in substance that the insistence of the United States upon the payment of the debts due from the Allies came with particularly bad grace in view of the fact that, according to the report of the Corporation of Foreign Bondholders of London, British subjects were in possession of Southern repudiated bonds of post civil war issues to the amount of $75,000,000. He is further reported to have hinted broadly that these same bonds constituted a proper off-set to the British debt. And in March, 1927, comes a new move, a letter addressed to the members of Congress:
Stonehaven, Scotland, February, 1927.
We are writing on behalf of a number of people in this country who are unfortunate enough to be holders of defaulted obligations of the Southern States of the United States of America. Photographs of samples of these defaulted obligations are enclosed.
The bondholders whom we represent are convinced that a very large majority of the people of the United States are unaware that eight of the States of the American Union, viz: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina, are, and have been for a long period, in total default of their public obligations contracted for industrial purposes and in no way whatsoever connected with loans raised by them to carry on the Civil War of 1861-1865. Looking to the changed conditions which now exist they confidently trust that immediate steps may be taken to remove, so far as that can now be done, what undoubtedly constitutes a most regrettable and humiliating blot on the record of the wealthiest nation in the world. The Bonds outstanding we believe have been estimated at from $60,000,000 to $75,000,000 but we have no exact information on this point. It is probable, however, that a large number of the Defaulted Bonds have been lost or destroyed during the long duration of default in payment and reparation can never be made to those who once held them and trusted in the honour of the debtor States to repay the money borrowed.
Various excuses, such as—(1) that the loans were raised during the Civil War to carry on the struggle against the Federal Government, (2) that the money was placed in investments which ultimately proved unremunerative, (3) that the proceeds of the loans were misappropriated by the States’ own officials, (4) that the debts were contracted under an admimstration imposed on the States concerned by the Federal Authorities or (5) that certain of the loans were unconstitutional—have been made by the defaulting States for their failure to meet their obligations. With regard to these excuses it is sufficient to say that the first is absolutely untrue, the defaulted obligations referred to being all contracted for industrial and similar purposes, such as railways, banks, etc., before or after the Civil War. The second and third would not be listened to by any Court of Law or Justice, and as to the fourth, if the loans were issued under the authority and approval of the Federal Government, it surely follows that there is a moral obligation on the Federal Government to see that they are paid. With regard to the plea of unconstitutionality we do not think that any State or Union of States desirous of maintaining a reputation for honourable dealing would found on such a plea. The public in general and the purchasers in particular of Bonds bearing to be issued under Acts of the General Assemblies of the States concerned and bearing the Seal of the State and the signatures of the States’ responsible officials are surely justified in believing, what it was intended they should believe, viz., that such obligations were constitutionally issued and in conformity with the law of the State concerned.
To the people of this country, which has always met its obligations both in the spirit and in the letter, the record of the United States in this matter appears quite astounding Is it surprising that the British holder of these defaulted obligations, who is taxed almost beyond endurance, in order to supply millions of pounds per annum to meet his country’s debt to the United States for money borrowed to avert a,’common danger, feels indignant?
Do you realize the almost incredible fact that not only have the debts of the Southern States not been paid, but that the obligation to pay them has been formally repudiated? No other country or state, with the exception of Russia, has ever taken such a step as this.
It is difficult to imagine how the wealthiest nation in the world, while demanding with no uncertain voice and grasping with a firm hand what it claims to be due by its impoverished partners in arms, can think it right to allow any of the individual States of which it is composed to refuse to recognize their own obligations to these same debtors in openly violating the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a State to impair an “obligation of contract.”
The 11th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States precludes any individual bondholder from taking action in the Supreme Court in order to obtain an impartial hearing of his case, and unless either the States concerned or Congress will take steps on their own initiative to arrange for the redemption of these Bonds, the unfortunate bondholders have no recourse but to go on waiting in the hope that sooner or later public feeling in America will be sufficiently roused to protest against any State of the Union, protected by this Amendment, acting in a manner which the Government of the United States has so strongly condemned in the case of the Latin American and other countries whose debts have been allowed to go into default.
In the recent message to Congress, President Coolidge, in referring to the unexampled prosperity of the United States, spoke in terms of admiration and respect of those European countries which were making such heavy sacrifices in order to preserve the sanctity of their international obligations. Let the States, or the American people as a whole, at a time when they have an enormous Budget surplus, the disposal of which seems a source of positive embarrassment to the Government make the sacrifice—trifling compared with what the bondholders in this country are making—which would enable them to discharge their obligations, so that European peoples can refer to them in like terms. If the estimated figures we have given are approximately accurate the surplus of $383,079,000 reported as being in sight for 1926, would alone more than suffice to redeem these Bonds with all the accrued interest—probably very much more when it is taken into account that a large proportion of the Bonds have more than likely been destroyed.
To those American gentlemen, of whom we believe there is a large number, who would gladly see these debts paid, we express our regret that the necessity of the case requires us to speak plainly. To those other Americans, who think there is no obligation on them to pay what they justly owe, we make no apology; to such indeed we could and would express ourselves much more plainly.
We are, yours faithfully, Kinnear & Falconer.
It is to be noted that while much emphasis is laid upon the horrors of repudiation, and the total amount repudiated, there is in this lengthy communication not one word to indicate what proportion of that amount belongs to British holders. Newspaper accounts, as it was doubtless intended they should, have placed the amount at $75,000,000 but that, on its face, is incorrect. Like Mr. Winston Churchill, they have taken that figure from the reports of the Corporation of Foreign Bondholders of London in which the total amount repudiated was thus estimated, but nowhere in those reports is the claim made that British holders have all the bonds. Under date of August 25, 1926, the Secretary of the Council wrote me:
I regret i am not able to inform you as to the amount of repudiated Bonds of the Southern States of the United States issued later than 1865 which are in the hands of British holders. In the case of Bonds “to bearer” which change hands without any record of the transfer it is a difficult matter to say how many of them are held in any country.
Of similar Bonds issued prior to 1865 this Institution has about $3,000,000 of repudiated Bonds of the State of Mississippi issued between 1831 and 1838 deposited with it, the large majority of the depositors being of British nationality.
The experience of British investors with the Mississippi bonds referred to, with Confederate bonds, and with war bonds issued by the Confederate states individually, all of the last mentioned repudiated by the “Johnson Conventions” in 1865 and later by the Fourteenth Amendment, was of a sort to make highly unlikely any further large investment, so soon at any rate, in Southern bonds. In addition, interest on the pre-war bonds of non-repudiating states had not been paid. The proposed off-set to the British war debt will, therefore, probably be small.
In view of these facts a question naturally arises as to the origin of this latest move. True, the voice is that of Jacob but are not the hands those of Esau? A little history will make my meaning clear.
About 1905 the Bondholders Syndicate of New York made rather strenuous efforts to induce various states of the Union to accept gifts of “carpet-bag” bonds on which to bring suit against Southern states. New York, Michigan, Rhode Island, Nevada, and Missouri, all refused North Carolina bonds. Colombia did likewise, as did Cuba some years later, after beginning proceedings against the state in the Supreme Court of the United States.
Today, with certain New York legal firms manifesting an active interest in locating such bonds, there is abundant reason to believe that it is the same old game played in a new disguise.
After all where could greater sympathy for the plan be found than in Great Britain where few understand the American division of governmental powers between states and nation; where fewer still know anything of the circumstances under which most of the repudiated bonds were issued; and where many have long felt just resentment at the failure of Mississippi and Florida to pay the bonds which they repudiated in the Forties. Popular resentment over the terms of settlement of the allied war debts makes it possible to arouse considerable sentiment on the subject.
Taking all these facts into consideration it is certainly proper to demand of these British claimants that they present a bill of particulars stating whom they represent and what bonds are involved.
But one thing is clear. It is time that the whole matter of these bonds be examined with as little reference to politics or selfish interest as is possible under the circumstances. The question has always been wrapped in the tangle of feeling, partisanship, prejudice, politics, and falsehood, which has grown up about Reconstruction. And on no question concerning the period—or any other so remote—is there so much feeling, a fact natural enough considering how roughly any question involving possession of $75,000,000, with accrued interest for more than half a century, handles the most delicate nerves in the make-up of the average being— those leading to his pocket.
What is the truth of the whole matter? Was the repudiation of state securities, as some maintain, in every instance a violation of faith, a dishonest and dishonorable act which has stained the name of the state? Or was repudiation completely justified in law and morals as another group contends? Or was it at times justified and not at others? Obviously only the facts can furnish the answer.
Repudiation of state debts began in the Forties in the aftermath of the speculative period preceding the panic of 1837. Other states than those in the South sought relief through this dangerous remedy, but in the course of time all paid what they owed, or a part of it, and this inquiry is not concerned with them.
Florida in 1833, while still a territory, chartered the Union Bank and for it issued $3,000,000 in bonds, most of which were sold in Europe. Two years later she endorsed bonds of the Bank of Pensacola to the amount of $500,000 and of the Southern Life Insurance and Trust Company to the amount of $400,000. The banks and the insurance company failed, and when in 1845 she was admitted as a state, she left the bonds on the outside, coolly declaring that she was not liable for her territorial debt. It may be added that even if she had not repudiated the debt, it could not have been paid by the fifty thousand inhabitants, most of whom were poverty-stricken. But there is not a doubt of her moral and legal obligation. Only the shelter of the Eleventh Amendment has given her protection.
Mississippi in the period between 1831 and 1838 issued bonds amounting to $7,000,000 for the Planter’s Bank and the Union Bank. Interest payments ceased in the early Forties and the governor officially, recommended their repudiation, claiming that they had been issued unconstitutionally, illegally, and fraudulently. For a climax to his charges he added a paragraph which would today entitle him to high consideration from the Kluckers. It ran thus: “The bank has hypothecated these bonds, and borrowed money on them of the Baron Rothschild; the blood of Judas and Shylock flows in his veins, and he unites the qualities of both his countrymen. He has mortgages upon the silver mines of Mexico and the quicksilver mines of Spain. He has advanced money to the Sublime Porte and taken as security a mortgage upon the holy city of Jerusalem and the sepulchre of our Saviour. It is for this people to say whether he shall have a mortgage upon our cotton fields and make serfs of our children.”
In spite of this moving appeal the legislature protested against the proposed policy, and the courts upheld the legality of the bonds, declaring the state morally and legally bound for their payment. But the people became infected with the dangerous doctrine and a law of 1852 forbade the levy of a tax to pay the interests. Repudiation was thus accomplished and the constitutional amendment merely laid emphasis upon an accomplished fact. If distinctions in such cases are possible, it may be said that Mississippi had even less justification for repudiation than Florida. She, too, owes much to the Eleventh Amendment.
Florida’s repudiation of $3,900,000 and Mississippi’s of $7,000,000 represent the total default of the Southern States prior to the civil war. Ankansas defaulted on interest several times, but the credit of all the others was excellent in the United States and in Europe.
All of the Southern States incurred large debts during the civil war in aid of the war. It seems impossible to ascertain the total amount, but the bonded debt reached probably $40,000,000. North Carolina’s was more than $9,000,000, Alabama’s nearly $4,000,000. All had in addition large amounts outstanding in warrants and treasury notes. North Carolina had more than $5,000,000, Florida nearly $2,000,000. The total war debt of Texas was $8,000,-000, and that of Georgia more than $18,000,000. The entire war debt, as has been mentioned, was repudiated by the conventions of 1865 in fulfillment of President Johnson’s conditions for restoration. The great bulk of this debt was owed at home and its repudiation was bitterly resented. As a result nearly all the banks, which had invested heavily in state bonds, failed, a”nd this intensified the feeling. The Fourteenth Amendment later inserted this repudiation into the Constitution of the United States. Undoubtedly here was established a precedent for later refusal to pay state bonds which seemed to have been issued without constitutional, legal, or moral justification.
During the years of 1865 and 1867 a number of these states increased their bonded debts by funding accrued interest into bonds, by refunding bonds which had matured, or by issuing bonds for internal improvements. There was every indication of full intention to pay the outstanding debts.
In 1867 the congressional plan of reconstruction was put into operation. The ten late Confederate states—Tennessee having been already allowed representation—were divided into five military districts. Without constitutional warrant suffrage was extended to more than half a million ignorant negroes, most of them but recently slaves, who had no conception of law, no tradition of organized government, and who had acquired in their relatively brief contact with white people no knowledge of government and no capacity for participation in it. In South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida, they formed a majority of the whole number of voters.
At the same time every white Southerner who had been, prior to 1861, sufficiently prominent to hold public office and who had later served the Confederacy, was excluded from participation, either as a voter or office-holder, in the process of reconstruction. Aliens and strangers, many of them, as the event proved, of evil character and purposes, who were not, under any stretch of state law, eligible to vote or hold office, were allowed to vote and, thanks to their influence with the freedmen, assumed so prominent a role in directing the course of events that their title of “carpetbagger” has been with entire fitness applied to the governments which were established and to the regime which endured until an outraged and injured people rose and overthrew them.
These are the governments which issued the bulk of the repudiated bonds. They owed their existence to legislation of Congress unwarranted by the Constitution. Their character was determined by an electorate not only unfitted for a share in government but unknown to the law. Conceived in iniquity—in the frenzied passion of bitter and unrestrained political and sectional hostility — they were as truly bom in sin. The midwife that presided at their birth was the army of the United States, which alone prevented their being strangled in infancy, and their capacity to endure was measured only by the duration of military power. Truly if the state sovereignty of which the Wall Street Journal, in insisting upon the validity of the debts, speaks so fully and so feelingly, ever had any existence, it was now dead or sleeping. There can be no greater absurdity, no more flagrant falsehood—or else confession of gross ignorance—than to refer to any acts of the carpet-bag governments as the acts of sovereign states.
Space of course does not permit the inclusion here of any detailed description of the operation of these governments, or rather of those who administered them. They have been adequately discussed in many works of authority and may be known to all. They are known to the well-informed.
Their careers were befitting the circumstances attending their establishment. They lived in utter and shameless extravagance, corruption, fraud, and violence. Illegal in conception, illegality marked the most of their work. Controlled by a brazen gang of plunderers from the North, who made common cause with some of their own kind from the South, they deliberately set about the spoliation of the states and the people under the protecting aegis of the national government. Prating loudly of the difference between patriotism and treason, they so conducted themselves as to warrant the contemporary declaration that “Loyalty means stealing by statute.”
The bonded debt was largely incurred in one way. Large schemes of internal improvement were proposed, legislative rings sold the required legislation for a fixed proportion of the spoils, and bonds were issued and turned over to the promoters who sold or hypothecated them and pocketed the proceeds. Occasionally the procedure was varied. New York gambling houses received many of the bonds. A noted courtesan of the same city displayed $100,000 in state bonds which she had extracted from one railroad president. Zebulon B. Vance thereafter always called the carpet-bag bonds “Josie Bonds.” But whatever the method of marketing them that was chosen, the result to the state was the same, and only the very smallest fraction was ever spent on their supposed objects.
In the legislatures bribery was open and shameless. Negro members soon proved themselves the equal of the white members, at least in political capacity to sell their votes, though their price, perhaps, was lower. A North Carolina negro legislator answered a question as to the source of his proudly-displayed cash, “Master, I’ve been sold ‘leven times in my life, but this is the very first time I ever got the money.” Lavish expenditure of public money for the entertainment of legislators greatly facilitated their purchase. In nearly every state capitol was a free bar; in several were as well free restaurants; and, in some, bawdy houses were openly maintained. Rice-field negroes in South Carolina ate delicacies gathered from all the markets of the world, drank vintage wines and choicest liquors, smoked imported cigars of the finest grades, and drove behind blooded horses, all paid for by the state. Their wives and concubines—for many of them sought to emulate Solomon in all his glory—wore imported clothes, hats, and shoes, and furnished their quarters with mahogany and rosewood, damask and fine linen. And for all these things the state paid.
The debts rose by leaps and bounds. In 1868, when the carpet-bag governments began their operation, the total bonded debt of the ten states, exclusive of interest, was in round numbers about $75,000,000. In 1873 this had increased to more than $217,646,000, and it is estimated that $100,000,000 more had been authorized.
The expenses of the state and local governments rose as rapidly as the debt, and while property steadily decreased in value, taxes soared. Presently confiscation, under the guise of taxation, was in operation in nearly every one of these states. Millions of acres were sold for taxes, and presently, ridiculously low as were the prices, buyers could not be found, for few could afford the luxury of land. Only the political redemption of the states averted utter and general financial ruin.
Such were the circumstances attending the issue of the bonds. The facts were known to all the world at the time, for not only the Southern press, but the Northern as well, described conditions. Conservative conventions served notice to the world that the whole proceeding was illegal, and that when the inevitable overturn came it would be repudiated. The fraudulent character of the bonds was published to the world. On the stock markets the steadily falling prices indicated the lack of any public confidence in their ultimate value. The New York banking houses which handled the bonds did so with wide-open eyes, and in many instances were as deeply involved in the corruption as the carpet-baggers and their native allies. Gambling speculators bought them, but it is doubtful if there were many innocent purchasers in the legal meaning of the term. Certainly there were none who heeded the warning caveat emptor.
The inevitable overturn came at last, and state after state was redeemed until in 1877 home rule was restored to all. The carpet-baggers fled to enjoy their profits in safe retirement and the South turned to the task of rehabilitation. It was no easy task. The debts hung about the necks of the economically prostrate states like proverbial mill-stones. The very governments which had issued the new debts had defaulted on them, and the interest on the valid debts had not been paid. One of the worst and most illegal of the Louisiana administrations had heavily scaled the debt of that state. South Carolina had done likewise and no man has ever known, or will ever know, how many South Carolina bonds were issued.
Something had to be done quickly to restore credit and the methods chosen differed little in the several states. Mississippi and Texas repudiated no debts and, indeed, had escaped the extravagant issues which had threatened the others. In most of the states a careful attempt was made to distinguish between the valid and the fraudulent debt. This accomplished, the valid debt was scaled, in some instances after consultation with the bondholders, and refunded into new bonds. The carpet-bag debt was then utterly repudiated. In brief the story, of them all is this:
Virginia repudiated none of her debt but, assigning $15,-000,000 as the share of West Virginia, scaled the remainder to about sixty per cent and funded it into new bonds bearing a lower rate of interest. North Carolina divided her valid bonds, amounting without interest to $12,627,000, into three classes and exchanged for them new bonds at the rate of forty, twenty-five, and fifteen per cent respectively.
She repudiated the carpet-bag debt of $13,313,000 in its entirety. South Carolina in 1873 repudiated about $6,000,-000 and refunded the rest of the outstanding bonds in new ones, at a discount of fifty per cent. Charges of illegality were brought against the new bonds and in 1878 the legislature and the courts repudiated or held invalid $5,965,000. The remainder, $9,886,627, was then scaled fifty per cent and refunded into new bonds. Georgia underwent a double reconstruction. Carpet-bag rule which should have terminated in 1868 was prolonged by Federal power until 1871. The state went Democratic in 1872 and Governor Bullock, accused of complicity in the frauds, fled the state. The legislature investigated the bond matter and in 1876 a constitutional amendment repudiated about $12,000,900 of the debt which included not only the bonds issued by the carpetbag government, but $975,000 of the debt incurred before the passage of the reconstruction acts. Practically all of the carpet-bag bonds were issued in violation of the terms of the laws which authorized them. The total amount repudiated was $9,000,000. Florida under carpet-bag rule was fleeced by the same group of thieves who infested North Carolina. Under an act of 1855 state bonds amounting to $4,000,000 had been issued in aid of railway construction. Under the carpet-bag administration the roads became the playthings of the spoilsmen and failed to pay interest on the bonds. In the Seventies the Supreme Court of the state declared them unconstitutional and they were thereafter ignored. The whole amount had been spent upon the roads, and morally she was clearly bound. Alabama in 1876 scaled her debt of $19,000,000 to about $12,000,000 and repudiated outright endorsed railroad bonds amounting to nearly $5,000,000. The carpet-baggers fastened on Louisiana a debt of almost $35,000,000. Part of this was clearly unconstitutional and was repudiated by the carpet-bag government of 1874. During the following years most of the rest was tested in the courts and nearly $20,000,000 was declared invalid. In 1874 the supposedly valid debt was scaled forty per cent and in 1876 by constitutional amendment the remainder was scaled twenty-five per cent. Ankansas in 1869 was saddled with a debt of nearly $9,000,000 from which she derived no benefit and which was clearly defective in law. In 1877 and 1878 these bonds were declared unconstitutional and in 1884 they were repudiated by constitutional amendment. The amendment provided also for the repudiation of ante-bellum bonds amounting to $500,-000 for which the state was morally, and legally responsible. Tennessee never was in the hands of the carpet-baggers, and her debt was incurred by her own people. In 1883, after a long political contest, it was scaled from $41,000,000 to $25,000,000, a proceeding questionable alike in law and in morals.
The scaling of the state debts may, perhaps, be regarded as a kind of bankruptcy made inevitable by the poverty of the states. Certainly in a number of cases it was, however regrettable, apparently unavoidable and in most cases the bondholders so regarded it. But in spite of the injury wrought by the war it would scarcely have been done had it not been for Reconstruction.
The repudiated bonds fall into two classes, those issued before congressional reconstruction began and those issued by the carpet-bag governments. Regardless of irregularities of issue it would seem that the former constituted a moral obligation of the states and that their repudiation was without justification and deserving of the fullest condemnation.
But the carpet-bag bonds fall into a different category. The governments which authorized them were illegal, the bonds were fraudulently issued and disposed of, and the states almost without exception received no return from them. Had the offenders been the legal agents of the people the case would be different, but they were not. And so no one who knows the facts can with any logic hold the states responsible in law or morals for their payment. It would be quite as proper to hold Belgium responsible for debts that might have been contracted in her name by the German invading army. The Southern States were quite as powerless as Belgium, and their governments as little representative of their legal electorates. As well might it be argued that an individual should be held responsible whenever his name is forged. If the Teapot Dome Lease is void, as the Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States declares it is, because of fraud; if the Elk Hills lease is void, as the Supreme Court of the United States holds it, for the same reason; a thousand times more void are the bonds issued by the carpet-bag governments of the South, without reference to the character of the governments which issued them.
There is of course the question whether there should not be some attempt at adjustment by which payment would be made for what was actually spent on the purpose for which the bonds were issued. No state should be willing to have received a benefit of the sort for which it returned no corresponding value. But three considerations should be taken into account. The first and most important is that no action should be taken which might even seem to be a recognition of the validity of the bonds; in other words, if any payment is made, it should clearly be an act of grace. The second is the difficulty of ascertaining with any degree of certainty how much money, was so spent. The third is the fact that, regardless of what expenditures were made, the mismanagement of the roads was often so gross as to destroy far greater values in them than those represented by such expenditures, and the loss to the states concerned from carpet-bag rule amounted in dollars and cents to an amount far in excess of the total of the repudiated bonds. The damage in other respects to the public morals, to political morals, to faith in the future is incalculable. Opponents of Congressional Reconstruction did not buy carpet-bag bonds and it may well be questioned if the holders of those bonds may not, with some justice, pay that price for their consent to the Radical policy. The price of hatred and of disregard for law should always be high.
The repudiation of these bonds was demanded by quite as sound considerations of public policy as those which dictated the repudiation of the war debts. To have assumed them would have been to assent to a gross public wrong, to oppress an impoverished and well-nigh desperate people, and to put an insuperable obstacle to recovery from the ruin of war and the even greater ruin wrought by ^Reconstruction. To pay them today would be to deny opportunity to youth and to condone what was wholesale felony. The states are not responsible. If anywhere responsibility is to be placed it must be in the government of the United States whose illegitimate children the carpet-bag governments indisputably were.