Arnold Bertonneau on Patriotism & the Franchise

Bertonneau 01 Arnold Bertonneau circa 1880

Arnold Bertonneau (1832 -1912); Photograph from the mid-1860s

My great-grand uncle Arnold Bertonneau (1832 – 1912) traveled from New Orleans to Boston and Washington D.C. in April, 1864, to present his Creole Petition to Congress, which ultimately rejected it. On 12 April Bertonneau responded to an invitation by the Massachusetts Republicans to speak on the merits of his proposal. After an introduction by Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, Bertonneau delivered the following words:

BEFORE THE OUTBREAK of the rebellion, Louisiana contained about forty thousand free colored people, and three hundred twelve thousand persons held in slavery. In the city of New Orleans, there were upwards of twenty thousand free persons of color. Nearly all the free persons of color read and write. The free people have always been on the side of
law and good order, always peaceful and self-sustaining, always loyal. Taxed on an assessment of more than fifteen million dollars — among many other things, for the support of public-school education — debarred from the right of sending their children to the common schools which they have been and are compelled to aid in supporting, taxed on their property, and compelled to contribute toward the general expense of sustaining the state, they have always been and now are prohibited from exercising the elective franchise.

When the first fratricidal shot was fired at Sumter, and Louisiana had joined her fortunes with the other seceding states, surrounded by enemies educated in the belief that “Africans and their descendants had no rights that white men were bound to respect,” without arms and ammunition, or any means of self-defense, the condition and position of our people were extremely perilous. When summoned to volunteer in the defense of the state and city against Northern invasion, situated as we were, could we do otherwise than heed the warning and volunteer in the defense of New Orleans? Could we have adopted a better policy? In the city of New Orleans, under the Confederate government, we raised one regiment of a thousand men, the line officers of which were colored.

When General Butler captured New Orleans, and drove the rebel soldiers from the state, the colored people were the most truly loyal citizens to welcome his coming. Indeed, from the time that General Jackson, when Louisiana was threatened during the last war with Great Britain by an overwhelming British force, issued his famous appeal to the “noble-hearted, generous free men of color” — for so he called them in his proclamation, censuring the “mistaken policy” before pursued, of exempting them from military service, calling upon them as “Americans” and “sons of freedom” for aid and support —our fathers rallied to arms, and drove the red coats from the soil. I say, from that time to the present, the free colored people of Louisiana have always been loyal and ready and willing to defend the “Stars and Stripes.” General Butler understood this. He knew instinctively who were loyal and who were not, on whom he could implicitly rely, in whose fidelity he could safely trust; and adopting the policy of that noble, brave and clearsighted general who dared to take the responsibility, he received into the ranks of the Union army, the colored volunteer soldiers of New Orleans.

Under General Butler, we had a foretaste of freedom. The colored people of Louisiana venerate his name; with us it is a household word. We bless his memory and shall always hold it in grateful remembrance. We felt that we were men and citizens, and were to be treated as such; we were animated by new hopes and new desires; we felt that there was a new life opened before us; so we gave our imagination full scope and play. The tyrant who was cruel to his slave was summoned before that general, and received proper punishment. The sympathizers with the rebellion, who wantonly insulted Union troops, were reminded that they could not do so with safety. Gentlemen and ladies of color were allowed to ride in public conveyances and were respectfully treated. Soon, however, the scene changed. General Butler was removed, and again a portentous cloud darkened the bright horizon of our future prospects. Our hope gave place to our fears; and with all true and loyal citizens of our state and city, we regretted the removal of a general who was determined to bring Louisiana back into the Union, free as in the state of  Massachusetts.

While General Banks was at the siege of Port Hudson, again the city of New Orleans was threatened by the enemy, and fears were entertained that the rebel troops would take the city. At the call of General Shepley, the colored people again rallied under the banner of the Union, and in forty-eight hours raised the first regiment and were ready for duty. They were promised the same pay and rations as other soldiers. At the expiration of forty days service, we were discharged; and when the time for payment arrived, each man being charged for his uniform, and his wages cut down to seven dollars per month, it was ascertained that each soldier was indebted to the government six dollars and ninety-seven cents. The soldiers composing this regiment are men of business and culture, mostly engaged in commercial and industrial pursuits, while some are artisans; and notwithstanding they closed their places of business, quit their various occupations, and joined in the defense of New Orleans, this sum stands charged against these soldiers in the books of the general government to this day.

Some months ago, General Shepley, the military governor of Louisiana, issued an order, directing all Union male citizens over twenty-one years to register their names, that it might be ascertained who had a right to vote in the reorganization of civil government in the state of Louisiana. The free colored citizens applied for leave to register their names, but were refused the right to do so. They applied to the Military Governor and to General Banks, without success. An election took place, and no colored citizens were permitted to vote. In our struggle to gain the right to vote, we were aided and assisted by many of our most influential and truly loyal Union citizens. Their noble efforts in our behalf we shall never forget. To influence the action and to obtain the elective franchise for our people, we, as delegates of the free colored population of Louisiana, visited Washington to lay the matter before President Lincoln and the Congress of the country. We ask that, in the reconstruction of the state government there, the right to vote shall not depend on the color of the citizen; that the colored citizen shall have and enjoy every civil, political and religious right that white citizens enjoy; in a word, that every man shall stand equal before the law. To secure these rights, which belong to every free citizen, we ask the aid and influence of every true loyal man all over the country. Slavery, the curse of our country, cannot exist in Louisiana again.

In order to make our state blossom and bloom as the rose, the character of the whole people must be changed. As slavery is abolished, with it must vanish every vestige of oppression. The right to vote must be secured; the doors of our public schools must be opened, that our children, side by side, may study from the same books, and imbibe the same principles and precepts from the Book of Books, learn the great truth that God “created of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth”; so will caste, founded on prejudice against color, disappear.

Massachusetts has always been foremost in every good work. She, first of all the states, by positive law, struck the shackles from the limbs of every bondman within her limits. It was Massachusetts who first acknowledged the colored man as a citizen and gave him political equality. And today, by your enlightened legislation, no prescriptive laws remain on your statute book. In your state, color is no legal disqualification for any office of trust or power.

Mr. President,* when we return to New Orleans, we shall tell our friends that in Massachusetts we could ride in every public vehicle; that the colored children not only were allowed to attend public schools with white children, but they were compelled by law to attend such schools; that we visited your courts of justice and saw colored lawyers defending their clients; and we shall tell them, too, of this most generous welcome extended to us by you. It will prove most grateful to their feeling, animate them with new hope and desires, and will prove a grand stimulus to renewed efforts for the acquisition of every right that can be guaranteed to them by law.

[* President of the Republican Club]

11 thoughts on “Arnold Bertonneau on Patriotism & the Franchise

  1. Pingback: Arnold Bertonneau on Patriotism & the Franchise | Reaction Times

    • Great Grand-Uncle Arnold’s view of things is one that fits nowhere in the contemporary Manichaean dispensation. “Under General Butler, we had a foretaste of freedom. The colored people of Louisiana venerate his name; with us it is a household word. We bless his memory and shall always hold it in grateful remembrance.” No statue-toppling rhetoric there.

  2. This is interesting history, Tom. I’m glad you posted it, truly. I hope you won’t mind, or take offense to, my citing an historian – a Boston man and a contemporary of your Great Grand Uncle Bertonneau – upon your uncle’s remarks concerning the state of Massachusetts and its history of having “always been foremost in every good work.”

    In his book, Origins of the Late War, George Lunt shares the following regarding the early (1790) emancipation of blacks in his native state, Massachusetts:

    The sum total of the slaves in all these Northern States in 1790 was 49,240. Of these only 3,886 were to be found in New England, then consisting of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island; but inclusive of the territory of Maine and Vermont, before the admission of those States to the Union. The rest of the slaves in the States, amounting to 648,657, were distributed between Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, except 8,887 in Delaware.

    This of course tells us something of the nature of the “good work” Massachusetts had been the first to accomplish within her own jurisdiction, and of her relative ability to accomplish this good work without fear of significant negative consequences as a result. In the whole of New England, Mr. Lunt informs us, only 3,886 slaves were to be found at the time the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared their state constitution had liberated its slaves. We may safely assume that the greatest part of that number resided in that state of course, but the point remains that the number is insignificant compared to what the Southern states were faced with in contemplating the immediate emancipation of its slaves, which, incidentally, several of them had done long before any northern state had seriously considered the question.

    Mr. Lunt further informs us that,

    In those States that have manifested the most earnest enthusiasm for liberating the slaves of their fellow-citizens, no disposition has been heretofore shown to place the black man upon any terms of actual equality with the white.

    This anomaly is especially marked in Massachusetts, at last the most forward of all the States in promoting the cause of anti-slavery, although equality of civil and social rights logically follows from the acquisition of freedom. Yet, notwithstanding the absence of any statute forbidding it, no Negro in that State has been a member of its Legislature, (a Negro was elected to a Town Committee in a place near Cape Cod within a few years) has served upon the jury, or in the militia, or has been appointed to any office beyond one of a menial grade. Hence, his social relations may be readily inferred.

    I could quote extensively from Lunt’s book upon the question of Massachusetts having always been “foremost in every good work,” since refutation of this claim is a general theme throughout the work. Mr. Lunt also points out that, in the interim between, say, the year 1836 when William Loyd Garrison was given a hearing in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, a hearing in which Mr. Garrison – radical abolitionist that he was – took the liberty to declare himself an enemy of the U.S. Constitution and a “citizen of the world,” and the years immediately leading up to the so called “Civil War,” the state of Massachusetts had tranformed itself into a hotbed for radicalism, and that the “August Body” comprising its legislature and the governor of the state reflected this change in their radical dispositions and hatred for their Southern brethren. Prof. Smith has written before of the difference between statesmen and “mere politicians.” Lunt makes this distinction as well in his book, citing the statesmanship of the body of members of the Massachusetts legislature in 1836 vs. its makeup of “mere politicians” and (to borrow again from Prof. Smith) “philanthropic sneaks” your Great Grand Uncle had the privelege to address.

    • Dear Terry: Arnold Bertonneau belonged to the Creole community or “gens de couleur libres,” a class of property-holding mulatto businessmen and their families who inhabited the French Quarter, which they themselves had substantially built up since their arrival in New Orleans in the first decade of the Nineteenth Century when they fled the Revolution in Saint-Domingue. They were cultivated, educated, and their spokesmen intellectually sharp. But they did not undertake tourism — for reasons not difficult to understand. I doubt whether Arnold had traveled much beyond New Orleans before 1864. In this sense, concerning the rest of the country, Arnold was probably somewhat naive. What his hosts showed him in Boston, was undoubtedly what they wanted him to see. Ditto for the District of Columbia.

      I suppose that all legislatures are always composed of “mere politicians” and “philanthropic sneaks.” That is the nature of politics. When I read Arnold’s speech, what strikes me is its subtlety. While he sometimes conflates his terms, he generally distinguishes his own community from the freedman population in post-bellum New Orleans. He feels sympathy for the latter, but he speaks in particular for the Creoles. He was in the North to promote his Creole Petition. His principles — that taxpayers should not be excluded from the public amenities that they support and that the state owes ready volunteers in time of emergency decent treatment — were valid in his day and remain valid today. I suspect that Arnold would have had strong reservations about affirmative action. I suspect that the welfare state would have disgusted him. He argues, it seems to me, strictly for reciprocity.

      I have not read Lunt, but 1836 is not 1864. If Arnold says that he witnessed Negro lawyers defending their clients in the Bostons courts of law, and black people riding the trams with whites, I assume that he reports honestly what he saw.

      Arnold’s situation partook in extraordinary complexity. His friend General Butler (“Spoons” Butler) filled the role of Adam Schiff in Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. Johnson wanted leniency towards the South and Butler preferred the Radical-Reconstruction formula. Yet Butler was removed from the Governor-Generalship of New Orleans and Louisiana because of the perception that he treated ex-Confederates with too much latitude. (He did not. He infamously executed a man for publicly desecrating the American Flag and stigmatized New Orleansian women who publicly insulted or assaulted the occupying soldiery. In the latter, he made the argument that women were morally equal to men and ought to be treated as such under the law.) I could go on… I mention what I mention to underscore the maze that Arnold threaded and the slippery floor underneath his feet.

      These words from Arnold’s speech have renewed relevancy in a time when the Left is trying to annul the franchise of its opposition and deconstruct the Republic of Laws: “The free people have always been on the side of law and good order, always peaceful and self-sustaining, always loyal. Taxed on an assessment of more than fifteen million dollars — among many other things, for the support of public-school education — debarred from the right of sending their children to the common schools which they have been and are compelled to aid in supporting, taxed on their property, and compelled to contribute toward the general expense of sustaining the state, they have always been and now are prohibited from exercising the elective franchise.” When qualified white applicants to public colleges are denied admission so that, under affirmative action, the institutions can admit quotas of the privileged, Arnold’s words apply. When people are hounded out of their employment by the black-clothed mob, his words apply.

      If I have misunderstood you in any way, please let me know.

      Sincerely, Tom.

      • Dear Tom,

        Thank you for your thoughtful and timely reply. It was not my intention to question the authenticity of what your Great Grand Uncle saw with his own eyes while in Boston in 1864. You wrote that,

        I have not read Lunt, but 1836 is not 1864. If Arnold says that he witnessed Negro lawyers defending their clients in the Bostons courts of law, and black people riding the trams with whites, I assume that he reports honestly what he saw.

        My mistake in failing to put a publishing date to Mr. Lunt’s book – which, please believe me, was my intent all along in that comment – but the date in question is 1865.

  3. @Terry Morris. If your point were Yankee irrationality, hypocrisy, and treachery — then I would be in agreement with you. By regional assignment (Upstate New York) I am currently a Yankee, but I was born south of the Mason-Dixon line in metropolitan Southern California, which schemed to “go out” in 1862 and had to be re-barracked by Federal soldiers in order to prevent it. I have been secession-sympathetic for a long time. Secession is a principle that will have to be invoked once again no matter who wins the presidency in November. By the way, Upstate New York wanted no part in the War of Northern Aggression — see the Copperhead Rebellion.

    FYI: William Garrison spoke several times in Oswego’s meeting-hall, which occupied the third floor of the Market House, currently Larry Klotzko’s Old City Hall Tavern and Restaurant and my favorite watering place. (Or it will be once more when it reopens.)

    • Dear Tom, you wrote:

      If your point were Yankee irrationality, hypocrisy, and treachery — then I would be in agreement with you.

      Well, that too, yes. But that’s an aside. My main point was to call into question specifically your uncle’s assertion that the state of Massachusetts “has always been foremost in every good work.” As I said above, it was never my intention to question the veracity of what he reported that he’d seen with his own eyes while in Boston, and that’s the honest truth. Speaking of which, part of what he’d witnessed in that state was the forced integration and compelled attendance of black and white children in the public schools of that state – the public school system instituted by none other than Mr. Mann, known affectionately throughout the entirety of the U.S. now as the “Father of Progressive Education.” I know I’m considered by many to be “evil” and “hateful” and “racist” and blah blah for holding this opinion on the matter, but that, to me, cannot be said to be “good,” with all due respect to your uncle.

      You know the story, I’m sure, of the encounter between Daniel Webster of that state and two of his Senate colleagues from the south. It may be found in numerous history books from the era, including Mr. Lunt’s. The gist of the story is that Mr. Webster pulled his colleagues aside in the Senate chambers and asked whether ‘you Southern gentlemen cannot find a way to emancipate your slaves.’ They answered that they could never submit to northern coercion on the matter, for if they did it would set a precedent that would undoubtedly snowball into Southern submission to Northern rule with no end in sight. With a sigh, Webster advised the men that they should return home immediately and beat their plowshares into swords, for, he explained, Yankee school marms had raised and educated an entire generation of Northern children to hate slavery and slave holders with a passion; a generation who imbibed those principles well, and would most assuredly go to war with the South to achieve their radical ends. This was done in the schools that Horace Mann had first founded in Massachusetts (on the Prussian model) in 1848, and by the teachers who were trained under his guidance.

      But in any case, you’re no Yankee, Tom, regardless of where you currently reside. As you know, place of residence, or even place of birth for that matter, does not make a man who and what he is. I’ve mentioned to you before, I believe, that I was actually born at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. That fact doesn’t make me a “Prune Picker,” as my father would jokingly refer to me from time to time during my formative years. And, yes, I’m aware of the history of the Copperhead Rebellion, as well as that you mention of Southern California in 1862. Albeit I’m no expert on either of those histories, but I’m certainly aware of them. Which reminds me,

      my boys and I recently spent a month in a little town called Garvin, near Idabel, OK, finishing a home addition for one of my cousins. At one point during our stay he was visited by a neighbor who wanted to look at the quality of our work. Later the woman came to me to ask whether I would be interested in remodeling her house. During our conversation she mentioned that she and her husband had recently moved there from New York. My immediate question was, “what part of New York?” She gave me the name of a little town in upstate N.Y. that I did not recognize and cannot recall, but she said it was near Buffalo. To which I replied, “oh, okay, you had me worried there for a bit; you’re one of the good New Yorkers.” A few days later I met her and her husband at their house to give them an estimate on the work. I explained to them then that had she answered differently as to what part of the State they came from, I would most likely have declined to do the work and recommended they get in touch with another contractor.

      I’d like to say more, but I’ll have to get back to it later.

  4. Enfranchising freed slaves is the great “bait and switch” of American history. Lincoln had imbued the Union cause with emancipating the slave, yet almost no Union soldier believed that he was fighting for enfranchising the freed slave.

    Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles tells of coming upon a meeting held by Sec. of War Stanton, to which he was not invited, but that he hung around long enough to record that Senator Sumner “demanded to know what provision was made for the colored man to vote.” (Diary, entry for April 16, 1865) Barely had the ink dried on the surrender at Appomattox (April 9); barely had Lincoln’s body gone cold (April 15), and these demands were pressed.

    If only the distinctions that your great uncle put forward, as a “property-holding mulatto”, were reinforced in response to emancipation. Indeed literacy, education, employment, ability to meet tax obligations should be qualifications even today. All that went out the window with the mad drive to enfranchise ex slaves.

    • It is unjust that non-property holders, who are non-property-tax payers, hold the franchise. In Oswego, which has a large apartment-renting demography, the non-property-holders invariably vote to increase the school budget — which is to say, to increase the taxes of the actual property-holders.

    • Indeed, as De Tocqueville predicted, innovations in the direction of extensions of suffrage will always be successful in America, because of the selfish timidity of her public men. It is the nature of ultra democracy to make all its politicians time-servers; its natural spawn is the brood of narrow, truckling, cowardly worshippers of the vox populi, and of present expediency. Their polar star is always found in the answer to the question, “Which will be the more popular?” As soon as any agitation of this kind goes far enough to indicate a possibility of success, their resistance ends. Each of them begins to argue thus in his private mind:—“The proposed revolution is of course preposterous, but it will be best for me to leave opposition to it to others. For if it succeeds, the newly enfranchised will not fail to remember the opponents of their claim at future elections, and to reward those who were their friends in the hour of need.” Again: it has now become a regular trick of American demagogues in power to manufacture new classes of voters to sustain them in office. It is presumed that the gratitude of the newly enfranchised will be sufficient to make them vote the ticket of their benefactors. But as gratitude is a very flimsy sort of fabric among Radicals, and soon worn threadbare, such a reliance only lasts a short time, and requires to be speedily replaced. The marvelous invention of negro suffrage (excogitated for this sole purpose) sufficed to give Radicalism a new four years’ lease of life; but the grateful allegiance of the freedmen to their pretended liberators is waxing very thin; and hence the same expedient must be repeated, in the form of creating a few millions of female votes. The designing have an active, selfish motive for pushing the measure; but its opponents will without fail be paralyzed in their resistance by their wonted cowardice; so that success is sure.

      This expectation is greatly confirmed by a review of the history of past innovations. They have all been carried against the better judgment of the class in the country to whom the Constitution committed the power of deciding for or against them. In 1829–1830, the State of Virginia took her first departure from the old principle of freeholders’ suffrage. In 1851 she completed that revolution (as well as introduced sundry other Radical features) by extending the right to vote indiscriminately to all white males. In both instances it was hard to find a freeholder, not a demagogue, who could avow a hearty preference for the changes. They were carried against the convictions of the voters by the influences which have been above described. It is most probable that the same thing was true in every State which adopted universal suffrage. The coercive measures of the Federal Government were undoubtedly precipitated against the convictions of the majority of the Northern people. So the war was transmuted into an Abolition measure under the same circumstances. And last: negro suffrage was undoubtedly introduced against the better judgment of nearly all by the selfish arts of the demagogues; and as there was neither party nor statesman that had the nerve to head the almost universal opposition, the decision went by default. Nor will there be, under any future circumstances, either leader or party that will risk the odium of a movement to take away suffrage from the incompetent hands of the blacks, however clearly it may appear that they are using it for the ruin of themselves and the country. Thus it is the destiny of the Yankee people to commit a species of political Hari-kari with its own unwilling hands. The crowning element of despair is in the enforced consolidation of the Government. There are no reserved rights of States. The mad innovation which is adopted by a majority of them is enforced upon all; so that no place of refuge is left in the whole land where the right principles and usages might find sanctuary, and abide as a wholesome example and recuperative power for reform.

      -R.L. Dabney, Women’s Rights Women (first published in The Southern Magazine, 1871)


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