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This Week in Texas History: A column

Oran Roberts of Texas arrived in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 13, 1866 to take his rightful place in the United States Senate, but Radical Republicans bent on rubbing salt in the wounds left by the Civil War would deny the defeated South its seats in congress.

Assuming the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Andrew Johnson tried to expedite the homecoming of the seceded states. Except for a handful of Confederate leaders, he granted all southerners full rights as American citizens in exchange for their pledge to defend the Union.

During the spring and summer of 1866, the conquered components of the Confederacy held constitutional conventions that accepted the emancipation of the slaves. New state governments were created and members chosen for the congress scheduled to convene in December.

Meanwhile, Radical Republicans convinced their moderate colleagues that President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan was not only soft on traitors but would restore the pre-war power of the Democratic Party. Both wings of the GOP agreed that newly elected senators and representatives from the South had to be barred from congress.

To preserve their political monopoly, the Radicals invented the “iron clad oath.” Prospective officeholders were required to swear, “I have never voluntarily borne arms against the United States…and have given no aid, countenance, counsel or encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility.” From Texas to Virginia, only free slaves and Unionists remained eligible for public posts.

Logic dictated that the legislature select for the U.S. Senate two Texans, who satisfied the stringent conditions of the new oath. But logic went out the window, when it came time to vote.

Rejecting Unionist candidates as despicable snakes in the grass, lawmakers picked Oran Roberts, chairman of the 1861 secession convention, and ancient David G. Burnet, who opposed the pullout but later supported the Rebel war effort.

Several newspapers criticized the choices as a futile gesture guaranteed to bring down the wrath of Washington on Texas. But the Houston Journal eloquently differed: “The South loves its soldiers and will not forget them nor admit that the ‘lost cause’ had in it any element of treason.”

Although he realized no southerner stood a chance of actually entering the halls of congress, Oran Roberts felt obligated to make the attempt. Forced to pay his own way, he sold his home to cover travel expenses.

After an exhausting 11-day journey, Roberts reached the capital of the former enemy in late November 1866. The next day, he dined with 78 year old Burnet, who was already in town.

The following Tuesday the 28th of November, the would-be senators paid the customary courtesy call on the president. Up to his ears in the protracted political struggle that eventually led to his impeachment, Johnson dodged the unwelcome visitors.

From the gallery on Dec. 3, Roberts and Burnet looked on as a sympathetic senator presented their credentials to the hostile body. Without a word of debate, the issue of their acceptance was permanently tabled.

A message from the president was read later that same day in which Johnson reluctantly recognized the right of congress to reject any member whose loyalty was suspect. At that moment, the Texans knew their goose was cooked.

For days the outcasts dutifully made the official rounds but received not a word of encouragement. As Christmas approached, Burnet bid his comrade farewell and left for New Jersey to spend the holidays with relatives.

Roberts, however, could not go home without at least trying to set the record straight. He wrote a long open letter to the closed-minded congress that appeared in publications throughout the North as well as the South.

In defense of his fellow Texans, Roberts insisted they were “resigned to their losses and sacrifices. They aspire to arise from the new standpoint, and to be part and parcel in the great progress of their race on this continent. Texas will stand by the flag of the United States against any nation on earth.”

With eerie accuracy he predicted the consequences of a post-war policy based upon recrimination rather than reconciliation. Harsh treatment “will cause the hearts of men to rankle with the sense of injustice, and a feeling of bitterness which will pass from generation to generation.”

And, Roberts went on, the former slave would suffer most. “The negro, from being the subject of kindness as he is now, may be loathed and hated as the cause — the unconscious victim — of a feeling he had nothing to do with producing.”

As the dark curtain of Reconstruction dropped on Texas and the South, the unseated senator saw the future quite clearly.

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.


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