After Slavery: Educator Resources

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9. Governor Jonathan Worth Argues Against 1867 Call for a Constitutional Convention

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Five: Conservatives Respond to Emancipation in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Jonathan Worth was born in the early nineteenth century in Guilford County, North Carolina, and practiced law. Unlike South Carolina, the state of North Carolina had a strong Whig party in the decades before the Civil War, and Worth was an important member of that party, serving several terms in the state legislature from the 1830s to the 1860s. Although he always opposed secession, Worth served as state treasurer during the Civil War. He was the first of the provisional governors appointed by Andrew Johnson after the war ended, largely because of his prominent role in North Carolina's peace movement in 1863 and 1864. Worth was elected as governor in 1866 and served almost another two years. When Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, Worth strongly opposed the rewriting of the state's constitution, especially because in order for the new constitution to be valid, African American men had to be allowed to vote. In this letter to his son, a merchant in Wilmington, Worth explains his position and also the strategy many conservatives in the South adopted: if they could get a large enough proportion of registered voters to boycott the election, there would be no new constitution.

Governor Jonathan Worth Argues Against 1867 Call for a Constitutional Convention

To D. G. Worth
Oct. 24, 1867

You ask me my opinion as to how the people of this State should vote on the calling or refusing to call a Convention under the military acts falsely called re-construction acts.
These acts require the Convention to amend the State Constitution so as to allow universal negro suffrage. They declare that we are to be allowed representation in Congress only after the disfranchising Howard amendment shall be adopted and that no member of Congress shall be recognized unless he can take this test oath.

This Convention is called by Congress-not by the State: Congress determines who shall vote and who shall not, in violation of the Constitution of the U.S., which leaves it to the State to determine who shall vote and who shall not vote-and allows each State to regulate internal affairs, not inconsistent with the United States.

As this Convention must establish negro suffrage, those only should vote for such Convention, who believe it is constitutionally called and that universal negro suffrage is expedient and that nobody should hold office save those who can take the teste oath. As I believe that the call of a Convention is in violation of the Constitution of the U.S., which I am bound by oath to support-that to establish universal negro suffrage is to base government upon ignorance instead of intelligence-even if there were no disfranchisement of white men-and as the acts of Congress submit the question to those who are allowed to vote, whether they want such a Convention or not, I think no honorable man in N.C. ought to vote for the call.

I think they should go to the polls and try to elect conservative delegates-and not vote at all for or against the Convention. The Convention fails is a majority of all the registered voters fail to vote for or against the Convention. According to the best information we now have 95000 whites and 65000 negroes have registered in this State. It will require something over 80000 votes cast for and against the Convention to call it. It is not probably that more than 55,000 negro votes will be cast, and if less than 25000 whites vote for or against a Convention, it must fail. I do not believe anything like 25000 whites will vote for such a Convention. If concert of action can be brought about among those who are opposed to the call, it may be defeated, by non voting on the part of the whites. I am confident a majority of the whole vote cast is unattainable-and my only hope of defeating the thing is this one indicated: and if this fail, in the refusal of the voters to ratify the Constitution which may be adopted.

"It is never expedient to do wrong," and hence it is inexpedient to change by our act, the fundamental laws of our State, under an unconstitutional act of Congress.
This is intended for your own eye. I deem it inexpedient to avow my views before the public.

I gave my views, confidentially, to Mr. Englehardt a week or two ago.

SourceThe Correspondence of Jonathan Worth, collected and edited by J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton. Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Co., 1909, pp.1058-1059.


Questions to Consider

  1. How does Worth believe the outcome of the Civil War has affected the relationship between the former Confederate states and the Union?

  2. Why might some whites vote in favor of the convention?

  3. What was the constitutional basis for the requirements Congress imposed? Have those powers been used subsequently?

  4. Worth's strategy failed; what might that tell us about the potential for biracial political coalitions during Reconstruction?

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