Reconstruction begins: Yardley Taylor’s letter to Governor Francis Pierpont

freedmens bureau 1865
Freedmens Bureau 1865 engraving, Courtesy Library of Congress

In the spring of 1865, war left the battlefields and returned to being fought out on street corners and in parlors, newspapers and the endless speechifying of previous decades. Racism didn’t magically disappear on April 9, 1865 when Robert E. Lee agreed to surrender terms, effectively ending the Civil War.

Some Lincoln, Virginia Quakers stepped forward – again – to influence cultural change. An example may be found in the letter Yardley Taylor wrote to Francis Pierpont, the man elected Governor of Virginia by the Union supporting Wheeling Convention in 1861. Pierpont’s state government offices were in Alexandria, Virginia.

Yardley Taylor abolitionist lincoln virginia
Yardley Taylor (1794-1868) picture Courtesy of Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg VA

In his letter, Yardley Taylor lays out a religious perspective for the necessity of pursuing a fair path toward citizenship for blacks. He makes clear that slavery should be held as cause of the recent war. Taylor then uses examples of black rule in the West Indies to support extending the vote to black males in the United States. He recognized the need for the U.S. government to provide jobs, schools and social support for newly freed blacks. The original letter can be viewed here, Courtesy Library of Virginia. A transcipt of the letter is found below the image of Governor Pierpont.

Governor Francis Pierpont March 17, 1866 (stock photo)

                                                                        Loudon County Va 6th mo 17th, 1865

      Respected Friend,

I shall make no apology for addressing thee, in times like these when every loyal man should do his duty to her government, there should be no adhesion to forms for forms sake. The subject of how the state shall return to the union, is now the all absorbing one, and should claim our serious attention. I have taken but little part in politics, yet I have been an observer of political parties for more than fifty years.

The great question at present seems to be, what shall be the status of the negros [sic]; all seem to admit that slavery is doomed, but is there not great danger of still enough of slavery being kept alive, to keep the African in still a degraded state. To place him now in an equality in political rights with ourselves, is so humiliating – their former masters that they can hardly be expected to acquiesce in it, and to do less is to keep him from developing his manhood. No state can be safe that make distinction among its citizens, I use the term citizens in its broadest sense, as this is as much their country as it is ours.

            When the law was given by Moses to the children of Israel, they were told that obedience to those laws should ensure them blessings, that they should be blessed in basket and in store, and in a material point of view they should be the head and other nations should yield to them. And these promises were literally carried out so long as they obeyed those laws. But they wee also told that disobedience to those laws should bring curses upon them, that they should be punished and become very low, that their inemies [sic] should prevail against them and besiege them until they should eat their own children, in the straitness [sic] of the siege, and these things fell upon them in their disobedience.

[page 2]  When Christ came and laid the foundation of Christianity, he did not present a form of laws and ceremonies to be observed, but he inunciated [sic] principle to govern his disciples, that would correct all wrong doing, and assured them of their being blessed in the performance. Experience proves the truth of this, and if the content is true, the converse is equally true, that if meekness, mercy, poorness of spirit, purity, and to hunger and thirst after rightiousness [sic], is certain to bless us, the prevalence of the opposite, as haughtiness, cruelty high mindedness, lust, and to strive after evil doing, will as assuredly bring curses, both personally and politically. Now the decrees of God are without repentance, and it is for us to accept the blessing, or the curses, as in our free agency we are allowed to do.

            This being the case and history and experience proves it, can we expect safety and peace as a nation, without carrying out these principles a laid down by Christ and his apostles, certainly not. Men have attempted to practice a morality inconsistent with Christianity, while professing its principles, and the consequence has been the last cruel, unjust and wicked war, a war begun and carried on to uphold slavery.  

            Now in forming our organic laws and constitutions, they should have their foundations laid broad and deep in the grand principles of doing to others as we would to be done with. These if lived up to would ensure peace and quietness among all classes, for convince a man that we are acting as he is friend in truth and sincerity, and we make him our fast friend from whom we need fear no danger. Complyance [sic] with this short sentence would soon settle all differences among men. Moralists have falsely made expediency right, as if it were one of the principles of Christianity, while it has nothing in common with it, it is a bastard; Christianity has nothing to do with it.

[page 3]  The first question should be is the thing right, is it in accordance with justice, if we may safely leave the event. An unwillingness to do so argues a distrust in Divine providence, as if we were wiser than God, and knew better what we ought to do.

            The question again occurs, how shall this state gain its position as one of the states of the union. The carrying out of the constitution formed at Alexandria is one made preferred, but that being formed by so small a part of the state, will cause opposition to it, and the eagerness of polititions [sic] in taking part in reconstruction, will most probably throw obstacles in its way, here I think is great danger the proslavery feeling is not yet subdued enough to expect cordiality in its movements with what is right, old prejudices remain, and to allow an election even after the voters may take the oath prescribed would probably introduce so much secesh feeling, as to be not likely to be harmonious. There is one objection to that constitution that many entertain, and that is the word ‘white’ in the article on suffrage, restricting the voting to white citizens, to say nothing of its injustice, it will place the union men of the state in a minority and give the secesh element the power which would be unjust. Since we had such strong evidence of the loyalty of the black man, and his bravery in battle, it would be sheer injustice to deprive him of it. I would be willing to restrict the right of voting to those who can read and write without distinction of color, not but that I would prefer to leave it where the bill of rights have placed it, that is the only good ground, but such restriction would create an earnest desire to gain an education, so that the next generation would be very certain to be almost all able to read and write, so the end would be gained.

[page 4]   Much as I dislike military rule, I am not sure that that would not be best just now for awhile, there would be a more complete control had over the elections than could otherwise. Maybe not a military governor under orders from the president direct that all elections ought to be free and that all men having “evidence of permanent common interest with and attachment to the community, have the right of suffrage” in accordance with the “bill of rights” of all the constitutions of Virginia since the foundation of this government. This would extend the right to the many if not all the colored men, and would be carrying [sic] out the principle laid down. Now to profess principles and not carry them out is to act hypocritically. If this was done for a time and elections held for members to congress and the legislature allowing men of color to vote, it would be difficult to establish a line of policy forbidding it in the future. It would be the soundest and the safest policy in the long run. If the man of color had a vote the politician would seek his favor and such action would go far to towards educating him for his responsibilities.

            In looking at the subject of allowing the colored man to vote, it – will to let facts have their full weight. Even here in our own time experience proves its propriety and justice. The emancipation of slavery in the British West Indies is an event that we may profit by. That shows clearly that the man of color may be rusted with all the process of government. There they are elected to all offices, as magistrates, judges, sherriff [sic], members of the legislature and they compare favorably with their white brethren in filling their offices, and I presume no one will contend that the negroes of the west Indies were superior to the colored race in this country, at the date of emancipation.

[page 5]  There is another experience had in the working of emancipation in the British West Indies. That the people of this country should study and profit by, showing how very far the principles of justice will go toward removing difficulties, while its opposite will greatly increase them. It is well known that the British parliament, allowed the legislature of the islands to abolish slavery at once, or to have a system of apprentice – for six years so as to prepare the slave for freedom. The different legislatures acted differently and it is here their experience as profitable. That of Barbadoes [sic] abolished slavery at once, and the planters allowed their slaves reasonable wages as fairness, and thus kept their services and by this means escaped the difficulties that other islands had to encounter. This island is the most populous of any other and – the most populous place of its size in the world, where no large towns exist.

The legislature of Jamacia [sic] the largest of the British islands, adopted the apprenticeship system, to prepare the slaves for freedom as was supposed. The British Parliament had abolished the use of the whip and had magistrates appointed to settle matters between the laborers and their maters. The result was as might have been anticipated, the negro having no interest in his labor and knowing he would be free in six years any how, and not fearing the lash worked as little as he could. The whites became satisfied after trying their plan for four years to give it up, but the ill feeling engendered by the four years effort prevented a cordial union of capital and labor and man f the estates had to go down. Many of them were owned by absentees and were worked by agents having no permanent interest in the establishment, nor sympathy with the colored people, could

[page 6]  hardly be expected to be governed directly. But since then these estates have changed hands and become possessed by resident proprietors, and a better feeling has been inaugurated between the parties, and now this island is in [a] state of prosperity she never could have advanced to under slavery. About one third of her legislature are colored men, and they have their share of other offices.

            The island of Trinidad lying near the coast of South American and with a soil no where inferior to the other islands had a less population to its surface than others, indeed there is not near all the land under cultivation that might be. Here the legislature abolished slavery at once, but began a harsh and unkind policy towards their former slaves. They determined that they should work for small wages, and those that would not conform would be driven from their homes and their little crops destroyed. The people of color generally would not work for the wages proposed, and as they were driven from their cabs with harshness, and their crops destroyed, they went out onto public lands and built huts there and the climate – and soil fruitful they managed to live there, and to this day that island has failed to advance as much as her soil and climate would justify, mainly from the harshness of her white population.

            Here then is experience that we may wisely profit by showing that by practicing right and justice between parties, difficulties may be overcome and advantage result to all, while an opposite course will bring curses upon all practicing it. ‘I have felt it my duty to present thee views to thee, firmly believing that by squaring our conduct by justice and equity, is the safest the surest and indeed the only way to real prosperity. Sincerely thy friend  Yardley Taylor

My address Point of Rocks Md

Yardley Taylor had spent a lifetime focused on ending slavery. This letter shows how his Quaker faith aligned with his political and cultural beliefs. And a small insight: the mail service for Yardley was Point of Rocks, MD, a town about 17 miles away from Lincoln. Historian John Divine shed light on war and post war mail service, in a 2015 interview with fellow historian Rich Gillespie, in John Divine’s Civil War: 

John Divine’s Civil War edited by Richard T. Gillespie, courtesy of Mosby Heritage Area Association, 2015

Yardley died in 1868. An account of his death at age 75, “…from a cold contracted while carrying shingles up a ladder to shingle his house” is in the Alexandria Gazette March, 18, 1870 edition (bottom paragraph of column):

Alexandria Gazette March 18, 1870, Courtesy Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA

Yardley Taylor lived long enough to witness the end of slavery, a glorious event capping his life’s work. Through death, he missed much of the coming decades’ break down in Reconstruction efforts toward racial equality. That future struggle would be taken up by coming generations of Lincoln Quakers.