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(1867) Thaddeus Stevens, “Reconstruction”


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In 1867 Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner led the campaign for full voting rights for African Americans across the nation.  In the speech below which Stevens gave in the U.S. House of Representatives on January 3, 1867 supporting the Reconstruction bill then being debated, he issued a response to those who said his call was radical and incendiary with a now famous quotation: " I am for negro suffrage in every rebel State. If it be just, it should not be denied; if it be necessary, it should be adopted; if it be a punishment to traitors, they deserve it."   The entire speech appears below.

Mr. Speaker, I am very anxious that this bill should be proceeded with until finally acted upon.  I desire that as early as possible, without curtailing debate, this House shall come to some conclusion as to what shall be done with the rebel States.  This becomes more and more necessary every day; and the late decision of the Supreme Court of the United States has rendered immediate action by Congress upon the question of the establishment of governments in the rebel States absolutely indispensable.  

That decision, although in terms perhaps not as infamous as the Dred Scott decision, is yet far more dangerous in its operation upon the lives and liberties of the loyal men of this country. That decision has taken away every protection in everyone of these rebel States from every loyal man, black or white, who resides there. That decision has unsheathed the dagger of the assassin and places the knife of the rebel at the throat of every man who dares proclaim himself to be now, or to have been heretofore, a loyal Union man. If the doctrine enunciated in that decision be true, never were the people of any country anywhere, or at any time, in such terrible peril as are our loyal brethren at the South, whether they be black or white, whether they go there from the North or are natives of the rebel States.

Now, Mr. Speaker, unless Congress proceeds at once to do something to protect these people from the barbarians who are now daily murdering them; who are murdering the loyal whites daily and daily putting into secret graves not only hundreds but thousands of the colored people of that country; unless Congress proceeds at once to adopt some means for their protection, I ask you and every man who loves liberty whether we will not be liable to the just censure of the world for our negligence or our cowardice or our want of ability to do so?

Now, sir, it is for these reasons that I insist on the passage of some such measure as this. This is a bill designed to enable loyal men, so far as I could discriminate them in these States, to form governments which shall be in loyal hands, that they may protect themselves from such outrages as I have mentioned. In States that have never been restored since the rebellion from a state of conquest, and which are this day held in captivity under the laws of war, the military authorities, under this decision and its extension into disloyal States, dare not order the commanders of departments to enforce the laws of the country. One of the most atrocious murderers that has ever been let loose upon any community has lately been liberated under this very decision, because the Government extended it, perhaps according to the proper construction, to the conquered States as well as to the loyal States.

A gentleman from Richmond, who had personal knowledge of the facts, told me the circumstances of the murder. A colored man, driving the family of his employer, drove his wagon against a wagon containing Watson and his family. The wagon of Watson was broken. The next day Watson went to the employer of the colored man and complained. The employer offered to pay Watson every dollar that he might assess for the damage that had been done. "No” said he , "I claim the right to chastise the scoundrel." He followed the colored man, took out his revolver, and deliberately shot him dead in the presence of that community. No civil authority would prosecute him; and, when taken into custody by the military authority, he is discharged by order of the President under this most injurious and iniquitous decision.

Now, sir, if that decision be the law, then it becomes the more necessary that we should proceed to take care that such a construction as that shall not open the door to greater injuries than have already been sustained. Thus much I have said at the outset of my remarks, which shall not be very long.

The people have once more nobly done their duty. May I ask, without offense, will Congress have the courage to do its duty? Or will it be deterred by the clamor of ignorance, bigotry, and despotism from perfecting a revolution begun without their consent, but which ought not to be ended without their full participation and concurrence? Possibly the people would not have inaugurated this revolution to correct the palpable incongruities and despotic provisions of the Constitution; but having it forced upon them, will they be so unwise as to suffer it to subside without erecting this nation into a perfect Republic?

Since the surrender of the armies of the confederate States of America a little has been done toward establishing this Government upon the true principles of liberty and justice; and but a little if we stop here. We have broken the material shackles of four million slaves. We have unchained them from the stake so as to allow them locomotion, provided they do not walk in paths which are trod by white men. We have allowed them the unwonted privilege of attending church, if they can do so without offending the sight of their former masters. We have even given them that highest and most agreeable evidence of liberty as defined by the "great plebeian" the "right to work." But in what have we enlarged their liberty of thought? In what have we taught them the science and granted them the privilege of self-government? We have imposed upon them the privilege of fighting our battles, of dying in defense of freedom, and of bearing their equal portion of taxes; but where have we given them the privilege of ever participating in the formation of the laws for the government of their native land? By what civil weapon have we enabled them to defend themselves against oppression and injustice? Call you this liberty? Call you this a free Republic where four millions are subjects but not citizens? Then Persia, with her kings and satraps, was free; then Turkey is free! Their subjects had liberty of motion and of labor, but the laws were made without and against their will; but I must declare that, in my judgment, they were as really free governments as ours is to-day. I know they had fewer rulers and more subjects, but those rulers were no more despotic than ours, and their subjects had just as large privileges in governing the country as ours have. Think not I would slander my native land; I would reform it. Twenty years ago I denounced it as a despotism. Then, twenty million white men enchained four million black men. I pronounce it no nearer to a true Republic now when twenty-five million of a privileged class exclude five million from all participation in the rights of government.

The freedom of a Government does not depend upon the quality of its laws, but upon the power that has the right to enact them. During the dictatorship of Pericles his laws were just, but Greece was not free. During the last century Russia has been blessed with most remarkable emperors, who have generally decreed wise and just laws, but Russia is not free.

No Government can be free that does not allow all its citizens to participate in the formation and execution of her laws. There are degrees of tyranny. But every other government is a despotism. It has always been observed that the larger the number of the rulers the more cruel the treatment of the subject races. It were better for the black man if he were governed by one king than by twenty million.

What are the great questions which now divide the nation? In the midst of the political Babel which has been produced by the intermingling of secessionists, rebels, pardoned traitors, hissing Copperheads, and apostate Republicans, such a confusion of tongues is heard that it is difficult to understand either the questions that are asked or the answers that are given. Ask, what is the "President's policy?" and it is difficult to define it. Ask, what is the "policy of Congress?" and the answer is not always at hand.

A few moments may be profitably spent in seeking the meaning of each of these terms. Nearly six years ago a bloody war arose between different sections of the United States. Eleven States, possessing a very large extent of territory, and ten or twelve million people, aimed to sever their connection with the Union, and to form an independent empire, founded on the avowed principle of human slavery and excluding every free State from this confederacy. They did not claim to raise an insurrection to reform the Government of the country -a rebellion against the laws-but they asserted their entire independence of that Government and of all obligations to its laws. They were satisfied that the United States should maintain its old Constitution and laws. They formed an entirely new constitution; a new and distinct government, called the "confederate States of America." They passed their own laws, without regard to any former national connection. Their government became perfectly organized, both in its civil and military departments. Within the broad limits of those eleven States the "confederate States" had as perfect and absolute control as the United States had over the other twenty-five. The" confederate States" refused to negotiate with the United States, except upon the basis of independence of perfect national equality. The two powers mutually prepared to settle the question by arms. They each raised more than half a million armed men. The war was acknowledged by other nations as a public war between independent belligerents. The parties acknowledged each other as such, and claimed to be governed by the law of nations and the laws of war in their treatment of each other. On the result of the war depended the fate and ulterior condition of the contending parties. No one then pretended that the eleven States had any rights under the Constitution of the United States, or any right to interfere in the legislation of the country. Whether they should ever have all men of both sections, without exception, agreed would depend on the will of Congress, if the United States were victorious. The confederate States claimed no rights unless they could conquer them by the contest of arms.

President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and both branches of Congress repeatedly declared that the belligerent States could never again intermeddle with the affairs of the Union, or claim any right as members of the United States Government until the legislative power of the Government should declare them entitled thereto. Of course the rebels claimed no such rights; for whether their States were out of the Union as they declared, or were disorganized and "out of their proper relations" to the Government, as some subtle metaphysicians contend, their rights under the Constitution had all been renounced and abjured under oath, and could not be resumed on their own mere motion. How far their liabilities remained there was more difference of opinion.

The Federal arms triumphed. The confederate armies and government surrendered unconditionally. The law of nations then fixed their condition. They were subject to the controlling power of the conquerors. No former laws, no former compacts or treaties existed to bind the belligerents. They had all been melted and consumed in the fierce fires of the terrible war. The United States, according to the usage of nations, appointed military provisional governors to regulate their municipal institutions until the law-making power of the conqueror should fix their condition and the law by which they should be permanently governed. True, some of those governors were illegally appointed, being civilians. No one then supposed that those States had any governments, except such as they had formed under their rebel organization. No sane man believed that they had any organic or municipal laws which the United States were bound to respect. Whoever had then asserted that those States had remained unfractured, and entitled to all the rights and privileges which they enjoyed before the rebellion, and were on a level with their loyal conquerors, would have been deemed a fool, and would have been found insane by any inquisition "de lunatico inquirendo."

In monarchical Governments, where the sovereign power rests in the Crown, the king would have fixed the condition of the conquered provinces. He might have extended the laws of his empire over them, allowed them to retain portions of their old institutions, or, by conditions of peace, have fixed upon them new and exceptional laws.

In this country the whole sovereignty rests with the people, and is exercised through their Representatives in Congress assembled. The legislative power is the sole guardian of that sovereignty. No other branch of the Government, no other Department, no other officer of the Government, possesses one single particle of the sovereignty of the nation. No Government official, from the President and Chief Justice down, can do anyone act which is not prescribed and directed by the legislative power. Suppose the Government were now to be organized for the first time under the Constitution, and the President had been elected and the judiciary appointed: what could either do until Congress passed laws to regulate their proceedings?

What power would the President have over anyone subject of government until Congress had legislated on that subject? No State could order the election of members until Congress had ordered a census and made an apportionment. Any exception to this rule has been a work of grace in Congress by passing healing acts. The President could not even create bureaus or Departments to facilitate his executive operations. He must ask leave of Congress. Since, then, the President cannot enact, alter, or modify a single law; cannot even create a petty office within his own sphere of duties; if, in short, he is the mere servant of the people, who issue their commands to him through Congress, whence does he derive the constitutional power to create new States; to remodel old ones; to dictate organic laws; to fix the qualification of voters; to declare that States are republican and entitled to command Congress to admit their Representatives?

To my mind it is either the most ignorant and shallow mistake of his duties, or the most brazen and impudent usurpation of power. It is claimed for him by some as the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy. How absurd that a mere executive officer should claim creative powers! Though Commander- in-Chief by the Constitution, he would have nothing to command, either by land or water, until Congress raised both Army and Navy. Congress also prescribes the rules and regulations to govern the Army. Even that is not left to the Commander-in-Chief.

Though the President is Commander-in-Chief, Congress is his commander; and, God willing, he shall obey. He and his minions shall learn that this is not a Government of kings and satraps, but a Government of the people, and that Congress is the people. There is not one word in the Constitution that gives one particle of anything but judicial and executive power to any other department of Government but Congress. The veto power is no exception; it is merely a power to compel a reconsideration. What can be plainer? "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States. Such shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives."Constitution United States, art.I, sec. I.

To reconstruct the nation, to admit new States, to guaranty republican governments to old States are all legislative acts. The President claims the right to exercise them. Congress denies it and asserts the right to belong to the legislative branch. They have determined to defend these rights against all usurpers. They have determined that while in their keeping the Constitution shall not be violated with impunity. This I take to be the great question between the President and Congress. He claims the right to reconstruct by his own power. Congress denies him all power in the matter, except those of advice, and has determined to maintain such denial. "My policy" asserts full power in the Executive. The policy of Congress forbids him to exercise any power therein.

Beyond this I do not agree that the "policy" of the parties are defined. To be sure many subordinate items of the policy of each may be easily sketched. The President is for exonerating the conquered rebels from all the expense and damages of the war, and for compelling the loyal citizens to pay the whole debt caused by the rebellion. He insists that those of our people who were plundered and their property burned or destroyed by rebel raiders shall not be indemnified, but shall bear their own loss, while the rebels shall retain their own property, most of which was declared forfeited by the Congress of the United States. He desires that the traitors (having sternly executed that most important leader, Rickety Weirze,7 as a high example) should be exempt from further fine, imprisonment, forfeiture, exile, or capital punishment, and be declared entitled to all the rights of loyal citizens. He desires that the States created by him shall be acknowledged as valid States, while at the same time he inconsistently declares that the old rebel States are in full existence, and always have been, and have equal rights with the loyal States. He opposes the amendment to the Constitution, which changes the base of representation, and desires the old slave States to have the benefit of their increase of freemen without increasing the number of votes; in short, he desires to make the vote of one rebel in South Carolina equal to the vote of three freemen in Pennsylvania or New York. He is determined to force a solid rebel delegation into Congress from the South, and, together with Northern Copperheads, could at once control Congress and elect all future Presidents.

In opposition to these things, a portion of Congress seems to desire that the conquered belligerent shall, according to the law of nations, pay at least a part of the expenses and damages of the war; and that especially the loyal people who were plundered and impoverished by rebel raiders shall be fully indemnified. A majority of Congress desires that treason shall be made odious, not by bloody executions, but by other adequate punishments.

Congress refuses to treat the States created by him as of any validity, and denies that the old rebel States have any existence which gives them any rights under the Constitution. Congress insists on changing the basis of representation so as to put white voters on an equality in both sections, and that such change shall precede the admission of any State. I deny that there is any understanding, expressed or implied, that upon the adoption of the amendment by any State, that such State may be admitted, (before the amendment becomes part of the Constitution.? Such a course would soon surrender the Government into the hands of rebels. Such a course would be senseless, inconsistent, and illogical. Congress denies that any State lately in rebellion has any government or constitution known to the Constitution of the United States , or which can be recognized as part of the Union. How, then, can such a State adopt the amendment? To allow it would be yielding the whole question and admitting the unimpaired rights of the seceded States. I know of no Republican who does not ridicule what Mr. Seward thought a cunning movement, in counting Virginia and other outlawed States among those which had adopted the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.

It is to be regretted that inconsiderate and incautious Republicans should ever have supposed that the slight amendments already proposed to the Constitution, even when incorporated into that instrument, would satisfy the reforms necessary for the security of the Government. Unless the rebel States, before admission, should be made republican in spirit, and placed under the guardianship of loyal men, all. our blood and treasure will have been spent in vain. I waive now the question of punishment which, if we are wise, will still be inflicted by moderate confiscations, both as a reproof and example. Having these States, as we all agree, entirely within the power of Congress, it is our duty to take care that no injustice shall remain in their organic laws. Holding them "like clay in the hands of the potter," we must see that no vessel is made for destruction. Having now no governments, they must have enabling acts. The law of last session with regard to Territories settled the principles of such acts. Impartial suffrage, both in electing the delegates and ratifying their proceedings, is now the fixed rule. There is more reason why colored voters should be admitted in the rebel States than in the Territories. In the States they form the great mass of the loyal men. Possibly with their aid loyal governments may be established in most of those States. Without it all are sure to be ruled by traitors; and loyal men, black and white, will be oppressed, exiled, or murdered. There are several good reasons for the passage of this bill. In the first place, it is just. I am now confining my arguments to negro suffrage in the rebel States. Have not loyal blacks quite as good a right to choose rulers and make laws as rebel whites? In the second place, it is a necessity in order to protect the loyal white men in the seceded States. The white Union men are in a great minority in each of those States. With them the blacks would act in a body; and it is believed that in each of said States, except one, the two united would form a majority, control the States, and protect themselves. Now they are the victims of daily murder. They must suffer constant persecution or be exiled. The convention of southern loyalists, lately held in  Philadelphia, almost unanimously agreed to such a bill as an absolute necessity.

Another good reason is, it would insure the ascendancy of the Union party. Do you avow the party purpose? exclaims some horror-stricken demagogue. I do. For I believe, on my conscience, that on the continued ascendancy of that party depends the safety of this great nation. If impartial suffrage is excluded in the rebel States then everyone of them is sure to send a solid rebel representative delegation to Congress, and cast a solid rebel electoral vote. They, with their kindred Copperheads of the North, would always elect the President and control Congress. While slavery sat upon her defiant throne, and insulted and intimidated the trembling North, the South frequently divided on questions of policy between Whigs and Democrats, and gave victory alternately to the sections. Now, you must divide them between loyalists, without regard to color, and disloyalists, or you will be the perpetual vassals of the free trade, irritated, revengeful South. For these, among other reasons, I am for negro suffrage in every rebel State. If it be just, it should not be denied; if it be necessary, it should be adopted; if it be a punishment to traitors, they deserve it.

But it will be said, as it has been said, "This is negro equality!" What is negro equality, about which so much is said by knaves, and some of which is believed by men who are not fools? It means, as understood by honest Republicans, just this much, and no more: every man, no matter what his race or color; every earthly being who has an immortal soul, has an equal right to justice, honesty, and fair play with every other man; and the law should secure him these rights. The same law which condemns or acquits an African should condemn or acquit a white man. The same law which gives a verdict in a White man's favor should give a verdict in a black man's favor on the same state of facts. Such is the law of God and such ought to be the law of man. This doctrine does not mean that a negro shall sit on the same seat or eat at the same table with a white man. That is a matter of taste which every man must decide for himself. The law has nothing to do with it. If there be any who are afraid of the rivalry of the black man in office or in business, I have only to advise them to try and beat their competitor in knowledge and business capacity, and there is no danger that his white neighbors will prefer his African rival to himself. I know there is between those who are influenced by this cry of "negro equality" and the opinion that there is still danger that the negro will be the smartest, for I never saw even a contraband slave that had not more sense than such men.

There are those who admit the justice and ultimate utility of granting impartial suffrage to all men, but they think it is impolitic. An ancient philosopher, whose antagonist admitted that what he required was just but deemed it impolitic, asked him: "Do you believe in Hades?" I would say to those above referred to, who admit the justice of human equality before the law but doubt its policy: "Do you believe in heIl?"

How do you answer the principle inscribed in Our political scripture, "That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed?" 13 Without such consent government is a tyranny, and you exercising it are tyrants. Of course, this does not admit malefactors to power, or there would soon be no penal laws and society would become an anarchy. But this step forward is an assault upon ignorance and prejudice, and timid men shrink from it. Are such men fit to sit in the places of statesmen?

There are periods in the history of nations when statesmen can make themselves names for posterity; but such occasions are never improved by cowards. In the acquisition of true fame courage is just as necessary in the civilian as in the military hero. In the Reformation there were men engaged as able and perhaps more learned than Martin Luther. Melancthon and others were ripe scholars and sincere reformers, but none of them had his courage. He alone was willing to go where duty called though" devils were as thick as the tiles on the houses." And Luther is the great luminary of the Reformation, around whom the others revolve as satellites and shine by his light. We may not aspire to fame. But great events fix the eye of history on small objects and magnify their meanness. Let us at least escape that condition.


Beverly Wilson Palmer and Holly Byers Ochoa, eds., The Selected Papers of Thaddeus Stevens, Vol. 2 April 1865-August 1868 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998).
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