(1864) Arnold Bertonneau, “Every Man Should Stand Equal Before the Law”

Arnold Bertonneau, ca. 1880
Courtesy Thomas F. Bertonneau

Reconstruction began in Federally-occupied Louisiana in the midst of the Civil War. In 1863 African American men in New Orleans called for the right to vote in the new loyal government being organized under Union Army protection. However when President Lincoln announced his new reconstruction policy for Louisiana on December 8, 1863, he restricted the vote to white men. Black political leaders refused to accept the decision and on January 5, 1864 drew up a petition to extend the franchise to “all the citizens of Louisiana of African descent, born free before the rebellion.” The petition signed by more than one thousand men, was taken to Washington by Jean Baptiste Roudanez and E. Arnold Bertonneau (who had originally fought for the Confederacy).

Once in Washington, Roudanez and Bertonneau were persuaded by Charles Sumner and other Republicans to transform their petition to Congress into an appeal for universal suffrage, extending the franchise to freedpersons. They presented their revised petition to President Lincoln on March 12, and it was introduced in the Senate by Charles Sumner on March 15.

While Congress debated the merits of the proposal and ultimately rejected it, Roudanez and Bertonneau were invited by Republican leaders in Massachusetts to a dinner in their honor in Boston on April 12, 1864. After an introduction by Governor John A. Andrew, Arnold Bertonneau delivered a speech which reflected his changed attitude about universal suffrage and universal rights. The speech appears below.

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 seize 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 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.