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“Abolition of Slavery,”
January 13, 1865, in Congress


    Mr. Stevens. I will detain the House but a few minutes. I see, upon looking at the Globe of yesterday, that my distinguished colleague on the Committee of Ways and Means from Ohio, (Mr. Pendleton,) if I understand his language aright – and he always speaks with “classic accuracy” – has exonerated those in arms in the rebel States from the responsibility of this bloody war and placed it upon the shoulders of the gentleman from Pennsylvania, (myself,) and those who act and think with him in this House.

     Sir, that is a grave charge, coming especially from a gentleman who seeks one of the highest places in this nation, and who may possibly receive a few votes for it; and it is therefore, I think, proper that my position, and the position of those who act with me, with regard to this question and our responsibility for the cause of this war, should be in a few summary words set forth in connection to this debate.

    Mr. Pendleton. I only desire that the gentleman shall quote the language I used in immediate connection with the interpretation which he is giving it.

     Mr. Stevens. The gentleman said –

     “Let him be careful, lest when the passions of these times be passed away, and the historian shall go back to discover where was the original infraction of the Constitution, he may find that sin lies at the door of others than the people now in arms.”

    This was addressed to the gentleman from Pennsylvania, (Mr. Stevens,) to the gentleman from Rhode Island, (Mr. Jenckes,) and others who have acted and thought with me. I infer from this, if I understand the “classical accuracy” of the gentleman, that he means that we, and not they, were the cause of this war.

     Mr. Speaker, that charge, as I have stated, is a grave one, and if true ought to induce us, not only to feel great regret, but deep remorse for our conduct. What, then, up to the time of the breaking out of this rebellion, was the position of “the gentleman from Pennsylvania,” and those who act with him upon the subject of slavery, that caused this war? I beg but a few moments to state it. 

     From my earliest I was taught to read the Declaration of Independence and to revere its sublime principles. As I advanced in life and became somewhat enabled to consult the writings of the great men of antiquity, I found in all their works which have survived the ravages of time and come down to the present generation, one unanimous denunciation of tyranny and of slavery, and eulogy of liberty. Homer, Aeschylus the great Greek tragedian, Cicero, Hesiod, Virgil, Tacitus, and Sallust, in immortal language, all denounced slavery as a thing which took away half the man and degraded human beings, and sang peans in the noblest strains to the goddess of liberty. And my hatred of this infernal institution and my love of liberty were further inflamed as I saw the inspired teachings of Socrates and the divine inspirations of Jesus.

    Being fixed in these principles, immovably and immutably, I took my stand among my fellow-citizens, and on all occasions, whether in public or in private, in season and, if there could be such a time, out of season, I never hesitated to express those ideas and sentiments, and when I first went into public assemblies, forty years ago, I uttered this language. I have done it amid the pelting and hooting of mobs, but I never shrank from the responsibility of my language.

    When, thirty years ago, I entered the Legislature of the State which I now in part represent, I carried with me the same feeling and the same determination; for this feeling grew with my growth and strengthened with my strength, but I thank God it has not decayed with enfeebling age.

    Carrying into that body these same feelings, I there expressed them, and at one time found a unanimous Democratic party to respond to them in the strongest resolution that I could draw. The noble Governor, the first that our party elected in those times, Governor Ritner, who is now spending an honored old age in retirement, in the first message that has come since 1780 on that subject, denounced the dark spirit of slavery.

    When, fifteen years ago, I was honored with a seat in this body, it was dangerous to talk against this institution, a danger which gentlemen now here will never be able to appreciate. Some of us, however, have experienced it; my friend from Illinois on my right (Mr. Washburne) has. And yet, sir, I did not hesitate, in the midst of bowie knives and revolvers and howling demons upon the other side of the House, to stand here and denounce this infamous institution in language which possibly now, on looking at it, I might deem intemperate, but which I then deemed necessary to rouse public attention and cast odium upon the worst institution upon earth, one which is a disgrace to man and would be an annoyance to the infernal spirits.

    Mr. Speaker, while I thus denounced it and uttered my sentiments in favor of universal freedom everywhere, I found in the Constitution of my country what I construed, whatever others may think, as a prohibition from touching slavery where it existed; and though all my course I recognized and bowed to a provision in that Constitution which I always regarded as its only blot; and I challenge the scrutiny of my respected colleague on the Committee of Ways and Means, or any other gentleman, through all the records of utterances in this House, to find a single motion or one single word which claimed on our part to touch slavery in the States where it existed. We admitted that it was there, protected by that instrument. We claimed that in the Territories we had full power over it, and in the District of Columbia, and I, with those who acted with me, could not hesitate as to what our duty required in excluding it from the free soil of the country and confining it to the spots it already polluted. I claimed the right to abolish it in the District of Columbia, as Congress was the only Legislature on earth that could touch it here. I heard the great man of the West once say that it was a sin and a shame to believe that there was no power on earth that could abolish it over every inch of ground in the world. But, sir, I did not claim early to act upon it here, but I rather proposed to let it rest until a more propitious moment should arrive before we acted upon it.

    Such, sir, was my position, and the position of the party with which I acted in this Hall – not disturbing slavery where the Constitution protected it, but abolishing it wherever we had the constitutional power, and prohibiting its further extension. I claimed the right then, as I claim the right now, to denounce it everywhere, even in foreign lands, so that if such language could anywhere affect public sentiment it might do so. I claimed the right then, as I claim the right now, to hedge it into the smallest space; but no man with whom I acted ever proposed to violate the Constitution for the purpose of touching slavery.

    So much on that point. One other word, not directly on that. The gentleman from Ohio, (Mr. Pendleton) says that I go on the maxim that “what is broken in one thing is broken in all,” and that hence, if there was one infraction of the Constitution it was dissolved. That is the coinage of the gentleman’s own fertile brain. I never uttered such a sentiment not held it. The Constitution may be violated in many parts, and remain intact in all others. The gentleman had, perhaps naturally enough, confounded what I had said with what he finds in a sacred book, where it is said that a violation of the least of the commandments is a violation of all. It was not I that said it, but another much greater.

    Ingenious gentlemen argue, and many honest men will delude their consciences in voting, in favor of still sustaining the institution on the ground that the Constitution does not allow an amendment on this point. They go on the ground that the subject of slavery has not been entrusted to us by the States, and therefore it is reserved. Now, as the Constitution now stands, that is true. But we are not now inquiring whether we have jurisdiction over slavery. We are inquiring whether the States have granted us the power of amendment. That is the subject – not the subject of slavery, not the subject of religion, not the subject of anything else – but, have the States yielded to Congress the right to amend? If they have, then the whole question is answered. Not only have they granted that power, but wherever they intended to exempt anything from the power of amendment, that have said so. My learned friend knows that when a statute exempts certain things, everything else is meant by it. Wil the Clerk read the clause of the Constitution?

    The Clerk read, as follows:

    “The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year 1808 shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.”

    Mr. Stevens. No lawyer who wishes to understand it can deny that, with the exceptions contained in that proviso, the power to amend the Constitution is unlimited. There is no subject on earth relating to Government that you cannot touch. Nowhere in the original instrument did the States grant the right of legislating on the subject of religion; and yet the very first amendment that was made under this power refers to the subject of religion and the freedom of speech, showing the fallacy of the argument of those who say that you can amend only the subjects granted to Congress.

    Perhaps I ought not to occupy so much time, and I will only say one word further. So far as the appeals of the learned gentleman (Mr. Pendleton) are concerned, in his pathetic winding up, I will be willing to take my chance, when we all molder in the dust. He may have his epitaph written, if it be truly written, “Here rests the ablest and most pertinacious defender of slavery and opponent of liberty;” and I will be satisfied if my epitaph written thus: “Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.”

    I shall be content, with such a eulogy on his lofty tomb and such an inscription on my humble grave, to trust our memories to the judgment of after ages.

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