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  On Emancipation and Confiscation
Speech of Representative Thaddeus Stevens,
in Congress,  August 2, 1861


 

    Mr. Stevens.  There have been so many speeches all on the same side, I trust the gentleman will withdraw the demand to permit something to be said in favor of the bill {1}

   Mr. Diven. I will withdraw it if the gentleman will renew it.

   {1} The House was considering S. 25, a confiscation bill. The bill would permit the Federal Government to seize any property used in furthering the rebellion.

 

   Mr. Stevens. I will. I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, the debate has opened upon this bill, for I wanted to do some business today; but, as the talk has been so far pretty much all upon one side, I wish to say a single word upon the other. We are told that because the Constitution does not allow us to confiscate a certain species of property, therefore we cannot liberate slaves. Mr. Speaker, I thought the time had come when the laws of war were to govern our action; when constitutions, if they stood in the way of the laws of war in dealing with our enemy, had no right to intervene. Who pleads the Constitution against our proposed action? Who says the Constitution must come in, in bar of our action?  It is the advocates of the rebels, who have sought to overthrow the Constitution and trample it in the dust; who repudiate the Constitution. Sir, these rebels, who have disregarded and set at defiance that instrument, are, by every rule of municipal and international law, estopped from pleading it against our action.

    Who, then, is it that comes to us and says, "you cannot do this thing, because your Constitution does not permit it?" The Constitution! Our Constitution, which you repudiate and trample under foot, forbids it! Sir, it is an absurdity. There must be a party in court to plead it and that party, to be entitled to plead it in court, must first acknowledge its supremacy, or he has no business to be in court at all. I repeat, then, that those who bring in this plea here, in bar of our action, are the advocates of the rebels. They are nothing else, whatever they intend. I mean it, of course in a legal sense. I mean they are acting in the capacity of counselors-at-law for the rebels; they are speaking for them, and not for us -- who are the plaintiffs in this transaction.  I deny that they have any right to plead at all. I deny that they have any standing in court. I deny that they have any right to invoke this Constitution, which they deny has any authority over them, which they set at defiance and trample under foot. I deny that they can be permitted to come here and tell us we must be loyal to the Constitution.

    Mr. Logan. With the permission of the gentleman from Pennsylvania, I desire to ask him a question. I understand him to take the position that the rebels have no right to come here and set up the Constitution in bar of our action. Upon that I take no issue; but I wish to ask him to tell me how it is that members of Congress, who have come here and taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, can, in their action, violate it, whether rebels complain of it or not?

    Mr. Stevens. They do not violate it when they are operating against men who have no right to the benefits of the Constitution.

    Mr. Logan. What becomes of the oath to support the Constitution?

    Mr. Stevens. The law of nations is plain to those who have read it upon this point. The law established in the days of Cicero -- Inter arma silent leges -- is a law that has been in force down to the present time; and any nation which disregards that law is a poor, pusillanimous nation, which submits its neck to be struck off by the enemy.

    Mr. Mallory. I wish to make an inquiry of the distinguished gentleman from Pennsylvania, to see if I understand him. I understand him to admit that this bill is unconstitutional, but to place his defense for urging its passage upon the ground that during the existence of the rebellion, and while war continues in operation, this Congress has the right to do an unconstitutional act.

    Mr. Stevens. I say that it is constitutional and according to the law of nations in time of war {Laughter} I admit that if you were in a state of peace you could not confiscate the property of any citizen. You have no right to do it in time of peace, but in time of war you have the right to confiscate the property of every rebel.

    Mr. Diven. Will the gentleman allow me a moment?

    Mr. Stevens. The gentleman from New York has already spoken the greater part of an hour.

    Mr. Diven. I will not interrupt the gentleman again. I desire to ask him a single question. Will the laws of war be rendered any more rigorous in consequence of any civil act this legislative body may pass?

    Mr. Stevens. I say that the sovereign power must execute the law of nations. I deny the right of the Executive to carry into effect the law of nations in certain exigencies, unless the sovereign power gives him authority. The sovereign power of the nation can carry into execution, and ought to carry into execution, the laws of war.

    Now, Sir, what are the laws of war in contravention of municipal law? When a country is at open war with an enemy, every publicist agrees that you have the right to use every means which will weaken him.  Every measure which will enable you sooner to subdue him and triumph over him, is justifiable on your part. If by taking from him every dollar of property which he has on earth will weaken his hands, will strengthen your hands, you are a t liberty to fight him in that way instead of putting him to death. Vattel expressly alludes to a case such as we now have to deal with, and says we have a right to resort to these means. He further says that in time of war, if it be a just war, and there be people who have been oppressed by the enemy and that enemy be conquered, the victorious party cannot return the oppressed people to the bondage from which they have rescued them. I wish the gentleman from New York, especially, would read the remark of Vattel, that one of the most glorious consequences of victory is giving freedom to those who are oppressed. 

    Mr. Diven.  I agree to it.

    Mr. Stevens. You agree to it. Then how is it that if we are justified in taking property from the enemy in war, when you have rescued an oppressed people from the oppression of the enemy, by what principle of the law of nations, what principle of philanthropy, can you return them to the bondage from which you have delivered them, and rivet again the chains you have once broken? It is a disgrace to the party which advocates it. It is against the principle of the law of nations. It is against every principle of philanthropy. I, for one, shall never shrink form saying, when these slaves are once conquered by us, "Go and be free." God forbid that I should ever agree that they should be returned again to their masters! I do not say that this war is made for that purpose! Ask those who made the war what is its object. Do not ask us. I did not like the resolution of the distinguished gentleman from Kentucky, {Mr. Crittenden,} because it looked like an apology from us in saying what were the objects of the war, when we had no business to be asking questions. Ask those who made the war what is its object--a war, sir, which has been contemplated for thirty years, and which we are now  to apologize for, and to say we shall make it for certain purposes, when we do not make it at all. Our object is to subdue the rebels.

   But it is said that if we hold out this thing, they will never submit -- that we cannot conquer them -- that they will suffer themselves to be slaughtered, and their whole country to be laid waste. Sir, war is a grievous thing at best, and civil war more than any other; but if they hold this language, and the means which they have suggested must be resorted to, if their whole country must be laid waste, and made a desert, in order to save this Union from destruction, so let it be. I would rather, sir, reduce them to a condition where their whole country is to be repeopled by a band of freeman than to see them perpetuate the destruction of this people through our agency.  I do not say that it is time to resort to such means, and I do not know when the time will come; but I never fear to express my sentiments. It is not a question with me of policy, but a question of principle. If this war is continued long, and is bloody, I do not believe that the free people of the North will stand by and see their sons and brothers and neighbors slaughtered by thousands and tens of thousands by rebels, with arms in their hands, and forbear to call upon their enemies to be our friends, and to help us in subduing them; I for one, if it continues long, and has the consequences mentioned, shall be ready to go for it, let it horrify the gentleman from new York {Mr. Diven} or anybody else. That is my doctrine, and that will be the doctrine of the whole free people of the North before two years roll round, if this war continue

    As to the end of the war, until the rebels are subdued, no man in the North thinks of it. If the Government are equal to the people, and I believe they are, there will be no bargaining, there will be no negotiation, there will be no truces with the rebels, except to bury the dead, until every man shall have laid down his arms, disbanded his organization, submitted himself to the Government, and sued for mercy. And, sir, if those who have control of the Government are not fit for this task and have not the nerve and mind for it, the people will take care that there are others who are -- although, sir, I have not a bit of fear of the present Administration or the present Executive.

    I have spoken more freely, perhaps, than gentlemen within my hearing might think politic, but I have spoken just what I felt. I have spoken what I believe will be the result; and I warn southern gentlemen, that if this war is to continue, there will be a time when my friend from New York {Mr. Diven} will see it declared by this free nation, that every bondman in the South -- belonging to a rebel, recollect; I confine it to them -- shall be called upon to aid us in war against their masters, and to restore this Union. I demand the previous question.  


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