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On Reconstruction and the Fourteeth Amendment
Delivered June 13, 1866 in Congress

 

    Mr. Stevens. Mr. Speaker, I do not intend to detain the House long. A few words will suffice.

    We, may, perhaps, congratulate the House and the country on the near approach to completion of a proposition to be submitted to the people for the admission of an outlawed community into the privileges and advantages of a civilized and free Government.

    When I say that we should rejoice at such completion. I do not thereby intend so much to express joy at a superior excellence of the scheme, as that there is to be a scheme – a scheme containing much positive good, as well, I am bound to admit, as the omission of many better things.

    In my youth, in my manhood, in my old age, I had fondly dreamed that when any fortunate chance should have broken up for a while the foundations of our institutions, and released us from obligations the most tyrannical that ever man imposed in the name of freedom, that the intelligent, pure, and just men of the Republic, true to their professions and their consciences, would have freed them from every vestige of human oppression, of inequality of rights, of the recognized degradation of the poor, and the superior caste of the rich. In short, that no distinction would be tolerated in this purified Republic but what arose from merit and conduct. This bright dream has vanished “like the baseless fabric of a vision.” I find that we shall be obliged to be content with patching up the worst portions of the ancient edifice, and leaving it, in many of its parts, to be swept through by the tempests, the frosts, and the storms of despotism.

    Do you inquire why, holding these views and possessing some will of my own, I accept so imperfect a proposition? I answer, because I live among men and not among angels; among men as intelligent, as determined, and as independent as myself, who not agreeing with me, do not choose to yield their opinions to mine. Mutual concessions, therefore, is our only resort, or mutual hostilities.

    We might well have been justified in making renewed and more strenuous efforts for a better plan could we have had the cooperation of the Executive. With his cordial assistance the rebel States might have been made model republics, and this nation an empire of universal freedom. But he preferred “restoration” to “reconstruction.” He chooses that the slave States should remain as nearly as possible in their ancient condition, with such small modifications as he and his prime minister should suggest, without any impertinent interference from Congress. He anticipated the legitimate action of the national legislature, and by rank usurpation erected governments in the conquered provinces; imposed upon them institutions in the most arbitrary and unconstitutional manner; and now maintains them as legitimate governments, and insolently demands that they shall be represented in Congress on equal terms with loyal and regular States.

    To repress this tyranny and at the same time to do some justice to conquered rebels requires caution. The great danger is that the seceders may soon overwhelm the loyal men in Congress. The haste urged upon us by some loyal but impetuous men; their anxiety to embrace the representatives of the rebels; their ambition to display their dexterity in the use of the broad mantle of charity; and especially the danger arising from the unscrupulous use of patronage and the oily orations of false prophets, famous for sixty-day obligations and for protested political promises, admonish us to make no further delay.

    A few words will suffice to explain the changes made by the Senate in the proposition which we sent them.

    The first section is altered by defining who are citizens of the United States and of the States. This is an excellent amendment, long needed to settle conflicting decisions between the several States and the United States. It declares this great privilege to belong to every person born or naturalized in the United States.

    The second section has received but slight alteration. I wish it had received more. It contains much less power than I could wish; it has not half the vigor of the amendment that was lost in the Senate. It or the proposition offered by Senator Wade would have worked the enfranchisement of the colored man in half the time.

    The third section has been wholly changed by substituting the ineligibility of certain high offenders for the disenfranchisement of all rebels until 1870.

    This I cannot look upon as an improvement. It opens the elective franchise to such as the States choose to admit. In my judgment it endangers the Government of the country, both State and national; and may give the next Congress and President to the reconstructed rebels. With their enlarged basis of representation, and exclusion of the loyal men of color from the ballot-box, I see no hope of safety unless in the prescription of proper enabling acts, which shall do justice to the freedmen and enjoin enfranchisement as a condition-precedent.

    The fourth section, which renders inviolable the public debt and repudiates the rebel debt, will secure the approbation of all but traitors.

    The fifth section is unaltered.

    You perceive that while I see much good in the proposition I do not pretend to be satisfied with it. And yet I am anxious for its speedy adoption, for I dread delay. The danger is that before any constitutional guards have been adopted Congress will be flooded with rebels and rebel sympathizers. Whoever has mingled much in deliberative bodies must have observed the mental as well as physical nervousness of many members, impelling them too often to injudicious action. Whoever has watched the feelings of this House during the tedious months of this session, listened to the impatient whispering of some and the open declarations of others; especially when able and sincere men propose to gratify personal predilections by breaking the ranks of the Union forces and presenting to the enemy a ragged front of stragglers, must be anxious to hasten the result and prevent the demoralization of our friends. Hence, I say, let us no longer delay; take what we can get now, and hope for better things in further legislation; enabling acts or other provisions.

    I now, sir, ask for the question.

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