About       Speeches Prior to 1850       Speeches 1850 to 1861      Civil War Era Speeches      Reconstruction Era Speeches      Articles
 
 

On Reconstruction
Speech of Representative Thaddeus Stevens,
in Lancaster, Pa., September 6, 1865


 

    This speech, given before an audience of his constituents in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was the first one elaborating the policy for dealing with the defeated South, what would become known as Reconstruction. 

 

  Fellow Citizens:
    In compliance with your request, I have come to give my views on the present condition of the Rebel States -- of the proper mode of reorganizing the Government, and the future prospects of the Republic. During the whole progress of the war, I never for a moment felt doubt or despondency. I knew that the loyal North would conquer the Rebel despots who sought to destroy freedom. But since that traitorous confederation has been subdued, and we have entered upon the work of "reconstruction" or "restoration," I cannot deny that my heart has become sad at the gloomy prospects before us.

    Four years of bloody and expensive war, waged against the United States by eleven States, under a government call the "Confederate States of America," to which they acknowledged allegiance, have overthrown all governments within those States which could be acknowledged as legitimate by the Union. The armies of the Confederate States having been conquered and subdued, and their territory possessed by the United States, it becomes necessary to establish governments therein, which shall be republican in form and principles, and form a more "perfect Union" with the parent Government. It is desirable that such a course should be pursued as to exclude from those governments every vestige of human bondage, and render the same forever impossible in this nation; and to take care that no principles of self-destruction shall be incorporated therein. In effecting this, it is to be hoped that no provision of the Constitution will be infringed, and no principle of the law of nations disregarded. Especially must we take care that in rebuking this unjust and treasonable warm, the authorities of the Union shall indulge in no acts of usurpation which may tend to impair the stability and permanency of the nation. Within these limitations, we hold it to be the duty of the Government to inflict condign punishment on the rebel belligerents, and so weaken their hands that they can never again endanger the Union; and so reform their municipal institutions as to make them republican in spirit as well as in name.

   We especially insist that the property of the chief rebels should be seized and appropriated to the payment of the National debt, caused by the unjust and wicked war which they instigated.

    How can such punishments be inflicted and such forfeitures produced without doing violence to established principles?

    Two positions have been suggested.

    First -- To treat those States as never having been out of the Union, because the Constitution forbids secession, and therefore, a fact forbidden by law could not exist.

    Second -- To accept the position to which they placed themselves as severed from the Union; an independent government de facto, and an alien enemy to be dealt with according to the laws of war.

    It seems to me that while we do not aver that the United States are bound to treat them as an alien enemy, yet they have a right to elect so to do if it be for the interests of the Nation; and that the "Confederate States" are estopped  from denying that position. South Carolina, the leader and embodiment of the rebellion, in the month of January, 1861, passed the following resolution by the unanimous vote of her legislature:

    "Resolves, That the separation of South Carolina from the Federal Union is final, and she has no further interests in the Constitution of the United States; and that the only appropriate negotiations between her and the Federal Government are as to their mutual relations as foreign States."

    The convention that formed the Government of the Confederate States, and all the eleven states that composed it, adopted the same declaration, and pledged their lives and fortunes to support it. That government raised large armies and by its formidable power compelled the nations of the civilized world as well as our own Government to acknowledge them as an independent belligerent, entitled to all the rights, and subject to all the liabilities of an alien enemy. We blockaded their ports, which is an undoubted belligerent right; the extent of coast blockaded marked the acknowledged extent of their territory  -- a territory criminally acquired but de facto theirs. We acknowledged their sea-rovers as privateers and not as pirates, by ordering their captive crews to be treated as prisoners of war. We acknowledged that a commission from the Confederate Government was sufficient to screen Semmes and his associates from the fate of lawless buccaneers. Who but an acknowledged government de jure or de facto, could have the power to issue such a commission? The invaders of the loyal States were not treated as out-laws, but as soldiers of war, because they were commanded by officers holding commissions from that Government. The Confederate States were for four years what they claimed to be, an alien enemy, in all their rights and liabilities.  To say that they were States under the protection of that constitution they were rending, and within the Union which they were assaulting with bloody defeats, simply because they became belligerents through crime, is making theory overrule fact to an absurd degree. It will, I suppose, at least be conceded that the United States, if not obliged so to do, have a right to treat them as an alien enemy now conquered, and subject to all the liabilities of a vanquished foe.

    If we are also at liberty to treat them as never having been out of the Union and that their declarations and acts were all void because they contravened the Constitution, and therefore they were never engaged in a public war, but were merely insurgents, let us inquire which position is best for the United States. If they have never been otherwise than States in the Union, and we desire to try certain of the leaders for treason, the Constitution requires that they should be indicted and tried "by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law." 

    The crime of treason can be committed only where the person is actually or potentially present. Jefferson Davis sitting in Richmond, counseling, or advising, or commanding an inroad into Pennsylvania, has committed no overt act in this State, and can be tried, if any where, only in Richmond District. The doctrine of constructive presence, and constructive treason, will never, I hope, pollute our statutes, or judicial decisions. Select an impartial jury from Virginia, and it is obvious that no conviction could ever be had. Possibly a jury might be packed to convict, but that would not be an "impartial" jury. It would be judicial murder, and would rank in infamy with the trial of Lord Russell, except only that the one was the murder of an innocent man, the other of a traitor. The same difficulties would exist in attempting forfeitures, which can only follow conviction in States protected by the Constitution; and then it is said only for the life of the malefactor --Congress can pass no "bill of attainder."

 

Continue to Page Two


Return To Speeches Index

 

 

 

 

    

webmaster@thaddeusstevens.info

This site was designed and is maintained by Fredric W. Henderson