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 On Republican Aims
Speech of Representative Thaddeus Stevens,
in Congress, January 25, 1860


    Mr. Stevens, of Pennsylvania. Will the gentleman from Tennessee yield to me? I do not like to impose on the gentlemanís good nature, but I understand that he intends to move for a vote for Speaker, and what I have to say will come before a vote, better than after it.
    Mr. Etheridge. I yield to the gentleman.

    Mr. Stevens, of Pennsylvania. Mr. Clerk, not being well, my voice will be feeble; but I can say what I want to say, without much trouble. We have heard various discussions and reasons given why this House is not organized, and we have heard reproaches cast upon the smaller parties in this House, because they have not gone over to a third party long ago and organized the House. Now, sir, there are four parties in this House. The Democratic Party -- which means, of course, the Democrats of the South; the others are mere parasites. {Laughter.}

[Vallandigham objects to Stevens' continuing with his speech, especially in language "untrue and offensive," because Mr. Etheridge has not yielded the floor "entirely." The clerk, James C. Allen, overrules him.]

    Mr. Stevens, of Pennsylvania. I have seen nothing in the conduct of the Clerk, since he has presided here, which seems to me to be partial or censurable, and I am happy to say it. I have felt that none of our friends are aggrieved, and I am sure no complaint ought to be made. I know the difficulty of his position, and he has maintained it with dignity and impartiality.
    With regard to proceeding in order, if I knew exactly what the gentleman from Ohio {Mr. Vallandigham} would consider in order, I would utter no other language than he desires. I cannot, in advance, anticipate precidely what would suit him; but inasmuch as the word parasite which I used, supposing they were rather proud of it, is offensive to the gentleman, I withdraw it, and simply use the word satellite - revolving, of course, around the larger body, as according to the laws of gravitation they must - and that is not offensive. {Laughter}

    Now, Mr. Clerk, I was going on to say that I had heard reproaches upon these smaller parties by the larger portion of that side of the House. What is the exact state of things, and what claims have the Administration Democratic party upon anybody but themselves in this organization? From the South there is a highly respectable body of gentlemen here, representing a large constituency, known as the southern Opposition. Had they the aid of a single Democrat in their election? Were they not elected in conflict with that organization and with that party? There is one principle, perhaps, in which they agree with them, while in all others, I venture to say, they differ from them. Is there but one principle in this Government which this Administration has to look to, and are all the other great interests of the Government to be overlooked by these twenty-three gentlemen and by the country at large, that they should throw into the gulf which the Administration has provided for them, the whole power of this Government? When such demands are made, they should remember that no Republicans opposed them, and that, with one single exception, Republican principles and their principles are almost homogeneous. With what face, then can those gentlemen be appealed to, not simply to stand by their own organization, but to go over to the other? Sir, I find no reason to reproach them for not voting for a Republican. I know that at home, such is the condition of things, that it would not be fair to ask that of them, and I do not ask it. But it would be doubly unfair for the party in hostility to which they were elected to expect their aid.

    Now, there is another party here hostile to the Administration. I do not call them a faction, as gentlemen upon the other side have done; I refer to the eight respectable gentlemen who did not agree to thrust slavery upon Kansas against her will. They were all elected in hostility to the Democratic Administration party; and, in the name of God, what mercenary motives could be expected to induce them to act in concert with that party? It would be a reproach to them, in my judgment, to suppose it possible; but it is for themselves to judge. Although many Republicans voted for them, I do not ask them to vote for a Republican, nor do I reproach them because they have not seen proper to do so.
    Now, sir, the Republican party and the South American party and the anti-Lecompton party, constitute nearly one hundred and fifty members in this House. They are opposed by a single party of ninety; and are all opposed to the ninety. Now, on what principle is it that the smaller portion is expected to go to a small party instead of coming to the larger one? These men, if they take either side, and if the principle of representation in this Government is to have any effect, must honestly take ours. If they shut their eyes and allow the mere laws of gravitation to operate, the small body will be attracted to the large, not the large to the small. There is no principle, therefore, on which they can be expected to come to us, no honest principle on which they can be blamed for not going with the Democrats.

    But any man can see well enough -- I think I saw long ago -- the reason why this House does not organize; and why it will not be organized, not withstanding all the suggestions made by gentlemen on the other side of this Chamber. I have learned, somewhere in the old books, that it is lawful to learn wisdom from the enemy; but I never heard any wise man suggest that it was wisdom to accept their counsel. I was going on to state the reasons why this House has not been long ago organized. The distinguished gentleman who occupies the executive chair at this moment [Buchanan], is a politician as well as a statesman. He has long believed, and, I doubt not, still believes, that the true way to aid the increase of the Democratic party north, is for the South to frighten them into the belief that if they venture to elect a northern man with northern principles, this Union is to be dissolved, and all their industrial and pecuniary interests sacrificed. I have just as firm a belief as that I live that this whole programme was drawn up at the White House; and is carried out in pursuance of the idea that the old women and the men in petticoats and the misers at the North are to be frightened. I think the effect will be somewhat different from what it was ten years ago. But the moment the Democratic party is sufficiently strengthened at the North, by this cry of disunion, and these epithets of traitor that have been launched against this side, a word from the White House will organize this House by the withdrawal of a few Democratic gentlemen. I would not be surprised if a few of the convenanters {laughter} were to do it.

    Then we will proceed to do what we should have done long ago --- provide for the wants of the country, instead of heaping abuse on the Representatives of freemen, and threatening the dissolution of the Union.

    Sir, we are told that, unless we yield, this House shall be disorganized till 1861, and discord shall reign perpetual. Now, I do not know whether our friends here will follow my views. We have fixed on an honorable and worthy standard bearer for our candidate [Sherman], and we shall stand by him if this House is were not organized till the crack of doom. {Some cries of "Good!" from the Republican benches.}
    If permitted, I would speak a few minutes further in connection with what has recently taken place. {Cries of "Go on!"} For many weeks past, while this floor has been occupied by an unorganized and disorganizing body of gentlemen, we have listened in silence to what, I think, may be fairly called the rantings of the South, filled with groundless accusations against the North, and threats of vengeance and dissolution of the Union.

    Sir, we listened without reply and without fear; for whatever effect they might once have had, some of us always, and all of us now, have come to regard them as idle menaces, as barren thunders. However little it may be necessary for the benefit of any of them here, it may possibly be considered due to their reading, thinking, reasoning constituencies before I take my seat, to give an answer, plain, temperate, and true, to all of these allegations, by stating, in the briefest possible manner, what I consider the principles of the Republican party I would have no man vote under false pretenses. In my judgment, Republicanism is founded in love of universal liberty, and in hostility to slavery and oppression throughout the world. Undoubtedly, had we the legal right and the physical power, we would abolish human servitude and overthrow despotism in every land that the sun visits in its diurnal course. But we claim no such high privilege or mission, That belongs to the Father of men, who will accomplish His good work in His own good way. We claim no right to interfere with the institutions of foreign nations, or with the institutions of the sister States of this Republic. We would wish that Russia would liberate her serfs, Austria her oppressed subjects, Turkey her minions, and the South her slaves. But the law of nations gives us no authority to redress foreign grievances; and the Constitution of the United States gives us no power to interfere with the institutions of our sister States. And we do deny now, as we have ever denied, that there is any desire or intention, on the part of the Republican party, to interfere with those institutions. It is a stern, an inflexible, a well-recognized principle of the Republican party, that every law must be obeyed till it is either repealed or becomes so intolerable as to justify rebellion.

      But sir, while we claim no power to interfere between foreign sovereignties and their subjects, there is no law to prevent our sympathizing with the oppressed of Italy, of Turkey, or with the crushed souls of America; and as we shall ever vindicate the liberty of speech, no earthly power shall prevent our giving utterance to such sentiments, and denouncing such wrongs whenever we deem it proper. Sir, while we claim no power to interfere with any institution in the States, yet where the law of no State operates, and where the responsibility of government is thrown on Congress, we do claim the power to regulate and the right to abolish slavery. No other power on earth exists that can do it, for there is no other legislative body; and it would be an intolerable shame and reproach upon this Republic if there was any spot within its wide expanse where no such power existed.
    Now, sir, the Territories, the District of Columbia, the navy-yards, and the arsenals have no legislative bodies but Congress, or those granted by Congress; and it is our purpose to provide in the exercise of our legislative duty, for preventing the extension of slavery into free soil under the jurisdiction of this General Government, or any extension of slavery upon this continent. I do not in this remark desire to shun the question. I do not bound this remark of exclusion by climate, or latitude, or soil. My hostility to slavery is of a higher character, I trust, than that. If it was not, there would be no kind of necessity for the existence of the Republican party at all. If I believed that slavery was right in itself, and it might be permitted in places where certain labor was or was not useful, I cannot see what principle the Republican party could stand upon. The whole ground is yielded, and this Republican party is a nuisance, and this agitation is a crime, in my judgment.

    Now, sir, we agree with Clay and Webster and the other fathers of our earlier day, that while we have the power to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, the time for its exercise is a question of expediency about which, I have no doubt, many men on this side of the House differ. I believe that most of us agree that that time has not yet arrived, nor do I see the period, for the present, when it will; but when, considering the surrounding circumstances, it can be safely and justly abolished, I believe it is the purpose of Republicanism to do so, with these qualifications which I have mentioned.

    Now, sir, so far as I understand the principles of the Republican party -- and I have spoken plainly and fairly -- these are briefly their principles; and let those who approve of them aid in their propagation -- not here, for we do not propose to propagate them here, but elsewhere. Let those who condemn these principles oppose us. For ourselves, we have resolved to stand by them until they shall become triumphant; and we shall cheerfully submit them to the judgment of our fellow-countrymen, to civilized nations of the earth, and to posterity. I thank the gentleman from Tennessee for his courtesy.

    Mr. GARNETT. Will the gentleman from Tennessee allow me to put a question to the gentleman from Pennsylvania?

    Mr. ETHERIDGE. I cannot refuse, of course.

    Mr. GARNETT. I understand the gentleman from Pennsylvania to say that he believes Congress has the power to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; but that he does not think, and that many of his party do not think, that the time has yet come when it will be expedient to exercise that power. Does the gentleman apply the same remark to the dock-yards, arsenals, and forts, and to the coastwise commerce of vessels transporting slaves from one State to another?
    Mr. STEVENS, of Pennsylvania. I can see no difference between the jurisdiction of the United States over the District of Columbia and the arsenals and dock yards; but I am not prepared to say the same thing of the coastwise trade.

    Mr. CLEMENS. I am sure the gentleman from Pennsylvania will answer me a question.

    Mr. STEVENS, of Pennsylvania. Undoubtedly.

    Mr. CLEMENS. The gentleman from Pennsylvania has, with a frankness and manliness which I admire, laid down the programme of the Republican party; but it occurs to me that he has not been sufficiently explicit on one or two points. I beg leave, therefore, to ask him respectfully, whether he is in favor of the fugitive slave law of the United States as it now exists? If not, then, whether he is in favor of its repeal or modification; and if in favor of a modification, to what extent? I ask him whether he is opposed to both the law of 1850 and that of 1793, and whether he believes that the power, existing as it does in the Constitution of the United States, depends for its exercise altogether upon the sovereignty of the various States?

    Mr. STEVENS, of Pennsylvania. I will answer the gentleman with pleasure, although it is not a cross-questioning upon anything which I had said. If the gentleman will refer to the record, he will find that when the vote was taken upon the passage of the fugitive slave law, I voted in the negative. Of course, therefore, I was opposed to the law.

    As to the repeal or modification of that law, I am in favor of it.

    As to the law of 1793, I thought that it was sufficient. I do not object to a fair law, giving to the South the opportunity and the means of reclaiming their slaves. I believe the present fugitive slave law -- that is my political opinion, although if I were arguing a case before a court I might not say it -- is unconstitutional; but so long as the decision of the Supreme Court remains, wherever I have any hand in it, I shall not resist its execution.

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