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On the Fourteenth Amendment and Reconstruction
Speech of Representative Thaddeus Stevens, in Congress, May 8, 1866

Page One

    Mr. STEVENS. The short time allowed by our resolution will suffice to introduce this debate. If unexpectedly there should be any objection to the proposed amendment to the Constitution I may ask the indulgence of the House to reply.  

   The committee are not ignorant of the fact that there has been some impatience at the delay in making this report; that it existed to some extent in the country as well as among a few members of the House. It originated in the suggestions of faction, no doubt, but naturally spread until it infected some good men. This is not to be wondered at or complained of. Very few could be informed of the necessity of such delay. Besides, we are not all endowed with patience; some men are naturally restive, especially if they have active minds and deep convictions.

    But I beg gentlemen to consider the magnitude of the task which was imposed upon the committee. They were expected to suggest a plan for rebuilding a shattered nation --a nation which though not dissevered was yet shaken and riven by the gigantic and persistent efforts of six million able and ardent men; of bitter rebels striving through four years of bloody war. It cannot be denied that this terrible struggle sprang from the vicious principles incorporated into the institutions of our country. Our fathers had been compelled to postpone the principles of their great Declaration, and wait for their full establishment till a more propitious time. That time ought to be present now. But the public mind has been educated in error for a century. How difficult in a day to unlearn it. In rebuilding, it is necessary to clear away the rotten and defective portions of the old foundations, and to sink deep and found the repaired edifice upon the firm foundation of eternal justice. If, perchance, the accumulated quicksands render it impossible to reach in every part so firm a basis, the it becomes out duty to drive deep and solid the substituted piles on which to build. It would not be wise to prevent the raising of the structure because some corner of it might be founded upon materials subject to the inevitable laws of mortal decay. It were better to shelter the household and trust to the advancing progess of a higher morality and a purer and more intelligent principle to underpin the defective corner.

    I would not for a moment inculcate the idea of surrendering a principle vital to justice. But if full justice could not be obtained at once I would not refuse to do what is possible. The commander of an army who should find his enemy entrenched on impregnable heights would act unwisely if he insisted on marching his troops full in the face of a destructive fire merely to show his courage.  Would it not be better to flank the works and march round and round and besiege, and thus secure the surrender of the enemy, though it might cost time?  The former course would show valor and folly; the latter moral and physical courage, as well as prudence and wisdom.

    This proposition is not all that the committee desired. It falls far short of my wishes, but it fulfills my hopes. I believe it is all that can be obtained in the present state of public opinion. Not only Congress but the several States are to be consulted. Upon a careful survey of the whole ground, we did not believe that nineteen of the loyal States could be induced to ratify any proposition more stringent than this. I say nineteen, for I utterly repudiate and scorn the idea that any State not acting in the Union is to be counted on the question of ratification. It is absurd to suppose that any more than three fourths of the States that propose the amendment are required to make it valid; that States not here are to be counted as present. Believing, then, that this is the best proposition that can be made effectual, I accept it. I shall not be driven by clamor or denunciation to throw away a great good because it is not perfect. I will take all I can get in the cause of humanity and leave it to be perfected by better men in better times. It may be that that time will not come while I am here to enjoy the glorious triumph; but that it will come is as certain as that there is a just God.

    The House should remember the great labor which the committee had to perform. They were charged to inquire into the condition of eleven States of great extent of territory. They sought, often in vain, to procure their organic laws and statutes. They took the evidence of every class and condition of witness, from the rebel vice president and the commander-in-chief of their armies down to the humblest freedman. The sub-committees who were charged with that duty -- of whom I was not one, and can therefore speak freely --exhibited a degree of patience and diligence which was never excelled. Considering their other duties, the mass of evidence taken may well be considered extraordinary. It must be remembered, also, that three months since, and more, the committee reported and the House adopted a proposed amendment fixing the basis of representation in such a way as would surely have secured the enfranchisement of every citizen at no distant period. That, together with the amendment repudiating the rebel debt, which we also passed, would have gone far to curb the rebellious spirit of secession, and to have given to the oppressed race their rights. It went to the other end of the Capitol, and was there mortally wounded in the house of its friends.

    After having received the careful examination and approbation of the committee, and having received the united Republican vote of one hundred and twenty Representatives of the people, it was denounced as "utterly reprehensible" and "unpardonable;" "to be encountered as a public enemy;" positively endangering the peace of the country and covering its name in dishonor." "A wickedness on a larger scale than the crime against Kansas or the fugitive slave law; gross, foul, outrageous; an incredible injustice against the whole African race;" with every other vulgar epithet which polished cultivation could command.  It was slaughtered by a puerile and pedantic criticism, by a perversion of philological definition which, if when I taught school a lad who had studied Lindley Murray had assumed, I would have expelled him from the institution as unfit to waste education upon. But it is dead, and unless this (less efficient, I admit) shall pass, its death has postponed the protection of the colored race perhaps for ages. I confess my mortification at its defeat. I grieved especially because it almost closed the door of hope for the amelioration of the condition of the freedmen. But men in pursuit of justice must never despair. Let us again try and see whether we cannot devise some way to overcome the united forces of self-righteous Republicans and unrighteous copperheads. It will not do for those who for thirty years have fought the beasts at Ephesus to be frightened by the fangs of the modern catamounts.

   Let us now refer to the provisions of the proposed amendment.

   The first section prohibits the States from abridging the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, or unlawfully depriving them of life, liberty, or property, or denying to any person within their jurisdiction the "equal" protection of the laws.

    I can hardly believe that any person can be found who will not admit that every one of these provisions is just. They are all asserted, in some form or other, in our DECLARATION or organic law. But the Constitution limits only the action of Congress, and is not a limitation on the States. This amendment supplies that defect, and allows Congress to correct the unjust legislation of the States, so far that the law which operated upon one man shall operate equally upon all. Whatever law punishes a white man for a crime shall punish the black man precisely in the same way and to the same degree. Whatever law protects the white man shall afford "equal" protection to the black man. Whatever means of redress is afforded to one shall be afforded to all. Whatever law allows the white man to testify in court shall allow the man of color to do the same. 

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