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Remarks on the Freedmen and Reparations ('Forty Acres and a Mule')
by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens delivered
in Congress, February 5, 1866


    Mr. Stevens. I am moved to strike out all that it says about three years, and about their possession being confirmed until a satisfactory arrangement between them and the former owners of the land. That is the first and most material amendment.

    The bill provides that lands shall be rented to them at a price which they brought as a rental before the war upon a valuation. What boon is that to a freedman? It also provides that they acquire title to the public lands of the Government at a price not less than their valuation. What advantage is that to them? There are no public lands in these States except the everglades which are referred to. I have provided in my amendment that they may acquire title to the public lands and the confiscated lands of the enemy, so as to give them an opportunity to settle upon both.

    I have also proposed to strike out the words "unless convicted of a crime," etc, in that clause. I know that men are convicted of assault and battery and sentenced to slavery down there. I have authentic evidence of that fact in several letters, and therefore I propose to strike out those words. (Stevens is here referring to provisions of the 'Black Codes' adopted by almost all the former slave States - editor's note)

    Now, sir, if I had time, I could show the House that these freedmen have a right under our laws to the confiscated lands to the amount of 40 acrheres each, on the lands where they are, assigned to them by the Government, under Order No. 11, that they should have them for homesteads.

    I would like also to have time to show how much land we have there. We have lands there to the extent of more than one hundred million acres, and of more than one hundred million dollars in value. And yet, notwithstanding this, the freedmen have been and are being driven from lands which have been ordered to be confiscated as enemy's property, and which are covered now with freedmen and villages, school-houses, and churches, which they have built. Why, sir, General Fisk told me that within the last four weeks he had been compelled reluctantly to return twenty-two million dollars' worth of property in his district, which had been confiscated and was in the possession of the United States Government.to the

    And I would also like to show, if I had time, that the Government has no such power. The pardoning power does not give it any such power. No power but the power of Congress can reach it, so that these lands can be returned to their former owners.

    I should like also to show that the freedmen on the Sea Islands, who have gone there upon the faith of these forty-acre grants, and have built for themselves comfortable houses and established communities there, have the right to retain those lands forever: and that it is a burning cruelty in us, by a provision of this kind, to allow them to be turned off in three years.

    I should like also to show, as I can show, that there are sixteen thousand freedmen on Peninsula between Fortress Monroe and Williamsburg, occupying lands seized by the Government, and which has become the property of the United States under are confiscation act -- taken not as the property of traitors, but as enemy's property, and confiscated as the property of belligerents, not to be be reached by any pardon on earth except the pardon of this Congress. Those sixteen thousand freedmen who are there in communities, who have built their houses, their churches, their school-houses, and who have over two hundred thousand dollars in savings banks, now receive notice to turn out, and reeking rebels are to be brought back and take their places, under the pretense that a pardon can restore to them lands which belonged to us and which we have given to these freedmen. God forbid that I should ever vote for such a bill as that.

    Why, sir, as my friend from Iowa {Mr. Grinnell} said, when the wise man the Emperor of Russia set twenty-two million serfs, he compelled their masters to give them homesteads upon the very soil which they had tilled; homesteads not at full price, but at a nominal price: "for" said he, in noble words, "they have earned this, they have worked upon the land for ages, and they are entitled to it." But, by this bill, we propose to sell our land at not less than the Government price, or to rent it at prices which these poor people can never pay. If this bill shall go into operation, that will be its effect.


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