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Speech on Conscription and the Conduct of the War,
February 24, 1863, in Congress


    Mr. Stevens. I have now a few remarks to make upon this bill. This bill is objected to for various reasons. One of them is that is unconstitutional, inasmuch as the militia of the nation are to be officered by the Governors of the States. Sir, it is enough to say that this bill provides for no calling out of the militia. This bill establishes what is called a national force. Now the militia of a State are under the regulation of the authorities of that State, and they have a right to say how they shall be armed, and when they are called as militia into the service of the United States they shall be officered by the Governors of the States.

    This, therefore, being in no sense of the word a militia force, but a national force, as declared by this bill, none of the provisions of the Constitution referred to should stand in its way, because the provision of the Constitution referred to is that Congress shall raise armies. This is a mode of raising armies. The provision for calling out the militia for certain purposes is an entirely distinct and separate provision of power. I have said now all I desire upon that point.

    Now, sir, I say that this bill, in its main features, is beneficent, a benevolent bill. At present we know that there are no exemptions when men are called into the service, except those that refer to the ability of the party to serve. That operates very harshly upon many men, who are obliged to leave at their homes widowed mothers and aged fathers who are dependent on them for support. They are drafted and they are obliged to go, leaving their relatives in this condition.  All these cases are provided for by this bill, and I have seen enough in the late draft in Pennsylvania to know that its provisions will afford great relief to a large class of persons. This bill exempts from military duty the only son of a widow dependent upon him for support. This is a beneficent provision which does not now exist in the law. This bill also provides that the only son of aged and infirmed parents who are dependent upon his labor for their support shall be exempt – a most benevolent provision. I also provides that where there are two or more sons of such parents, and they are drafted, the father or, if he be dead, the mother may elect which of the sons shall be exempt. It exempts also the brother of a family of children under twelve years of age and who are dependent upon him for support. This embraces a very large number of very worthy people, while there is no law now in existence that affords them relief. If this bill had no other beneficent features in it than this that would be enough to commend it to my favorable consideration and I should vote for it. I will not enumerate the other beneficent provisions of the bill. I leave that to others.

    There are two amendments which I desire to have made in this bill, and which I shall offer under the privilege which has been granted for amendments, in case no other gentleman offers them. The bill provides that a person drafted may be exempt from service either by furnishing a substitute or by paying a sum of money not exceeding $300. Now, I think it very necessary that the amount to be paid shall be fixed by law. I know that in my district at the last draft men who, from conscientious scruples, could not and would not go, who would rather become martyrs than serve, were so imposed upon by substitute brokers that some of them were compelled to pay as high as $1,500 for substitutes. I am informed that some of these substitute brokers in my own and adjacent counties cleared as high as $10,000 each by trafficking in this business of hiring substitutes for their neighbors. It is wrong that men who are entitled to exemption at all should be subjected to these impositions and extortions. I do not know whether the sum fixed upon is high enough or not. I suppose it is, but it is very important that some limitation should be fixed.

    There is a portion of this provision which I do not and cannot assent to. By this law, every man, whether he has any conscientious scruples, or not, who chooses to raise $300, and pay it to the Treasury, may refuse to serve his country. I do not recognize the propriety of conferring such a right. There are in all countries exemptions for conscience sake, and it is right and there should be. In my own county a very large number of our best citizens, our most loyal men, are conscientiously opposed to bearing arms. They are willing to pay their taxes. They would be willing to pay this amount to procure substitutes, but I do not believe that they should be forced to violate their conscientious and religious scruples which have existed from their birth, and which have descended to them from posterity; and I give notice that when the proper time comes I will offer the following amendment as a proviso to section thirteen:

    . Provided, That no person, unless he provide a substitute, shall be exempt from service, except as hereinbefore exempted, who will not declare an oath or affirmation that he is conscientiously scrupulous against bearing arms, and that such is and has been his declared religion for more than          year, before such draft.

    I will exempt nobody, so far as I am concerned, from serving his country, excepting those who are religiously opposed to that mode of doing it. The rich man who has no conscientious scruples, in my judgment, has no more right when he is drafted to refuse to go and fight the enemies of his country than the poor man who cannot raise $300 to pay for exemption. As the bill now stands it amounts to that. There are patriotic gentlemen very much in favor of supporting this war, but very much opposed to giving any means to aid it, who will take advantage of this provision, and call this a rich man’s bill, made for him only who can raise his $300, and against him who cannot raise the sum. I think I have seen in certain quarters – I need not name them – indications that gentlemen are keeping quiet upon this point now, and that when the bill is passed they will charge this sin upon the heads of the Republican Party. But independent of the question of policy, to my mind, justice requires that the amendment which I have suggested shall be made, and hence it is that at the proper time I shall offer this amendment.

    There is another amendment which I desire to see made; and that is, to strike out the following proviso to the thirty-seventh section:

    Provided, That the grade of supernumerary second lieutenant and two teamsters for each company, and one chief farrier and blacksmith for each regiment, as allowed by said section of the act, be, and are hereby abolished.

    I have no objection to the law being so modified as to abolish the grade of second lieutenant in all future organizations of the Army, but to my mind, it would be a great injustice to abolish it and cast all men now in the Army in that grade out of the service. The second lieutenants have generally been the men who have raised companies. I know they have done so in my district, and I suppose they have in others. They have been at considerable cost for equipment and have spent a great portion of their time under the regulations of the law as they then existed. I cannot consent now to throw them out of the service by a provision of this kind. I will not object to the section if it can be modified so as to affect only companies hereafter organized, but unless that is done I shall be obliged to move to strike out the whole section.

    Now, sir, a word or two as to the necessity of this bill. We have been asked over and over again what is the necessity for it and what caused that necessity. I do not think that you can at this moment obtain volunteers to fill up your Army. The clamor of this House, and the clamor of the Democratic Party out of the House have so frightened a timid Senate that it has not dared to pass the bill to enlist Black troops which this House sent to it, which would have supplied the deficiency and given us half a million of recruits. We must, therefore, do without that bill, and the passage of this bill is now the only remedy that I see for the evil. There are reasons why we cannot procure volunteers. Has we united in wishing honestly to put down this rebellion, had the Whigs, the Republicans, and the Democrats of the free States acted with an honest instead of a pretended desire to crush this rebellion, and united in urging on the people of the necessity, propriety, and duty of sustaining the Government, there would have been no more necessity for this bill now than there was when the first call was made.

    But, sir, it is a fact not to be disputed, that for the last six or nine months a whole party, a strong party, has deliberately entered into a combination to discourage, to prevent, and as far as in it lay, to prohibit the volunteering of the people of the country as soldiers in our Army. Members of that party have gone from house to house, from town to town, and from city to city, urging their brethren not to enlist in the armies of the nation, and giving them all sorts of reasons for that advice. One of these reasons is that it was an abolition war; that is was “a war for the nigger,” as the slang phrase is. But the most evident motive, and the real motive of these men was, that by getting Democrats to stay at home, and help them to carry the elections, they could acquire the ascendency and obtain control of the Government. Hence it is that where this advice has been followed we have been exultantly told that the people have spoken and condemned this war. Sir, the people spoke, such of them being in the in the armies of the country, they spoke. But had the soldiers who are now lying on the cold field been at the polls at the late election, I hesitate not to say that of a large majority of the members of the next House of Representatives would have been Republican, as this House is. There can be no doubt of the fact.

     But, sir, the soldiers were not allowed to vote, except in the elections of one or two States, where the result that I have hinted at took place. Of course, the Democrats being at home, and those who would have voted with the Republican Party being in the Army, the Democratic Party succeeded. In my county we had a canvass of the number from each party in the Army. Perhaps the disproportion might not have been so large in some other districts, but it was very large in all the adjoining districts. That is one of the reasons why gentlemen now tell us so exultantly that the people have spoken. Yes, sir; demagogues and those who followed their advice spoke. The soldiers who were in the face of the enemy had their mouths closed. They have not spoken. I do not say that there are not many loyal Democrats in the Army. I know that there are. I know that there are very many, but nothing in comparison with the number that would have been in the Army had they been left to themselves.

    Now, sir, I do not intend, as I said before, to make a very long speech. Objection is made to this bill on account of the provision with regard to the provost marshals reporting “treasonable practices.” The deputy marshal here referred to arrests nobody. There is no provision in the bill by which they are to anything more than keep an eye on the traitors and report them to the proper authorities. Gentlemen on the other side do not like that kind of machinery. They do not like to have the traitors watched and reported to the proper authorities, not because they have any sympathy with them, but because they think it criminal to watch innocent men who do nothing but try to save the country and prevent the destruction of its liberties, and have them reported. I think, sir, that I shall move, if nobody else does, to strike out the phrase “treasonable practices,” so that the bill may not be quite so stringent as it is now.

    Now, Mr. Speaker, to show how it is that men are dissuaded from enlisting, I will read an extract or two from the speech of a most respectable and leading member of the Democratic Party, which was made recently in the State of New Jersey:

    “I will tell him, as the profound conviction of my judgment, that whatever may have been possible in the beginning, the day has gone by when a war for the restoration of the Union can, by any possibility, be successful.”

    A little further on, he says:

    “Shall the Democratic Party be induced, for one moment, to strike hands with those who desire to change the purposes of the Administration, and bring it back again to a war for the Union, when the whole people united cannot accomplish anything before the 4th of March, 1865? Will the war continue during that time? (‘Never, never,’ from all parts of the room.) Will you send out your sons again to the battle field? (Overwhelming cries, ‘no, never!”) Shall they be conscripted to carry on this war for two years more, and for the negro? (‘No, never’)

    Are gentleman at a loss to know why it is that the people of this nation will not volunteer to serve the country in the Army when such leading men, the very head and front of a great party, are giving such advice and calling forth such responses?

     Again he says:

    “Shall we do this with the vain, futile, absurd, and most unfounded hope that after the 4th of March, 1865, after four years of such war as God Almighty never permitted to scourge any land, you will go back again to a war for the Union? (‘No, no.’) It has been proclaimed that it never was their (the rebels) purpose to invade the northern States. It is very true that if this war is kept up, battles fought, no relenting spirit, no prospect of peace, no sound of peace to reach their ears, they ought to be induced to make that invasion.”  

    And yet, Mr. Speaker, these leaders are loyal men, all loyal men, advising Democrats not to strike for the Union, and declaring that the restoration of the Union is impossible.

    Mr. Vallandigham. Will the gentleman from Pennsylvania allow me a word at this point?

    Mr. Stevens. Yes, sir.

    Mr. Vallandigham. I hope the gentleman will give me the opportunity to correct a very gross misreport contained in that part of the speech which he has just read.

    Mr. Stevens. I will, certainly, for it is a very grave charge.


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