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Speech on Military Government of the South
Delivered in Congress,
February 7, 1867

 

   Mr. STEVENS. Yes, sir; I am confining myself to the bill; and finishing my sentence, as I should have finished it if I had not been called to order, I say that the statement referred to is wholly false. {Laughter.}

   Now, sir, in order that gentlemen on the other side may not suppose that there is any intention on our part --I ought, perhaps, to say on my part, for I am not authorized to speak for anybody else-- to do them injustice or to deny them the opportunity for a full discussion so far as the circumstances will allow, I will try to confine my own remarks to but a few minutes.  At this period of the session any unnecessary delay must be fatal to the bill, even if we have not already allowed so much time to go by that it will not be possible for the bill to become a law before the close of the session. Besides, this subject has been already discussed fully in almost every phase in the question of reconstruction can be handled. I do not perceive what can be gained on our side -- I simply make the suggestion; my friends must decide for themselves -- I do not perceive what can be gained on our side by further discussion to any considerable extent; and I must take this occasion to say that, after the bill has been discussed through to-day and this evening, I feel myself justified, and indeed bound by duty, to ask the House at one o'clock to-morrow to sustain the previous question

    Sir, this is a bill for the purpose of putting under governments ten States now without governments. They are States of the late so-called confederacy, as I have called them. Other gentlemen have contended that they were States nowhere. I have differed with these gentlemen in this respect. I have said that these were perfect States with perfect organizations under a foreign government. It is at any rate certain that those States now have no governments which are known to the Constitution or laws of the United States of America; that for nearly two years they have been lying in a disorganized condition. Nearly two years ago the armies of a government call itself the confederate States of America were conquered and the government dispersed.  By the law of nations the conqueror after that had a right to say exactly what government should be administered over them or by them, keeping always within the law of nations.  The conqueror had a right either to extend his own laws over those conquered States, or if no action was taken by the conqueror, then by the law of nations the old institutions were permitted to run on for the purpose of administering the local laws until such time as the conquering party should act. I have merely stated the condition of those States according to the well-known principles of the law of nations.  There having been no action on the part of the conqueror, the law of nations gave the institutions then existing that kind of power for domestic administration which is exercised by every conquered province until the conqueror provides for better government.

    The reason why no governments have been provided, and they have been permitted to go under the general law of nations, is because there has been difficulty in harmonizing the councils of the dominant party. The executive department has attempted to enact new laws, to establish new regulations, to authorize the conquered territory to be represented in Congress, without the action of the sovereign power of the nation; and that sovereign power has repudiated the authority which has attempted to place States within those conquered provinces, and has waited and waited patiently in the hope that some arrangement could be come to by which there should be harmony in our councils, and the kind of government necessary there might be agreed upon without collision.  That hope has failed, and the longer Congress has waited the more pertinacious seems to be the determination of the Executive to maintain the usurpation which established those governments.  And now at this late period it has become the duty of Congress to assert its right and to do its duty in establishing some kind of government for this people.

    For two years they have been in a state of anarchy; for two years the loyal people of these ten States have endured all the horrors of the worst anarchy of any country. Persecution, exile, murder have been the order of the day within all these Territories so far as loyal men were concerned, whether white or black, and more especially if they happened to be black.  We have seen the best men, those who stood by the flag of the Union, driven from their homes and compelled to live on the cold charity of a cold North. We have seen their loyal men flitting about everywhere, through your cities, around your doors, melancholy, depressed, haggard, like ghosts of the unburied dead on this side of the river Styx, and yet we have borne it with exemplary patience.  We have been enjoying our "ease in our inns;" and while we are praising the rebel South and asking in piteous terms for mercy for that people, we have been deaf to the groans, the agony, the dying groans which have been borne to us by every southern breeze from dying and murdered victims.

    And now we are told we must not hasten this matter. I am not for hastening it unduly; but I am for making one more effort to protect these loyal men, without regard to color, from the cruelties of anarchy, from persecutions by the malignant, from vengeance visited upon them upon our account. If we fail to do it, and to do it effectually, we should be responsible to the civilized world for, I think, the grossest neglect of duty that ever a great nation was guilty of before to humanity.

    Now, sir, with these few remarks I will say one word as to what the bill is.  Then, in compliance with my determination, I will yield the floor to such gentlemen who may wish to occupy it.

    This bill provides the ten disorganized States shall be divided into five military districts, and that the commander of the Army shall take charge of them through his lieutenants as governors, or you may call them commandants if you choose, not below the grade of brigadiers, who shall have the general supervision of the peace, quiet, and the protection of the people, loyal and disloyal, who reside within those precincts; and that to do so he may use, as the law of nations would authorize him to do, the legal tribunals where he may deem then competent; but they are to be considered of no validity per se, of no intrinsic force, no force in consequence of their origin, the question being wholly within the power of the conqueror, and to remain until that conqueror shall permanently supply their place with something else. I will say in brief that is the whole bill. It does not need much examination, One night's rest after its reading is enough to digest it.

    Still, as there must be, and ought to be, on these matters full discussion, so that the people, the sovereign people of the United States, may hear and read and be able to decide upon the questions, we propose that in addition to the three weeks (I think it was) already spent in the discussion of reconstruction, a day or two of the short remnant of the session may be devoted to debate. I may remark that we have now perhaps less than fifteen days this side of a veto in which this bill must pass this House and pass the Senate and be acted upon, if it is to become law.  We are, therefore, not at liberty to indulge our friends on the other side -- which I would very much like to do, for I would like to hear each one of them make a speech on this subject -- we are not at liberty to indulge them by adjourning the action beyond the time of which I have given notice. Upon counting the days which we have left to act, I do not see that it will be possible for us to pass this bill with any hope of its becoming a law under all the circumstances if longer time is given.

    Now, sir, I have said that I should not occupy much time. I hoped that gentlemen might be limited to twenty minutes, so that more of them could speak. I still hope that will be done, and I again suggest, before I sit down, that that proposition be accepted.

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