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Speech on Reconstruction
Delivered in Congress, January 3, 1867

Page One

    "But it will be said, as it has been said, "This is Negro equality!" What is Negro equality, about which so much is said by knaves, and some of which is believed by men who are not fools? It means, as understood by honest Republicans, just this much, and no more: every man, no matter what his race or color; every earthly being who has an immortal soul, has an equal right to justice, honesty, and fair play with every other man; and the law should secure him those rights."


    Mr. STEVENS. Mr. Speaker, I am very anxious that this bill should be proceeded with until finally acted upon. I desire that as early as possible, without curtailing debate, this House shall come to some conclusion as to what shall be done with the rebel States. 

    This becomes more and more necessary every day; and the late decision of the Supreme Court of the United States has rendered immediate action by Congress upon the question of the establishment of governments in the rebel States absolutely indispensable. 

That decision, although in terms perhaps not as infamous as the Dred Scott decision, is yet far more dangerous in its operation upon the lives and liberties of the loyal men of this country.   That decision has unsheathed the dagger of the assassin, and places the knife of the rebel at the throat of every man who dares proclaim himself to be now, or to have been heretofore, a loyal Union man. If the doctrine enunciated in that decision be true, never were the people of any country anywhere, or at any time, in such a terrible peril as are our loyal brethren at the South, whether they be black or white, whether they go there from the North or are natives of the rebel States.

    Now, Mr. Speaker, unless Congress proceeds at once to do something to protect these people from the barbarians who are now daily murdering them; who are murdering the loyal whites daily and daily putting into secret graves not only hundreds but thousands of the colored people of that country; unless Congress proceeds at once to adopt some means for their protection, I ask you and every man who loves liberty whether we will not be liable on the just censure of the world for our negligence or our cowardice or our want of ability to do so?  

    Now, sir, it is for these reasons that I insist on the passage of some such measure as this. This is a bill designed to enable loyal men, so far as I could discriminate them in these States, to form governments which shall be in loyal hands, that they may protect themselves from such outrages as I have mentioned. In States that have never been restored since the rebellion from a state of conquest, and which are this day held in captivity under the laws of war, the military authorities, under this decision and its extension into the disloyal States, dare not order the commanders of departments to enforce the laws of the country.  One of the most atrocious murderers that has ever been let loose upon any community has lately been liberated under this very decision, because the Government extended it, perhaps according to the proper construction, to the conquered States as well as to the loyal States.

    A gentleman from Richmond, who had personal knowledge of the facts, told me the circumstances of the murder. A colored man, driving the family of his employer, drove his wagon against the wagon containing Watson and his family. The wagon of Watson was broken. The next day Watson went to the employer of the colored man and complained. The employer offered to pay Watson every dollar that he might assess for the damage that had been done. "No!" said he, "I claim the right to chastise the scoundrel." He followed the colored man, took out his revolver, and deliberately shot him dead in the presence of that community. No civil authority would prosecute him; and, when taken into custody by the military authority, he was discharged by order of the President under this most injurious and iniquitous decision.

    Now, sir, if that decision be the law, then it becomes the more necessary that we should proceed to take care that such a construction as that shall not open the door to greater injuries than have already been sustained. Thus much I have said at the outset of my remarks, which shall not be very long.

    The people have once more nobly done their duty. May I ask, without offense, will Congress have the courage to do its duty? Or will it be deterred by the clamor of ignorance, bigotry, and despotism from perfecting a revolution begun without their consent, but which ought not to be ended without their full participation and concurrence? Possibly the people would not have inaugurated this revolution to correct the palpable incongruities and despotic provisions of the Constitution; but having it forced upon them, will they be so unwise as to suffer it to subside without erecting this nation into a perfect Republic?  

    Since the surrender of the armies of the confederate States of America a little has been done toward establishing this Government upon the true principles of liberty and justice: and but a little if we stop here. We have broken the material shackles of four million slaves. We have unchained them from the stake so as to allow them locomotion, provided they do not walk in paths which are trod by white men. We have allowed them the unwonted privilege of attending church, if they can do so without offending the sight of their former masters. We have even given them that highest and most agreeable evidence of liberty as defined by the "great plebian," the "right to work." But in what have we enlarged their liberty of thought? In what have we taught them the science and granted them the privilege of self-government? We have imposed upon them the privilege of fighting our battles, of dying in defense of freedom, and of bearing their equal portion of taxes; but where have we given them the privilege of ever participating in the formation of laws for the government of their native land? By what civil weapon have we enabled them to defend themselves against oppression and injustice? Call you this liberty? Call you this a free Republic where four millions are subjects but not citizens? Then Persia, with her kings and satraps, was free; then Turkey is free! Their subjects had liberty in motion and of labor, but the laws were made without and against their will; but I must declare that, in my judgment, they were a really free governments as ours is today. I know they had fewer rulers and more subjects, but those rulers were no more despotic than ours, and their subjects had just as large privileges in governing the country as ours have. Think not I would slander my native land; I would reform it. Twenty years ago I denounced it as a despotism. Then, twenty million white men enchained four million black men. I pronounce it no nearer to a true Republic now when twenty-five million of a privileged class exclude five million from all participation in the rights of government.

    The freedom of a Government does not depend upon the quality of its laws, but upon the power that has the right to enact them. During the dictatorship of Pericles his laws were just, but Greece was not free. During the last century Russia has been blessed with most remarkable emperors, who have generally decreed wise and just laws, but Russia is not free.

    No Government can be free that does not allow all its citizens to participate in the formation and execution of her laws. There are degrees of tyranny. But every other form of government is a despotism. It has always been observed that the larger the number of the rulers the more cruel the treatment of the subject races. It were better for the black man if he were governed by one king than by twenty million.  

    What are the great questions which now divide the nation? In the midst of the political Babel which has been produced by the intermingling of secessionists, rebels, pardoned traitors, hissing Copperheads, and apostate Republicans, such a confusion of tongues is heard that it is difficult to understand either the questions that are asked or the answers that are given. Ask, what is the "President's policy?" and it is difficult to define it. Ask, what is the "policy of Congress? and the answer is not always at hand. 

    A few moments may be profitably spent in seeking the meaning of each of these terms. Nearly six years ago a bloody war arose between different sections of the United States. Eleven States, possessing a very large extent of territory, and ten or twelve million people aimed to sever their connection with the Union, and to form an independent empire, founded on the avowed principle of human slavery and excluding every free State from this confederacy. They did not claim to raise an insurrection to reform the Government of the country -- a rebellion against the laws -- but they asserted their entire independence of that Government and of all obligations to its laws.  They were satisfied that the United States should maintain its old Constitution and laws. They formed an entirely new constitution; a new and distinct government, call the "confederate States of America." They passed their own laws, without regard to any former national connection. Their government became perfectly organized, both in its civil and military departments. Within the broad limits of those eleven States the "confederate States" had as perfect and absolute control as the United States had over the other twenty-five.  The "confederate States of America" refused to negotiate with the United States, except upon the basis of independence -- of perfect national equality. The two powers mutually prepared to settle the question by arms. They each raised more than half a million armed men. The war was acknowledged by other nations as a public war between independent belligerents. The parties acknowledged each other as such, and claimed to be contending parties. No one then pretended that the eleven States had any rights under the Constitution of the United States, or any rights to interfere in the legislation of the country. Whether they should ever have all men if both sections, without exception, agreed would depend on the will of Congress, if the United States were victorious. The confederate States claimed no rights unless they could conquer then by the contest of arms.  

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