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Speech on the Readmission of Alabama
Delivered March 28, 1868, in Congress


    Mr. STEVENS, of Pennsylvania. I wish to say a few words with regard to the condition of this bill, and what seems to me as wise to be done by this House.

    Sometime ago Congress passed an act authorizing Alabama and other waste territories of the United States {laughter} to form constitutions so as, if possible, to make then fit to associate with civilized communities; and we gave them a certain length of time for that purpose. It was provided -- whether wisely or unwisely it is not for me to say -- that Alabama and these other communities, after having their voters registered, should hold elections and that a majority of the registered voters should be necessary to secure the adoption of such constitutions. Unfortunately, Alabama in her recent election has failed by a considerable number to poll the required majority for the adoption of her constitution. The House, foreseeing this difficulty before it finally happened, passed several months ago an act empowering these States to adopt constitutions by a majority of the votes polled, in accordance with the majority principle as recognized generally throughout the Union. But the Senate (and here is the source of all our troubles) with a wisdom far above that of this House -- a wisdom which has characterized that body upon many just such disastrous issues. {laughter.} -- let that bill lie upon their table for over two months, though urged to take it up and pass it before the election had taken place in Alabama. The election was held, and it was found that the constitution had received, according to the existing law, a minority of votes. Hence we are now called upon either to deny Alabama admission under the constitution or to violate our own enabling act, which provided for admitting those States upon certain conditions. There is nothing that prevents us from violating that act if we deem it prudent to do so.

    I am often reminded by gentlemen in this House -- some very wise and some otherwise {laughter} -- that I have said more than once that all our legislation on this subject was "outside of the Constitution." {Laughter.} He is "otherwise" who thinks that assertion untrue. {Laughter.} This very proceeding shows, if a majority here should adopt the measure now proposed, that this House believes itself to be acting not in accordance with the forms of the Constitution, which contemplates no such case of lapsed territory to be formed into communities and brought into the nation.

     When West Virginia was introduced I first made that declaration. That State sought to come in and was admitted by a majority of this House, upon the ground that the people had gone through with the requirements of the Constitution in obtaining the consent of both those States when one had ceased to exist log before and the other one existed in Ohio, and gave her consent there. {Laughter.} I voted for the admission of that State. I was not going to make either a fool or a knave of myself and say I voted for it under the Constitution, or I did not know what I was voting for. I held then, as I hold now, that having conquered that portion of another power -- a power recognized as an independent belligerent by all civilized nations of the earth, ours as well as the rest -- we had a right to treat them as a foreign nation and take them in or keep them out as we pleased. I said then that the Constitution had nothing to do with them.

    Now, I would inform my learned friends from the bushes {laughter} that when I spoke of being outside the Constitution I did not mean that the Constitution does not recognize the law of nations. It does recognize the law of nations, and the law of nations recognizes the right of a conquering power to do with its conquered territories as it pleases.  Hence we had a right to treat these rebel States after they became a power just as we pleased, without the least reference to the Constitution except so far as the Constitution covered over them the law of nations under which we were acting.

    I trust that I shall hear nothing more after this explanation from my most obfuscated friends who have so often seemed so ignorant of what I meant or what they were talking about. {Laughter.}

    Now, Mr. Speaker, what are we to say with regard to Alabama? And I confess to you, sir, that I am not entirely clear as to what we ought to do as a just and wise body. We have power under the Constitution to admit new States, whether made out of the fragments of a confederate State of the fragments of a foreign nation, or by another process when we come to agree with those States. For I hold that when you come to admit States you can admit them on just such conditions as the States agree upon. They are parties capable of contracting, capable of proposing and consenting, and until they have lost their power to consent by having become actually incorporated in another body which takes away that power, they have always the right to enter into such contracts, and after they have gone into a negotiation and made a contract and it is partly executed, they are bound to fulfill it.

    What was done with regard to Texas? When she was admitted, it was not only a condition imposed by this Congress, but it was a proposition made to that State that she should keep her wild lands and pay her debts, there being over fifteen million acres of wild lands and several million dollars of debt, which we afterward paid to be sure, because Texas could not pay it. Did anybody ever doubt that that was a valid and binding contract on the people of both sections -- upon both nations, if you please, for they were two nations -- upon both contracting powers?

    Sir, after the many cases which I shall not enumerate, for it would be an intimation of great ignorance on the part of members of this House for me to do so, after the numerous cases in which conditions have been proposed and accepted and acted upon and never violated; after the conditions proposed to Missouri, to Arkansas, and the other States, which, as I said I will not enumerate, after the admission of States without enabling acts, time out of mind, for anybody to maintain, upon any tract of land coming here and saying, "Here are one hundred thousand people; here is a constitution under which we would like to become one of the members of your Union;" that we cannot upon that state of the case send that identical constitution to their people to be voted upon, and if ratified to be accepted and acted upon here forever after, seems to me to be  degree of ignorance which I will  not presume to exist in this House.

    If, then we have a right to do it in one instance we have a right to do it in all instances in which we admit new States into the Union. Now the only question is, although this State has not lived up to this enabling act, are we prepared to admit her as fit to associate with freemen, a few of whom have so sympathized with the rebels that they are unwilling to let these poor men into this Union at all?

    What is that Constitution? It is that every man of sufficient age, twenty-one, shall be entitled to vote at their elections. If it were certain that those who have just perjured themselves and attempted to break down this glorious Union would live and abide by their contract, and not attempt further to destroy us if we admit this terrible leaven, I should not hesitate. There are not forms, nor omissions, that would keep me from admitting them into the Union at once. I confess I have my doubts, -- I am sorry for it -- as to whether, after we shall have admitted them into the Union, and after the morrow's sun shall have set upon them, they will not be ready to call a new convention and to reestablish slavery in some shape or form. We know very well the ingenuity of these men. We abolished slavery except for a crime; but I have been informed of twenty cases in which men have been sold into bondage and are now serving at it. One case is in Florida, where our commissioner of freedmen informed me that he had seen six of them sold for twenty years. How do they do it?

    They pass a law that any man guilty of assault and battery shall be sold into slavery for twenty years. It is the law there now. They go into the street and white man jostles a black one or a black man jostles a white man. He is taken right to the courthouse, is convicted of assault and battery, and is sold for twenty years into slavery. There are hundreds this day in the southern States who are serving as slaves on just such contrivances.  They have so altered the laws that they have introduced the system of peonage, even worse than in Mexico and the middle southern provinces. And yet what shall we do? We must try so to shackle them in some way that while we are admitting these fraudulent white men we are securing the poor ignorant black man from the impositions. Hence it is that I have moved to strike out all after the first section and insert in its place what I think will be a complete shackle.

    But the proposition of the gentleman from Ohio {Mr. BINGHAM} to strike out the third section is all, I must say, in the interest of slavery. I have offered my proposition to try to protect, if possible, freedom against the wiles of the most wicked institution that God ever afflicted man with or that ever could exist through the invention of human ingenuity.

    Mr. BROMWELL. I desire to make a suggestion to the gentleman. His amendment is considered not specific enough. It would permit any citizen of any other State to vote in Alabama who might happen to come in immediately before an election.

    Mr. STEVENS, of Pennsylvania. How should I alter it?

    Mr. BROMWELL. Confine it to citizens of the State of Alabama. As it stands now it  would confer the right of suffrage on both sexes.

    Mr. STEVENS, of Pennsylvania. What words shall I use?

    Mr. BROMWELL. I want to know if that is the gentleman's intention?

    Mr. STEVENS, of Pennsylvania. Oh, no; but the intention is that everybody shall vote.

    Mr. BROMWELL. I suggest to the gentleman the he use the words "citizens of the State according to the laws thereof."
    Mr. STEVENS, of Pennsylvania. I will make it read "citizens of the State." Now, sir, I will vote for no constitution that does not give universal and impartial suffrage, and, so far as human ligaments can bind it, bind that provision unalterably and ineradicably into that instrument, so that if it is ever taken out by the roots, it shall take out every other fragment of the instrument itself, and send them back to act according to the provisions of a new law.

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