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The Basis of Representation: Delivered On
January 31, 1866 in the U.S. House of Representatives

    "Sir, our fathers made the Declaration of Independence; and that is what they intended to be the foundation of the principles of our Government. If they had been able to base their Constitution on the principles of that Declaration it would have needed no amendment during all time, for every human being would have had his rights; every human being would have been equal before the law; and no oppression could have been effected except through usurpation against the principles of that government."

     Mr. STEVENS. The joint committee on reconstruction, to which was recommitted joint resolution No. 51, proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States in relation to the basis of representation, together with all propositions submitted to this House in relation to that subject, have directed me to report the joint resolution back, modified as follows:

    Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, (two thirds of both Houses concurring,) That the following article be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which, when ratified by three fourths of said Legislatures, shall be valid as part of said Constitution, namely:

    ARTICLE --. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed: Provided, That whenever the elective franchise shall be denied or abridged in any State on account of race or color, all persons therein of such race or color shall be excluded from the basis of representation.

    I now move the previous question.

    [TS yields to Schenck so that he may offer his substitute and it receive a vote. Schenck's substitute calls for representation based on the number of male citizens over 21 who have acquired eligibility to vote for members of their state legislatures. John F. Benjamin declares that if Schenck's substitute be adopted, his state, Mississippi, would lose half of its delegation in Congress]
 

    Mr. STEVENS. Mr. Speaker, all I shall attempt on this occasion is to place before the House distinctly, and I hope intelligibly, the true meaning of the proposition submitted by the committee, noticing slightly the objections which have been made to it.
It is true we have been informed by high authority, at the other end of the avenue, introduced through an unusual conduit, that no amendment is necessary to the Constitution as our fathers made it, and that it is better to let it stand as it is. Now, sir, I think very differently, myself, for one individual. I believe there is intrusted to this Congress a high duty, no less important and no less fraught with the weal and woe of future ages than was intrusted to the august body that made the Declaration of Independence. I believe now, if we omit to exercise that high duty, or abuse it, we shall be held to account by future generations of America, and by the whole civilized world that is in favor of freedom, and that our names will go down to posterity with some applause, or with black condemnation if we do not treat the subject thoroughly, honestly, and justly, in reference to every human being on this continent.

     Sir, our fathers made the Declaration of Independence; and that is what they intended to be the foundation of the principles of our Government. If they had been able to base their Constitution on the principles of that Declaration it would have needed no amendment during all time, for every human being would have had his rights; every human being would have been equal before the law; and no oppression could have been effected except through usurpation against the principles of that government.
      But it so happened when our fathers came to reduce the principles on which they founded this Government into order, in shaping the organic law, an institution hot from hell appeared among them, which has been increasing in volume and guilt ever since. It obstructed all their movements and all their actions, and precluded them from carrying out their own principles into the organic law of this Union. But rather than not have harmony among those thirteen colonies, they postponed and compromised. They compromised their principles for what they deemed a greater good, believing a short time would work a cure, and purify the institution which they admitted to be clogged by it.

    At that day ninety bales of cotton left the United States in one year, and now we have millions of bales exported; then but few slaves comparatively existed, there being but three millions of the whole population, and now the black population has risen above the whole population of that day by four millions, who are either to be treated as our fathers declared by solemn declaration they ought to be treated, or to be oppressed by us as insolent tyrants, by which we will deserve the execrations of the human race. It has come to that. The time has come when we can make the Constitution what our fathers desired to make it. The time has come when through blood every stain has been washed out unless we choose to reestablish it.

     God forbid I should so adopt the principle of the gentleman from New York, {Mr. RAYMOND,} that this Constitution needs no amendments. I would rather not live than live and be so disgraced by such a sentiment. Now, when everything is in our power; when the rebels have lifted their parricidal hands against the country, and cut themselves off from every right under the laws of the Union, and every right under a repudiated Constitution, shall we so recall this desire of our fathers as to place it upon the broad foundation of human rights, or shall we still cut off a portion of those rights, and still crush beneath our feet four million immortal men? That is the question presented to us; and yet we are told that no amendment is necessary. Sir, let me tell the gentleman who says this, and those who say it, for his public information now, and for the information of the philanthropists and the friends of freedom and of the human race, that I do not envy them the position in which this, and only this, will put them. Excuse me, sir, for going so far in my remarks at this time.

    Mr. RAYMOND. I rise simply to remark that if the gentleman understood me to say no amendments whatever were needed to the Constitution, and the Constitution was better without them, he misunderstood me, for I expressly said on this very point of representation that some amendment was necessary.

    Mr. STEVENS. I refer not only to the gentleman from New York, but to what I take to be an authorized utterance of one at the other end of the avenue. I am glad the gentleman has explained it that way.

    Now, sir, since I have referred to that, I believe I am right, for I have no doubt that this is the proclamation, the command of the President of the United States, made and put forth by authority in advance, and at a time when this Congress was legislating on this very question; made, in my judgment, in violation of the privileges of this House; made in such a way that centuries ago, has it been made to Parliament by a British king, it would have cost him his head. But, sir, we pass that by; we are tolerant of usurpation in this tolerant Government of ours.

    Now, sir, let me consider what is the meaning of the proposition made by the committee; how far it ought to be affected by any modifications. It has been amended by the committee in obedience to what is supposed to be the sense of the House. The committee have reported back the simple proposition that representation shall be apportioned among the States in proportion to their numbers, provided that when the elective franchise shall be denied or abridged in any State on account of race or color, all persons therein of such race or color shall be excluded from the basis of representation.

    But some of our friends are apprehensive that this implied permission to the States to regulate the elective franchise within the States. Now, sir, I venture to say that there is no good philologist who, upon reading this proposed amendment, will for a single moment pretend that it grants a privilege or takes away a privilege from any State on that subject. It does, however, punish the abuse of that privilege if it exists. Now, I hold that the States have the right, and always have had it, to fix the elective franchise within their own States. And I hold that this does not take it from them. Ought it to take it from them? Ought the domestic affairs of the States to be infringed upon by Congress so far as to regulate the restrictions and qualifications of their voters? How many States would adopt such a proposition? How many would allow Congress to come within their jurisdiction to fix the qualification of their voters. Would New York? Would Pennsylvania? Would the northwestern States? I am sure not one of them would. Therefore, if you should take away the right which now is and always has been exercised by the States, by fixing the qualification of their electors, instead of getting nineteen States, which is necessary to ratify this amendment, you might possibly get five. I venture to say you could not get five in this Union. And that is an answer, in the opinion of the committee, to all that has been said on this subject. But it grants no right. It says, however, to the State of South Carolina and other slave States, true, we leave where it has been left for eighty years the right to fix the elective franchise, but you must not abuse it; if you do, the Constitution will impose upon you a penalty, and will continue to inflict it until you shall have corrected your actions.

 

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