Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence/Address During Presidential Campaign of 1880

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Pages 152–159


Pinkney Benton Stewart Pinchback is one of the most interesting and picturesque figures in the race. A staunch fighter in the Reconstruction period in Louisiana, a delegate to many national Republican Conventions; Ex-Lieutenant-Governor of Louisiana.

Mr. President and Fellow Citizens:

The founders of the Republican party were aggressive men. They believed in the Declaration of Independence and the great truths it contains; and their purpose was to make these truths living realities. Possessing the courage of their convictions and regarding slavery as the arch enemy of the Republic—the greatest obstruction to its maintenance, advancement and prosperity,—they proclaimed an eternal war against it and, marshalling their forces under the banner of freedom and equality before the law for all men, boldly and defiantly met the enemy at every point and fairly routed it all along the line. Those men believed in and relied upon the conscience of the people. To touch and arouse public conscience and to convince it of the justice of their cause, they felt was all that was necessary to enlist the people on their side. Ridiculed, threatened, ostracised, and [152]assaulted, they could not be turned from their purpose, and their achievements constitute the grandeur and glory of the Republican party. There were no apologists for wrong-doers among those men, and there ought to be none in the Republican party to-day. The South was the great disturbing element then as it is now; and the causes which rendered it so are, in a large measure, the same. The people were divided into three classes—slave-holders, slaves, and poor whites, or "poor white trash" as the latter were called by the colored people because of their utter insignificance in that community. Its peculiar condition established in the large land and slave-owning portion of the people a sort of privileged class who claimed and exercised the right not only to rule the South, but the nation; and for many years that class controlled both. Gorged with wealth and drunk with power, considering themselves born to command and govern, being undisputed rulers, almost by inheritance in their States, the Southern politicians naturally became aggressive, dictatorial, and determined to ruin the country and sever the Union rather than consent to relinquish power, even though called upon to do so by constituted methods. Hence it was that, when the people of the great North and Northwest concluded to assert their rights and choose a man from among themselves for President, they rebelled and forced upon the country so far as they were concerned, the most causeless and unnatural war recorded in history.

I shall not dwell upon the history of the war or attempt to detail its horrors and sum up its cost. I leave[153] that task to others. If the wounds made by it have been healed, which I do not concede, far be it from my purpose to re-open them. My sole reason for referring to the war at all is to remind the Northern people of some of the agencies employed in its successful prosecution. When it commenced, the principal labor element of the South—the source of its production and wealth—was the colored race. Four millions and a half of these unfortunate people were there, slaves and property of the men who refused to submit to the will of the people lawfully expressed through the ballot-box. They were the bone and sinew of the Confederacy, tilling its fields and producing sustenance for its armies, while many of the best men of the North were compelled to abandon Northern fields to shoulder a musket in defense of the Union. As a war measure and to deprive the South of such a great advantage, your President, the immortal Lincoln, issued a proclamation in September, 1862, in which he gave public notice that it was his purpose to declare the emancipation of the slaves in the States wherein insurrection existed on January 1, 1863, unless the offenders therein lay down their arms. That notice, thank God, was disregarded, and the proclamation of January 1, 1863, proclaiming universal emancipation followed. Had the requirements of the first proclamation been observed by the people to whom it was addressed who can doubt what would have been the fate of the colored people in the South? It is reasonable to assume, inasmuch as the war was waged to perpetuate the Union and not to destroy slavery—that they would[154] have remained in hopeless bondage. On more than one occasion President Lincoln officially declared that he would save the Union with slavery if he could, and not until it became manifest that slavery was the mainstay of the Confederacy, and the prosecution of the war to a successful close would be difficult without its destruction, did he dare touch it. I do not think that President Lincoln's hesitancy to act upon the question arose from sympathy with the accursed institution, for I believe every pulsation of his heart was honest and pure and that he was an ardent and devoted lover of universal liberty; but he doubted whether his own people would approve of his interference with it. Assured by the manner in which the people of the North received his first proclamation that they appreciated the necessity of destroying this great aid of the enemy, he went forward bravely declaring that, "possibly for every drop of blood drawn by the lash one might have to be drawn by the sword, but if so, as was said over eighteen hundred years ago, the judgments of the Lord are just and righteous altogether," and abolished human slavery from the land forever.

That this great act was a Godsend and an immeasurable blessing to the colored race, I admit, but I declare in the same breath that it was dictated and performed more in the interest of the white people of the North and to aid them in conquering the rebellion than from love of or a disposition to help the Negro. The enfranchisement of the colored race also sprang from the necessities of the nation. At the close of the war the Southern[155] States had to be rehabilitated with civil governments and re-admitted into the Union. The men who had plunged the country into war and had tried to destroy the Government were about to resume their civil and political rights, and, through the election of Representatives and Senators in Congress, regain influence and power in national councils. Apprehending danger from the enormous power they would possess if reinstated in absolute control of eleven States, some means had to be devised to prevent this. A political element, loyal to the Union and the flag, must be created; and again the ever faithful colored people were brought into requisition, and without their asking for it, the elective franchise was conferred upon them. There was no question about the loyalty of these people, and the supposition that they would be a valuable political force and form the basis of a loyal political party in the South was both natural and just, and the wisdom of their enfranchisement was demonstrated by the establishment of Republican governments in several of the States, and the sending of mixed delegations of Republican and Democratic members of Congress therefrom so long as the laws conferring citizenship upon the colored man were enforced.

If the South is to remain politically Democratic as it is to-day, it is not the fault of the colored people. Their fealty to the North and the Republican party is without parallel in the world's history. In Louisiana alone more than five thousand lives attest it. While in nearly every other Southern State fully as many lie in premature graves, martyrs to the cause. Considering[156] themselves abandoned and left to the choice of extermination or the relinquishment of the exercise of their political rights, they have, in large districts in the South, wisely preferred the latter. Kept in a constant condition of suspense and dread by the peculiar methods of conducting canvasses and elections in that section, who can blame them? It is my firm conviction that no other people under God's sun, similarly situated, would have done half so well. The fault is attributable to the vicious practise, which obtains largely even here in the civilized North, of apologizing for and condoning crimes committed for political purposes. Men love power everywhere and Southern Democrats are no exception. On the contrary, deeming themselves "born to command," as I have already remarked, and knowing that there is no power to restrain or punish them for crimes committed upon the poor and defenseless colored citizens, of course they have pushed them to the wall. The inequality between the two races in all that constitutes protective forces was such as to render that result inevitable as soon as Federal protection was withdrawn, and I do not hesitate to affirm that unless some means are devised to enforce respect for the rights of the colored citizens of the South, their enfranchisement will prove a curse instead of a benefit to the country. Emancipated to cripple the South and enfranchised to strengthen the North, the colored race was freed and its people made citizens in the interest of the Republic. Its fundamental law declares them citizens, and the Fifteenth Amendment expressly states that: "The right of citizens[157] of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The faith and honor of the Nation are pledged to the rigid enforcement of the law in this, as in every other respect, and the interests of the 40,000,000 white people in the Republic demand it. If the law, both constitutional and statutory, affecting the rights and privileges of the colored citizens can be defiantly ignored and disobeyed in eleven States of the Union in a matter of such grave import as this—a matter involving the very essence of republican government, i. e., the right of the majority to rule—who can tell where it will end and how long it will be before elections in all of the States will be armed conflicts, to be decided by the greatest prowess and dexterity in the use of the bowie knife, pistol, shot-gun and rifle?

White men of the North, I tell you this practise of controlling elections in the South by force and fraud is contagious! It spreads with alarming rapidity and unless eradicated, will overtake and overwhelm you as it has your friends in the South. It showed its horrid head in Maine, and came very near wresting that State from a lawful majority. Employed in the South first to drive Republicans from a few counties, it has grown from "autumnal outbreaks" into an almost perpetual hurricane and, gathering force as it goes, has violently seized State after State, mastered the entire South, and is even now thundering at the gates of the national Capital. Whether it shall capture it too, and spread its blighting[158] influence all over the land, is the question you must answer at the poles in this election.

It was the intention of the great men who founded this Republic that it should be "A government of the people, for the people, and by the people"; that its citizens, from the highest to the lowest, should enjoy perfect equality before the law. To realize this idea the rule of the majority, to be ascertained through the processes provided by law, was wisely adopted, and the laws providing for and regulating elections are respected and obeyed in the Northern, Eastern, and Western States. The Democracy of the South alone seems privileged to set at defiance the organic as well as every statutory enactment, national and State, designed to secure this essential principle of free government. Those men must be taught that such an exceptional and unhealthy condition of things will not be tolerated; that the rights of citizens of every nationality are sacred in the eyes of the law, and their right to vote for whom they please and have their ballots honestly counted shall not be denied or abridged with impunity; that the faith of the Nation is pledged to the defense and maintenance of these obligations, and it will keep its pledge at whatever cost may be found necessary.[159]

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.