The Writings of Carl Schurz/Enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment

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Mr. President:—As the Senate will remember, the honorable Senator from New Jersey [Mr. Stockton] addressed yesterday, in the course of his speech, a personal appeal to me,[2] with so much eloquent earnestness that I am not permitted to doubt its sincerity; and I think courtesy requires that I should respond to it in the same spirit. He expressed his belief that I and thousands of the children of my native land had come to these shores for the purpose of enjoying the blessings of liberty and self-government; and in arguing against this bill, he intimated that we would certainly consider it our duty to do all in our power to preserve and perpetuate these inestimable blessings. In all these suppositions he was right; but I apprehend there may be a serious difference of opinion between the Senator from New Jersey and myself as to what those blessings of liberty and self-government consist in, and as to the manner in which they can and ought to be preserved and perpetuated; and inasmuch as he has appealed to me from his point of view I think it is proper that I should appeal to him and to his associates from mine.

I have listened to the arguments of Democratic Senators against this bill with mingled pleasure and pain; pleasure, when I noticed how my honorable friend from Ohio [Mr. Thurman], whose shrewdness on this floor nobody is disposed to doubt, thought it proper to confine himself to an attack on the details of this bill, instead of launching into that general denunciation of the Constitutional amendments and the legislation based thereon with which Democratic Senators had made us so familiar on former occasions. I might have considered that a good omen had not some of his associates, less discreet and more impulsive than he, hoisted the true colors of their party and boldly declared that they did not believe in the validity of the fifteenth amendment, and openly proclaimed their desire to see it overthrown. Then I could not but remember that even the Senator from Ohio, in the opening remarks of his speech, spoke of the fifteenth amendment as a thing of only supposed legality, though he, as a practical man, was willing to base his argument upon that supposition, for the reason that the ruling majority of the Senate were united upon that point. Well, sir, this, it seems to me, opens to us a view rather wider than the discussion of the technical points which we have been listening to in the course of this debate.

It brings back to our memories again the fierce declamation hurled against all the Constitutional amendments by our Democratic associates in this body; the bitter opposition raised against all legislation designed to enforce them; the vehement appeals in the name of liberty, of self-government, of State-rights and of all that is great and good, to leave the rights of the newly-enfranchised class to the legislative action of the States exclusively; the acrimonious charge that we were a revolutionary party; that we had already revolutionized the Constitution of the United States, and that we were about to subvert the whole system of self-government and all the political institutions to which this country owes so many of its blessings.

Now, sir, in responding to the appeal of the Senator from New Jersey, and desiring to say to him what I conceive to be the blessings of liberty and self-government, and the manner in which they ought to be sustained, preserved and perpetuated, I beg him to review with me the field covered by the bill before us. We are charged with having revolutionized the Constitution of the country by the amendments recently ratified; and that charge is reiterated so often that we have reason to suppose our opponents must consider it a crushing argument. Well, sir, I do not deem it necessary to enter a plea of “not guilty.” On the contrary, I acknowledge the fact, and I suppose the Republican party is by no means ashamed of it. Yes, sir, this Republic has passed through a revolutionary process of tremendous significance. Yes, the Constitution of the United States has been changed in some most essential points; that change does amount to a great revolution, and this bill is one of its legitimate children. Let us look those facts in the face, and I think we may derive from them some conclusions which may be of service in the discussion of the provisions of this bill. What was that Constitutional revolution which the Democrats denounce as so fearful an outrage? In order to understand it fully, we must cast a look back and see what the Constitutional polity of the United States was before the civil war, according to the Democratic interpretation of the Constitution then prevailing.

Constitutions and constitutional constructions do not spring from a mere process of philosophical speculation and reasoning. They grow out of conditions, circumstances, events, sympathies, prevailing interests. We all remember that the most powerful political interest in this country for a long period previous to the war was that of slavery. We remember also that the slave-power, finding itself at war with the conscience of mankind, condemned by the enlightened spirit of this age, menaced by adverse interests growing stronger and stronger every day, sought safety behind the bulwark of what they euphoniously called local self-government and intrenched itself in the doctrine of State sovereignty. To be sure, it made, from that defensive position, offensive sallies encroaching on the rights of the non-slaveholding States, as for instance in the case of the notorious fugitive-slave law and the attempt to take possession of the whole territorial domain of this Republic; but the doctrine of State sovereignty was its main citadel, its base of operations.

What was this dogma? It was asserted and accepted as a fundamental principle, as the peculiarly democratic feature of our republican system of government, that the several geographical and political subdivisions of this Republic called the States should not only have the right to govern and manage their own home affairs, independent of all interference on the part of the National authority, but also to determine for themselves whether their whole population, or only a part, and what part, should participate in the management of their common concerns, that is to say, in the functions of self-government. In other words, the doctrine was that the States had the right to subject a large portion of their people to the absolute dominion and despotic rule of another portion, and to determine at their discretion by what means that despotic rule of man over man should be set on foot and perpetuated, no matter how flagrantly hostile those means might be to the fundamental rights and liberties upon which the whole fabric of free government rests. That was the Democratic doctrine of State sovereignty. It was called the principal safeguard of popular self-government, and canonized with the name of true and genuine democracy. And now look at some of those monstrous political fallacies in which that doctrine of true self-government and genuine democracy resulted; and when I have stated them you will at once discern their consanguinity with the very arguments which have been urged upon this floor against our Constitutional amendments and that legislation which is necessary to enforce them.

It was held that true liberty implied the right of one man to hold another man as his slave. It was held and believed that the United States could not be a truly republican organization unless the several States had the power to maintain and perpetuate undemocratic institutions. It was held that true self-government consisted in the very fact that the several States of this Union should have the power to exclude any number, however large, of their population from the exercise of all the functions of self-government. In other words, you, my Democratic friends, in the name of liberty asserted the right of one man, under State law, to deprive another man of his freedom; in the name of democracy you asserted the right of one class of people under State law to rule despotically over another class; in the name of self-government you asserted the right of the States to exclude a large portion, sometimes even amounting to a majority of their population, from all participation in self-government. Now, my friend from New Jersey will permit me to say that I, and those who like me left their old homes, did by no means come to this country for the purpose of maintaining and perpetuating such blessings of liberty and self-government.

Sir, you would search the history of the aberrations of the human mind in vain for an array of logical contradictions more glaring and monstrous, for a structure of political fallacies more bare-faced, more audacious, more wicked and more mischievous. There never was a more transparent attempt to hide the most odious and arbitrary despotism under the guise of democratic professions; and it is indeed surprising how such a tissue of false pretenses could ever have survived a moment's unprejudiced scrutiny; but more surprising still it is that even at this day something akin to it should find a voice on the floor of the American Senate.

Finally that structure of fallacies, still so overshadowing but ten short years ago, tumbled down. It fell after having heaped outrage after outrage upon the dignity of human nature; after having for generations befogged the minds, corrupted the logic and debauched the moral sense of the American people; after having well-nigh poisoned our whole political life; after having involved this country in the most irrepressible of conflicts. It fell after having arrayed man against man in bloody struggle; after having devoured five hundred thousand of the children of this Republic and untold millions of our treasure. It was finally overthrown by the shock of the great revolution. And what did that revolution put in its place? It gave us three great amendments to the National Constitution. The first ordains that no State shall henceforth have the power to introduce or maintain slavery or involuntary servitude. The second ordains that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the States in which they reside and that no State shall henceforth have the power to make or enforce any law abridging the privileges and immunities of citizens of the Republic. The third ordains that no State shall abridge the right of suffrage of any citizen on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. And all three empower Congress to pass appropriate legislation for their enforcement.

That is the result of the great Constitutional revolution. What does this result signify? The war grew out of the systematic violation of individual rights by State authority. The war ended with the vindication of individual rights by the National power. The revolution found the rights of the individual at the mercy of the States; it rescued them from their arbitrary discretion, and placed them under the shield of National protection. It made the liberty and rights of every citizen in every State a matter of National concern. Out of a Republic of arbitrary local organizations it made a Republic of equal citizens—citizens exercising the right of self-government under and through the States, but as to their rights as citizens not subject to the arbitrary will of the States. It grafted upon the Constitution of the United States the guarantee of National citizenship; and it empowered Congress, as the organ of the National will, to enforce that guarantee by National legislation. That is the meaning of that great revolution; and if Democratic Senators denounce the bill at present before us as its offspring they are welcome. I accept the name.

Now, sir, what is the scope and purpose of this bill? It provides that no State shall enforce a law with regard to elections, or the processes preliminary to elections, in which in any way, either directly or indirectly, discrimination is made against any citizen on account of race, color or previous condition; and when any citizen is hindered in the exercise of the right of suffrage by means of fraud, intimidation or violence, or misuse of official power, the offender shall be brought to trial and punishment by a court of the United States. And for this the bill provides the necessary machinery. In other words, neither a State nor an individual shall deprive any citizen of the United States, on account of race or color, of the free exercise of his right to participate in the functions of self-government; and the National Government assumes the duty to prevent the commission of the crime, and to correct its consequences when committed. That is all.

If we were to judge the character and tendency of this bill from the expressions used by our Democratic associates in denouncing it, we should think that we were about to perpetrate the most horrible crime against the rights of man and human liberty ever conceived by the human imagination. It is as if the democratic institutions of this country were about to receive their death-blow, while we contemplate nothing but to secure every citizen of the United States in the free and full enjoyment of those democratic institutions.

What are the objections? It is, I believe, not pretended that the bill in its general scope and purpose runs against the Constitution as improved by the fifteenth amendment; but it is objected that the bill is uncalled for, on the ground that nothing has been done in the different States to show the necessity of any such legislation. Sir, is this true? Can this assertion be maintained even a single moment? For generations the practices of slavery have controlled the minds and moral views of the people of the Southern States. Popular prejudice, so long nourished by those practices, was naturally arrayed against the enfranchisement of the former slave, and the beneficent agency of time has by no means been sufficient yet to allay it, whatever improvement we may observe. Joined to the prejudice of race, the jealousy of political power conspires against a fair execution of the fifteenth amendment, and in view of these opposing forces, who will deny that this legislation to enforce it is necessary?

Nay, more than that. The very Senators on this floor who pretend that the passage of this bill is not called for by circumstances go so far as to throw doubt upon the validity of the fifteenth amendment, thus exciting the worst passions of the disturbing element in the South to do all within their power to defeat the purposes of this Constitutional provision. Is it not so? And while on the one hand themselves fanning the flame, they on the other hand deny the necessity of quenching it. Will it be unfair to assume under such circumstances that while denouncing this legislation as uncalled for they merely desire to defeat the purposes of the fifteenth amendment?

The Senator from Maryland urged another argument, which at first sight seems to have some plausibility. He says that the Constitutional amendment is one of the great prohibitory clauses, as we find them in several places and on several subjects in the Constitution of the United States, and that with regard to them enforcing legislation had never been thought necessary. Suppose this to be so; can he tell me why it was deemed indispensable to affix to the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments the express provision that Congress should have the power to enforce them by appropriate legislation? The Senator from Maryland says that Congress had that power anyhow. I suppose so; but why was the power never so emphatically and expressly asserted as in these three cases? Simply because it was known that the recent three amendments had to be enforced in the States lately in armed insurrection, against the opposition of prejudice, habit and political passion. Is not the distinction obvious? Is not the intent of those who drafted the amendments and provided for the express grant of power clear as sunlight? Is not the necessity of using that grant of power equally evident?

Now, sir, I will not go into the discussion of the argument offered by Democratic Senators against the details of this bill. I know there are several provisions which are objectionable. I admit it frankly. I do think that the section which confers by implication upon the President power to surround the polls with the military forces of the United States ought not to be raised to the dignity of a permanent law. I know that such a law would be repugnant to the genius of free institutions, and that it is considered so all over the world. So it is with the other clause providing that the President shall have the power to command a judge to go here and to go there; and further, it is in my opinion of doubtful propriety to stimulate the desire of a citizen to secure his rights by the mercenary consideration of money. It does appear to me if a man has not spirit enough to do it for the sake of his rights, he ought not to be permitted to do it for the sake of so many dollars. And I here express my hope that the Senate will strike out these obnoxious provisions.

But as to the whole machinery of the bill, I think the Senator from Ohio was not quite justified in waving off so lightly the argument which was employed against him by my friend from Vermont that the Democrats had found that legal machinery not only constitutional, but positively admirable when it was used to enforce the fugitive-slave law, while they denounce it as detestable and infamous now. The Senator from Ohio knows very well that a legal machinery used for a laudable purpose may be very praiseworthy, while it is most reprehensible when used for evil; and so the Senator from Vermont was certainly right when he blamed the Democrats for calling this machinery all possible bad names when it is to be used in the service of the constitutional rights of freemen, while they had upheld it as most rightful and necessary, and denounced everybody as a traitor who would not help in executing it, when it was to serve in the unholy work of returning fugitive slaves, who sought their freedom, to bondage and misery.

But here is another question of interest. Does this bill really take away from the States the power to legislate on the subject? Look at it closely. Does it? Not at all, sir. It leaves the States just as free as they ever were to legislate for the prompt and vigorous enforcement of protection of the right of every voter to the free exercise of the suffrage. Does it not? In that respect it does not impose the least restriction on the power of the States. In that direction the States may go just as far as they please. But the bill does provide that a State shall no longer have the power to swindle any of its citizens out of their rights.

A State shall have full power to do that which is right in its own way; but it is prohibited from doing that which is wrong in any way. It is this, I suppose, that Democrats will insist upon calling an arbitrary limitation of State rights. Or is it true, what is asserted also, that this legislation does not find anything analogous in the Constitution of the United States? In the Constitution, sir, we find one clause which ordains that no State shall have the power to grant titles of nobility. What does that mean? It means that no State shall elevate, by the grant of privileges, one class of its citizens above the rest. And what is contemplated by the fifteenth amendment and by the law designed to enforce it? That no State shall have the power to degrade, by the withholding of rights, any portion of its citizens below the rest. Is not the correspondence here evident? But here suddenly the indignation of our Democratic friends is aroused, and in the prohibition to degrade men they find an intolerable encroachment on State-rights and local self-government. And just there, I apprehend, is the rub. It is not so much the technicalities of the bill; it is the spirit, the purpose of the bill they oppose. It is as the Senator from Maryland has just openly and boldly proclaimed, that if the bill were ever so perfect, he would vote against it on general principles. He nods his assent; and I am sure I cannot mistake him; and the same thing we have been given to understand by every Democratic Senator who has addressed the Senate on this question.

Let us see what their complaints are, then. Strip them of all the verbiage of technical points, sift them to the bottom, and you will find there a residue of the old pro-slavery logic still. As they once asserted that true liberty implied the right of one man to hold another man as his slave, they will tell you now that they are no longer true freemen in their States because under the authority of the States they can no longer deprive other men of their rights. As they once asserted that true self-government consisted in the power of a State to exclude a large portion of its citizens from self-government, so they will say now that we strike a blow at self-government because we insist upon legislation securing every citizen of the States in the enjoyment of self-government. Is it not so?

Destruction of self-government! What a prodigious discovery our Democratic associates have made! Sir, it is not because this bill lays its hands upon self-government to destroy it, but because by the fifteenth amendment, and the legislation made in pursuance thereof, the general sway of self-government is to be for the first time established all over this country, that I am in favor of the principles of this act. What is true self-government? What does it consist in? True self-government consists in a political organization of society which secures to the generality of its members, that is to say, to the whole people, and not to a part of them only, the right and the means to coöperate in the management of their common affairs, either directly, or, where direct action is impossible, by a voluntary delegation of power. It ceases to be true self-government as soon as the powers of government are conferred as an exclusive privilege on one portion of the people and are withheld from the rest. And how is self-government exercised? By the right of suffrage. The representative system knows no other instrumentality. Suffrage is the means by which it lives and breathes.

To make self-government true, general and secure, therefore, the right of suffrage must be made secure to the generality of the citizens. You limit the right of suffrage by arbitrary exclusions, and just in that measure and to that extent will you impair the integrity of self-government. Protect every citizen in the free exercise of the right of suffrage and you do the thing best calculated to make self-government a general and living reality. I do not express any opinion here of the policy of restricting suffrage by an educational test, for it will not affect the principle.

And now the Democrats accuse us of destroying self-government by the very means which are instrumental in securing it in all the subdivisions of the Republic. I repeat, there never was a more preposterous charge. Sir, in a very large portion of this Republic that which could justly be called self-government of the people never existed. Now, at last, we are establishing it there by placing the right of suffrage on the broadest democratic basis, thus making the people of all the States, in the true sense of the term, self-governing bodies. And it is for this that we are denounced by our Democratic friends here as the sworn enemies of self-government and State-rights. Sir, I apprehend it is not for self-government and State-rights that our Democratic associates are standing up; but, drawing logical conclusions from the reasoning they have been indulging in, it is for State wrongs they contend. It is not for the liberty of all, but it is for the liberty of one to restrict and impair the liberty of another. It is not for true self-government of the people, but it is for the government of one part of the people over another part.

The time is past, sir, when the cry of State-rights will serve as a guise for such pretensions. I, too, am a friend and earnest advocate of State-rights, as far as State-rights are the embodiment of true local self-government. True, I do not cling to those traditional notions which an historical period now passed by and absolved has brought down to us. I do not cherish that sentimental—I might almost say that superstitious—reverence for individual States, which attributes to them as historical persons a sort of transcendental sanctity; but I do believe that their value can hardly be overestimated as compact political sub-organizations, through which and in which the self-government of the people is exercised, and within which it finds its most appropriate and efficient organs. I am therefore in favor of leaving to the States as large a scope of independent action as may be consistent with the safety of the Republic and the rights of the citizens.

In fact, sir, in my opinion, true local self-government is the great fountain from which the popular mind draws its healthiest and most invigorating inspirations. It is not only a machinery of political action, but it is one of the most efficient educational agencies of our social system. There is nothing better calculated to make a man understand and protect his interests, nothing more inspiring and instructive to the heart and mind of man than the independent management of his own affairs, upon his own responsibility; and there is nothing more inspiring and invigorating to a community of men, than free coöperation for common ends on a common responsibility in which the interest of each individual is involved.

That, sir, is what puts men upon their own feet. When they have accustomed themselves to depend on their own wisdom or energy for success, and to blame themselves and not others for failure and mishap in individual and common concerns, then they will become truly independent beings, such as the citizens of a democratic republic ought to be. Therefore, it is of high importance that as many responsibilities as possible should be laid at the door of every citizen by local self-government.

We are apt to grow eloquent in the praise of the educational systems established in many of our States. They are, indeed, praiseworthy: and yet they are as such by no means superior to the educational systems enjoyed in some other countries.

It may be said that in some German States the system is even better developed than in the most advanced States of New England; and yet we perceive here a higher average of popular intelligence. We find that the American is generally quicker of perception, readier in the comprehension of the practical problems of life, more vigorous and energetic in action, than people formed by a better school system elsewhere. Why is this so? Not because our babies are born smarter here; not because our boys and girls learn to read, write and cipher better in our schools; not because their instruction in geography and natural science is more thorough; but the reason is, that as soon as the young American issues from the hands of his schoolmaster and enters the arena of practical life, he finds in the rights and duties and responsibilities of self-government a more powerful incentive and a larger field for the exercise of all his faculties and for the immediate application of all his acquirements. Thus self-government and popular education aid, inspire and complement one another; and hence the great results we observe.

And now let me impress upon our Democratic friends that for this very reason nothing is more important, nay, more necessary, for the harmonious development of the social forces of this Republic, as they now stand side by side and have to work together, than that all, even the lowliest classes of the people, should be drawn within the circle of this beneficent combination of educational influences, and that they should be carefully protected in their complete enjoyment. And if you study our social problems without prejudice you will find that just this is one of the most valuable results of that Constitutional revolution which so sorely distresses the Democratic mind.

But for the precise reason which I have just indicated the revolution which is to protect all American citizens in the exercise of self-government ought not to be carried so far as to encroach upon its legitimate scope. I am, therefore, strenuously opposed to all unnecessary accumulation of powers in the hands of the General Government, and especially to any undue centralization of administrative functions. In my opinion, and I say this to my party friends, it would be well for us to bridle that tendency which we have so frequently had occasion to observe, to thrust the hand of the National Government into local affairs on every possible occasion, and even to disregard and throw aside the most fundamental safeguards of popular rights for the correction of passing abuses.

I know it is fashionable to call that radicalism; but I apprehend it is false radicalism in the highest degree. We ought not to accustom ourselves, nor those who are to follow us in these seats, to the employment of arbitrary powers, and still less ought we to accustom the people to look always to the National Government for redress whenever anything goes wrong in their home concerns. Destroy their habit of holding themselves responsible for the management of their home affairs, deprive them of the great lesson of failure to be corrected by themselves, and they will soon cease to study and understand the nature of the evils under which they labor, as well as the remedies to be applied. Thus the educating power of our institutions will be fatally impaired.

There can be nothing more preposterous, in my opinion, than the system prevailing in some foreign countries, where the people are permitted to vote upon the greatest and most complicated questions of general policy while they are not permitted to manage upon their own responsibility their home affairs at their own doors; the great popular school of political knowledge and experience, which consists in self-government, being thus closed to them. Certainly, it is not to be wondered at if in such countries universal suffrage becomes a mere instrument in the hands of despotism; an instrument which, indeed, may serve from time to time to subvert one form of despotism, but only to substitute for it another.

Therefore I am for State-rights as the embodiment of true and general self-government, and I am convinced that this is the prevailing sentiment among the American people. It would be a sad day for this Republic if it should cease to be so. It is true the exigencies of the civil war have quite naturally developed a tendency to accumulate and centralize power in the hands of the National Government, and while that accumulation was necessary to save the existence of the Republic, the people of the United States willingly and patriotically and cheerfully acquiesced in it; but as soon as the pressure of necessity ceases, as soon as it becomes apparent that the great problems for the solution of which we are struggling may be solved just as well by the simple operations of local self-government as by the interference of the National power, then the tide will just as certainly set in the opposite direction. I am sure the people of the United States will never countenance an accumulation of power merely for power's sake, and the Republican party will do well to consider whether it is not better for their usefulness and ascendancy to direct than to resist that tide.

For this reason I earnestly deprecate those hazardous interpretations which have been applied to that clause of the Constitution which makes it the duty of the United States to guarantee to every State a republican form of government. I certainly recognize that duty as a great, solemn and sacred one; but I deny that it confers upon the National Government the power to do all within the range of the human imagination. I deny that it authorizes or enables us to use the arm of the National authority for the purpose of realizing by force what conception each of us may entertain of the “ideal republic.”

In whatever way political philosophers may define the term “a republican form of government,” it seems to me that the Constitution of the United States in its amended, or, as our Democratic friends would have it, in its revolutionized state, has provisions which give a fair index of the powers conferred upon Congress by the guaranty clause. There we read that Congress shall see to it that no State establishes or maintains slavery or involuntary servitude; there we read that Congress shall see to it that every man born upon this soil or naturalized, and therefore a citizen of the United States, shall be protected in all the rights, privileges and immunities of citizens in every State of this Union; there we read that Congress shall see to it that every citizen of the United States shall be protected in his right to the ballot, irrespective of race or color.

But the Constitutional revolution has enlarged the powers of Congress for the purpose of establishing and securing true and general self-government in all of these States, not for the purpose of circumscribing its scope and functions within narrower limits. It has, indeed, overthrown what I call State wrongs; but it was not designed to abolish what I would call the legitimate sphere of State-rights. And I venture to say—and I cannot repeat this warning too often—the party which would attempt to carry that revolution much farther in the direction of an undue centralization of power would run against a popular instinct far stronger than party allegiance has ever proved to be.

But, sir, on the other hand, the party that would refuse to recognize and acquiesce in the great results of this beneficent revolution; the party that would attempt to subvert the institution of general self-government under National protection, as now established in the Constitution; the party that would strive to overthrow this new order of things, such a party certainly cannot fail to encounter the condemnation of the people and to meet disgrace and destruction, for such a party openly, by its own confession, constitutes itself the enemy of the peace and glory of this Republic. And I would say to my friend from New Jersey that I did not come to this country, where I hope to enjoy the blessings of liberty and self-government, to aid any party in designs like these.

Now, sir, permit me to address a few words to the leaders of the Democratic organization on this floor; and they know I speak to them as men whose character and ability I esteem, and whose personal friendship I value. You, gentlemen, tell us that you are in favor of true self-government. If you really are, look around you and see how much you can do to contribute to its success and security. In your party are the men who threaten and endanger it by the most iniquitous attempts to deprive certain classes of people of their political rights by fraud, intimidation and violence; thus to subvert the new order of things, throwing the country into chaos again. Your voices are potent with them; not ours. If you really are true friends to self-government, then let your voices be heard in condemnation of the disastrous course so many of your friends are still following. Let them be loudly heard in favor of the great principle of equal rights, the only basis upon which the political future of this Republic can develop itself.

You, gentlemen, tell us that you are opposed to an undue assumption and exercise of power on the part of the General Government. If you are, see how powerfully you can aid in preventing it by removing all those reasons and causes and pretexts which may bring it on. What are those reasons and causes? Do they not consist in those disorders which are troubling the people of the South as to the safety of the Unionists and the rights of the newly-enfranchised, disorders invariably excited by men who profess to belong to your party? And do you not know as well as I that as soon as the people of the United States once apprehend that a serious reaction, with only an apparent chance of success, is set on foot against the great results of the war, the tide of public sentiment will just as surely and promptly set back in favor of a more extended and vigorous exertion of the National power, and you will be impotent to arrest it? For there are certain things in regard to which the American people will not permit themselves to be trifled with; and foremost among those things stand the great results which we have so laboriously evolved out of the civil war now behind us. There is the danger; and he who is no enemy to self-government, he who is no friend to a dangerous accumulation of power, will certainly use every endeavor to avert it. For our part we would much rather reason down the disturbers of the peace in the South than strike them down; but to our voices they will not listen; to yours they will. They are within the reach of your persuasion. There is the field where you can prove your devotion to self-government and your dislike of centralized power.

You tell us also, gentlemen, that legislation like this is odious to you. Look around you and see how much you can do to make it superfluous. We, too, should be glad never to be under the necessity of resorting to it. If you want to avoid it the means is simple. Prevail upon your friends never to threaten or trouble any class of voters in the free exercise of their rights, have those rights secured and protected by appropriate State legislation, and that State legislation respected by your friends, and such measures as this will never be practically applied. Nay, more than that, if you are really in earnest, then I would advise you to accept this measure as a gage of good faith instead of opposing it. It would be far better than your attempts to throw doubt upon the legality of the Constitutional amendments, your studious efforts to hold out to your partisans the prospect of their overthrow, and of the subversion of all that has been accomplished for the final settlement of our controversies and the peace of the country.

Yes, make up your minds, gentlemen, to the fact that your old doctrines are exploded forever and cannot be revived. Give up your useless and disturbing agitation against accomplished results. Go to your Southern friends and counsel them not to ruin themselves by vainly resisting the inevitable. Thus you will do more for the cause of self-government, more to prevent a dangerous centralization of power, you will render a far higher service to this generation and to posterity, than by indulging in those lugubrious wails and lamentations to which you have accustomed us on the floor of the Senate—the lamentation that we are governed by an atrocious despotism because one man shall no longer have the right to deprive another man of his rights; that self-government has received its death-blow because nobody shall henceforth be excluded from its exercise, and that liberty has fled forever from these shores because at last the Republic has thrown her protecting shield over the rights of all, even the lowliest of her children.

Mr. President, I do not stand here to plead the cause of my party only. If I did so, if there were nothing nearer and dearer to my heart than partisan success and partisan power, I should hold very different language. I would then say to my Democratic friends, “By all means go on with your opposition against the results of the war; go on with your mischievous warfare against the new order of things; go on with vain and disturbing agitation to restore what has ceased to be and can never again be;” for if they do, they will only prove that they are still living in a past which this Nation has long outgrown; that they are still bent upon sacrificing the interests of the living generation to idols which are dead; that they are still bound to keep open the wounds of the past, and to defeat those hopes of peace and good understanding which the country so fondly cherishes, and the realization of which depends entirely upon a final settlement of the controversies which the war has left to us. And thus exhibiting their unwillingness to understand and appreciate the exigencies of the present, they will demonstrate even to the dullest mind their incapacity to control our future; and then the people of the United States, sagacious and prudent as they are, will appreciate the fact and treat them accordingly. Acting thus, our opponents will only condemn themselves to continued impotency.

If, therefore, I pleaded for nothing but the interest of my party I would encourage them to persevere in their course. But I plead for the cause of our country—for its peace, its prosperity, its happiness and its good name; and I cannot permit myself to forget that the people will not be secure in the enjoyment of those blessings as long as there is a large and influential party insidiously striving to undermine the foundation upon which alone they can grow, and to plunge the country again into the confusion of endless and bitter struggles. It is for this reason that I entreat our Democratic friends to desist from their disturbing and most mischievous agitation.

Some time ago my friend from New Jersey closed his speech on the admission of the Senator from Mississippi [Mr. Revels], who is the first representative of the colored race on this floor, with a most eloquent and touching appeal in favor of peace, harmony and good understanding; so eloquent, indeed, as to cause the usual decorum of the Senate to be broken by demonstrations of applause. I take that Senator at his word. Yes, let there be peace and harmony and good understanding, and let us all unite in doing the one thing needful to bring it about. The Senator must instinctively feel what that one thing needful is. He cannot conceal from his own eyes that there is but one settlement of our present controversy possible; that only one can be final, permanent and conclusive; and that is, the settlement which we advocate. He must see that the black man, being once admitted to the polls, the decree cannot be reversed. He must see that those broad hints, so frequently thrown out by Democratic Senators in the course of this very debate, that the fifteenth amendment is invalid and may still at some future time be overthrown, can only serve to encourage the false hopes of the rebel element in the South, can only serve to excite the worst impulses in an unthinking multitude in the North and can result in nothing but mischief, the most wanton, the most cruel mischief.

If the honorable Senator from New Jersey is really so ardent a friend of peace, harmony and fraternal feeling, let him go among his associates and tell them,

Enough of this; it is better to be right by the light of to-day than to be consistent with the errors of yesterday. If there lingers in your hearts a doubt as to the legality of the ratification of these Constitutional amendments, in the name of all that is good and great, waive that doubt; waive it for the peace of the country; waive it for the sake of those great interests which we are all called upon to serve. Do not insist upon exciting the evil passions which with so much trouble we have at last succeeded in quieting; do not tear open the wounds of the past again; do not torment the country with new struggles about those fearful questions which have kept the people so long in restless agitation, and are now at last on the point of final settlement, if we only permit them to be settled.

In uniting his party upon such a platform, the platform of such noble and conciliatory sentiments, my friend from New Jersey, who addressed me so eloquently yesterday, would do an act worthy of himself; he would render an inestimable service to our common country; and he might then at last even stagger my conviction, a conviction I have been compelled to entertain so far, that the blessings of liberty and self-government which I came to enjoy in this country, would be very unsafe if unfortunately the party of which he is a member should again obtain possession of the powers of the National Government.

But, sir, if the leaders of the Democratic party will not listen to language like this, then I think we shall be safe in taking an appeal to the masses. The people of the United States will see, if the Democratic leaders do not, that of all the policies thought of for the settlement of pending controversies, that proposed by the Republican party, the settlement of equal rights and general self-government, is the only one which by any possibility can be final and conclusive, for it is the only one in full accordance with the genius of republican institutions. The people will see, if the Democratic leaders do not, that the highest interests of the country demand that settlement to be made promptly and without cavil; for without it we shall not obtain that peace which is necessary to enable us to devote our whole attention to those moral and material problems of the present and future which so loudly call for solution. The people will, if the Democratic leaders do not, appreciate the greatness and beneficence of the idea upon which the new order of things, the settlement we propose, rests—true and general self-government exercised in and through the States; States whose power moves independently in its appropriate sphere; potent in doing that which is right; impotent to abridge the rights of even the meanest of their people; and the protecting shield of the National authority thrown over all.

The transcendent greatness of this consummation the American people will appreciate and I trust they will take good care not to put the National power into the hands of any men or of any organization of men who still speak of overthrowing the great Constitutional amendments, the price of so much blood and anxiety and struggle, the only safe foundation for the future peace and glory of this Republic.

  1. Speech in the United States Senate, May 19, 1870. The Senate had under consideration the bill (H. R. No. 1203) to enforce the rights of citizens of the United States to vote in the several States of this Union, who had been denied the right on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.
  2. Wikisource note: John Potter Stockton's remarks of May 18, 1870 contain the following paragraph:

    But why pass any of these bills? Must the President have authority to order the judges about as if they were his satellites? Must the judiciary be prostrated before the military and executive power of the country? For the first time are you to lay violent hands on the independence of the courts? And why, in connection with that, in close proximity, must armed bands for the first time by Federal authority surround out polls? With a prostrate judiciary, with armed men around the polls, my distinguished friend, the Senator from Missouri, [Mr. Schurz,] may see scenes that he little dreamed of seeing when he came to this country, coming, as many of his countrymen have, to this land, leaving their homes that are still as dear to them, and dearer than the hour the left, seeking what? Seeking for personal liberty, for personal freedom. They sing the songs of the fatherland still in this country; they play the games of the fatherland. They came here, not that the skies are brighter or the grass is greener here than in the old country—they came here to seek constitutional freedom, constitutional liberty, and that they might claim that in the face of Heaven and before all men; and, Mr. President, while I live, notwithstanding all that I have seen since I have been in Congress, I intend to the best of my humble ability to try to live a freeman. And, sir, I can tell the Senators from New England that they had better look back at the history of their country and the motives that actuated the settlers that came here. They are very fond of talking to us of Plymouth Rock. Let them remember what brought the Mayflower across the ocean, and when they think of it with pride, as they have a right to do, let them not forget the principles that underlay it.—The Congressional Globe, 41st Congress, 2nd Session, p. 3568.