The Writings of Carl Schurz/General Amnesty


Mr. President:—When this debate commenced before the holidays, I refrained from taking part in it, and from expressing my opinions on some of the provisions of the bill now before us, hoping as I did that the measure could be passed without difficulty, and that a great many of those who now labor under political disabilities would be immediately relieved. This expectation was disappointed. An amendment to the bill was adopted. It will have to go back to the House of Representatives now unless by some parliamentary means we get rid of the amendment, and there being no inducement left to waive what criticism we might feel inclined to bring forward, we may consider the whole question open.

I beg leave to say that I am in favor of general, or as this word is considered more expressive, universal amnesty, believing as I do that the reasons which make it desirable that there should be amnesty granted at all, make it also desirable that the amnesty should be universal. The Senator from South Carolina [Mr. Sawyer] has already given notice that he will move to strike out the exceptions from the operation of this act of relief for which the bill provides. If he had not declared his intention to that effect, I would do so. In any event, whenever he offers his amendment I shall most heartily support it.

In the course of this debate we have listened to some Senators, as they conjured up before our eyes once more all the horrors of the rebellion, the wickedness of its conception, how terrible its incidents were and how harrowing its consequences. Sir, I admit it all; I will not combat the correctness of the picture; and yet, if I differ with the gentlemen who drew it, it is because, had the conception of the rebellion been still more wicked, had its incidents been still more terrible, its consequences still more harrowing, I could not permit myself to forget that in dealing with the question now before us we have to deal not alone with the past, but with the present and future interests of this Republic.

What do we want to accomplish as good citizens and patriots? Do we mean only to inflict upon late rebels pain, degradation, mortification, annoyance, for its own sake, to torture their feelings without any ulterior purpose? Certainly such a spirit could not by any possibility animate high-minded men. I presume, therefore, that those who still favor the continuance of some of the disabilities imposed by the fourteenth amendment, do so because they have some higher object of public usefulness in view, an object of public usefulness sufficient to justify, in their minds at least, the denial of rights to others which we ourselves enjoy.

What can those objects of public usefulness be? Let me assume that, if we differ as to the means to be employed, we are agreed as to the supreme end and aim to be reached. That end and aim of our endeavors can be no other than to secure to all the States the blessings of good and free government and the highest degree of prosperity and well-being they can attain, and to revive in all citizens of this Republic that love for the Union and its institutions, and that inspiring consciousness of a common nationality, which, after all, must bind all Americans together.

What are the best means for the attainment of that end? This, sir, as I conceive it, is the only legitimate question we have to decide. Certainly all will agree that this end is far from having been attained so far. Look at the Southern States as they stand before us to-day. Some are in a condition bordering upon anarchy, not only on account of the social disorders which are occurring there, or the inefficiency of their local governments in securing the enforcement of the laws; but you will find in many of them fearful corruption pervading the whole political organization; a combination of rascality and ignorance wielding official power; their finances deranged by profligate practices; their credit ruined; bankruptcy staring them in the face; their industries staggering under a fearful load of taxation; their property-holders and capitalists paralyzed by a feeling of insecurity and distrust almost amounting to despair. Sir, let us not try to disguise these facts, for the world knows them to be so, and knows it but too well.

What are the causes that have contributed to bring about this distressing condition? I admit that great civil wars resulting in such vast social transformations as the sudden abolition of slavery are calculated to produce similar results; but it might be presumed that a recuperative power such as this country possesses might during the time which has elapsed since the close of the war at least have very materially alleviated many of the consequences of that revulsion, had a wise policy been followed.

Was the policy we followed wise? Was it calculated to promote the great purposes we are endeavoring to serve? Let us see. At the close of the war we had to establish and secure free labor and the rights of the emancipated class. To that end we had to disarm those who could have prevented this, and we had to give the power of self-protection to those who needed it. For this reason temporary restrictions were imposed upon the late rebels, and we gave the right of suffrage to the colored people. Until the latter were enabled to protect themselves, political disabilities even more extensive than those which now exist, rested upon the plea of eminent political necessity. I would be the last man to conceal that I thought so then, and I think now there was very good reason for it.

But, sir, when the enfranchisement of the colored people was secured, when they had obtained the political means to protect themselves, then another problem began to loom up. It was not only to find new guaranties for the rights of the colored people, but it was to secure good and honest government for all. Let us not underestimate the importance of that problem, for in a great measure it includes the solution of the other. Certainly, nothing could have been better calculated to remove the prevailing discontent concerning the changes that had taken place, and to reconcile men's minds to the new order of things, than the tangible proof that that new order of things was practically working well; that it could produce a wise and economical administration of public affairs, and that it would promote general prosperity, thus healing the wounds of the past and opening to all the prospect of a future of material well-being and contentment. And, on the other hand, nothing could have been more calculated to impede a general, hearty and honest acceptance of the new order of things by the late rebel population than just those failures of public administration which involve the people in material embarrassments and so seriously disturb their comfort. In fact, good, honest and successful government in the Southern States would in its moral effects, in the long run, have exerted a far more beneficial influence than all your penal legislation, while your penal legislation will fail in its desired effects if we fail in establishing in the Southern States an honest and successful administration of the public business.

Now, what happened in the South? It is a well-known fact that the more intelligent classes of Southern society almost uniformly identified themselves with the rebellion; and by our system of political disabilities just those classes were excluded from the management of political affairs. That they could not be trusted with the business of introducing into living practice the results of the war, to establish true free labor and to protect the rights of the emancipated slaves, is true; I willingly admit it. But when those results and rights were constitutionally secured there were other things to be done. Just at that period when the Southern States lay prostrated and exhausted at our feet, when the destructive besom of war had swept over them and left nothing but desolation and ruin in its track, when their material interests were to be built up again with care and foresight—just then the public business demanded, more than ordinarily, the coöperation of all the intelligence and all the political experience that could be mustered in the Southern States. But just then a large portion of that intelligence and experience was excluded from the management of public affairs by political disabilities, and the controlling power in those States rested in a great measure in the hands of those who had but recently been slaves and just emerged from that condition, and in the hands of others who had sometimes honestly, sometimes by crooked means and for sinister purposes, found a way to their confidence.

This was the state of things as it then existed. Nothing could be farther from my intention than to cast a slur upon the character of the colored people of the South. In fact, their conduct immediately after that great event which struck the shackles of slavery from their limbs was above praise. Look into the history of the world, and you will find that almost every similar act of emancipation, the abolition of serfdom, for instance, was uniformly accompanied by atrocious outbreaks of a revengeful spirit; by the slaughter of nobles and their families, illumined by the glare of their burning castles. Not so here. While all the horrors of San Domingo had been predicted as certain to follow upon emancipation, scarcely a single act of revenge for injuries suffered or for misery endured has darkened the record of the emancipated bondmen of America. And thus their example stands unrivalled in history, and they, as well as the whole American people, may well be proud of it. Certainly, the Southern people should never cease to remember and appreciate it.

But while the colored people of the South thus earned our admiration and gratitude, I ask you in all candor, could they be reasonably expected, when, just after having emerged from a condition of slavery, they were invested with political rights and privileges, to step into the political arena as men armed with the intelligence and experience necessary for the management of public affairs and for the solution of problems made doubly intricate by the disasters which had desolated the Southern country? Could they reasonably be expected to manage the business of public administration, involving to so great an extent the financial interests and the material well-being of the people, and surrounded by difficulties of such fearful perplexity, with the wisdom and skill required by the exigencies of the situation? That as a class they were ignorant and inexperienced and lacked a just conception of public interests, was certainly not their fault; for those who have studied the history of the world know but too well that slavery and oppression are very bad political schools. But the stubborn fact remains that they were ignorant and inexperienced; that the public business was an unknown world to them, and that in spite of the best intentions they were easily misled, not infrequently by the most reckless rascality which had found a way to their confidence. Thus their political rights and privileges were undoubtedly well calculated, and even necessary, to protect their rights as free laborers and citizens; but they were not well calculated to secure a successful administration of other public interests.

I do not blame the colored people for it; still less do I say that for this reason their political rights and privileges should have been denied them. Nay, sir, I deemed it necessary then, and I now reaffirm that opinion, that they should possess those rights and privileges for the permanent establishment of the logical and legitimate results of the war and the protection of their new position in society. But, while never losing sight of this necessity, I do say that the inevitable consequence of the admission of so large an uneducated and inexperienced class to political power, as to the probable mismanagement of the material interests of the social body, should at least have been mitigated by a counterbalancing policy. When ignorance and inexperience were admitted to so large an influence upon public affairs, intelligence ought no longer to so large an extent to have been excluded. In other words, when universal suffrage was granted to secure the equal rights of all, universal amnesty ought to have been granted to make all the resources of political intelligence and experience available for the promotion of the welfare of all.

But what did we do? To the uneducated and inexperienced classes—uneducated and inexperienced, I repeat, entirely without their fault—we opened the road to power; and, at the same time, we condemned a large proportion of the intelligence of those States, of the property-holding, the industrial, the professional, the tax-paying interest, to a worse than passive attitude. We made it, as it were easy for rascals who had gone South in quest of profitable adventure to gain the control of masses so easily misled, by permitting them to appear as the exponents and representatives of the National power and of our policy; and at the same time we branded a large number of men of intelligence, and many of them of personal integrity, whose material interests were so largely involved in honest government, and many of whom would have coöperated in managing the public business with care and foresight—we branded them, I say, as outcasts, telling them that they ought not to be suffered to exercise any influence upon the management of the public business, and that it would be unwarrantable presumption in them to attempt it.

I ask you, sir, could such things fail to contribute to the results we read to-day in the political corruption and demoralization, and in the financial ruin of some of the Southern States? These results are now before us. The mistaken policy may have been pardonable when these consequences were still a matter of conjecture and speculation; but what excuse have we now for continuing it when those results are clear before our eyes, beyond the reach of contradiction?

These considerations would seem to apply more particularly to those Southern States in which the colored element constitutes a very large proportion of the voting body. There is another which applies to all.

When the rebellion stood in arms against us, we fought and overcame force by force. That was right. When the results of the war were first to be established and fixed, we met the resistance they encountered, with that power which the fortunes of war and the revolutionary character of the situation had placed at our disposal. The feelings and prejudices which then stood in our way had under such circumstances but little, if any, claim to our consideration. But when the problem presented itself of securing the permanency, the peaceable development, the successful working of the new institutions we had introduced into our political organism, we had as wise men to take into careful calculation the moral forces we had to deal with; for let us not indulge in any delusion about this: what is to be permanent in a republic like this must be supported by public opinion, it must rest at least upon the willing acquiescence of a large and firm majority of the people.

The introduction of the colored people, the late slaves, into the body politic as voters pointedly affronted the traditional prejudices prevailing among the Southern whites. What should we care about those prejudices? In war, nothing. After the close of the war, in the settlement of peace, not enough to deter us from doing what was right and necessary; and yet, still enough to take them into account when considering the manner in which right and necessity were to be served. Statesmen will care about popular prejudices as physicians will care about the diseased condition of their patients, which they want to ameliorate. Would it not have been wise for us, looking at those prejudices as a morbid condition of the Southern mind, to mitigate, to assuage, to disarm them by prudent measures and thus to weaken their evil influence? We desired the Southern whites to accept in good faith universal suffrage, to recognize the political rights of the colored man and to protect him in their exercise. Was not that our sincere desire? But if it was, would it not have been wise to remove as much as possible the obstacles that stood in the way of that consummation? But what did we do? When we raised the colored people to the rights of active citizenship and opened to them all the privileges of eligibility, we excluded from those privileges a large and influential class of whites; in other words, we lifted the late slave, uneducated and inexperienced as he was,—I repeat, without his fault,—not merely to the level of the late master class, but even above it. We asked certain white men to recognize the colored man in a political status not only as high but even higher than their own. We might say that under the circumstances we had a perfect right to do that, and I will not dispute it; but I ask you most earnestly, sir, was it wise to do it? If you desired the white man to accept and recognize the political equality of the black, was it wise to embitter and to exasperate his spirit with the stinging stigma of his own inferiority? Was it wise to withhold from him privileges in the enjoyment of which he was to protect the late slave? This was not assuaging, disarming prejudice; this was rather inciting, it was exasperating it. American statesmen will understand and appreciate human nature as it has developed itself under the influence of free institutions. We know that if we want any class of people to overcome their prejudices in respecting the political rights and privileges of any other class, the very first thing we have to do is to accord the same rights and privileges to them. No American was ever inclined to recognize in others public rights and privileges from which he himself was excluded; and for aught I know, in this very feeling, although it may take an objectionable form, we find one of the safeguards of popular liberty.

You tell me that the late rebels had deserved all this in the way of punishment. Granting that, I beg leave to suggest that this is not the question. The question is, what were the means best calculated to overcome the difficulties standing in the way of a willing and universal recognition of the new rights and privileges of the emancipated class? What were the means to overcome the hostile influences impeding the development of the harmony of society in its new order? I am far from asserting that, had no disabilities existed, universal suffrage would have been received by the Southern whites with universal favor. No, sir, most probably it would not; but I do assert that the existence of disabilities, which put so large and influential a class of whites in point of political privileges below the colored people, could not fail to inflame those prejudices which stood in the way of a general and honest acceptance of the new order of things. They increased instead of diminishing the dangers and difficulties surrounding the emancipated class. And nobody felt that more keenly than the colored people of the South themselves. To their honor be it said, following a just instinct, they were among the very first, not only in the South but all over the country, in entreating Congress to remove those odious discriminations which put in jeopardy their own rights by making them greater than those of others. From the colored people themselves, it seems, we have in this respect received a lesson in statesmanship.

Well, then, what policy does common-sense suggest to us now? If we sincerely desire to give to the Southern States good and honest government, material prosperity and measurable contentment, as far at least as we can contribute to that end; if we really desire to weaken and disarm those prejudices and resentments which still disturb the harmony of society, will it not be wise, will it not be necessary, will it not be our duty to show that we are in no sense the allies and abettors of those who use their political power to plunder their fellow-citizens, and that we do not mean to keep one class of people in unnecessary degradation by withholding from them rights and privileges which all others enjoy? Seeing the mischief which the system of disabilities is accomplishing, is it not time that there should be at least an end of it? Or is there any good it can possibly do to make up for the harm it has already wrought and is still working?

Look at it. Do these disabilities serve in any way to protect anybody in his rights or in his liberty or in his property or in his life? Does the fact that some men are excluded from office, in any sense or measure, make others more secure in their lives or in their property or in their rights? Can anybody tell me how? Or do they, perhaps, prevent even those who are excluded from official position from doing mischief if they are mischievously inclined? Does the exclusion from office, does any feature of your system of political disabilities, take the revolver or the bowie-knife or the scourge from the hands of any one who wishes to use it? Does it destroy the influence of the more intelligent upon society, if they mean to use that influence for mischievous purposes?

We hear the Ku-Klux outrages spoken of as a reason why political disabilities should not be removed. Did not these very same Ku-Klux outrages happen while disabilities were in existence? Is it not clear, then, that the existence of political disabilities did not prevent them? No, sir, if political disabilities have any practical effect, it is, while not in any degree diminishing the power of the evil-disposed for mischief, to incite and sharpen their mischievous inclination by increasing their discontent with the condition they live in.

It must be clear to every impartial observer that, were ever so many of those who are now disqualified, put in office, they never could do with their official power as much mischief as the mere fact of the existence of the system of political disabilities with its inevitable consequences is doing to-day. The scandals of misgovernment in the South which we complain of, I admit, were not the first and original cause of the Ku-Klux outrages. But every candid observer will also have to admit that they did serve to keep the Ku-Klux spirit alive. Without such incitement it might gradually by this time, to a great extent at least, have spent itself. And now, if the scandals of misgovernment were, partly at least, owing to the exclusion of so large a portion of the intelligence and experience of the South from the active management of affairs, must it not be clear that a measure which will tend to remedy this evil, may also tend to reduce the causes which still disturb the peace and harmony of society?

We accuse the Southern whites of having missed their chance of gaining the confidence of the emancipated class when, by a fairly demonstrated purpose of recognizing and protecting them in their rights, they might have acquired upon them a salutary influence. That accusation is by no means unjust; but must we not admit, also, that by excluding them from their political rights and privileges we put the damper of most serious discouragement upon the good intentions which might have grown up among them? Let us place ourselves in their situation, and then I ask you, how many of us would, under the same circumstances, have risen above the ordinary impulses of human nature to exert a salutary influence in defiance of our own prejudices, being so pointedly told every day that it was not the business of those laboring under political disabilities to meddle with public affairs at all? And thus, in whatever direction you may turn your eyes, you look in vain for any practical good your political disabilities might possibly accomplish. You find nothing, absolutely nothing, in their practical effects but the aggravation of evils already existing and the prevention of a salutary development.

Is it not the part of wise men, sir, to acknowledge the failure of a policy like this in order to remedy it, especially since every candid mind must recognize that by continuing the mistake, absolutely no practical good can be subserved?

But I am told that the system of disabilities must be maintained for a certain moral effect. The Senator from Indiana [Mr. Morton] took great pains to inform us that it is absolutely necessary to exclude somebody from office in order to demonstrate our disapprobation of the crime of rebellion. Methinks the American people have signified their disapprobation of the crime of rebellion in a far more pointed manner. They sent against the rebellion a million armed men. We fought and conquered the armies of the rebels; we carried desolation into their land; we swept out of existence that system of slavery which was the soul of their offense and was to be the corner-stone of their new empire. If that was not signifying our disapprobation of the crime of rebellion, then I humbly submit, your system of political disabilities, only excluding some persons from office, will scarcely do it.

I remember, also, to have heard the argument that under all circumstances the law must be vindicated. What law in this case? If any law is meant, it must be the law imposing the penalty of death upon the crime of treason. Well, if at the close of the war we had assumed the stern and bloody virtue of the ancient Roman, and had proclaimed that he who raises his hand against this Republic must surely die, then we might have claimed for ourselves at least the merit of logical consistency. We might have thought that by erecting a row of gallows stretching from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, and by making a terrible example of all those who had proved faithless to their allegiance, we would strike terror into the hearts of this and coming generations, to make them tremble at the mere thought of treasonable undertakings. That we might have done. Why did we not? Because the American people instinctively recoiled from the idea; because every wise man remembered that where insurrections are punished and avenged with the bloodiest hands, there insurrections do most frequently occur; witness France and Spain and the southern part of this hemisphere; that there is a fascination in bloody reckonings which allures instead of repelling—a fascination like that of the serpent's eye, which irresistibly draws on its victim. The American people recoiled from it, because they felt and knew that the civilization of the nineteenth century has for such evils a better medicine than blood.

Thus, sir, the penalty of treason as provided for by law remained a dead letter on the statute-book, and we instinctively adopted a generous policy, adding fresh luster to the glory of the American name by doing so. And now you would speak of vindicating the law against treason, which demands death, by merely excluding a number of persons from eligibility to office! Do you not see that, as a vindication of the law against treason, as an act of punishment, the system of disabilities sinks down to the level of a ridiculous mockery? If you want your system of disabilities to appear at all in a respectable light, then, in the name of common-sense, do not call it a punishment for treason. Standing there, as it does, stripped of all the justification it once derived from political necessity, it would appear only as the evidence of an impotent desire to be severe without the courage to carry it out.

But having once adopted the policy of generosity, the only question for us is how to make that policy most fruitful. The answer is: We shall make the policy of generosity most fruitful by making it most complete.

The Senator from Connecticut [Mr. Buckingham], whom I am so unfortunate as not to see in his seat to-day, when he opened the debate, endeavored to fortify his theory by an illustration borrowed from the Old Testament, and I am willing to take that illustration off his hands. He asked: “If Absalom had lived after his treason and had been excluded from his father's table, would he have had a just reason to complain of an unjust deprivation of rights?” It seems to me that story of Absalom contains a most excellent lesson, which the Senate of the United States ought to read correctly. For the killing of his brother, Absalom had lived in banishment from which the King, his father, permitted him to return; but the wayward son was but half pardoned, for he was not permitted to see his father's face. And it was for that reason, and then, that he went among the people to seduce them into a rebellion against his royal father's authority. Had he survived that rebellion, King David, as a prudent statesman, would either have killed his son Absalom or he would have admitted him to his table, in order to make him a good son again by unstinted fatherly love. But he would certainly not have permitted his son Absalom to run at large, capable of doing mischief, and at the same time by small measures of degradation inciting him to do it. And that is just the policy we have followed. We have permitted the late rebels to run at large, capable of doing mischief, and then by small measures of degradation, utterly useless for any good purpose, we incited them to do it. Looking at your political disabilities with an impartial eye, you will find that, as a measure of punishment, they did not go far enough; as a measure of policy they went much too far. We were far too generous to subjugate the hearts of our late enemies by terror; and we mixed our generosity with just enough of bitterness to prevent it from bearing its full fruit. I repeat, we can make the policy of generosity most fruitful only by making it most complete. What objection, then, can stand against this consideration of public good?

You tell me that many of the late rebels do not deserve a full restoration of their rights. That may be so; I do not deny it; but yet, sir, if many of them do not deserve it, is it not a far more important consideration how much the welfare of the country will be promoted by it?

I am told that many of the late rebels, if we volunteer a pardon to them, would not appreciate it. I do not deny this; it may be so, for the race of fools, unfortunately, is not all extinct yet; but if they do not appreciate it, shall we have no reason to appreciate the great good which by this measure of generosity will be conferred upon the whole land?

Some Senator, referring to a defaulting paymaster who experienced the whole rigor of the law, asked us, “When a poor defaulter is punished, shall a rebel go free? Is embezzlement a greater crime than treason?” No, sir, it is not; but again I repeat, that is not the question. The question is whether a general amnesty to rebels is not far more urgently demanded by the public interest than a general pardon for thieves. Whatever may be said of the greatness and the heinous character of the crime of rebellion, a single glance at the history of the world and at the practice of other nations will convince you, that in all civilized countries the measure of punishment to be visited on those guilty of that crime is almost uniformly treated as a question of great policy and almost never as a question of strict justice. And why is this? Why is it that a thief, although pardoned, will never again be regarded as an untainted member of society, while a pardoned rebel may still rise to the highest honors of the State, and sometimes even gain the sincere and general esteem and confidence of his countrymen? Because a broad line of distinction is drawn between a violation of law in which political opinion is the controlling element (however erroneous, nay however revolting that opinion may be, and however disastrous the consequences of the act) and those infamous crimes of which moral depravity is the principal ingredient; and because even the most disastrous political conflicts may be composed for the common good by a conciliatory process, while the infamous crime always calls for a strictly penal correction. You may call this just or not, but such is the public opinion of the civilized world, and you find it in every civilized country.

Look at the nations around us. In the Parliament of Germany how many men are there sitting who were once what you would call fugitives from justice, exiles on account of their revolutionary acts, now admitted to the great council of the nation in the fullness of their rights and privileges—and, mark you, without having been asked to abjure the opinions they formerly held, for at the present moment most of them still belong to the Liberal opposition. Look at Austria, where Count Andrassy, a man who, in 1849, was condemned to the gallows as a rebel, at this moment stands at the head of the imperial Ministry; and those who know the history of that country are fully aware that the policy of which that amnesty was a part, which opened to Count Andrassy the road to power, has attached Hungary more closely than ever to the Austrian Crown, from which a narrow-minded policy of severity would have driven her.

Now, sir, ought we not to profit by the wisdom of such examples? It may be said that other Governments were far more rigorous in their first repressive measures, and that they put off the grant of a general amnesty much longer after suppressing an insurrection than we are required to do. So they did; but is not this the great Republic of the new world which marches in the very vanguard of modern civilization, and which, when an example of wisdom is set by other nations, should not only rise to its level, but far above it?

It seems now to be generally admitted that the time has come for a more comprehensive removal of political disabilities than has so far been granted. If that sentiment be sincere, if you really do desire to accomplish the greatest possible good by this measure that can be done, I would ask you, what practical advantage do you expect to derive from the exclusions for which this bill provides? Look at them one after another.

First, all those are excluded who when the rebellion broke out were Members of Congress, and left their seats in these halls to join it. Why are these men to be excluded as a class? Because this class contains a number of prominent individuals, who, in the rebellion, became particularly conspicuous and obnoxious, and among them we find those whom we might designate as the original conspirators. But these are few, and they might have been mentioned by name. Most of those, however, who left their seats in Congress to make common cause with the rebels were in no way more responsible for the rebellion than other prominent men at the South who do not fall under this exception. If we accept at all the argument that it will be well for the cause of good government and the material welfare of the South to readmit to the management of public affairs all the intelligence and political experience in those States, why, then, exclude as a class men who, having been Members of Congress, may be presumed to possess a higher degree of that intelligence and experience than the rest? If you want that article at all for good purposes, I ask you, do you not want as large a supply of that article as you can obtain?

Leaving aside the original conspirators, is there any reason in the world why those Members of Congress should be singled out from the numerous class of intelligent and prominent men who were or had been in office and had taken the same oath which is administered in these halls? Look at it. You do not propose to continue the disqualification of men who served this country as foreign Ministers, who left their important posts, betrayed the interests of this country in foreign lands to come back and join the rebellion; you do not propose to exclude from the benefit of this act those who sat upon the bench and doffed the judicial ermine to take part in the rebellion; and if such men are not to be disfranchised, why disfranchise the common run of the Congressmen, whose guilt is certainly not greater, if it be as great? Can you tell me? Is it wise even to incur the suspicion of making an exception merely for the sake of excluding somebody, when no possible good can be accomplished by it, and when you can thus only increase the number of men incited to discontent and mischief by small and unnecessary degradation?

And now as to the original conspirators, what has become of them? Some of them are dead; and as to those who are still living, I ask you, sir, are they not dead also? Look at Jefferson Davis himself. What if you exclude even him—and certainly our feelings would naturally impel us to do so; but let our reason speak—what if you exclude even him? Would you not give him an importance which otherwise he never would possess, by making people believe that you are even occupying your minds enough with him to make him an exception to an act of generous wisdom? Truly, to refrain from making an act of amnesty general on account of the original conspirators, candidly speaking, I would not consider worth while. I would not leave them the pitiable distinction of not being pardoned. Your very generosity will be to them the source of the bitterest disappointment. As long as they are excluded, they may still find some satisfaction in the delusion of being considered men of dangerous importance. Their very disabilities they look upon to-day as a recognition of their power. They may still make themselves and others believe that, were the Southern people only left free in their choice, they would eagerly raise them again to the highest honors.

But you relieve them of their exclusion, and they will at once become conscious of their nothingness, a nothingness most glaringly conspicuous then, for you will have drawn away the veil that has concealed it. I suspect that gentlemen on the Democratic side of the House, whom they would consider their political friends, would be filled with dismay at the mere thought of their reappearance among them. If there is anything that could prevent them from voting for universal amnesty, it might be the fear, if they entertained it at all, of seeing Jefferson Davis once more a Senator of the United States.

But more than that: you relieve that class of persons, those old misleaders, of their exclusion, and they will soon discover that the people whom they once plunged into disaster and ruin have in the meantime grown, if not as wise as they ought to be, certainly too wise to put their destinies in the hands of the same men again. I hope, therefore, you will not strip this measure of the merit of being a general amnesty to spare the original plotters this most salutary experience.

So much for the first exception. Now to the second. It excludes from the benefit of this act all those who were officers of the Army or of the Navy and then joined the rebellion. Why exclude that class of persons? I have heard the reason very frequently stated upon the floor of the Senate; it is because those men had been educated at the public expense, and their turning against the Government was therefore an act of peculiar faithlessness and black ingratitude. That might appear a very strong argument at first sight. But I ask you was it not one of the very first acts of this Administration to appoint one of the most prominent and conspicuous of that class to a very lucrative and respectable public office? I mean General Longstreet. He had obtained his military education at the expense of the American people. He was one of the wards, one of the pets of the American Republic, and then he turned against it as a rebel. Whatever of faithlessness, whatever of black ingratitude there is in such conduct, it was in his; and yet, in spite of all this, the President nominated him for an office, and your consent, Senators, made him a public dignitary. Why did you break the rule in his case? I will not say that you did it because he had become a Republican, for I am far from attributing any mere partisan motive to your action. No; you did it because his conduct after the close of hostilities had been that of a well-disposed and law-abiding citizen. Thus, then, the rule which you, Senators, have established for your own conduct is simply this: you will in the case of officers of the Army or the Navy waive the charge of peculiar faithlessness and ingratitude, if the persons in question after the war have become law-abiding and well-disposed citizens. Well, is it not a fact universally recognized, and I believe entirely uncontradicted, that of all classes of men connected with the rebellion there is not one whose conduct since the close of the war has been so unexceptionable, and in a great many instances so beneficial in its influence upon Southern society, as the officers of the Army and the Navy, especially those who before the war had been members of our regular establishments? Why, then, except them from this act of amnesty? If you take subsequent good conduct into account at all, these men are the very last who, as a class, ought to be excluded. And would it not be well to encourage them in well-doing by a sign on our part that they are not to be looked upon as outcasts whose influence is not desired, even when they are inclined to use it for the promotion of the common welfare?

The third class excluded consists of those who were members of State conventions, and in those State conventions voted for ordinances of secession. If we may judge from the words which fell from the lips of the Senator from Indiana, they were the objects of his particular displeasure. Why this? Here we have a large number of men of local standing who in some cases may have been leaders on a small scale, but most of whom were drawn into the whirl of the revolutionary movement just like the rest of the Southern population. If you accept the proposition that it will be well and wise to permit the intelligence of the country to participate in the management of the public business, the exclusion of just these people will appear especially inappropriate because their local influence might be made peculiarly beneficial; and if you exclude these persons, whose number is considerable, you tell just that class of people whose coöperation might be made most valuable, that their coöperation is not wanted, for the reason that, according to the meaning and intent of your system of disabilities, public affairs are no business of theirs. You object that they are more guilty than the rest. Suppose they are—and in many cases I am sure they are only apparently so—but if they were not guilty of any wrong, they would need no amnesty. Amnesty is made for those who bear a certain degree of guilt. Or would you indulge here in the solemn farce of giving pardon only to those who are presumably innocent? You grant your amnesty that it may bear good fruit; and if you do it for that purpose, then do not diminish the good fruit it may bear by leaving unplanted the most promising soil upon which it may grow.

A few words now about the second section of the bill before you, which imposes upon those who desire to have the benefit of amnesty the duty of taking, before some public officer, an oath to support the Constitution, that oath to be registered, the lists to be laid before Congress and to be preserved in the office of the Secretary of State. Sir, I ask you, can you or any one tell me what practical good is to be accomplished by a provision like this? You may say that the taking of another oath will do nobody any harm. Probably not; but can you tell me, in the name of common-sense, what harm in this case the taking of that oath will prevent? Or have we read the history of the world in vain, that we should not know yet, how little political oaths are worth to improve the morality of a people or to secure the stability of a government? And what do you mean to accomplish by making up and preserving your lists of pardoned persons? Can they be of any possible advantage to the country in any way? Why, then, load down an act like this with such useless circumstance, while as an act of grace and wisdom it certainly ought to be as straightforward and simple as possible?

Let me now in a few words once more sum up the whole meaning of the question which we are now engaged in discussing. No candid man can deny that our system of political disabilities is in no way calculated to protect the rights or the property or the life or the liberty of any living man, or in any way practically to prevent the evil-disposed from doing mischief. Why do you think of granting any amnesty at all? Is it not to produce on the popular mind at the South a conciliatory effect, to quicken the germs of good intentions, to encourage those who can exert a beneficial influence, to remove the pretexts of ill-feeling and animosity and to aid in securing to the Southern States the blessings of good and honest government? If that is not your design, what can it be?

But if it be this, if you really do desire to produce such moral effects, then I entreat you also to consider what moral means you have to employ in order to bring forth those moral effects you contemplate. If an act of generous statesmanship, or of statesmanlike generosity, is to bear full fruit, it should give not as little as possible, but it should give as much as possible. You must not do things by halves if you want to produce whole results. You must not expose yourself to the suspicion of a narrow-minded desire to pinch off the size of your gift wherever there is a chance for it, as if you were afraid you could by any possibility give too much, when giving more would benefit the country more, and when giving less would detract from the beneficent effect of that which you do give.

Let me tell you it is the experience of all civilized nations the world over, when an amnesty is to be granted at all, the completest amnesty is always the best. Any limitation you may impose, however plausible it may seem at first sight, will be calculated to take away much of the virtue of that which is granted. I entreat you, then, in the name of the accumulated experience of history, let there be an end of these bitter and useless and disturbing questions; let the books be finally closed, and when the subject is forever dismissed from our discussions and our minds, we shall feel as much relieved as those who are relieved of their political disabilities.

Sir, I have to say a few words about an accusation which has been brought against those who speak in favor of universal amnesty. It is the accusation resorted to in default of more solid argument, that those who advise amnesty, especially universal amnesty, do so because they have fallen in love with the rebels. No, sir, it is not merely for the rebels I plead. We are asked, shall the rebellion go entirely unpunished? No, it shall not. Neither do I think that the rebellion has gone entirely unpunished. I ask you, had the rebels nothing to lose but their lives and their offices? Look at it.

There was a proud and arrogant aristocracy planting their feet on the necks of the laboring people, and pretending to be the born rulers of this great Republic. They looked down, not only upon their slaves, but also upon the people of the North, with the haughty contempt of self-asserting superiority. When their pretensions to rule us all were first successfully disputed, they resolved to destroy this Republic, and to build up on the corner-stone of slavery an empire of their own in which they could hold absolute sway. They made the attempt with the most overweeningly confident expectation of certain victory. Then came the civil war, and after four years of struggle their whole power and pride lay shivered to atoms at our feet; their sons dead by tens of thousands on the battlefields of this country; their fields and their homes devastated; their fortunes destroyed; and more than that, the whole social system in which they had their very being, with all their hopes and pride, utterly wiped out; slavery forever abolished, and the slaves themselves created a political power before which they had to bow their heads; and they, broken, ruined, helpless and hopeless in the dust before those upon whom they had so haughtily looked down as their vassals and inferiors. Sir, can it be said that the rebellion has gone entirely unpunished?

You may object that the loyal people, too, were subjected to terrible sufferings; that their sons, too, were slaughtered by tens of thousands; that the mourning of countless widows and orphans is still darkening our land; that we are groaning under terrible burdens which the rebellion has loaded upon us, and that therefore part of the punishment has fallen upon the innocent. And it is certainly true.

But look at the difference. We issued from this great conflict as conquerors; upon the graves of our slain we could lay the wreath of victory; our widows and orphans, while mourning the loss of their dearest, still remember with proud exultation that the blood of their husbands and fathers was not spilled in vain; that it flowed for the greatest and holiest and at the same time the most victorious of causes; and when our people labor in the sweat of their brow to pay the debt which the rebellion has loaded upon us, they do it with the proud consciousness that the heavy price they have paid is infinitely overbalanced by the value of the results they have gained: slavery abolished; the great American Republic purified of her foulest stain; the American people no longer a people of masters and slaves, but a people of equal citizens; the most dangerous element of disturbance and disintegration wiped out from among us; this country put upon the course of harmonious development, greater, more beautiful, mightier than ever in its self-conscious power. And thus, whatever losses, whatever sacrifices, whatever sufferings we may have endured, they appear before us in a blaze of glory.

But how do the Southern people stand there? All they have sacrificed, all they have lost, all the blood they have spilled, all the desolation of their homes, all the distress that stares them in the face, all the wreck and ruin they see around them, all for nothing, all for a wicked folly, all for a disastrous infatuation: the very graves of their dead nothing but monuments of a shadowy delusion; all their former hopes vanished forever; and the very magniloquence which some of their leaders are still indulging in, nothing but a mocking illustration of their utter discomfiture! Ah, sir, if ever human efforts broke down in irretrievable disaster, if ever human pride was humiliated to the dust, if ever human hopes were turned into despair, there you behold them.

You may say that they deserved it all. Yes, but surely, sir, you cannot say that the rebellion has gone entirely unpunished. Nor will the Senator from Indiana, with all his declamation, make any sane man believe that, had no political disabilities ever been imposed, the history of the rebellion, as long as the memory of men retains the recollection of the great story, will ever encourage a future generation to rebel again, or that, if even this great example of disaster should fail to extinguish the spirit of rebellion, his little scarecrow of exclusion from office will be more than a thing to be laughed at by little boys.

And yet, sir, it is certainly true that after the close of the war we treated the rebels with a generosity never excelled in the history of the world. And thus in advising a general amnesty it is not merely for the rebels I plead. But I plead for the good of the country, which in its best interests will be benefited by amnesty just as much as the rebels are benefited themselves, if not more.

Nay, sir, I plead also for the colored people of the South, whose path will be smoothed by a measure calculated to assuage some of the prejudices and to disarm some of the bitternesses which still confront them; and I am sure that nothing better could happen to them, nothing could be more apt to make the growth of good feeling between them and the former master-class easier than the destruction of a system which, by giving them a political superiority, endangers their peaceable enjoyment of equal rights.

And I may say to my honorable friend from Massachusetts [Mr. Sumner], who knows well how highly I esteem him, and whom I sincerely honor for his solicitude concerning the welfare of the lowly, that my desire to see their wrongs righted is no less sincere and no less unhampered by any traditional prejudice than his; although I will confess that as to the Constitutional means to that end we may sometimes seriously differ. But I cannot refrain from expressing my regret that this measure should be loaded with anything that is not strictly germane to it, knowing as we both do that the amendment he has proposed cannot secure the necessary two-thirds vote in at least one of the houses of Congress, and that therefore it will be calculated to involve this measure also in the danger of common failure.

I repeat, it is not merely for the rebels I plead; it is for the whole American people, for there is not a citizen in the land whose true interests, rightly understood, are not largely concerned in every measure affecting the peace and welfare of any State of this Union.

Believe me, Senators, the statesmanship which this period of our history demands, is not exhausted by high-sounding declamation about the greatness of the crime of rebellion, and fearful predictions as to what is going to happen unless the rebels are punished with sufficient severity. We have heard so much of this from some gentlemen, and so little else, that the inquiry naturally suggests itself, whether this is the whole compass, the be-all and the end-all, of their political wisdom and their political virtue; whether it is really their opinion that the people of the South may be plundered with impunity by rascals in power; that the substance of those States may be wasted; that their credit may be ruined; that their prosperity may be blighted; that their future may be blasted; that the poison of bad feeling may still be kept working where we might do something to assuage its effects; that the people may lose more and more their faith in the efficiency of self-government and of republican institutions; that all this may happen, and we look on complacently, if we can only continue to keep a thorn in the side of our late enemies, and to demonstrate again and again, as the Senator from Indiana has it, our disapprobation of the crime of rebellion?

Sir, such appeals as these, which we have heard here so frequently, may be well apt to tickle the ear of an unthinking multitude. But unless I am grievously in error, the people of the United States are a multitude not unthinking. The American people are fast becoming aware that, great as the crime of rebellion is, there are other villainies beside it; that much as it may deserve punishment, there are other evils flagrant enough to demand energetic correction; that the remedy for such evils does after all not consist in the maintenance of political disabilities, and that it would be well to look behind those vociferous demonstrations of exclusive and austere patriotism to see what abuses and faults of policy they are to cover, and what rotten sores they are to disguise. The American people are fast beginning to perceive that good and honest government in the South, as well as throughout the whole country, restoring a measurable degree of confidence and contentment, will do infinitely more to revive true loyalty and a healthy National spirit, than keeping alive the resentments of the past by a useless degradation of certain classes of persons; and that we shall fail to do our duty unless we use every means to contribute our share to that end. And those, I apprehend, expose themselves to grievous disappointment, who still think that by dinning again and again in the ears of the people the old battlecries of the civil war, they can befog the popular mind as to the true requirements of the times, and overawe and terrorize the public sentiment of the country.

Sir, I am coming to a close. One word more. We have heard protests here against amnesty as a measure intended to make us forget the past and to obscure and confuse our moral appreciation of the great events of our history. No, sir; neither would I have the past forgotten, with its great experiences and teachings. Let the memory of the grand uprising for the integrity of the Republic; let those heroic deeds and sacrifices before which the power of slavery crumbled into dust, be forever held in proud and sacred remembrance by the American people. Let it never be forgotten, as I am sure it never can be forgotten, that the American Union, supported by her faithful children, can never be undermined by any conspiracy ever so daring, nor overthrown by any array of enemies ever so formidable. Let the great achievements of our struggle for National existence be forever a source of lofty inspiration to our children and children's children.

But surely, sir, I think no generous resolution on our part will mar the luster of those memories, nor will it obliterate from the Southern mind the overwhelming experience, that he who raises his hand against the majesty of this Republic is doomed to disastrous humiliation and ruin. I would not have it forgotten; and, indeed, that experience is so indelibly written upon the Southern country that nothing can wipe it out.

But, sir, as the people of the North and of the South must live together as one people, and as they must be bound together by the bonds of a common National feeling, I ask you, will it not be well for us so to act, that the history of our great civil conflict, which cannot be forgotten, can neither be remembered by Southern men without finding in its closing chapter this irresistible assurance: that we, their conquerors, meant to be, and were, after all, not their enemies, but their friends? When the Southern people con over the distressing catalogue of the misfortunes they have brought upon themselves, will it not be well, will it not be “devoutly to be wished” for our common future, if at the end of that catalogue they find an act which will force every fair-minded man in the South to say of the Northern people: “When we were at war they inflicted upon us the severities of war; but when the contest had closed and they found us prostrate before them, grievously suffering, surrounded by the most perplexing difficulties and on the brink of new disasters, they promptly swept all the resentments of the past out of their way and stretched out their hands to us with the very fullest measure of generosity, anxious, eager, to lift us up from our prostration?”

Sir, will not this do something to dispel those mists of error and prejudice which are still clouding the Southern mind? I ask again, will it not be well to add to the sad memories of the past which forever will live in their minds, this cheering experience, so apt to prepare them for the harmony of a better and common future?

No, sir; I would not have the past forgotten, but I would have its history completed and crowned by an act most worthy of a great, noble and wise people. By all the means which we have in our hands, I would make even those who have sinned against this Republic see in its flag, not the symbol of their lasting degradation, but of rights equal to all; I would make them feel in their hearts, that in its good and evil fortunes their rights and interests are bound up just as ours are, and that therefore its peace, its welfare, its honor and its greatness may and ought to be as dear to them as they are to us.

I do not, indeed, indulge in the delusion that this act alone will remedy all the evils which we now deplore. No, it will not; but it will be a powerful appeal to the very best instincts and impulses of human nature; it will, like a warm ray of sunshine in springtime, quicken and call to light the germs of good intention wherever they exist; it will give new courage, confidence and inspiration to the well-disposed; it will weaken the power of the mischievous, by stripping of their pretexts and exposing in their nakedness the wicked designs they still may cherish; it will light anew the beneficent glow of fraternal feeling and of National spirit; for, sir, your good sense as well as your heart must tell you that, when this is truly a people of citizens equal in their political rights, it will then be easier to make it also a people of brothers.

  1. Speech in the U. S. Senate Jan. 30, 1872. The Senate had resumed the consideration of the bill (H. R. No. 1050) for the removal of legal and political disabilities imposed by the third section of the fourteenth article of amendments to the Constitution of the United States.