Skip to main content

Full text of "The attitude of Thaddeus Stevens toward the conduct of the civil war"

See other formats









l^meticatt §ii,$totiral ^mtw 

Vol. XII., No. 3 

APRIL, 1907 




From July, 1861, to his death in 1869 Thaddeiis Stevens was the 
leader of the Republican majority of the House of Representatives. 
He was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the House 
throughout the war, and his attention was therefore largely devoted 
to questions of taxation and finance, of revenues and appropriations. 
These subjects in time of war offer a large field of studv in connec- 
tion with Stevens. But the purpose of this paper is not to consider 
Stevens's contributions and services on these lines, but rather to 
bring into review his career and opinions in relation particularly to 
the more distinctly constitutional, political, and party issues which 
the war presented. 

There are three salient aspects about which the political move- 
ments and controversies of the Civil War may best be organized and 
studied : first, the relation of the war to slavery ; second, the relation 
of the war to the Constitution ; third, the effect of the war upon the 
political status of the seceded states and their relation to the Federal 
Union. These, together with the increased war powers of the 
President, present the essential issues and phases of the struggle in 
which the student of war politics will be most concerned. I shall 
attempt to summarize or bring into brief review Stevens's record 
upon these salient features of the war. 

Stevens recognized as clearly as any man then in public life the 
seriousness of the great conflict in which the country was engaged, 
and in the councils of the nation he constantly insisted upon prompt- 
ness, energy, and determination of purpose. To him it was perfectly 
clear that the slaveholders were trying to destroy the Union to save 
slavery; he would, therefore, destroy slavery to save the Union. 
The Southern states had violated the Constitution to gain their inde- 
pendence ; Stevens would give them none of the benefits of the Con- 
stitution in the war that it was found necessary to wage upon them. 
These states had of their own free will repudiated the Constitution 
and withdrawn from the Union. He would no longer recognize 
them as sister states under the aegis of law, but having subdued 
them as a belligerent enemy he would hold and govern them as con- 
quered provinces. These principles of action he laid down in the 

568 /. . /. Woodhitrn 

beginning, and in the pursuance of them he was clear, consistent, 
and undeviating from first to last. Firm of purpose and clear of 
vision, he had no manner of doubt as to the course the nation should 
pursue in the varying phases of the struggle for the Union. No one 
need to have been left in doubt as to his policies and plans, for among 
the membership of the national House he stood pre-eminent as a 
man with the qualities that a public man most needs in such a time 
— dauntless courage, a conscience of his own. opinions of his own, 
and a will of his own. He encountered no superior in intellectual 
combat, and in the fight he was appointed to endure he well fulfilled 
the canons of the strenuous game — he never flinched, he fouled no 
man, and he hit the line hard. An unconquerable fighter, he seemed 
made for a time of war, a time of storm and stress, and, his enemies 
themselves being the judges, he stood foursquare to all the winds 
of opposition that came. These characteristics, together with the 
times in which he lived and the problems which he faced, make 
Stevens one of the most memorable figures in our Congressional 
annals. I proceed to notice his war career with reference to the 
three aspects of the war to which I have referred — slavery, the Con- 
stitution, and the status of the states. 

The evidence is conclusive that it was not the original purpose 
of the nation in the Civil War to interfere with slavery. If it had 
been but a hundred days' war, it would probably have ended with 
slavery intact. Hostile intention against slavery was specifically 
disclaimed. Air. Lincoln disclaimed it on behalf of the executive, 
and the two houses of Congress disclaimed it on behalf of the legis- 
lative branch of the government. 

At the beginning of the war, two days after the battle of Bull 
Run, Congress passed almost unanimously, in both Houses, the 
famous Crittenden resolutions setting forth the objects of the war. 
These resolutions recited, in substance, that the war was not prose- 
cuted for the purpose of subjugating the Southern states — that is, 
of overthrowing their state governments and reducing them to 
provinces ; nor for the purpose of interfering with slavery in the 
states, but to defend and maintain the Constitution and the laws, 
and to preserve the Union with all the equality and rights of the 
several states unimpaired. The war should accomplish these ends 
and no more. This resolution voiced at the time the public opinion 
of the country, and almost the unanimous opinion of the Republican 
party. President Lincoln represented this opinion, and in a con- 
servative spirit he attempted at first to conduct the war without inter- 
fering with slavery, on the assumption that the status of the states 
and their relation to the Union had not changed. 

Attitude of Stevens toicard Londiiet of Chi! II ar 569 

But the war made all the difference in the world. The events 
of but a few short months of war wrought a decided change in the 
purpose and temper of Congress and the country. It was seen that 
slavery was a source of strength to the Rebellion. Conservative 
Union men were being rapidly and radically convinced that if the 
national government did not interfere with slavery, slavery would 
seriously interfere with the national government and the success of 
its arms. This change in policy and purpose is indicated by the 
fact that when the Thirty-seventh Congress came together again in 
its regular session in December, 1861, and an attempt was made to 
reaffirm the Crittenden resolution which had received such universal 
approval but a few months before, it was decisively rejected. It was 
rejected by a party vote upon the motion of Stevens, who had thus 
considerable satisfaction in seeing that at least his own party had 
now come to his position in asserting its freedom from a doctrinaire 
impediment to the conduct of the war, and that the nation was now 
to feel free to strike at slavery or to do whatever else would seem 
best calculated to promote the success of the national cause. 

The events of the war had. however, made no change in the pur- 
poses and opinions of Stevens. His principles were settled, his 
mind was fixed from the beginning. When the Crittenden resolu- 
tion had been offered in July, he objected to it and withheld his vote. 
He was one of four in the House who were not ready to subscribe 
to its doctrine. He was one of the more pronounced and radical — 
may we not say more far-seeing? — antislavery men who believed 
that the Rebellion must result in the destruction of slavery. He 
would not embarrass the government nor prevent its dealing a blow 
in opposition to slavery when occasion should arise. He wanted the 
government to have a tree hand, an unrestricted liberty, in the con- 
duct of the war, and he did not wish Congress to commit itself to a 
doctrine from which it would subsequently have to recede. He 
believed in the beginning what Lincoln came to believe in the midst 
of the war, that, in this national crisis. Congress and the President, 
representing the sovereign nation, had the right to take " any step 
which might best subdue the enemy." ' He wanted the rulers of 
the nation to indulge no scruples nor lay down any generalities that 
would interfere with the most vigorous prosecution of the war. 

Time clearly vindicated Stevens's leadership in this respect. A 
fortnight had not gone by after the passage of the Crittenden resolu- 
tion defining the objects of the war and giving an implied prpmise 
that slavery would not be interfered with, before slavery had become 
a subject of sore discussion in Congress. It came up in connection 

' Life and Writings of B. R. Curtis. I. 348. 

570 J. A. JVooc/bitni 

with the first Confiscation Act, August 3. 1861. To this measure 
Stevens gave his earnest support. This was the beginning of war 
legislation concerning slavery. It aroused opposition, because a sec- 
tion of the law required that owners should forfeit the slaves whom 
they allowed to be used in arms against the United States or to labor 
in forts or intrenchments, or whom they should employ in an}' naval 
or military capacity against the national government. 

In the debate on confiscation, .-\ugust 2, 1861, Stevens voiced 
his deep opposition to slavery and his purpose to strike at that insti- 
tution whenever occasion offered. He said :' ' ' ' 

God forbid that I should ever agree that the slaves should be re- 
turned to their masters and that you should rivet again the chains 
which you have once broken. I do not say that this war is made for 
that purpose. Ask those who made the war what its object is. Do not 
ask us. I did not like the Crittenden resolution because it looked like 
an apology from us in saying what were the objects of the war. Those 
who made the war should explain its objects. Our object is to subdue 
the rebels. 

In this discussion Stevens predicted the arming of the blacks and 
said that he was ready to act for it, " horrifying to gentlemen as it 
may appear ; that is my doctrine and it will be the doctrine of the 
whole people of the North before two years roll round." 

After the rejection of the Crittenden resolution in December, 1861, 
Stevens wished to bring his party and the administration to higher 
and more aggressive ground upon slavery and emancipation. He 
would speak out the wdiole truth whether the nation would hear or 
forbear. On December 3, 1861, the first day of the regular session 
of the Thirty-seventh Congress, Stevens introduced a joint resolu- 
tion, for enactment into law, containing two propositions : the first 
was to strike for general emancipation as the best means of crushing 
the Rebellion ; the second, to make full payment for losses to loyal 
owners by this policy. His resolution asserted that slavery had 
caused the Rebellion and that there could be no peace and Union 
while that institution existed ; as slaves are used by the rebels for 
supporting the war, and as by the law of nations it is right to liberate 
the slaves of an enemy to weaken his power, therefore the President 
should be directed to declare free and to direct our generals in com- 
mand to order freedom to all slaves who shall leave their masters 
or aid in quelling the Rebellion. 

His speech of January 22, 1862, on these resolutions shows him 

1 In order to avoid excessive length of quotation, I have throughout this 
article omitted many sentences from Stevens's speeches without sign of omission 
and have even in some cases used abridged phrases, without, I trust, ever mis- 
representing in any degree his meaning. 

Attitude of Stevens icward Coiidiul of Civ// Jl'cir 57 i 

to be one of the earliest, boldest, most outspoken, and, I think, most 
influential of the anlislavery advocates who were seeking to direct 
the war to antislavery ends. Stevens knew that Congress and his 
party were not yet ready to follow in the line of his proposals, and 
that the public sentiment of the country did not sustain his radical 
policy. But he wished to educate that sentiment and to lead his 
party in the direction which he clearly saw would ultimately be 
found to be essential. He felt that the national government in the 
conduct of the war so far had been weak, timid, vacillating, inef- 
fective, without appreciation of the formidable task before it. The 
country needed a tonic ; the administration needed nerve and a stif- 
fened spine. Stevens would infuse more energy into the prosecution 
of the war, and not be afraid to employ the means at hand. He did 
not think it a time for honeyed words and conciliation. He was not 
a representative of peace and good will ; he was a representative for 
war ; the business of war was to conquer, and in the war now forced 
upon the nation he stood for firm, unyielding, uncompromising force. 
It seems reasonable to say that in energizing the war power of the 
nation and leading it to lay hold of every possible weapon for over- 
coming resistance to the national authority there was in the national 
forum no stronger personal force than Thaddeus Stevens. A review 
of his speeches will give one a high appreciation of their educational 
influence in this direction. 

He was bitter and unsparing in his denunciation of the Southern 
leaders for their course, and he sought to arouse the resentment and 
war spirit of the nation to crush the South. Yet he manifested a 
better conception of the Southern spirit and character and of the 
consequent nature of the task before the country than that possessed 
by his opponents and critics. Dismissing all hope of reunion by 
voluntary concession from the South, he wished to have it clearly 
recognized, as it should have been, that from the Southern stand- 
point the separation was final, and that the Confederate States would 
consent to reunion only through the exhaustion of war. Stevens 
saw that the task could be accomplished only by the sacrifice of thou- 
sands of lives and millions of money. He recognized that the 
Southerners were proud, haughty, obstinate, and that their training 
had led them to believe that they were born to command. They had 
declared that they would suflfer their country to become a smoking 
ruin before they would submit. Stevens would accept the issue. 
He said : 

It were better to lay wast- the wliole South than to suffer the nation 
to Le murdered, Ijcttcr to depopulate the country and plant it with a 
new race of freemen, than to suffer rebellion to triumph. There should 

572 J- '~i- Wood burn 

be no negotiation, no parley, no truce until every rebel shall have laid 
clown his arms antl subniittrd to the Government. 

He was among the first to see that this would not be done until the 
South was wholly exhausted : 

Let us not be deceived. Those who talk about peace in sixty days 
are shallow statesmen. The war will not end until the Government 
shall more fully recognise the magnitude of the crisis ; until they have 
discovered that this is an internecine war in which one party or the 
other must be reduced to hopeless feebleness and the power of further 
effort shall be utterly annihilated. It is a sad but true alternative. 
The South can never be reduced to that condition so long as the war 
is prosecuted on its present principles. The North with all its millions 
of people and its countless wealth can never conquer the South until 
a new mode of warfare is adopted. So long as these states are left 
the means of cultivating their fields through forced labor, you may 
expend the blood of thousands and billions of money, year by year, 
without being any nearer the end, unless you reach it by your own 
submission and the ruin of the nation. Slavery gives the South a 
great advantage in time of war. They need not and do not withdraw 
a single hand from the cultivation of the soil Every able bodied 
white man can be spared for the army. The black man, without lifting 
a weapon is the mainstay of the war.' 

Stevens would have no regard for the " sympathizer with trea- 
son " who would " raise an outcry about a servile insurrection or 
prate learnedly about the Constitution." He thought a " rebellion of 
slaves fighting for their freedom was not so abhorrent as a rebellion 
of freemen fighting to nnirder the nation." He wished the Northern 
armies to be " possessed and impelled by the inspiration that comes 
from the glorious principle of freedom." He thought the Xorth 
had not shown " the fiery zeal that impelled the South ; nothing of 
that determined and invincible courage that was inspired in the 
Revolution by the grand idea of liberty, equality and rights of man." 

Our statesmen do not seem to know how to touch the hearts of 
freemen and rouse them to battle. No sound of universal liberty has 
gone forth from the capital. Our generals have a sword in one hand 
and shackles in the other. Let it be known that this government is 
fi.ghting to carry out the great principles of the Declaration of Inde- 
pendence and the blooJ of every freeman would boil with enthusiasm 
and his nerves be strengthened for a holy warfare. Give him the 
sword in one hand and the book of freedom in the other, and he will 
soon sweep despotism and rebellion from every corner of this continent. 
The occasion is forced upon us and the invitation presented to strike 
the chains from four millions of human beings and create them men; 
to extinguish slavery on this whole continent ; to wipe out so far as we 
are concerned the most hateful and infernal blot that ever disgraced 
the escutcheon of man ; to write a page in the history of the world 
whose brightness shall eclipse all the records of heroes and sages.' 

'Congressional Globe, January 22, 1862. 

- Ibid. 

Attitude of Stevens toicard Coiiduet of Civil War 573 

This was effective oratory, the oratory of conviction and action. 
It was spoken at a time when slavery still seemed rooted and 
grounded in the poHcy of the President and of Congress and in the 
public sentiment of the country. Who will say that the voice of 
Stevens was not a powerful influence in bringing the country and 
its rulers to the higher plane of emancipation, to a readiness to direct 
the war for liberty as well as for union? 

As the war continued and the administration still seemed con- 
servative and reluctant to pursue an antislavery policy, Stevens re- 
peatedly expressed his dissatisfaction. Lincoln's message proposing 
compensated emancipation Stevens characterized as " the most 
diluted milk and water gruel proposition that was ever given to the 
American nation." He urged the passage of the ^ct (March 13, 
1862) forbidding the return of fugitive slaves and he favored every 
act looking toward antislavery ends. He said he could not approve 
putting generals who sympathized with slavery at the head of our 
armies with orders to pursue and return fugitive slaves, nor did he 
like it to have our forces set to guard the property of rebel soldiers. 
When asked if he intended his charge against the President and the 
Secretary of War or only against the generals in the field, he said 
■■ I intend it shall apply where it belongs." 

I am no sycophant, no parasite. What I think I say. These acts 
have been perpetrated without rebuke. Let the world determine where 
the responsibility rests. I believe tlie President is as honest a man 
as there is in the world: but I believe him to be too easy and amiable, 
and to be misled by the malign influence of Kentucky counselors — and 
the Border State men.' 

He again urged the enlistment of negro troops and advised the 
administration not to be afraid of the cry of abolitionism, but to 
follow out the policy of military emancipation suggested by General 
Hunter's order. He had no hope of success until that policy was 
adopted. He viewed the matter not only as a question of emancipa- 
tion or abolition, hut as the only means of putting down the Rebellion. 
For rebuking General Hunter he thought the administration deserved 
to be driven out, and he denounced it for refusing the liberation and 
employment of the slaves. Tie would seize all property of disloyal 
men as our armies advanced, and he would plant the South with a 
military colony if the Southerners would not otherwise submit. 

We come now to the attitude of Stevens toward the Constitution ; 
the constitutionality of war measures ; and the effect of secession and 
war on the status of the seceded states. 

The antislavery policy advocated by Stevens and men like him 

' Congressional Globe, July 5. 1862. 

574 J- ^"^- Woodbiirn 

was one of the apologies for party opposition to tlie war. The anti- 
slavery men were accused of wishing to make the war entirely sub- 
servient to abolition, and of being unwilling to see the Union re- 
stored with slavery as it was. They would not be quiet but were 
obtruding their opinions everywhere, with the result that while in 
July, 1861, the nation was united, the Union forces were now divided, 
since those who wished to prosecute the war solely for the purpose 
of restoring the Union were alienated and estranged.^ A large body 
of conservative men in the North, chiefly among those who had 
opposed the Republican party and Mr. Lincoln's election, looked 
upon the antislavery programme both as a perversion of the Consti- 
tution and as an entire departure from the original and legitimate 
objects of the war. Under the leadership of adroit and able men, 
these conservative Democrats and Constitutional Unionists became a 
compact party of opposition whose opinions and purposes may be 
summarized as follows : 

( I ) In the first place they accepted the Crittenden resolution as 
their war platform, and they would have it clearly recognized that 
the primary and sole object of the war was to save the Union. It 
was not to interfere in any way with slavery. Any act or policy 
tending to turn the military forces of the government from mere 
union-saving to abolitionism, or toward emancipation as a means of 
union-saving, was unconstitutional, a perversion of the object of the 
war, and it ought to be resisted. 

(2) In the second place the war must be so conducted and ended 
as to preserve the equality of the states. The Union was based on 
this equality and it must be preserved. There must be no conquest 
or subjugation or interference with statehood or with the rights of 
the states, their governments, or their domestic laws. Whoever 
should attempt by Federal authority to destroy any of the states, or 
to establish territorial governments within them, was guilty of a high 
crime against the Constitution and the Union. The Union as it was 
must be restored and maintained under the Constitution as it is ; and 
any person proposing peace on any other basis than the integrity of 
the states was as guilty a criminal as he who would propose peace 
on the basis of a dismembered Union. The Southern states must 
not be reduced to provinces or territories, nor the Southern people 
regarded as alien enemies ; but the constitutional relation of the 
states to the Union was to be recognized as being undisturbed and 
the constitutional rights of the Southern people should be fully main- 
tained. To prosecute hostilities beyond these limits or in a spirit of 

' Diven of New York. Congressional Globe. January 22, 1862. 

Altitude of Stevens toward Oviduct of Civil War 575 

conquest would destroy state equality, subvert the Constitution, and 
prevent the Union.' 

(3) In the third place, a corollary to this view, the constitutional 
limits set to congressional and executive power nuist be the same 
in war as in peace. Secession, rebellion, and war had made no 
change as to the power that Congress could exercise within the 
states, be they the states of tlie Confederacy or the states of the 
Union. The President's powers were not increased. Therefore his 
executive orders, his proclamations, his military emancipation, his 
suspension of habeas corpus, his arbitrary arrests, must all be tested 
by the terms and canons of the Constitution as in times of peace. 
" The Lnion as it was ; the Constitution as it is," was the maxim of 
the party. 

In the view of these constitutionalists, the Union was to be saved 
only by, through, and under the Constitution — nothing more nor less. 
They idealized the Constitution. To them the Constitution was 
identical with the nation. Without it there could be no Union. 
The Constitution gone, the republic is dead. The war was for the 
preservation of the Constitution and for that alone; it was against 
the Constitution and because it was binding on all that the South- 
erners were rebels. These conservatives denounced the antislavery 
advocates as being indifi'erent as to whether or not their policies 
were in harmony with the Constitution, and this fact made the 
hated abolitionists — as they called all antislavery men — as guilty 
criminals as the secessionists themselves. 

In the view of this party almost everything that the President 
or Congress proposed or did. for the effective and vigorous prosecu- 
tion of the war, was unconstitutional. Confiscation of slave prop- 
erty was unconstitutional ; retaining fugitive slaves within our lines 
was unconstitutional : the military emancipation of Fremont and 
Hunter was unconstitutional ; the use of slaves as contraband was 
unconstitutional ; Lincoln's plan of compensated emancipation was 
unconstitutional ; enlistment of negro troops was unconstitutional ; 
the Emancipation Proclamation was unconstitutional ; the draft was 
unconstitutional ; the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was 
unconstitutional ; military arrests were unconstitutional ; suspending 
or in any way reinstituting state governments at the South was un- 
constitutional ; Lincoln's appointment of military governors and his 
beginnings of reconstruction were unconstitutional. No exercise 
of power was constitutional except what was unmistakably granted 
by a strict construction of the Constitution interpreted as in times 
of peace. Instead of the war's having made all the difference in the 

' Pendleton's resolutions. Congressional Globe, July 31, i86i. 

57t> J. A Wooc/buni 

world, it had made no difference at all. The Southern states and 
the Southern people were to have all the rights, privileges, immuni- 
ties, and benefits of the Constitution. They were not bound by its 
provisions in the conduct of the war, but their opponents were to be 
restrained from every aggressive act of power not within its specific 
limits. This was a fearful handicap for the national government. 
Such a policy would have led to a passive and harmless war — almost 
purely defensive in its operations. Carried to its logical conclusion, 
no invasion of the Southern states nor subduing of the Southern 
people would have been possible under it, and it is very problematical 
whether the Constitution and the Union could have been saved for 
the South under its operation. 

To this party and its constitutional view Thaddeus Stevens was 
diametrically opposed. He was its constant and stout antagonist. 
He derided these sticklers for the Constitution and in unsparing 
terms he denounced all their works and ways. They and he were 
at the antipodes of the political world, and they had but little bowels 
of mercy for one another. Stevens wished to establish a legal basis 
for the conduct of the war that would give the nation a chance to 
fight, and in the first discussion on slavery and the war to which I 
have referred (August 2, 1861) he laid down the legal and proper 
premises for that fight. He brushed theories aside, looked at the 
facts, and saw things as they were, and he sought a basis of action 
best calculated to bring the result desired. He took the bold ground 
that in the contest for its life the nation was not bound by the limita- 
tions of the Constitution. The war had abrogated the Constitution 
— not where it was respected and could be enforced by ordinary civil 
processes, but with respect to hostile confederated states that had 
rejected and repudiated the Constitution, trampled it under foot, and 
were resisting its restoration by organized armies. The people of 
the Confederate States were public belligerent enemies, and the 
nation in its effort to overcome them was bound only by the laws of 
war and the law of nations. The Constitution had no right to inter- 
vene if it stood in the way of the laws of war in dealing with the 

Who says tlie Constitution must come in in bar of our action? It 
is the advocates of rebels, of rebels who have repudiated the Constitu- 
tion, who have sought to overthrow it and trample it in the dust. Sir, 
these rebels who have disregarded and set at defiance that instrument 
are, by every rule of municipal and international law, estopped from 
pleading it against our action. Sir, it is an absurdity. There must 
be a party in court to plead it, and that party to be entitled to plead 
it in court, must first acknowledge its supremacy, or he has no business 

Attitude of Stevens toward Conduct of Civil War 577 

to be in court at all. . . . Tliey can not be permitted to come in here 
and tell us that we nuist he loyal to the Constitution.' 

When he was asked how members of Congress who had taken 
an oath to support the Constitution could violate it in their action, 
w'hethcr rebels complain of it or not, he replied that they do not 
violate it when they are operating against men who have no rights 
to the benefits of the Constitution. The law of nations was plain 
upon this point, the law established in the days of Cicero. " Inter 

arma silent leges. Diis is a law that has been in force to the 

present time, and any nation that disregards the law is a poor pusil- 
lanimous nation which submits its neck to be struck off by the 

Stevens admitted that the Constitution, while it was in force for 
the South, did not authorize Congress to interfere with slavery in the 
states. While the Constitution and laws were supreme no one 
would attempt it. But when the Constitution had been repudiated 
and set at defiance by armed rebellion the case was different. 

There were not [he said] three thousand abolitionists, properly so 
called in the United States. Before this war the parties were bound 
together by a compact, by a .reaty, called a Constitution. They ad- 
mitted the validity of municipal laws binding on each. This war has 
cut asunder all these ligaments, abrogated all these obligations. Since 
these States have voluntarily thrown off that protection and placed 
themselves under the law of nations, it is not only our right but our 
duty to knock off every shackle from every limb. 

He who wishes to re-establish the Union as it was cannot escape 
the guilt of attempting to enslave his fcllovv-men. The "Union as it 
was and the Constitution as it is", is an atrocious idea; it is man-steal- 
ing. The Southern States have forfeited all rights under the Consti- 
tution which they have renounced. They are forever estopped from 
claiming the Constitution as it was. The United States may give them 
those rights if it choose, but they cannot claim them. If a disgraceful 
peace were made leaving the cause of this rebellion and the cause of 
future wars untouched and living, its authors would be the objects of 
the deepest execration and of the blackest infamy. . . . All this 
clamor against radicals, all this cry of the " Union as it was ", is but 
a persistent effort to re-establish slavery and to rivet anew forever the 
chains of bondage on the limbs of immortal beings. May the God of 
Justice thwart their designs and paralyze their wicked efforts.' 

Stevens believed that in an emergency in order to " snatch the 
nation from the jaws of death " Congress was authorized to de- 
clare a dictator. It was a fearful powxr, and he hoped the necessity 
for it would never arise. Rut the safety of the people is the supreme 

' Congressional Globe, Augu-st 2, 1861. 
'Ibid., January 22, 1864. 

578 J. A. W'oodhiirii 

law, and rather than see the nation perish, rather than see it dishon- 
ored by compromise, concession, and submission, rather than see the 
Union dissevered, he was ready to apply the dictator's power. 

It will be seen that Stevens's constitutional position, or extra- 
constitutional position, was consistent, straightforward, and out- 
spoken. He blinked nothing, but always looked the constitutional 
issue squarely in the face. He made no pretenses and would re- 
sort to no forced construction to justify a course already prede- 
termined. This is seen still more clearly in his attitude toward 
the admission of West Virginia. 

The Constitution clearly provides that no state shall be divided 
except by its own consent. When Virginia seceded, the people 
in the western counties of the state, wishing to remain loyal to 
the Union, assumed to form a state government and choose state 
officers and a state legislature. They elected Senators and Repre- 
sentatives to Congress, who were admitted to their seats. They 
claimed to be the people of Virginia, constitutionally competent 
to give its consent to the formation of a new state within the bor- 
ders of the Old Dominion. This periple, having given its consent 
to the division of the old state of \'irginia, immediately erected 
itself into the new state of West Mrginia. Xobody consented 
except those within the limits of the new state. That is, the new 
state consented to the division of the old. And when the new state 
had been admitted according to prearrangement, Mr. Pierpont, pre- 
tending to be the governor of the state that pretended to be Vir- 
ginia, was to move over to Alexandria and keep up the pretence 
of being the gubernatorial head of Old Mrginia, with an official 
body that Sumner afterward called the " common council of x\lex- 
andria." As Stevens said after the war. " all the archives, prop- 
erty, and effects of the Pierpont Government were taken to Rich- 
mond in an ambulance." This w^as the government recognized 
during the war as the legitimate constitutional government of 

There were distinguished members of Congress who sought to 
find ground in the Constitution, or in the fictitious construction 
of that instrument, for this process by which Mrginia was divided 
and West Mrginia admitted. It was not the way of Thaddeus 
Stevens. To Stevens the proceedings, or the arguments based 
upon them, were all ridiculous and absurd. He was opposed to 
giving seats in the House to members from Mrginia after the 
secession of that state, for " We know," as he said, " that members 
have been elected to this House b\- onlv twentv vc^tcs and those 

Attiltidc of Stevens tozcard Coiidiut of Civil War 579 

cast under tlie guns of a fort. Xow. to say that tliosc gentlemon 
represent any district is a mere mockery." ' 

Stevens was willing to accomplish the end in view, the dismem- 
berment of \'irginia and the admission of the new state, the sufficient 
ground for the act being that it would weaken the enemy and help 
the national cause. But he recognized that the legal ground for the 
proceeding was, not the Constitution, but the laws of war. " We 
may admit West \'irginia," he said. " not by any provisions of the 
Constitution but under our absolute power which the laws of war 
give us. I shall vote for this bill upon that theory and that alone: 
for I will not stultify myself by supposing that we have any warrant 
in the Constitution for this proceeding." 

He regarded it as mockery to claim that the legislature of \ir- 
ginia had ever consented to the division of that state. The ma- 
jority of the people of \'irginia, organized as a political community, 
was the state of \'irginia. That state had changed its constitution 
and its relation to the federal government from that of one of its 
members to that of secession. The act was treason, but so far as 
the state corporation was concerned it was a valid act and governed 
the state. " .A. small number of the citizens of \'irginia — the people 
in West Virginia — assembled together, disapproved of the acts of 
\'irginia and with the utmost self-complacency called themselves 
\"irginia. Is it not ridiculous ? " 

That seems more straightforward than to stretch the Constitution 
by a forced and fictitious construction while claiming to respect its 
provisions. To a layman it seems like better law, sounder sense, 
and more correct political science, if the United States was to be 
regarded as a nation and not a mere congeries of states. 

This view of the character of the state and the effect of seces- 
sion he maintained consistently on all occasions. He looked upon 
the Southern states as public enemies. We were at war with an 
acknowledged belligerent, with a foreign nation, and since such a 
war had annulled all former compacts existing between them neither 
could claim as against the other the aid of the Constitution. Stevens 
held that the Southern states, having committed treason, renounced 
their allegiance to the Union, discarded its Constitution and laws, 
organized a distinct and hostile government, and by force of arms 
having risen from the condition of insurgents to the position of an 
independent power dc facto, and having been acknowledged as a 
belligerent both by foreign nations and by our own government, the 
Constitution and laws of the Union were set aside as far as tlicy were 
concerned, and that as between the two belligerents they were under 

' Congressional Globe, December 2. 1861. 

5^0 J. ^-i. JVoodhiii-it 

tlie laws of war and nations alone. If the rebel states were still in 
the Union and under the Constitution, as some contended, he saw 
no reason why they should not elect the next President of the United 
states. If the rebels declined to vote, then one hundred loyal men 
who, as his legal opponents contended, still continued to be " the 
state," might meet and choose electors. The few loyal men around 
Fortress ]\Ionroe or Norfolk, or Alexandria, and a few cleansed 
patches in Louisiana, being one thousandth part of the state, might 
choose electors for the whole state. It was such reasoning that 
seemed like a mockery of constitutional law and political science to 

As to the minority who were loyal to the Union within a seceded 
state, he would regard them as citizens of that state ami subject to its 
conditions. They nnist migrate or bear the burdens and penalties 
of their domicile, although in dealing with persons he would dis- 
tinguish between the innocent and the guilty. The states were at 
war with the nation. The idea that a few loyal citizens are the 
state and may override and govern the disloyal millions, he was 
unable to comprehend. " If ten men fit to save Sodom can elect a 
governor and other state officers against more than a million Sodom- 
ites in Virginia, then the democratic doctrine that the majority shall 
rule is discarded and ignored." 

The position of Stevens was vigorously assailed by Mr. Francis 
P. Blair, of Missouri, in a notable speech in the House, February 5, 
1864. Blair held that Stevens's policy of confiscation could only be 
effected by the extermination of our whole kindred race in the South. 
The world would expect them to shed the last drop of blood rather 
than to submit to such spoliation, with no alternative but to die as 
paupers. Europe would be justified in intervening to put down such 
an mnovation on the code of humanity and to arrest barbarities in 
defiance of the law of nations. It was frenzied altruism tending to 
promote " amalgamation of repugnant races in the name and by the 
charm of equality." 

Blair held that the Southern states were indestructible ; that 
their status was like that of Missouri, whose state organization had 
remained loyal to the Union. All that was needed was to drive out 
the rebel power that was holding the state government in duress. 
Our army and navy were crushing the life out of the usurpation, 
vetoing what Blair called the " assumption of Stevens that the state 
governments in the rebel states are as perfect now as before the 
rebellion, and being subsisting states, capable of corporate action, 
they have as states changed their allegiance from the United States 
to the Confederate States." In this undeniable fact, as Stevens had 

.Itlilni-lc of Stevens toicard Conduct of Civil Jl'ar 581 

stated it, IMair maintained that the secession doctrine was " abso- 
lutely recognized, with n.ore distinctness than Calhoun ventured to 
urge it." 

Here the majority of disloyalists in a State [said Blair] have the 
right admitted to over-ride a minority of loyal men and make them 
forswear their allegiance to the Union. Xo man. North or South, ever 
asserted the secession cause so holdly in the, forum as the gentleman 
from Pennsylvania. He founds the relel government upon the will 
of a majority of the people; proclaims that the minority, though lova! l.. 
the General Government (which has a right to the allegiance of all) 
must abandon the states or subscribe to their authority; insists that ihe 
usurpation has established independent states endowed with all the 
innnunities and rights of an independent nation carrying on a legitimate 
war. This is the .secession, abolition, absolute-conquest doctrine which 
the gentleman has broached in defiance of national and State Constitu- 
tions, the law of the civilized world and of all humanity." 

On May 2, 1864, during the discussion in the House on the 
Wade-Davis plan of reconstruction, Stevens had occasion to refer to 
these criticisms. He restated his position that the South was only a 
belligerent, with si;ch rights only as the laws of war might accord. 
The fact of their being rebels as well as belligerents put them in a 
worse predican^ent and only extended our rights and justified the 
smiumttn jus of martial law. In urging again a general scheme of 
confiscation he said the country should decide whether this was an 
unjust war, and whether the enemy was obstinate and ought to bear 
the burden of the war. 

Stevens pictured in vigorous language the sulYering and destruc- 
tion of the war. which he denounced as unjust and as deserving of 
punishment. " \i we are not justified ". he said, "in exacting the 
extren:e demands of war then I can hardly conceive a case wdiere it 
would be applicable. To allow them to return with their estates 
untouched, on the theory that they have never gone out of the Union, 
seems to me rank injustice to loyal men." 

Stevens replied with special vigor to P.lair. " whose speech ". he 
said. " contained the distilled virus of the copperhead." He recog- 
nized that selling estates in perpetuity as the result of attainder for 
treason was forbidden by the Constitution; conviction for treason 
could work no such consequence. What he contended for was the 
forfeiture of the property of rebels as enemies. Blair had said that 
Stevens had " treated w ith scorn the idea that States held in duress 
by the rebel power have a right to look to our laws and Constitution 
for protection." Stevens replied : 

This is a false statement of my position. H tlie armies of the 
Confederate States should overrun a loyal state and hold it in duress, 
' Congressional Clobc, February $. 1864. 

5S2 J. A. Woodhuyii 

that state would have a right to appeal to the Constitution tor protec- 
tion. But a state which by a free majority of its voters has thrown 
ott' its allegiance to the Constitution and holds itself in duress by its 
own armies, is estopped from claiming any protection under the Con- 
stitution. To say that such a state is within the pale of the Union 
so as to claim protection under its Constitution and laws is but the 
raving of a madman. 

To escape the consequence of my argument he [Blair] denies that 
the Confederate States have been acknowledged as a belligerent or 
have established and maintained independent governments de facto. 
Such assurance would deny that there was a sun in the heavens. They 
have a Congress in which eleven states are represented ; they have at 
least 300,000 soldiers in the field ; their pickets are almost within sight 
of Washington. They have ships of war on the ocean destroying 
hundreds of our ships, and our government and the governments of 
Europe acknowledge and treat them as privateers, not as pirates. There 
is no reasoning such impudent denials. 

Stevens denied that he was countenancing secession in recog- 
nizing the palpable facts of war. The law forbids robbery and 
mtirder, btit these crimes exist dc facto. Does the man who declares 
their existence give cotmtenance to them? If the fiction of equity 
courts that whatever ouglit to be shall be considered as existing — if 
this is true, then the rebel states are in the Union. 

If the naked facts, palpable to every eye, attested by many bloody 
battle-fields, and recorded by every day's hostile legislation both in 
Washington and Richmond are to prevail, then the rebellious states are 
no more in the Union in fact, than the loyal states are in the Con- 
federate States. Xor should they ever be treated so until they repent 
and are rebaptized into the National Union. 

Stevens congratulated the country that the House had recently 
passed a resolution (1864) recognizing the Confederate States as a 
public enemy. That was the doctrine for which he had been con- 
tending. The consequences which he had sought to establish would 
follow as a corollar}'. " I have lived ", he said, " to see the triumpli 
of principles which, although I had full faith in their ultimate suc- 
cess, I did not expect to witness. If Providence will spare me a 
little longer, until this government shall be so reconstructed that the 
foot of a slave can never again tread upon the soil of the Republic. 
I shall be content to accept any lot which may await me." ' 

These extracts will serve to make clear Stevens's attitude toward 
the chief issues of the Civil \\'ar. Those wdiom he opposed will 
not be easily reconciled to honor his memory. As Sunmer said, 
" Xo one gave to language a sharper bite." His words were words 
of sarcasm, satire, denunciation. They aroused resentment and often 
left a bitter sting. His antagonists dreaded him, and he has been 

^Congressional Globe, vol. 6s, pp. 204.1-2043, May 2. 1S64. 

.Ufi/uc-/c o/ Stez'ctis /o-uuird Conduct of Ciz'il War 58^^ 

spoken of as a man of hate and vimlictive vcnfreancc. TUit there 
is testimony to show, from party friend and foe ahke. that lie was a 
man of deep and tender humanitarian fcchngs. He desired fair 
jjlay and a square deal for all mankind. The punitive measures 
whicli he favored did not spring from personal feelings. It was the 
cause that he hated or loved. lie loved justice: he entertained a 
deep hatred of slavery and secession, and he believed that a just 
punishment, as well as mercy, should be visited upon those whom he 
considered as the guilty authors of his country's woes. In this he 
was but human, a natural man begotten of passionate times, and he 
probably represented to a large degree the feelings of a majority of 
his fellow-countrymen. He deplored the compromising errors of tlie 
fathers, and his great purpose was to write the law of justice and 
human equality into the Constitution of his country; and he would 
feign no fraternal, sentimental regard for those who, as he thought, 
sought to violate, obstruct, or pervert these great principles of gov- 

James Albert WVkidburn'. 



011 895 678 3 " 


011895 678 3 ^ 

um T iKinFR