Southern Representation III
Bill Long 8/11/05
Thaddeus Stevens and Equality
Thaddeus Stevens' theory of representation, presented below, must be understood in the context of his commitment to racial equality and the supremacy of the Union. After moving from his native VT to PA in his 20s (he was born in 1792), he took up a law practice in Lancaster, and eventually began taking up cases of fugitive slaves and others connected to the Underground Railroad. When he died, he was buried in the Schreiner-Concord cemetery in Lancaster, since they were the only ones willing to accept interracial burials. And, when he delivered his long speech on the floor of the House of Representatives on December 18, 1865, mentioned previously, he had a lot to say about the future of American government. He excoriated those who said that American government was a "white man's Government."
"To say so is political blasphemy, for it violates the fundamental principles of our gospel of liberty. This is man's Government; the Government of all men alike; not that all men will have equal power and sway within it. Accidental circumstances, natural and acquired endowment and ability, will vary their fortunes. But equal rights to all the privileges of the Government is innate in every immortal being, no matter what the shape or color of the tabernacle which it inhabits" (p.74 Minutes of Dec. 18, 1865).
He recognized, however, that talk of equal rights was not simply a magic wand that could be waved to right every historical wrong. "If equal privileges were granted to all [and by the word 'privileges' he has to include the right to vote], I should not expect any but white men to be elected to office for long ages to come. The prejudice engendered by slavery would not soon permit merit to be preferred to color..." As William E. Nelson has shown in his helpful study of the Fourteenth Amendment (The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine, 1988), the themes which Stevens appeals to, especially liberty and equality, were themes that resonated deeply in the American psyche in the pre-Civil War era, even if many politicians could use these themes to come to diametrically opposite conclusions as Stevens.
Stevens on Representation
In December 1865, then, he put forward his approach to the representation question. He would support the number of legal voters as the basis of representation, leaving eligibility to vote with the states, but with the "stick" that any state's representation in Congress would diminish by the degree to which black men were not allowed to vote. He even had done the "calculations" in his speech. Listen first to his philosophy. The framers intended "to secure perpetual ascendancy to the party of the Union; and so as to render our republican Government firm and stable forever." Thus, calculations for representatives should flow from this philosophy.
Currently (1865), "the States have 19 representatives of colored slaves." Of course he means not that slaves represented anyone, but that 3/5 X the Southern slave population divided by the number of people in each congressional district yielded the number 19. He goes on: "If the slaves are now free then they can add, for the other two fifths, thirteen more, making the slave representation 32." Then, "I suppose the free blacks in those States will give at least five more, making the representation of non-voting people of color about thirty-seven." Since the total representation of the slave States now is 70, adding the other two fifths makes would make it 83.
Thus, if the basis remained unchanged (i.e., using federal census numbers), the eleven Southern States would have 83 seats. When these 83, who would be assumed to vote in a bloc, would combine with Northern and Border-state Democrats, these forces would always have a majority in Congress and in the Electoral College. Then, the parade of horribles goes on. "They will at the very first election take possession of the White House and the halls of Congress." And then, as if hinting at Jesus' story of the unsatisfied demons after being cast out of someone, he says, "I need not depict the ruin that would follow."
By supporting a proposal whereby white representation is diminished to the extent that black voting is disallowed in the South, Stevens not only would encourage the South to support black suffrage but "if they should grant the right of suffrage to persons of color, I think there would always be Union white men enough in the South, aided by the blacks, to divide the representation, and thus continue the Repubican ascendency."
Though the final House plan based representation on population (rather than legal voters), it included a clause providing that if elective privilege should be denied in any state on account of race, creed or color, all persons of such race, creed or color, shall be excluded from the basis of representation. This proposal would receive a full airing in the Senate before being tabled, but the finally-approved version in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment is highly indebted to the House plan. And Thaddeus Stevens got the ball rolling.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long