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FREEDOM OF WIVES AND CHILDREN OF COLORED
SPEECH IN THE SENATE, ON A JOINT RESOLUTION FOR THIS PURpose, JANUARY 5, 1865.
As early as January 8, 1864, Mr. Wilson, of Massachusetts, embodied in a bill to promote enlistments a clause declaring, that, when any man or boy of African descent, owing service or labor in any State, under its laws, shall be mustered into the military or naval service of the United States, he and his mother, wife, and children shall be forever free. This bill was considered from time to time. March 18th, Mr. Sherman, of Ohio, moved to postpone the bill, "with a view that we may act upon the main proposition, the Amendment to the Constitution to abolish Slavery in the United States." Mr. Sumner replied: "The Senator speaks about acting on the main proposition.' The main proposition, Sir, is to strike Slavery wherever you can hit it." That session closed without final action on the question.
December 13, 1864, Mr. Wilson brought it forward again, in a joint resolution to encourage enlistments and promote the efficiency of the military and naval forces, by making free the wives and children of persons who had been or might be mustered into the service of the United States.
January 5, 1865, in the debate which ensued, Mr. Sumner said:
R. PRESIDENT, - Only a few days ago there was a call for three hundred thousand more troops. The country needs them, and it is the duty of Congress to supply them. To this end there must be no difficulty, impediment, or embarrassment in the way. All these must be removed. This is not all. There
must be encouragement of every kind; and such is the character of the present proposition.
There can be no delay. The country cannot wait the slow action of Constitutional Amendment, as proposed by the Senator from Wisconsin [Mr. DOOLITTLE]. Congress must act to the extent of its power, and any neglect of power on this question would be injurious to the public interests.
All will confess the humanity of the proposition to enfranchise the families of colored persons who have borne arms for their country. All will confess the hardship of continuing them in Slavery.
But the question is asked by many, and even by the Senator from Wisconsin, What power has Congress to set the families free?
MR. DOOLITTLE. I did not ask that question.
MR. SUMNER. The question has been put again and again, and the purport of the speech of the Senator was in that sense. He argued that we were about to have a Constitutional Amendment which would supersede everything; that therefore this proposition was unnecessary, if not injurious. I so understood the argument of the Senator, and that it pointed directly to the question of power, because I know the patriotism of the Senator too well to suppose, that, if in his opinion the power of Congress was beyond doubt, he would hesitate. I do not do the Senator injustice. I say, then, the question is asked, What power has Congress to set the families free? This is the single point on which I shall express an opinion.
My answer is, that Congress has precisely the same power to enfranchise the families that it has to enfran
chise the colored soldier. The two powers are coincident, and from the same source.
It is assumed that Congress may enfranchise the colored soldier. This has been done by solemn statute, without reference to the conduct of his pretended owner. If we are asked the reason for such enfranchisement, it must be found, first, in its practical necessity, that we may secure the best service of the slaves, and, secondly, in its intrinsic justice and humanity. In brief, Government cannot be so improvident and so foolish as to seek the service of the slave at the hazard of life, without securing to him the boon of freedom. Nor, if Government were so bereft of common sense as to forego this temptation to enlistment and efficient service, can it be guilty of the unutterable meanness of using the slave in the national defence and then returning him to bondage. Therefore the slave who fights is enfranchised.
But every argument, every consideration, which pleads for the enfranchisement of the slave, pleads also for the enfranchisement of the family. There is the same practical necessity for doing it, and the same unspeakable shabbiness in not doing it.
There is no principle of law better established than this, that an acknowledged right carries with it all incidents essential to its exercise. I do not employ technical language; but I give the idea, founded in reason and the nature of things. It would be vain to confer a right or a power, if the means for its enjoyment were denied. From this simple statement the conclusion is irresistible.
In conferring upon Congress the power to create an army, the Constitution conferred therewith all the
powers essential to the exercise of the principal power. If Congress can authorize the enlistment of slaves, as it indubitably can, it may at the same time authorize their enfranchisement, and by the same reason it may authorize the enfranchisement of their families, and all this from the necessity of the case, and to prevent an intolerable baseness.
A Scottish patriot, nearly two centuries ago, exclaimed in memorable words, which I am always glad to quote, that he would give his life to serve his country, but would not do a base thing to save it. If there be any value in this declaration, it may be invoked, when it is deliberately argued that the National Government can create an army, and in this service can enfranchise the slave it enlists, but is impotent to enfranchise his family. I know not how we can use his right arm and ask him to shed his blood in our defence, and then hand over his wife and child to bondage. The thought is too vile. The human heart rejects the insufferable wrong.
But it is said the slave has no family. Such is the argument of Slavery. For all that he has, as well as all that he is, even wife and child, belong to another. Surely this unrighteous pretension will not be made the apology for a denial of rights. If the family of the slave be not designated by law, or by the forms of legal marriage, then it must be ascertained by the next best evidence possible,- that is, by cohabitation and mutual recognition as man and wife. And any uncertainty in this evidence can only be regarded as a natural incident. of Slavery. As men cannot take advantage of their own wrong, so slave-masters cannot take advantage of Slav
1 Andrew Fletcher, of Saltoun: Preface to Political Works (Glasgow, 1749), p. viii.
ery. Any other rule would practically unite with Slavery in denying to the slave wife and child.
There is a well-known French maxim, that "it is only the first step which costs"; and here permit me to say, it is only the first stage of the argument which merits attention. Concede that the soldier may be enfranchised, and then by the same constitutional power his family may be admitted to an equal liberty. Any other conclusion would be illogical as inhuman, discreditable alike to head and heart. There is no argument, whether of reason or humanity, for the enfranchisement of the soldier, which does not plead equally for that of his family. Nay, more,-I know not how we can expect a blessing on our arms while we fail to perform this duty.
I cannot close without declaring again my opinion, that Congress at this moment is complete master of the whole subject of Slavery everywhere in the United States, even without any Constitutional Amendment. It can sweep all out of existence, precisely as it can remove any other obstruction to the national defence, and all this by virtue of a power as indisputable as the power to raise armies or to suspend the Habeas Corpus. Future generations will read with amazement, that a great people, when national life was assailed, hesitated to exercise a power so simple and beneficent; and this amazement will know no bounds, as they learn that Congress higgled for months on the question whether the wives and children of our colored soldiers should be admitted to freedom.
January 9th, after further debate, the joint resolution passed the Senate, Yeas 27, Nays 10. February 22d, it passed the House of Representatives, - Yeas 74, Nays 63; and March 3d, it was approved by the President.