Portrait of Stevens by Matthew Brady

Thaddeus Stevens served in Congress from his home in Lancaster, PA. Noted for his biting, sarcastic wit, Stevens was widely disliked but also extremely powerful. Southerners at the time, and many professional historians in later years, judged him to be vengeful and vindictive. As a young man he became a fervent abolitionist, but he went beyond most abolitionists in his belief in racial equality. Stevens was anxious about large scale industry. He often argued for "small producer capitalism,"
a vision of society in which many small, independent producers lived in a state of rough equality. His arguments for land confiscation reflect that philosophy.

More recently, historians have been inclined to praise Stevens for his commitment to racial equality and his willingness to engage the land confiscation issue

By the time of this speech, Stevens was plagued by poor health. The clerk of the House read the speech, since Stevens was too ill. He died not long after.

(Adapted from full text, electronic version of speech transcribed by Students at Furman University from the Thaddeus Stevens Papers. Asterisks [***] indicate edits of the original document by Michael O'Malley)

Speech of the Hon. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, Delivered in the House of Representatives, March 19, 1867, on the Bill (H.R. No. 20) Relative to Damages to Loyal Men, and for Other Purposes.

Mr. STEVENS said--

Mr. SPEAKER: I am about to discuss the question of the punishment of belligerent traitors by enforcing the confiscation of their property to a certain extent, both as a punishment for their crimes and to pay the loyal men who have been robbed by the rebels, and to increase the pensions of our wounded soldiers. The punishment of traitors has been wholly ignored by a treacherous Executive and by a sluggish Congress. I wish to make an issue before the American people, and see whether they will sanction the perfect impunity of a murderous belligerent, and consent that the loyal men of this nation, who have been despoiled of their property, shall remain without remuneration, either by the rebel property or the property of the nation.


This bill is important to several classes of people.

It is important to our wounded and maimed soldiers, who are unable to work for their living, and whose present pensions are wholly inadequate to their support. It is important to those bereaved wives and parents whose habiliments of woe are to be seen in every house, and proclaim the cruel losses which have been inflicted on them by the murderous hands of traitors.

It is important to the loyal men, North and South [5], who have been plundered and impoverished by rebel raiders and rebel Legislatures.

It is important to four millions of injured, oppressed, and helpless men, whose ancestors for two centuries have been held in bondage and compelled to earn the very property, a small portion of which we propose to restore to them, and who are now destitute, helpless, and exposed to want and starvation, under the deliberate cruelty of their former masters.

It is also important to the delinquents whose property it takes as a fine--punishment for the great crime of making war to destroy the Republic, and for prosecuting the war in violations of all the rules of civilized warfare. It is certainly too small a punishment for so deep a crime, and too slight a warning to future ages[.]


Apply these principles to the case in hand. The cause of the war was slavery. We have liberated the slaves. It is our duty to protect them, and provide for them while they are unable to provide for themselves. Have we not a right, in the language of Vattel, "to do ourselves justice respecting the object which has caused the war," by taking lands for homesteads [sic: for] these "objects" of the war?

Have we not a right, if we chose to go to that extent, to indemnify ourselves for the expenses and damages caused by the war? We might make the property of the enemy pay the $4,000,000,000 which we have expended, as well as the damages inflicted on loyal men by confiscation and invasion, which might reach $1,000,000,000 more. This bill is merciful, asking less than one tenth of our just claims.


I suppose none will deny the right to confiscate the [sic: preperty] of the several belligerent States, as they all made war as States; or of the Confederate States of America; for no one ever denied the right of the conqueror to the crown property of the vanquished sovereign, even where the seizure of private property would not be justified by the circumstances.


The laws of war authorize us to take this property by our sovereign power--by a law now to be passed. We have a subdued enemy in our power; we have all their property and lives at our disposal....we have a right to seize the property named in this bill, and ten times more. You behold at your feet a conquered foe, an atrocious enemy. Tell him on what terms he may arise and depart or remain loyal. But do not embrace him too hastily. Be sure first that there is no dagger in his girdle.


Having, as I conceive, justified the bill which I seek to have enforced, let us now look to the provisions of the bill under consideration. [9]

The first section orders the confiscation of all the property belonging to the State governments, and the national government which made war upon us, and which we have conquered. I presume no one is prepared to object to this, unless it be those who condemned the conquest. To them I have nothing to say, except to hope that they will continue consistent in their love of the rebels; to show an exuberant humanity into which is merged and submerged all the exalted feelings of patriotism.


The fourth section provides, first, that out of the lands thus confiscated each liberated slave who is a male adult, or the head of a family, shall have assigned to him a homestead of forty acres of land, (with $100 to build a dwelling) which shall be held for them by trustees during their pupilage.

Let us consider whether this is a just and [sic: politic] provision.

Whatever may be the fate of the rest of the bill, I must earnestly pray that this may not be defeated. On its success, in my judgment, depends not only the happiness and respectability of the colored race, but their very existence. Homesteads to them are far more valuable than the immediate right of suffrage, though both are their due.

Four million of persons have just been freed from a condition of dependence, wholly unacquainted with business transactions, kept systematically in ignorance of all their rights and of the common elements of education, without which none of any race are competent to earn an honest living, to guard against the frauds which will always be practiced on the ignorant, or to judge of the most judicious manner of applying their labor. But few of them are mechanics, and none of them skilled manufacturers. They must necessarily, therefore, be the servants and victims of others, unless they are made in some measure independent of their wiser neighbors. The guardianship of the Freedmen's Bureau, that benevolent institution, cannot be expected long to protect them. It encounters the hostility of the old slaveholders, whether in official or private station, because it deprives these dethroned tyrants of the luxury of despotism. In its nature it is not calculated for a permanent institution. Withdraw that protection and leave them a prey to the legislation and treatment of their former masters, and the evidence already furnished shows that they will soon become extinct, or driven to defend themselves by civil war. Withhold from them all their rights, and leave them destitute of the means of earning a livelihood, the victims of the hatred or cupidity of the rebels whom they helped to conquer, and it seems probable that the war of races might ensue which the President feared would arise from kind treatment and restoration of their rights. I doubt not that hundreds of thousands would annually be deposited in secret, unknown graves. Such is already the course of their rebel murderers; and it is done with impunity. ...Make them independent of their old masters, so that they may not be compelled to work for them upon unfair terms, which can only be done by giving them a small tract of land to cultivate for themselves, and you remove all this danger. You also elevate the character of the freedman. Nothing is so likely to make a man a good citizen as to make him a freeholder. Nothing will so multiply the productions of the South as to divide it into small farms. Nothing will make men so industrious and moral as to let them feel that they are above want and are the owners of the soil which they till. It will also be of service to the white inhabitants. They will have constantly among them industrious laborers, anxious to work for fair wages. How is it possible for them to cultivate their lands if these people were expelled? If Moses should lead or drive them into exile, or carry out the absurd idea of colonizing them, the South would become a barren waste.

Arguments for Confiscation
George Clemenceau
J. McKaye
Abolitionist Wendell Phillips
General Rufus Saxton
Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens

History 122

HIST 122 Syllabus


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