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elections and the returns of its members, has always felt itself enabled to go behind the “letter which killeth to the spirit which maketh alive,” and to ascertain whether, in point of fact, there has been a fair election by the people of the district, having full opportunity to vote, and without violence or fraud. And, therefore, if gentlemen differ as to the authority of a military governor, or, as I would call him, the provisional governor, of a State, they may still be satisfied that there was a full and fair notice to the people of the election; and that the loyal people of those districts, having had such full and fair notice, did meet and freely exercise their elective franchise.
I beg leave to make this further obvious suggestion to the House: that you cannot expect, in districts like those in Louisiana, or in any other of the States whose citizens have been in arms against us, that regularity, or that adherence to the forms of law, which you may justly demand in a State where the operation of the laws has not been obstructed by force of arms. Irregularities are inevitable; and this House, under its power to determine the election of members, will see, not whether all the customary provisions of law have been complied with, but whether, in point of fact, there has been a fair and just election. Do sticking-in-the-bark gentlemen tell us the registry law was not complied with, and that, therefore, this election is void? It is a fact, that this provision for a registry law for New Orleans was embodied in the constitution of Louisiana adopted in 1852. It is also a fact, that there were two elections of representatives from New Orleans, of members admitted to seats in this House, before any registry law had been passed. And upon what ground? Upon the plain ground, that you are not to deprive the electors of the exercise of this most important right of representation because there is a failure to comply with formal provisions of law. Suppose; for instance, the law required a check-list, and a check-list was not used in the election, and yet, upon a full investigation of the facts, the House is satisfied a man was elected by a clear majority, and without fraud or violence: there can be no question, that, under the power vested in the House, it would look directly to the merits of the election, and confirm it.
The distinguished gentleman from Indiana [Mr. Voorhees], who first spoke upon this subject, averred that there was great danger from the admission of these claimants, and, in like cases, that the executive authority of this Government would finally prevail over the rights and powers of the House. The answer to all such suggestions is to be found in the fidelity of this House to its rights, to its powers, and to its duties; and, without such fidelity, there can be no safety. It is, in all cases, the first and final and only judge of the qualifications, elections, and returns of its members ; and so long as it holds that power in its right hand, and exercises it discreetly, firmly, fearlessly, we need have no fear of the Executive.
The same gentleman suggests, that this was not a free election, because the persons who voted at the election voted for the purpose of avoiding the effects of the proclamation of the President of the United States; or, as the proclamation of the military governor somewhat curiously terms it, to avail themselves of the “benefits secured by the proclamation; to wit, the benefits of holding men in bondage. I beg leave to call the attention of gentlemen to the fact, that the proclamation of Sept. 22 nowhere holds out the hope of exemption from its operation to any district because it should have a member of Congress; that, on the other hand, the proclamation of Sept. 22 is put upon the distinct ground, that it is not a district, but the State, which is to be represented, and by an election at which a majority of the voters of a State voted. The suggestion in the proclamation of the governor was, therefore, without authority, unless derived from other source than the proclamation of Sept. 22.
But, if that proclamation had contained this promise in exact terms, I do not see why loyal and faithful people might not desire to avoid the practical effects upon them, whether legal or illegal, constitutional or in conflict with the Constitution, wise or unwise. That argument proves too much. It goes to this extent, that elections are not to be influenced by the consideration, that those engaged in them may thus secure more effectually the protection of the Government. One very excellent reason why they should exercise the elective franchise, and send members to this House, is to effect that object.
I put this case, then, upon two or three plain grounds. I put it upon the ground, that these men, who are asking seats in this House, are loyal citizens of the United States; that they have been elected by loyal citizens of the United States; that they have been elected at an election which was free; that they were elected by numbers, which, compared with other elections, indicate that the people in
the districts were in the movement, and that it was had in entire good faith. I put it upon the plain ground, that while you demand of the loyal people of Louisiana faithful allegiance and obedience to your laws, and to bear the burdens of your Government, you should give to them the inestimable rights which that Government was formed to secure to them ; without which they would be subjects, and not citizens; slaves, and not freemen. I put it upon the still higher ground, that the loyal men in the State of Louisiana, who have not engaged in this rebellion, or have returned at the earliest moment to their allegiance, have a right to come before you, and ask that you shall not permit the mere letter of the law, which to-day throws upon them all the weight and burdens of the Government, to stand in the way of the exercise of their dearest and most sacred rights, the rights which bind them to you, and make them of you.
Mr. Speaker, permit me to make one other practical suggestion to the House; and that is, that the only way in which you can reconstruct this Government is by the co-operation of the loyal men in the seceded States. If you mean to go a step further, and try to bring these States under absolute subjection, wipe them out of existence, and reconstruct them according to your will and pleasure and not their rights, you have taken upon yourself a task which you have not the power to execute, and which, if you had, would result in the overthrow of your liberties as well as theirs. No government would be a fit instrument for such a work but a military despotism. History gives us no hope in such a war.
But if, on the other hand, you expect, as it seems to me every rational man must expect, to reconstruct the Government with the sympathy, co-operation, and aid of the loyal men of these States, then I ask you, in the name of prudence and of justice, not to shut the doors of this House against them. Do not, I beseech you, teach them the terrible lesson, that your powers are effective to destroy, but not to redeem; to crush, but not to save. Meet them at the threshold; welcome and bless them as they seek once more the shelter of the old homestead.