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FREEDOM OF SPEECH.
Speech delivered in the House of Representatives, April 12, 1864, on the
Resolution offered by Mr. Colfax, Proposing to Expel Mr. Long.
Mr. Speaker : I feel somewhat embarrassed because I shall not be able to make in the three minutes assigned to me a very interesting speech; and unless I can trench upon the time of my friend from New Jersey (Mr. Rogers), who, I believe, is next to occupy the floor, I shall claim from the courtesy of the Speaker the opportunity of submitting on Thursday morning a few remarks.
I think, Mr. Speaker, from the demonstrations we have had here to night, that the heart of every patriot in this House and in these galleries ought to be filled with hope and assured with confidence that the country is safe! Certainly no man, after the broad, liberal, patriotic, and antipartizan views which we have heard expressed here, can have a shadow of doubt that we shall be able to suppress this rebellion !
To abandon irony, Mr. Speaker, I must confess that my heart is filled with sadness at the continued notes of party! party!! party!!! which I hear sounded. It seems to me that all are for party and none for the country; that on both sides of the House it is a continual attempt to obtain some small advantage for party — not to promote the great interests of the Union, but those of party for the next Presidential election.
[Here the hammer fell.]
Mr. Rollins of Missouri: Mr. Speaker, if I could save this country from destruction I should be willing that this or that side of the House should select the man to preside over its destinies not only for the next four but for the next forty years. If I could save the Government from destruction it would be a small matter to me whether Abraham Lincoln or George B. McClellan presided over the country's destinies.
Mr. Speaker, I desire to express my opinion regarding the resolution proposed by the honorable Speaker of this House. I shall not vote for the expulsion of the member from Ohio. I think that resolution the most ill-timed that has been proposed here during the present session. If the speech of the gentleman from Ohio contains poison which is likely to produce disease in
the body-politic of the country, the honorable Speaker could not have selected a more efficient mode of infusing that poison into the public heart of the country than by introducing a resolution to expel the honorable member from Ohio.
Without that resolution I venture to say that the speech of the gentleman from Ohio would perhaps not have been read by a thousand persons in the United States; but as it is it will be read in every State, in every village, in every mansion and cabin, from one corner of the land to the other. If it had not been for the resolution the honorable Speaker has offered, the speech of the gentleman from Ohio would have fallen still-born from his lips. It would have passed like the speeches of other gentlemen delivered here into the political historical rubbish of the country, and most of us would have forgotten within a few weeks or months that it had ever been delivered.
I repeat, sir, if that speech contains political poison, the censure for disseminating it must fall upon the head of the honorable Speaker of this House. If it be a dagger aimed at the national heart, it is the strong hand of the Speaker that directs it and drives home the fatal blow! And, sir, if this speech is capable of doing the injury which seems to be attributed to it, to the Speaker far more than to the gentleman from Ohio will that injury be due.
But, sir, I do not apprehend any serious detriment from that speech. If the cause of the Union and the cause of the country is to be shaken by such a speech as that, it ought to perish; and if one hundred and eighty-three members of the House are not competent, morally and intellectually, to meet the honorable gentleman from Ohio in his argument, and show that he is wrong-if they cannot furnish the antidote for the poison, then I say we are unworthy to represent a free people in a great crisis like this. We are doing but poor justice to their intelligence and patriotism if we suppose for a moment that a speech like that could shake their confidence in the stability of the Government and in the permanency of our free institutions.
For myself, sir, I have no fears of the effect of that speech. I rely upon the discriminating intelligence of the great masses of the American people to correct in their own minds the gross errors with which it abounds; and for its utterance I would not expel or even censure the gentleman. I would not do it because I am in favor of the largest liberty of debate, especially in times like these. In my judgment the wisdom of our ancestors has been no better illustrated than in that provision of the Constitution which says that no member shall be expelled except upon the vote of two-thirds of the members of this body. We see the importance of the rule on this occasion. We see the lengths to which party spirit would run. We see daily in the affairs that occur upon this floor that questions of the utmost importance are not decided upon their merits, but invariably according to the strength of party on this
or that side of the House. And while I do not mean to cast a slur upon any member in connection with this question, yet it may be safely said that in consequence of the hold which party has taken upon the minds of members here it would be just as easy to expel a man upon any other question that . might be presented. It is a question of party, and I do not pretend to say that under like circumstances the same thing would not be attempted for party purposes by this side of the House. It is one of the evils of party spirit under a Government like this. It is one of those baneful, poisonous influences which we ought to resist, especially when as at the present time the country is struggling for its existence.
Now, Mr. Speaker, I am for the largest latitude of discussion upon all questions, and while I disavow the sentiments uttered by the gentleman from Ohio in the speech for which we are called upon to expel or censure him, while I say to him and to the House that I think it was a most ill-timed, injudicious, and I might add, considering the circumstances in which it was delivered, unpatriotic, speech while I say all this, yet tolerating as I do the largest liberty of debate, the utmost freedom of discussion, I would not even publicly censure him for it. I do not believe that that speech will be as productive of as much harm as many gentlemen suppose. It merely expresses the opinion the gentleman entertains from his view of the circumstances which now surround us, and much as I condemn both the sentiments and the speaker for uttering them, I would not expel or censure him for his great indiscretion. Sir, if every member who makes indiscreet, unwise, and I might add foolish, speeches on this floor were expelled or censured, how long would there be left a quorum, and how little of legislation would command our attention here except in discussing resolutions of censure? He has merely followed the opinion and example of his great leader, Vallandigham, who delivered substantially the same speech in the last Congress, that members around me heard, and yet no movement was made to expel him for much stronger language than that used on Friday last by the gentleman from Ohio. It was a remark of Thomas Jefferson, that great apostle of American liberty, "that error ceases to be dangerous so long as reason is left free to combat it.” And the first amendment made to the Federal Constitution after its adoption is as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
If, sir, we cannot pass a law abridging the freedom of the press or of speech without violating the Constitution, how cautious should we be in adopting another mode of punishment, unknown to the Constitution and utterly violative of its true spirit! In despotic governments the first blow struck at the
liberty of the citizen is always that of muzzling the press and abridging the sacred right of free discussion a right inestimable to freemen and formidable to tyrants only. Sir, it is the very essence of liberty to form our opinions and to express them according to the dictates of our own consciences. And to this sacred privilege, gradually recognized as the world emerged from the dark period of the middle ages to the dawn of light of the last few centuries, we are indebted for the wonderful advancement which we now behold in religion, in science, in government, and in civilization. Argue as you may, sir, a despotic government would nowhere be found on the face of the earth amidst a virtuous, enlightened, and educated people with a free press and free speech! And a great and free people will not be in danger of losing their liberties as long as these sacred rights are properly guarded and vindicated.
It is well known that for many years past one great complaint of the Northern people has been that they were not without violence allowed to print and speak their sentiments south of a certain line on a particular subject. And shall we now, sir, after all that has been said on this subject, retrograde, and here in the very hall of our national legislature strike down the right of free discussion by expelling a member from his seat for words spoken in debate ? Sir, I for one am prepared for no such work as this. Let us answer and expose the pernicious views of the honorable member, as I take it we are fully competent to do, and then let us turn him over to the tender mercies of his constituency, whose indignation will be in direct ratio to their patriotism, to dispose of his case as to them may seem most proper and right. But let us not desecrate this temple, dedicated to the cause of liberty and free discussion, by assailing one of its chief bulwarks in striking down the right of free speech. It is possible that erroneous and dangerous doctrines may be taught here, and I can well suppose a case where the cause of the Government might be temporarily damaged; but this would be of short duration under the searching operation of free discussion in this representative chamber.
Truth crushed to earth shall rise again ;
The eternal years of God are hers;
And dies amidst its worshippers.
shame and disgrace, those who have spoken or dreamed of recognition will take back their injudicious words, and be made happy in once more kneeling with all the children of the Republic around the altar of a still unbroken and blessed Union, beneath the starry folds of that banner from whose bright azure not one star shall be blotted. I wish I had time on this occasion to go into a history of the discussion of public questions, not only here, but in the British Parliament, where the utmost freedom of debate has been allowed, tolerated, and encouraged.
During the War of the Revolution, when the infant colonies of this country were struggling for existence, every member upon this floor knows what terrible anathemas were hurled against the British Government by Chatham, Burke, Fox, Sheridan, and other distinguished orators in the British Parliament. Their language has never been equalled in severity by anything that has been said by any member on this floor, and yet who ever heard of a resolution introduced for their expulsion ?
To show how far these men went, I will quote one or two short extracts :
The gentleman tells us America is obstinate, America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three million people so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.- LORD CHATHAM, in 1776.
In November, 1777, eighteen months subsequent to the Declaration of Independence, after two years of war, he said:
As to conquest, my lords, I repeat, it is impossible. You may swell every expense and every effort still more extravagantly - pile and accumulate every assistance which you can beg or borrow, traffic and barter with every little pitiful German prince that sells and sends his subjects to the shambles of a foreign prince - your efforts are forever vain and impotent. If I were an American as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country I would never lay down my arms; never, never, never.
But in such a war as this, unjust in its principle, impracticable in its means, and ruinous in its consequences, I would not contribute a single effort nor a single shilling
The noble lord said the war was not disgraceful; it was only unfortunate. For my part I must continue to call it disgraceful, not unfortunate. I consider them all alike, victories and defeats; towns taken and towns evacuated; new generals appointed and old generals recalled — they are all alike calamities; they all spur us on to this fatal business. Victories give us hopes; defeats make us desperate ; and both instigate us to go on. . . Give us back our force, nor protract this burdensome, disgraceful, for it is not an unfortunate, war.- EDMUND BURKE, in 1781.