History Thread: Robert Elliott and the Rhetoric of Liberty

On January 5, 1874 the House of Representatives debated a new Civil Rights Act, designed to protect the rights of freedmen as Reconstruction waned in the South. Southern whites, who had never peacefully acquiesced in the first place, were growing bolder and angrier as the Federal government’s willingness to protect freedmen and white Republicans waned. The brainchild of Senator Charles Sumner, who insisted that “very few measures of equal importance have ever been presented,” this Act attempted to outlaw all segregation in social spaces, government appointments, public schools jury service and cemetery burials.

The session began on a contentious note, when Virginia Democrat John Harris clashed with Alonzo Ransier of South Carolina, a Black man who until recently had been Lieutenant Governor of that state. Harris, unsurprisingly, claimed that “there is not one gentleman upon this floor who can honestly say he really believes that the colored man is created his equal” – implying that Republican devotion to racial equality was merely cynical and insincere. When Ransier growled in response that he and many others believed in equality, the Democrat snapped “I am speaking to the white men of the House, and…I do not wish to be interrupted again by him.”

Alexander Stephens, The Ghoul of Crawfordville

The testy exchange between these two men was overshadowed the next day by Alexander Stephens of Georgia. Stephens, as Vice President of the Confederate States, had forcefully articulated the South’s white supremacist ideology with his Cornerstone Speech: the Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Now Stephens, in ill-health and confined to a wheelchair, had returned to the American Congress, and on this day coughed out a forceful protest against the new bill.

Stephens was slightly more restrained in his comments than 13 years earlier. He retreated to espousing the “difference between civil rights proper and the social rights claimed by this bill.” He insisted that Black men had no right to “a seat in the same car as the white man,” and that continued segregation of the races would “be infinitely better for both races” than any attempt at social leveling. Stephens invoked another familiar canard when he snarled that “the germinal and seminal principle of American constitutional liberty is the absolute, unrestricted right of state self-government.” Bold words, indeed, from a man who had once helped lead a government devoted to destroying “American constitutional liberty.”

Few were surprised by Stephens’ words: he had learned nothing from the defeat of the Confederacy and the attempts by Northern Republicans and Black freedmen to rebuild the South into a prosperous, equitable society. What did surprise spectators, however, was the stirring rebuttal by Robert Brown Elliott, an English-born freedman representing South Carolina. Elliott had published a Republican newspaper in the face of death threats, commanded the State Militia in operations against the Ku Klux Klan and helped push the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 through Congress. He was not a man to be intimidated, in other words, no matter how venerable his political lineage.

Robert Brown Elliott

Elliott’s response is worth quoting, at length if not in full, as one of the most eloquent defenses of civil rights in the history of Congress – and one of the most

While I am sincerely grateful for this high mark of courtesy that has been accorded to me by this House, it is a matter of regret to me that it is necessary at this day that I should rise in the presence of an American Congress to advocate for a bill which simply asserts equal rights and equal public privileges for all classes of American citizens. I regret, sir, that the dark hue of my skin may lend a color to the imputation that I am controlled by motives personal to myself in my advocacy of this great measure of national justice. Sir, the motive that impels me is restricted by no such narrow boundary, but is as broad as your Constitution. I advocate it, sir because it is right. The bill however, not only appeals to your justice, but it demands a response from your gratitude…

Elliott then responded to a Kentucky representative who had mocked the courage of Black men and women when faced with the “chivalry” of Klansmen and Regulators. Elliott reminded the Kentuckian that at the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Black militiamen had courageously fought the British while Kentucky troops had “ingloriously fled.” He also commented that “while the Negro, true to that patriotism and love of country that have ever characterized and marked his history on this continent, came to the aid of the government,” while slave-owning Kentucky “coldly [declared] her neutrality in the impending struggle.”

Having disposed of this unworthy pretender to eloquence, Elliott turned his full force upon the shriveled ex-traitor whose address had preceded him.

Now sir, recurring to the venerable and distinguished gentleman from Georgia, [Mr. Stephens,] who has added his remonstrance against the passage of this bill, permit me to say that I share in the feeling of high personal regard for that gentleman which pervades this House. His years, his ability, and his long experience in public affairs entitle him to the measure of consideration which has been accorded to him on this floor. But in this discussion, I cannot and I will not forget that the welfare and rights of my whole race in this country are involved. When, therefore, the honorable gentleman from Georgia lends his voice and influence to defeat this measure, I do not shrink from saying that it is not from him that the American House of Representatives should take lessons in matters touching human rights or the joint relations of the State and national governments.

While the honorable gentleman contented himself with harmless speculation in this study, or in the columns of a newspaper, we might well smile at the impotence of his efforts to turn back the advancing tide of opinion and progress; but when he comes against upon this national arena, and throws himself with all his power and influence across the path which leads to the full enfranchisement of my race, I meet him only as an adversary; nor shall age or any other consideration restrain me from saying that he now offers this Government, which he has done his utmost to destroy, a very poor return for its magnanimous treatment, to come here and seek to continue, by the assertion of doctrines obnoxious to the true principles of our Government, the burdens and oppressions which rest upon five millions of his countrymen who never failed to life their earnest prayers for the success of this Government when the gentleman was seeking to break up the Union of these States and to blot the American Republic from the galaxy of nations [Loud applause].

After an exegesis of the recent Slaughterhouse Cases heard before the Supreme Court, Elliott then reminded those, who needed reminding, of the history of the man he was rebutting:

Sir, it is scarcely twelve years since that gentleman shocked the civilized word by announcing the birth of a government which rested on human slavery as its corner-stone. The progress of events has swept away that pseudo-government which rested on greed, pride, and tyranny; and the race who he then ruthlessly spurned and tramped on are here to meet him in debate, and to demand that the rights which are enjoyed by their former oppressors  – who vainly sought to overthrow a Government for which they could not prostitute to the base uses of slavery – shall be accorded to those who even in the darkness of slavery kept their allegiance to freedom and the Union. Sir, the gentleman from Georgia has learned much since 1861; but he is still a laggard. Let him put away the entirely false and fatal theories which have so greatly marred an otherwise enviable record. Let him accept, in its fullness and beneficence, the great doctrine that American citizenship carries with it every civil and political right which manhood can confer. Let him lend his influence, with all masterly ability, to complete the proud structure of legislation which makes this nation worthy of the great declaration which heralded its birth, and he will have done that which will most nearly redeem his reputation in the eyes of the world, and best vindicate the wisdom of that policy which has permitted him to regain his seat upon this floor.

Then, as a parting shot, Elliott riposted the naked, vulgar bigotry of Virginian John Harris, who had so insulted his fellow Carolinian Alonzo Ransier the day before. “To the diatribe of the gentleman of Virginia…that his remarks were addressed to white men alone,” he said, “I shall have no word of reply.” Instead, “let him feel that a negro was not only too magnanimous to smite him in his weakness, but was even charitable enough to grant him the mercy of his silence.” Historian Philip Dray writes that “the audience reacted so enthusiastically…with applause and stamping of feet, that it was several minutes before order could be restored.”

Elliott concluded with another reminder of the Civil War and its promise of freedom:

For over two centuries our race has “reaped down your fields.” The cries and woes that we have uttered have “entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabbath,” and we are at least politically free. The last vestiture only is needed—civil rights. Having gained this, we may, with hearts overflowing with gratitude, and thankful that our prayer has been granted, repeat the prayer of Ruth: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”

After a year of debate and negotiation, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 passed the House on a vote of 162-100, and was signed into law by President Ulysses Grant on March 1st, a little over a year after Elliott’s putdown of Stephens. However, the Act was effectively neutered by Grant’s reluctance to enforce it; the Compromise of 1877 hastened the end of Reconstruction, and in 1883 the Supreme Court ruled most of the Act’s provisions unconstitutional. It would be another 80 years before the freedoms promised by Elliott, Sumner and their colleagues would become the permanent law of the land.

As for Elliott himself, he resigned from Congress that November to serve as Speaker of the South Carolina House. The unraveling of Reconstruction ended his political career; he left office in 1877 and continued practicing law in Columbia. Starting in 1880 he received several patronage posts from Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and James Garfield, but his health was broken by a bout of malaria. Elliott perished in New Orleans in 1884, one of the sadly forgotten heroes of Reconstruction.

Note: Besides the linked articles, this article draws on Philip Dray’s excellent book Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen (2008).