‘Purely a human contrivance’

Frederick Douglass
Library of Congress.

On Feb. 7, 1867, amid heavy snow and frigid temperatures, Frederick Douglass came to St. Louis to denounce President Andrew Johnson for his policy of leniency toward the white insurrectionists of the South. His speech, also delivered elsewhere, was titled “Sources of Danger to the Republic.”

Douglass spoke at Turner’s Hall — the Turnhalle — on 16-18 S. Tenth Street, between Market and Walnut streets. The hall was built by German immigrants, staunch Unionists who fought Missouri state government’s effort to join the Confederacy. (The building, nicknamed the “Cradle of Liberty,” was razed in 1932.)

In his speech, which resonates today, Douglass described the imperfections of the U.S. Constitution, which he called “a human contrivance,” and offered recommendations for improvement, including universal suffrage: “Keep no man from the ballot box or jury box or the cartridge box, because of his color — exclude no woman from the ballot box because of her sex.”

He also called for abolishing the office of vice president, ending patronage, limiting the presidency to a single term, and eliminating the president’s power to pardon and veto legislation. He also spoke favorably of parliamentary government, in which a leader who has lost the support of the people resigns.

A correspondent for the Chicago Tribune reported that when Douglass arrived in St. Louis, he asked for a room at the Planters House, but was rebuffed. Three other hotels also refused him accommodations. He ended up staying a private residence, the home of William Roberson, the Daily Missouri Democrat reported.

Below is the text of the speech Douglass gave in St. Louis:

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: I know of no greater misfortunes to individuals than an over confidence in their own perfections, and I know of fewer misfortunes that can happen to a nation greater than an over confidence in the perfection of its government. It is common on great occasions to hear men speak of our republican form of government as a model of surpassing excellence — the best government on earth — a masterpiece of statesmanship — and destined at some period not very remote to supersede all other forms of government among men; and when our patriotic orators would appear in some degree recondite as well as patriotic, they treat us to masterly disquisitions upon what they are pleased to term “the admirable mechanism of our Constitution.” They discourse wisely of its checks and balances, and the judicious distribution of the various powers.

Turnhalle, 16-18 S. 10th St.
Missouri Historical Society.

I am certainly not here this evening rudely to call in question these very pleasing assumptions of governmental superiority on our part; they are perfectly natural; they are consistent with our natural self-love and our national pride; and when they are not employed, as they too often are, in the bad service of a blind, unreasoning, stubborn conservatism, to shelter old-time abuses and discourage manly criticism, and to defeat needed measures of amendment, they are comparatively harmless, though we may not always be able to assent to the good taste with which they are urged. It is well enough, however, once in a while to remind Americans that they are not alone in this species of self-laudation; that in fact there are many men, reputed wise and good men, living in other parts of the planet, under other forms of government, aristocratic, autocratic, oligarchic, and monarchical, who are just as confident of the good qualities of their government as we are of our own. It is true, also, that many good men, at home and abroad, and especially abroad, looking upon our republican experiment from afar, in the cool, calm light of their philosophy, have already discovered, or think that they have discovered, a decline or decay, and the certain downfall of our republican institutions, and the speedy substitution of some other form of government for our democratic institutions. Those who entertain these opinions of our government are not entirely without reason, plausible reason, in support of it. The fact that the ballot box, upon which we have relied so long as the chief source of strength, is the safety valve of our institutions through which the explosive passions of the populace could pass off harmlessly, has failed us — broken down under us, and that a formidable rebellion has arisen, the minority of the people in one section of the country united, animated and controlled by a powerful sectional interest, have rebelled, and for four long years disputed the authority of the constitutional majority of the people, is regarded as a telling argument against the prevailing assumption of our national stability and the impregnability of our institutions. Beside, they point us, and very decidedly, to the fact that there seemed to be no adequate comprehension of the character of this rebellion at the beginning of it, and seemed also to be nothing like a proper spirit of enthusiasm manifested by the people in support of the government. They point us to the tardiness and hesitation and doubt, and the disposition to yield up the government to the arrogant demands of conspirators; and they profess themselves now able to see the same want of spirit, manliness and courage in the matter of reconstruction since the rebellion has been suppressed. They point us also to the fact that so far as the government is concerned, there must be either an indisposition or an inability either to punish traitors or to reward and protect loyal men; and they say, very wisely, as I think, that a nation that cannot hate treason cannot love loyalty.

They point us also to the fact that there are growing antagonisms, forces bitter and unrelenting between the different branches of our government — the executive against the legislative, and the judicial in some instances against both. They point us also to the obvious want of gratitude on the part of the nation, its disposition to sacrifice its best friends and to make peace with its bitterest enemies; the fact that it has placed its only true allies under the political heels of the very men who with broad blades and bloody hands sought the destruction of the republic. They point us to the fact that loyal men by the score, by the hundred, have been deliberately and outrageously, and in open daylight, slaughtered by the known enemies of the country, and thus far that the murderers are at large: unquestioned by the law, unpunished by justice, unrebuked even by the public opinion of the localities where the crimes were committed. Under the whole heavens you cannot find any government besides our own that is as indifferent to the lives of its loyal subjects. They tell us, moreover, that the lives of republics have been short, stormy, and saddening to the hopes of the friends of freedom, and they tell us, too, that ours will prove no exception to this general rule.

Now, why have I referred to these unfavorable judgments of American institutions? Not, certainly, to indorse them; neither to combat them; but as offering a reason why the Americans should take a little less extravagant view of the excellencies of our institutions. We should scrutinize them a little more closely and weigh their value a little more impartially than we are accustomed to do. We ought to examine our government, and I am here tonight, and I rejoice that in St. Louis that there is liberty enough, civilization enough, to tolerate free inquiry at this point as well as any other. I am here tonight in a little different capacity from what I ordinarily am, or what I have been before the American people. In other days — darker days than these — l appeared before the American people simply as a member of a despised, outraged and down-trodden race; simply to plead that the chains of the bondmen be broken; simply to plead that the auction block shall no more be in use for the sale of human flesh. I appear here no longer as a whipped, scarred slave — no longer as the advocate merely of an enslaved race, but in the high and commanding character of an American citizen having the interest that every true citizen should have in the welfare, the stability, the permanence and the prosperity of our free institutions, and in this spirit I shall criticize our government tonight.

In one respect we here have [a] decided advantage over the subjects of the “divine right” governments of Europe.We can at least examine our government. We can at least look into it — into every feature of it, and estimate it at its true value. No divine pretension stands athwart the pathway of free discussion here. The material out of which men would weave if they could a superstitious reverence for the Constitution of the United States, is an exceedingly slender and scarce commodity, and there is nothing upon which such a superstition can well be based. There were neither thunderings, nor lightnings, nor earthquakes, nor tempests, nor any other disturbance of nature when this great law was given to the world. It is at least an honest Constitution and asks to be accepted upon its own merits — has no origin, has no history, and no reputation. It is purely a human contrivance, designed with more or less wisdom, for human purposes; to combine liberty with order; to make society possible; or, to use its own admirable language, “to form a more perfect Union;” to establish justice; to provide for the common defense; and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and all posterity, we the people, the people, the PEOPLE — we, the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution. There we stand on the main foundation.

Now, while I discard all Fourth of July extravagances about the Constitution, and about its framers, even I can speak respectfully of that instrument and respectfully of the men who framed it. To be sure my early condition in life was not very favorable to the growth of what men call patriotism and reverence for institutions — certainly not for the “peculiar institution” from which I graduated — yet even I can speak respectfully of the Constitution. For one thing I feel grateful — at least I think the fathers deserve homage of mankind for this — that against the assumptions, against the inducements to do otherwise, they have given us a Constitution commensurate in its beneficent arrangements with the wants of common humanity; that it embraces man as man. There is nothing in it of a narrow description. They could establish a Constitution free from bigotry, free from superstition, free from sectarian prejudices, caste or political distinction.

In the eye of that great instrument we are neither Jews, Greeks, Barbarians or Cythians, but fellow-citizens of a common country, embracing all men of all colors. The fathers of this republic did not learn to insert the word white, or to determine men’s rights by their color. They did not base their legislation upon the differences among men in the length of their noses or the twist of their hair, but upon the broad fact of a common human nature.

I doubt if at any time during the last fifty years we could have received a constitution so liberal from the sons as we have received from the fathers of the Republic. They were above going down, as certain men — Caucasian and Teutonic ethnologists — have recently done, on their knees and measuring the human heel to ascertain the amount of intelligence he should have. They were above that. That is a modern improvement or invention.

Some have undertaken to prove the identity of the Negro, or the relationship of the Negro with the monkey from the length of his heel, forgetting what is the fact, that the monkey has no heel at all, and that in fact the longer a man’s heel is the further he is from the monkey. Our fathers did not fall into this mistake. They made a constitution for men, not for color, not for features. In the eye of that great instrument the moment the chains are struck from the limbs of the humblest and most whip scarred slave he may rise to any position for which his talents and character fit him. For this I say the fathers are entitled to the profound gratitude of mankind — that against all temptations to do otherwise, they have given us a liberal constitution.

But wise and good as that instrument is, at this point and at many others, it is simply a human contrivance. It is the work of man and men struggling with many of the prejudices and infirmities common to man, and it is not strange that we should find in their constitution some evidences of their infirmity and prejudices. Time and experience and the ever-increasing light of reason are constantly making manifest those defects and those imperfections, and it is for us, living eighty years after them, and therefore eighty years wiser than they, to remove those defects — to improve the character of our constitution at this point where we find those defects.

l was rather glad at one feature in the effect produced by the rebellion. It for a time depressed the national exultation over the perfection of the Constitution of the United States. The uprising of that rebellion was a severe blow to our national extravagance at this point, but the manner in which we have met the rebellion, and as soon as we have succeeded in suppressing it, conquering the rebels and scattering their military forces, our old-time notions of our perfect system of government have revived, and there is an indisposition on the part of some men to entertain propositions for amending the Constitution. But I think that a right view of our trouble, instead of increasing our confidence in the perfection of the fundamental structure of the government, ought to do quite the reverse; it ought to impress us with the sense of our national insecurity by disclosing, as it does disclose, the slenderness of the thread on which the national life was suspended, and showing us how small a circumstance might have whelmed our government in the measureless abyss of ruin, prepared for it by the rebels.

We succeeded in putting down the rebellion. And wherein is the secret of that success? Not in, I think, the superior structure of our government, by any means. We succeeded in that great contest because, during at least the latter part of the war, the loyal armies fought on the side of human nature; fought on the side of justice, civil order and liberty. This rebellion was struck with death the instant Abraham Lincoln inscribed on our banner the word “Emancipation.” Our armies went up to battle thereafter for the best aspirations of the human soul in every quarter of the globe, and we conquered. The rebel armies fought well, fought bravely, fought desperately, but they fought in fetters. Invisible chains were about them. Deep down in their own consciences there was an accusing voice reminding them that they were fighting for chains and slavery, and not for freedom. They were in chains — entangled with the chains of their own slaves. They not only struggled with our gigantic armies, and with the skill of our veteran generals, but they fought against the moral sense of the nineteenth century — they fought against their own better selves — they fought against the good in their own souls; they were weakened thereby; their weakness was our strength, hence our success. And our success over the rebels is due to another cause quite apart from the perfection of our structure of government. It is largely owing to the fact that the nation happened — for it only happened — we happened to have in the presidential chair, an honest man. It might have been otherwise. It was our exceeding good fortune that Abraham Lincoln — not W[illia]m. H. Seward — received the nomination at Chicago in 1860. Had Wm. H. Seward — judging him by his present position — had Franklin Pierce, had Millard Fillmore, had James Buchanan, or had that other embodiment of political treachery, meanness, baseness, ingratitude, the vilest of the vile, the basest of the base, the most execrable of the execrable of modern times — he who shall be nameless, occupied the Presidential chair your magnificent republic might have been numbered with the things that were.

We talk about the power of the people over this government, of its admirable checks and balances, its wisely arranged machinery; but remember those three months, the last three months of Buchanan’s administration. It is impossible to think wisely and deeply without learning a lesson of the inherent weakness of our republican structure. For three long months the nation saw their army and their navy scattered and the munitions of war of the government placed in the hands of its enemies. The people could do nothing but bite their lips in silent agony. They were on a mighty stream afloat, with all their liberties at stake and a faithless pilot on their boat. They could not help this. They were in a current which they could neither resist nor control. In the rapids of a political Niagara, sweeping the nation on, on, in silent agony toward the awful cataract in the distance to receive it. Our power was unable to stay the treachery.

We appealed, to be sure — we pointed out through our principles the right way — but we were powerless, and we saw no help till the man, Lincoln, appeared on the theater of action and extended his honest hand to save the Republic. No; we owe nothing to our form of government for our preservation as a nation — nothing whatever — nothing to its checks, nor to its balances, nor to its wise division of powers and duties. It was an honest President backed up by intelligent and loyal people — men, high minded men that constitute the State, who regarded society as superior to its forms, the spirit as above the letter — men as more than country, and as superior to the Constitution. They resolved to save the country with the Constitution if they could, but at any rate to save the country. To this we owe our present safety as a nation.

Because a defective ship with a skillful captain, a hard-handed and honest crew, may manage to weather a considerable storm, is no proof that our old bark is sound in all her planks, bolts and timbers — because by constant pumping and extraordinary exertions we have managed to keep afloat and at last reach the shore.

I propose to speak to you of the sources of danger to our republic. These may be described under two heads, those which are esoteric in their character and those which are exoteric. I shall discourse of these in the order now stated. Let it not, however, be supposed by my intelligent audience that I concede anything to those who hold to the inherent weakness of a republican form of government. Far from this. The point of weakness in our government don’t touch its republican character. On the contrary I hold that a republican form of government is the strongest government on earth when it is thoroughly republican. Our republican government is weak only as it touches or partakes of the character of monarchy or an aristocracy or an oligarchy. In its republican features it is strong. In its despotic features it is weak. Our government, in its ideas, is a government of the people. But unhappily it was framed under conditions unfavorable to purely republican results, it was projected and completed under the influence of institutions quite unfavorable to a pure republican form of government — slavery on the one hand, monarchy on the other.

Late in a man’s life his surroundings exert but a limited influence upon him — they are usually shaken off; but only a hero may shake off the influences of birth and early surroundings; the champion falls — the cause remains. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that there can be no such thing as immediate emancipation, either from slavery or from monarchy. An instant is sufficient to snap the chains; a century is not too much to obliterate all traces of former bondage.

It was easy for the Fathers of the Republic, comparatively so at least, to drive the red-coats from our continent, but it was not easy to drive the ideas and associations that surrounded the British throne and emanated from the monarch of this country. Born, as the Fathers of this Republic were, under monarchical institutions, they very naturally, when they came to form a government — although they assented to what Rufus Choate called “the glittering generalities of the Declaration of Independence,” they were disposed to blend something of the old error with the new truth, or of the newly discovered truth of liberty asserted in the Declaration of Independence. The eclectic principle may work pretty well in some governments, but it does not work well in our government. Here there must be unity; unity of idea; unity of object and accord of motive as well as of principles; in order to [attain] a harmonious, happy and prosperous result.

The idea of putting new wine into old bottles or mending old garments with new cloth was not peculiar to the Jew; it came down to the fathers, and it is showing itself now amongst us. We are disposed to assent to the abolition of slavery, but we wish to retain something of slavery in the new dispensation. We are willing that the chains of the slave shall be broken if a few links can be left on his arm or on his leg. Your fathers were in some respects after the same pattern. They gave us a Constitution made in the shadow of slavery and of monarchy, and in its character it partakes in some of its features of both those unfavorable influences. Now, as l have said, I concede nothing to those who hold to the inherent weakness of our government or a republican form of government. The point of weakness or the features that weaken our government are exotic. They have been incorporated and interposited from other forms of government, and it is the business of this day and this generation to purge them from the Constitution.

In fact, I am here tonight as a democrat, a genuine democrat dyed in the wool. I am here to advocate a genuine democratic republic; to make this a republican form of government, purely a republic, a genuine republic; free it from everything that looks toward monarchy; eliminate all foreign elements, all alien elements from it; blot out from it everything antagonistic of republicanism declared by the fathers — that idea was that all governments derived their first powers from the consent of the governed; make it a government of the people, by the people and for the people, and for all the people, each for all and all for each; blot out all discriminations against any person, theoretically or practically, and make it conform to the great truths laid down by the fathers; keep no man from the ballot box or jury box or the cartridge box, because of his color — exclude no woman from the ballot box because of her sex. Let the government of the country rest securely down upon the shoulders of the whole nation; let there be no shoulder that does not bear up its proportion of the burdens of the government. Let there [be] no conscience, no intellect in the land not directly responsible for the moral character of the government — for the honor of the government. Let it be a genuine Republic, in which every man subject to it is represented in it, and I see no reason why a Republic may not stand while the world stands.

Now, the first source of weakness to a republican government is the one man power. I rejoice that we are at last startled into a consciousness of the existence of this one man power. If it was necessary for Jeff[erson] Davis and his peculiar friends to resort to arms in order to show the danger of tolerating the slave power in our government, we are under great obligations to Andrew Johnson for disclosing to us the unwisdom of tolerating the one man power in their government. And if now we shall be moved, as I hope we shall, to revise our Constitution so as to entirely free it from the one man power, to curtail or abridge that power, and reduce [it] to a manageable point, his accidental occupancy of the Presidential chair will not be the unmitigated calamity we have been accustomed to regard it. It will be a blessing in disguise — though pretty heavily disguised.For disguise it as we will, this one man power is in our constitution. It has its sheet anchor firmly in the soil of our constitution. Mr. Johnson has sometimes overstepped this power, in certain conditions of his mind, which are quite frequent, and mistaken himself for the United States instead of the President of the United States. The fault is not entirely due to his marvelous vanity, but to the constitution under which he lives. It is there in that Constitution. The “fantastic tricks” recently played “before high heaven” by that dignitary when sandwiched between a hero of the land and of the sea, and swinging around the circle from the Atlantic to the Mississippi— we must break down the mainspring of those tricks in the Constitution before we shall get rid of them elsewhere.

It is true that our President is not our King for life; he is here only temporarily. I say King. Mr. Seward, you know, took it upon himself to introduce Andrew Johnson to the simple-hearted people of Michigan as king. “Will you have him as your President or as your King,” said the astute Secretary of State, evidently regarding the one title as appropriate to Andy Johnson as the other. There is a good deal of truth in it, for in fact he is invested with kingly power, with an arbitrariness equal to any crownhead in Europe. Spite of our boasts of the power of the people, your President can rule you as with a rod of iron. It is true he is only elected for four years — he is only a four-year old — and the brief time of the term would seem to be a security against misbehavior; a security and a guarantee of good conduct, for the most turbulent of men can manage to behave themselves for short periods — always excepting the “Humble Individual.”But the brief time — this brief time is no security — to my mind it furnishes impunity rather than security. We bear, in one of these Presidents’ behavior, arrogance and arbitrariness that we would not bear with but for the limited term of his service. We would not bear it an hour — the disgrace and scandal that we now stagger under — did we not know that two short, silent years will put an end to our misery in this respect.

It is true that we choose our President, and that would seem to show that the people after all rule. Well, we do choose him; we elect him, and we are free while we are electing him. When I was a slave; when I was first the privilege given hereafter of choosing my own master at the end of the year I was very much delighted. It struck me as a large concession to my manhood, the idea that I had the right to choose a master at the end of the year, and if I was kicked, and cuffed, bruised and beaten, during the year it was some satisfaction to know that after all, old fellow, I will shake you off at the end of the year. I thought it a great thing to be able to choose my own master. I was quite intoxicated with this little bit of liberty — and I would dance from Christmas to New Year on the strength of it. But, as I grew older and a trifle wiser, I began to be dissatisfied with this liberty, the liberty of choosing another master. I found that what I wanted, that what I needed, what was essential to my manhood was not another master, not a new master, not an old master, but the right to the power under the law to be my own master. From this little bit of experience — slave experience — I have elaborated quite a lengthy chapter of political philosophy, applicable to the American people. You are free to choose, but after you have chosen your freedom is gone, just as mine was — gone, and our power is gone to a large extent under the framework of our government when you have chosen. You are free to choose, free while you are voting, free while you are dropping a piece of paper into the box with some names on it — I won’t tell how those names got on it; that would evince, perhaps, a culpable familiarity with politics to do that. But you are free while you are dropping in your vote — going, going, gone. When your President is elected, once familiarly seated in the national saddle, his feet in the stirrups, his hand on the reins, he can drive the national animal almost where he will. He can administer this government with a contempt for public opinion, for the opinions and wishes of the people, such as no crowned head in Europe imitates towards his subjects.

Take, for instance, the government of England. It is sufficiently despotic and autocratic, but after all that government is administered with a deference for popular opinion far superior — far greater than our own. When the prime minister of England finds himself out-voted on the floor of the House of Commons by the people’s representatives, what does he do? He lays the seals of his office at the foot of the throne; calls upon the national sovereignty to organize another government, more in harmony with the wishes and opinions of the people than he is able to be. He construes a vote against any great measure of his as a vote of want of confidence, and he is not willing to hold power when he is convinced that the people of the country are against him. He resigns.

But whoever heard of anybody in America resigning? Why, Congress might vote down Johnson every month and Seward every morning and they would stick to their offices just the same. They would hold on. Their theory is that when the people agree with them they are right, but when the people differ from them they are simply mistaken. They go on in their accustomed ways. Whoever heard of anybody’s resigning because he didn’t represent the wishes of those who elected him? I have heard of a great many being invited, but I never heard of one accepting the invitation.

Mr. Doolittle has recently been invited to resign; he prefers to remain where he is. Mr. Cowan has been invited to resign; he prefers to remain and serve his term out. Patriotic man! The wishes and the will of the people! Why, the people of this country expressed a desire that Andy Johnson might retire from his present position. Is there any likelihood of his doing so in deference to your opinion? No. And you have no power to make him do so under your government. He is there for four years, and your only comfort, your only consolation, for whatever usurpation and misbehavior he is guilty of, is, that by and by you will have the right to elect another. What I needed for my manhood was, that I should be my own master. What the American people need for their manhood and their national security is, that the people shall, in time of war, and in time of peace be the masters of their own government.

Now what are the elements that enter into this one man power and swell it to the formidable measure at which we find it at this time? The first thing is the immense patronage of the President of the United States — the patronage of money, of honor, of place and power. He is able to divide among his friends and among his satellites — attaching men to his person and to his political fortunes — a hundred million of dollars per annum in time of peace, and uncounted thousands of millions of dollars in time of war are virtually at his disposal. This is an influence which can neither be weighed, measured nor otherwise estimated. The very thought of it is overwhelming. This amount of money lodged outside of the government in unfriendly hands could be made a formidable lever for the destruction of the government. It is a direct assault upon the national virtue. While the President of the United States can exalt whom he will, cast down whom he will; he can place A into office for agreeing with him in opinion, and cause B to be put out of office because of an honest difference of opinion with him. Who does not see that the tendency to agreement will be a million times stronger than the tendency to differ, even though truth should be in favor of difference. From this power — this patronage — has arisen the popular political maxim that “to the victors belong the spoils,” and that other vulgar expression of the same idea by Postmaster General Randall, that no man shall eat the President’s “bread and butter” who does not indorse the President’s “policy.” The first thing that an American is taught at the cradle side is never to fight against his bread and butter.

Now I hold that this patronage should be abolished, that is to say that the President’s control over it should be abolished. The Constitution evidently contemplated that the large arm of our government should control the matter of appointments. It declares that the President may appoint by and with the consent and with the advice of the Senate; he must get the Senate’s advice and consent, but custom and a certain laxity of administration has almost obliterated this feature of the Constitution, and now the President appoints, he not only appoints by and with the consent, but he has the power of removal, and with this power he virtually makes the agency of the Senate of the United States of no effect in the matter of appointments. I am very glad to see that a movement is on foot in Congress to make the appointments by the President or removal by the President alone illegal. The security which you and I will have against the President is that the same power that is required to appoint shall be required to remove; that if the President can only appoint with the advice and consent of the Senate, he shall remove with the advice and consent of the Senate. If the President’s power at this point were abridged to this extent the case would be helped materially.

Another source of evil in the one man power is the veto power. I am in favor of abolishing the veto power completely. It has no business in our Constitution.It is alien to every idea of republican government — borrowed from the old world, from king craft and priest craft, and all other adverse craft to republican government. It is anti-republican, anti-democratic, anti-common sense. It is based upon the idea, the absurdity, that one man is more than many men — that one man separate from the people by his exalted station — one man sitting apart from the people in his room, surrounded by his friends, his cliques, his satellites, will be likely to bring to the consideration of public measures, a higher wisdom, a larger knowledge, a purer patriotism, than will the representatives of the republic in the face and in the presence of the multitude with the flaming sword of the press waving over them, directly responsible to their constituents, immediately in communication with the great heart of the people — that one man will be likely to govern more wisely than will a majority of the people. It is borrowed from the old world; it is alien to our institutions; it is opposed to the very genius of free institutions, and I want to see it struck out of our Constitution. I believe that two heads are better than one, and I shall not stultify myself by saying that one head, even though it be the head of Andrew Johnson, is more than almost two-thirds of the representatives of the American people. Is that Republicanism? Is that Democracy? Is that consistent with the idea that the people shall rule? I think not.

But it is said that we must have a check somewhere. We are great on checks. We must have some checks against these fanatical majorities, and we have recently been told that majorities can be as destructive and more arbitrary than individual despots, especially when the individuals are humble “Uriah Heeps.” If this be so; if this is the truth, I think that we ought to part with Republican government at once. If it be true that one man is more likely to be wiser, or is likely to be wiser than the majority — that one man is likely to wield the government more entirely [in] the interest of the people than will a majority, if one man is a safer guide for the people than nearly two-thirds of the best representatives — if that be true, let us have a one man government at once, let us have done with republicanism — let us try the experiment of the one man government. And I would advise you to begin with a legitimate scion of some of the great families of Europe. Let us take a genuine sprig of the article. We can easily get one — they are becoming very abundant in Europe I am told. There is one now, I think, one that is out of place, and you need not send across the Atlantic for him. He is driving about down here in Mexico. You might send for Maximilian, and have a one-man government alone. And we should have the veto legitimate.

I believe majorities can be despotic and have been arbitrary, but arbitrary to whom? Arbitrary when arbitrary at all, always to unrepresented classes. What is the remedy? A consistent republic in which there shall be no unrepresented classes. For when all classes are represented the rights of all classes will be respected. It is a remarkable fact, and we Americans may well ponder it, that although the veto is entirely consistent with monarchical government and entirely inconsistent with republican government, the government of England, which is a monarchy, has not exercised the veto power once in 150 years. There where it is consistent it is never used. Here where it is inconsistent, and at war with the genius of our institutions we can have a little veto every morning. Where the people rule they are the vetoed. When any measure passes the House of Commons or House of Lords, it is sure of the royal assent. Popular as Queen Victoria is, honored as she is queen, loved as she is a mother, as a good citizen of the realm, it would cost her her crown to veto a measure passed by the people’s representatives in the House of Commons and by the House of Lords. But here the people have got used to it, like the eels that got used to being skinned — so used to it that they feel no indignation at the arrogance and presumption that one man exhibits in opposing his judgment to the judgment of the people’s representatives. You have got used to it. I see no indignation at all at this impertinence. We have become so listless and indifferent about the dignity of the people, that we can see it insulted with a veto every month.

Now, I have looked down on the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and I have listened to the eloquence of their noblest orators, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Richard Cobden and John Bright — a man whose name should never be mentioned in an American audience without moving it. I have listened to Lord Brougham and to Lord Palmerston, and I have also looked down on the Senate of the United States, and heard the debates there, and I am free to say, without wishing to disparage the English House of Parliament, in all the elements going to exalt and dignify a high deliberative assembly, our Senate compares favorably with the House of Lords. I think it the superior of the House of Lords and our House of Representatives fully the equal of the House of Commons in England. And if in a monarchy the representatives of the people can be trusted to govern themselves without the veto, Republican Americans can’t you? Have done with that veto. It is a fruitful source of mischief, and bad bold men. A man of vigorous intellect, imperious will, fiery temper and boundless ambition finds in that veto a convenient instrument for the gratification of all his desires and his base ambition. Do away with it; blot it out from your government, and you will have done with the antagonism between the legislative arm and the executive arm of the government. Make your President what you ought to be, not more than he ought to be, and you should see to it that such changes should be made in the Constitution of the United States that your President is simply your executive, that he is there not to make laws, but to enforce them; not to defy your will, but to enforce your high behests.

Another thing I would do. I would abolish, if I had it in my power, the two-term principle. Away with that. While that principle remains in the Constitution — while the President can be his own successor, and is eligible to succeed himself, he will not be warm in his seat in the presidential chair (such is poor human nature), before he will begin to scheme for a second election. It is a standing temptation to him to use the powers of his office in such a manner as to promote his own political fortune. The presidency is too valuable to allow a man who occupies the position the means of perpetuating himself in that office. Another objection to this provision of the Constitution is, that we have a divided man in the presidential chair. The duties of the presidency are such as to require a whole man, the whole will, and the whole work; but the temptation of a President is to make himself a President of a Presidential party as well as of the country, and the result is that we are only half served. What we want is the entire service of a man reduced to one term, and then he can bring to the service of his country an undivided man, an undivided sense of duty and devote his energies to the discharge of his office without selfish ends or aims. Blot out this two-term system.

Another thing I would abolish — the pardoning power. I should take that right out of the hands of this one man. The argument against it is in some respects similar to that used against the veto power. Those against the veto power are equally persistent against the pardoning power, and there is a good reason why we should do away with the pardoning power in the hands of the President, that is that our government may at some time be in the hands of a bad man. When in the hands of a good man it is all well enough, and we ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe. And we know that the people are usually well intentioned. A certain percentage are thieves, a certain percentage are robbers, murderers, assassins, blind, insane and idiots. But the great mass of men are well-intentioned, and we should watch the individual. Trust the masses always. That is good Democracy, is it not? Not modern, but old-fashioned. But my argument is this: A bad President, for instance, has the power to do what? What can he not do? If he wanted to revolutionize this government, he could easily do it with this ponderous power; it would be an auxiliary power. He could cry “havoc, and let slip the dogs of war,” and say to the conspirators: “I am with you. If you succeed, all is well. If you fail, I will interpose the shield of my pardon, and you are safe. If your property is taken away from you by Congress, I will pardon and restore your property. Go on and revolutionize the government; I will stand by you.” The bad man will say or might say this. I am not sure but we have got a man now who comes very near saying it. Let us have done with this pardoning power. We have had enough of this. Pardoning! How inexpressibly base have been the uses made by this power — this beneficent power. It has been that with which a treacherous President has trafficked. He has made it the means of securing adherents to himself instead of securing allegiance to the government. Let us have done with closet pardons — pardons obtained by bad men — pardons obtained by questionable women — pardons obtained in the most disgraceful and scandalous manner. Drive this pardoning power out of the government and put it in the legislative arm of the government in some way. Let a committee of the House of Representatives and Senate of the United States determine who shall be the recipients of the clemency at the hands of the nation. Let it not come from an individual, but let it come from the people. An outraged people know to whom to extend this clemency.

Another thing I am in favor of. I am in favor of abolishing the office of the Vice President. Let us have no more Vice Presidents. We have had bad luck with them. We don’t need them. There is no more need of electing a Vice President at the same time we elect a President than there is need of electing a second wife when we have got one already. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” The argument against the vice presidency is to me very conclusive. It may be briefly stated thus: The presidency of the United States, like the crown of a monarchy, is a tempting bauble. It is a very desirable thing. Men are men. Ambition is ambition the world over. History is constantly repeating itself. There is not a single crown in Europe that has not [at] some time been stained with innocent blood — not one. For the crown, men have murdered their friends who have dined at the table with them; for the crown, men have sent the assassin to the cells of their own brothers and their own sisters, and plunged the dagger into their own warm, red blood. For the crown all manner of crimes have been committed. The Presidency is equally a tempting bauble in this country. I am not for placing that temptation so near any man as it is placed when we elect a Vice President. I am not for electing a man to the presidential chair, and then putting a man behind him with his ambition all leading that way — with his desires, his thoughts, all directed upon that chair, with a knowledge, at the same time, that only the President’s life stands between him and the object of his ambition. I am not for placing a man behind the President, within striking distance of him, whose interest, whose ambition, whose every inclination is to be subserved by his getting that chair. The wall of assassination is too thin to be placed between a man and the Presidency of the United States. Let your Vice President be unknown to himself and unknown to the people. Let him be in the mass till there is need for him. Don’t plump him right upon the President. Your President is unsafe while the shadow of the Vice President falls upon the Presidential chair. How easy it would be to procure the death of any man where there are such temptations as that offered. A clique, a clan, a ring, usually forms about the Vice President.

How would you administer the government if you were President? Who would you send to the Court of St. James? Who would you send to the Court of France? Who would you appoint Postmaster General? Who would you appoint Collector of the port of New Orleans, or New York or of St. Louis? What would you do if you were President? “I would do so and so.” “It suits us to a dot.” The President dies, and in steps the Vice President. He is reminded at once of his old pledges, and he begins to try to redeem them by turning against the party who elected him. It is a remarkable fact that in no instance has any vice-president followed out the policy of the president that he was elected with. Elected on the same ticket, on the same platform, at the same time, at the instant the president is taken off the vice president has reversed the machinery of the policy on which he was elected in every instance.

General Harrison was the first man suspected of entertaining opinions unfavorable to slavery. He died in a month. He was succeeded by whom? By John Tyler — one of the most violent propagandists of slavery that ever trod this continent. Where was the Whig party that elected him? Nowhere. Where was the policy on which he was elected? Nowhere.

General Taylor, though a slaveholding man and an honest man towards his constituents and the people of the country, the moment it was ascertained he was in favor of admitting California as a free State if she saw fit to come with a constitution of that character and was opposed to paying ten millions of dollars to Texas on account of the claim on New Mexico, there were means at hand to kill him. He died and was followed by whom? By a vile sycophant who spit on the policy of his predecessor, and put himself in the service of the very men whom that President had offended. Well, they tried to murder even James Buchanan in order that he should be followed by a younger, stronger traitor than himself. They put Mr. Breckinridgebehind him, and when he went down to Washington they carried him to the National Hotel and helped him to a large dose of poison. But in that instance the poison met its match. Who doubts that James Buchanan was poisoned? It was notorious at the time, and no doubt poisoned for a purpose.

Today, today we mourn, the nation has to mourn, that the nation has a President, made President by the bullet of an assassin. I do not say that he knew that his noble predecessor was to be murdered. I do not say that he had any hand in it; but this I do say, without fear of contradiction, that the men who murdered Abraham Lincoln knew Andrew Johnson as we know him now. Let us have done with these vice presidents. The nation can easily call a man to fill the presidential chair in case of death; besides, he is not half so likely to die. It is a little remarkable, too, that whilst presidents die, vice presidents never die. There is nobody behind them.

Well I had marked a number of points I intended to dwell upon. I am taking up perhaps too much of your time, to go further with internal sources of danger to the republic. I had purposed to have spoken specially of secret diplomacy, but I pass it over as one of the sources of weakness to our republican form of government. I may be told that in pointing out these sources of weakness that it is easy to find fault but not so easy to find remedies. I admit it, I agree with Robert Hale that it requires more talent to build a decent pig stye than to tear down a considerable palace, and yet when the ship is to be repaired, it is of some consequence to find out where the unsound timbers are, when the opening seam is where the corroded bolt is, that we put in sounder, and I have been indicating where these points of unsoundness are. And I think I can leave this matter of reconstruction to the high constructive talent of this Anglo-Saxon race. The Negro has done his part if he succeeds in pointing out the source of danger to the republic. You will have done your part when you have corrected or removed these sources of danger. We have already grappled with very dangerous elements in our government, and we have performed a manly part, we have removed errors, but there are some errors to be removed, not so dangerous, not so shocking, perhaps, as those with which we have grappled; but nevertheless dangers requiring removal. Happy will it be for us, happy will it be for the land, happy for coming generations, if we shall discover these sources of danger, and grapple with them in time without the aid of a second rebellion — without the people being lashed and stung into another military necessity.

It is sad to think that half the glory, half the honor due to the great act of emancipation was lost in the tardiness of its performance. It has now gone irrevocably into history — not as an act of sacred choice by a great nation, of the right as against the wrong, of truth as against falsehood, of liberty as against slavery — but as a military necessity. We are called upon to be faithful to the American government, for our emancipation as black men; We do feel thankful, and we have the same reason to be thankful that the Israelites had to be thankful to Pharaoh for their emancipation, for their liberties. It was not until judgments terrible, wide-sweeping, far-reaching and overwhelming, had smitten down this nation, that we were ready to part with our reverence for slavery, and ceased to quote Scripture in its defense. It was not until we felt the land trembling beneath our feet that we heard an accusing voice in the heart; the sky above was darkened, the wail came up from millions of hearth stones in our land. Our sons and brothers slain in battle, it was not until we saw our sons and brothers returning home mere stumps of men, armless, legless, it was not until we felt all crumbling beneath us and we saw the Star-Spangled Banner clinging to the masthead heavy with blood.

It was not until agony was manifested from a million of hearthstones in our land, and the Southern sky was darkened, that we managed to part with our reverence for slavery, and to place a musket on the shoulders of the black man. We may now do from choice and from sacred choice what we did by military necessity. (Originally published March 19, 2023)