OVER THE ADMISSION OF NEBRASKA.
[Annual address of President John Lee Webster, January 18, 1916.]
The admission of Nebraska into the
Union was one of the principal episodes in the closing
period of a great epoch in American history. The Civil War
had closed. The colored race had been emancipated. The
southern states were in process of reconstruction. Civil
rights were being established. The Union was being
Nebraska, but before either of these territories had formally applied for admission into the Union, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated and Andrew Johnson had become president of the United States. The first acts receiving them as states failed to become of force by the president's "pocket veto." The work in Congress had to be gone over again. It was believed that the state of Nebraska presented the most favorable conditions, hence was first pressed forward for consideration and debate. Finally, when both branches of Congress agreed that Nebraska should be admitted into the Union, President Johnson again vetoed the bill, but by that time the convictions of Congress had become so strong upon the question and so incensed against the president that the bill was passed over the veto with increased majority and without further debate.
It is to a brief sketch of this critical period of political history which opened the door for Nebraska to come into statehood--of the great senators of that period who contended with each other over problems which had to do with civil liberty and the national welfare and the atmosphere of the times that surrounded them that we invite your attention.
In the senate debates it was said by Mr. Doolittle, a senator from Wisconsin, that states grow; states are born; Congress does nothing but recognize their existence and admits them into the Union under the constitution. So it was said by way of illustration that Vermont did not grow out of a revolution against the states of New York and New Hampshire and set up a government of her own. It was the people growing up into society that constituted the states that were recognized.
But what Mr. Doolittle said is but partially true. The people may decline to create a state, and when they
do wish to become a state the affirmative legislation of Congress is an essential of statehood.
Senator Howard of Michigan said that Congress may fix any condition it pleases to the admission of states. It may require that one half of the population should visit California or China or go to London before a territory could become a state, and Senator Edmunds said Congress has a right to create states; it has a right to govern territories and it has a right to sweep them away. Nebraska, in its effort to get into the Union as a state, went through many of these experiences.
After the enabling act of 1864, the people of the territory elected delegates to a constitutional convention.
It so happened that a majority of the people at that time did not want statehood. They elected delegates to the constitutional convention under instructions that when the convention should meet and become organized that it should immediately adjourn. Accordingly, when the convention assembled it did organize, and it did adjourn without the framing of a constitution.
In the winter of 1865-6, some persons ambitious for the territory to become a state; among them Chief Justice Kellogg and Governor Saunders, drafted a constitution which was adopted by the legislature of the territory. This constitution by its terms provided that it should be submitted to a vote of the people in June, 1866, and at the same election that state officers should be elected. The result of the election was that the constitution received a small majority, Republican state officers were elected and the legislature proceeded to elect two United States senators--Major General John M. Thayer and Thomas W. Tipton.
Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, frequently spoken of in his day as "Honest Old Ben Wade," and
sometimes as "Fighting Ben Wade," took charge of the bill for the admission of Nebraska into the Union and remained its vigorous champion until the end, and was ably assisted by his colleague, John Sherman, who as a statesman was the peer of any man of his day.
Senators Sumner and Edmunds were the leaders in debate in support of the contention that the word white should be eliminated from the Nebraska constitution, or that the state in some suitable manner should pledge itself never to discriminate against persons on account of race or color.
Senators Wade and Sherman were in favor of unconditional admission of the state. Senators Sumner and Edmunds were in heart in favor of the admission of Nebraska into the Union, but insisted that it should be on conditions that would harmonize with the policy to be adopted in the reconstruction of the southern states and with the proposed civil rights measures then pending.
These four men, Wade, Sherman, Sumner
and Edmunds, were the intellectual giants in the United
States senate in those days that required courage and strong
convictions of a sense of national duty. There were great
problems to be worked out. The southern states that had been
in rebellion must be reconstructed. There was the bitter
personal strife over civil rights bills. Fundamental
amendments to the constitution were to be framed and
adopted. And there was the approaching impeachment of Andrew
Johnson as president of the United States.
confidence and insured strength to the contest for free soil. The fidelity, the courage and the ability of Senator Wade gave him great prominence in the North, and he and Senator Sumner were a great surprise to the South. Senator Wade was audacious in speech and was protected in his person in what he said by reason of his steadiness of nerve and readiness to fight for his convictions.
Perhaps no more bold or daring thing was ever spoken in the United States senate than was said by Benjamin F. Wade in a debate over the veto by the president of the civil rights bill. It came up for decision at a time when a senator who was in sympathy with the president and who would have voted to sustain his veto was absent from the senate because stricken down with illness. Senator Wade was requested to agree to postpone the vote on the veto but he refused and said:
If the President of the United States .... can compel Congress to succumb to his dictation, he is an emperor and a despot.... I feel myself justified in taking every advantage which the Almighty has put into my hands to defend the power and authority of this body.... I will tell the President and everybody else, that if God Almighty has stricken a member of this body so that he cannot be here to uphold the dictation of a despot, I thank Him for his interposition, and I will take advantage of it if I can.1
1 The sick senator was William Wright, Democrat, of New Jersey. Senator Trumbull, of Illinois, who supported the civil rights bill, persuasively said: "There are some of our friends who will not agree to fixing an hour tomorrow, and my judgment is, the senate had better adjourn, and I think we shall get a vote tomorrow. I trust there will be no factious opposition." Accordingly the motion to adjourn was adopted by a vote of 33 to 12. Among the leading Republican senators voting in the affirmative were Edmunds, Fessenden, Foster, Grimes, Howe, Morrill, Sherman, and Trumbull. Howard, Wade, and Yates were the most prominent Republicans who voted in the negative. On the following day, April 6, 1866, the bill was passed over the veto 33 against 15, and Senator Wright was present to vote according to his
No stronger or more determined or vigorous fighter than Benjamin F. Wade could have been selected to direct the battle for the admission of Nebraska into the Union.
Upon the other hand, Charles Sumner was studious, learned and ambitious. His written arguments were the antislavery classics of the day. His speeches went to the millions of people who read, and he left an indelible impression upon the country. He must "be ever regarded as a scholar, an orator, a philanthropist, a philosopher and statesman, whose splendid and unsullied faith will always form a part of the true glory of the Nation."
Charles Sumner in one of his speeches on human liberty and equal rights uttered a sentence which typified his own personal character.
The Roman Cato, after declaring his belief in the immortality of the soul, added, that if this were an error it was an error that he loved; and now declaring my belief in liberty and equality, as the God given birthright of all men, let me say in the same spirit--if this be an error it is an error which I love; if this be a fault it is a fault which I shall be slow to renounce; if this be an illusion it is an illusion which I pray may wrap the world in its angelic form.
Senator Toombs of Georgia stated in the senate that he witnessed the assault of Brooks upon Sumner and that he approved it. Then it was that Senator Wade issued his defiance to the senators from the South. He denounced the assault as the act of an assassin, and further said:
A brave man may be overpowered by numbers on this floor; but, sir, overpowered or not, live or die, I will vindicate the right and liberty of debate and freedom of discussion upon this floor, so long as I live. If the principle now announced
promise. (The Congressional Globe, first session thirty-ninth congress. pages 1787, 1809.)--ED.
here is to prevail, let us come armed for the combat; and although you are four to one, I am here to meet you.
Wade expected to be challenged for that speech, and he and Cameron and Chandler made a compact to resent any insult from a southerner by a challenge to fight, but the challenge did not come. So Wade was bold and daring like the Roman but in a different spirit than Sumner.2
George F. Edmunds of Vermont was not brilliant as an orator but was always forceful and logical in debate. His speeches were filled with a wealth of material. He was recognized as a most powerful constitutional lawyer.
Now let us go into the senate for a little while and hear what these four statesmen and some of their associates have to say about the admission of Nebraska into the Union.
2 In his famous speech, The Crime Against Kansas, delivered in the senate May 19 and 20, 1856, Sumner vituperously assailed the state of South Carolina, senators Andrew P. Butler, of that State, and Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois. Preston S. Brooks, a representative from South Carolina and Senator Butler's nephew, took up the quarrel for his uncle by brutally beating Senator Sumner on his head with a gutta percha cane, while he was seated in the senate chamber, without giving him a chance for defense. Sumner never fully recovered from the injury thus inflicted, and through it his seat in the senate was vacant for three years. The remarks on the incident by Senator Toombs to which Wade retorted follow: " . . . As to what was said, some gentlemen condemned it in Mr. Brooks; I stated to him, or to some of my own friends, probably, that I approved it. That is my own opinion." The assault occurred May 22, 1856, and the speeches in question, May 27. (The Congressional Globe, first session thirty-fourth congress, page 1305.)
A memorandum admitting and justifying the compact article as signed by Senators Wade, Simon Cameron, of Pennsylvania, and Zachariah Chandler, of Michigan, May 26, 1874, is printed in Riddle's Life of Wade, page 215. It appears in the memorandum that the league to "challenge to fight" grew out of the "terrible unjust denunciation of Seward and his followers" by Toombs.--ED.
In Sumner's first speech against the admission of
Nebraska under its written constitution of 1866, he
Sir, we are now seeking to obliterate the word 'white' from all institutions and constitutions there ... In other days we all united ... and the senator from Ohio was among the number--in saying 'No more slave states!' I now insist upon another cry: 'No more states with the word white in their constitutions!
Senator Cowan, of Pennsylvania, whose ability was far greater than his ambition or his industry, who went into the Senate as a Republican but who afterward became inclined toward the support of Andrew Johnson, was unfriendly to the admission of Nebraska into the Union, and disposed to be sarcastic when dealing with the arguments of Senator Sumner, and took occasion to ask the question:
. . . what do the people of Nebraska care about negro suffrage in their territory? . . . Even in Boston, where the negro is such a favorite that he is taken and cooked and caudled, and tried to be whitewashed and made into somebody, and where he is elected to the legislature and all that--even in that attractive spot where one would suppose that every hungry, thirsty Ethopian, who was 'stretching out his hands to God' would go--even there they have not enough to give the Democrats a majority when they vote with them.
Senator Cowan was likewise disposed to attribute the desire of Nebraska to become a state to ambitious politicians, and said:
. . . we know that these politicians are exceedingly anxious to have a state. Why? Because, in that triumphal and sovereign car of the State, ride senators and members of Congress; ride power and dominion; rides, in other words a State; rides New York, rides Pennsylvania, rides Ohio, and as well ride Nebraska and Colorado. Think of it! There are high stakes to be played for ...
Charles Sumner had moved an amendment to the bill to admit Nebraska, which made the admission conditional that by some solemn act the word white should be obliterated and negroes not disfranchised.
Senator Doolittle of Wisconsin criticised the proposed amendment in striking language:
This proposition of my honorable friend would confer the right of suffrage on every Indian in Nebraska. There are Omahas and Ottoes and Sioux and Cheyennes and Arapahoes in Nebraska, and in an excited election had in this new state the Indian agent or somebody else might bring up the whole Indian tribes of that Territory under this amendment and vote them all at an election. That is a question that does not concern the negro . . .
What unexpected changes come over a country. At that time no one supposed that the Indians of Nebraska would ever become citizens of the state or of the United States, and yet it has so happened that the Indians in the state who have surrendered their tribal relations and taken up allotments of lands in severalty are entitled to exercise the elective franchise as freely and fully as the negro race. In this respect the Indian and Negro stand on an equality with the white man in Nebraska.
Sumner was not intending, and Doolittle was not expecting that the Indians would ever be legislated into citizenship or granted the elective franchise, but it has come about as the logical result of the full and free advocacy of liberty and equality in political rights.
Senator Howard of Michigan took issue with the senator from Massachusetts and some others upon the proposition that the right to exercise the elective franchise came within the phraseology of the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal." He said:
I deny that the right to vote is one of those rights referred to by Mr. Jefferson, who penned the Declaration. The elective franchise is a privilege granted by the community to such of its members as a majority shall see fit. It is not one of the rights given us by nature. It is not the same as the right to breathe the air, without which we must instantly
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