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When the Former Vice President of the Confederacy Debated Civil Rights with an African American Congressman

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On January 6, 1874, Robert B. Elliot, an African American representative, from South Carolina debated a landmark civil rights bill on the floor of Congress against the former vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens.

The Shackle Broken - By the Genius of Freedom. Pub. E Sachse & Col. 1874. Lithograph.
The Shackle Broken – By the Genius of Freedom. Pub. E Sachse & Col. 1874. Lithograph.

Robert B. Elliott served as a prominent delegate to the 1868 South Carolina State Constitutional Convention and was later elected to the South Carolina General Assembly. During that time, he studied law and was admitted to the South Carolina Bar. In 1870, Governor Scott appointed him as the assistant adjutant general of South Carolina, providing him with the authority to raise a militia to protect African Americans from the Ku Klux Klan. Elliot was subsequently elected to the House of Representatives to serve in the 42nd Congress (1871-1873), taking the seat that was once held by Representative Preston Brooks.

Alexander Stephens first represented Georgia in the 28th Congress (1843-1845). Stephens later served in the Confederate Congress, and subsequently as the vice president of the Confederacy. Stephens gave a speech in support of secession, known as the cornerstone speech, in which he explained that the difference between the United States and the Confederacy was that the Confederacy was premised on a belief in racial inequality. Although initially regularly consulted by Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, Stephens was soon sidelined due to his policy disagreements with the more nationalistic Davis, and was tasked with diplomatic efforts that attempted to make peace with the Union. After the war, Stephens was imprisoned, but was granted a pardon by President Andrew Johnson and was elected to the House of Representatives to serve in the 43rd Congress (1873-1875).

Portrait of Vice President Alexander Stephens, officer of the Confederate States Government. Brady's National Photographic Portrait Galleries. 1861-1865. Photograph.
Portrait of Vice President Alexander Stephens, officer of the Confederate States Government. Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries. 1861-1865. Photograph.

The subject of the debate, the 1875 Civil Rights Act, was a far-reaching bill for its time. It was introduced by Senator Charles Sumner and contained a provision that integrated places of public accommodation. Contemporary observers noted the sharp contrast in the appearance and delivery of the speakers. Elliot’s delivery was energetic, but by this time Rep. Stephens’ health was failing, and he read a prepared speech while seated.

Rep. Elliot began his remarks by declaring,

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. (Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (6 January 1874): 407.)

Rep. Elliot responded to a representative from Kentucky’s objections to the bill, before turning his attention to Rep. Alexander Stephens.

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]. (Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (6 January 1874): 409.)

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.
(Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (6 January 1874): 410.)

You can read the whole debate in the Congressional Record. It starts on page 407 and continues to page 410. The bill did pass, but was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a series of consolidated cases that are referred to as the Civil Rights Cases, resting on the premise that the Constitution’s 13th and 14th Amendments did not apply to restrict discrimination by private businesses that operated public accommodations. Reconstruction came to an end with the removal of federal troops from the South as a concession to settle the disputed presidential contest between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford Hayes. Public accommodations operated by private businesses would not be integrated by law until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act nearly a century later, which the Supreme Court subsequently upheld in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States.

Rep. Elliot subsequently returned to South Carolina, and again served in the General Assembly, eventually becoming speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives, and subsequently was elected as the South Carolina State Attorney General. Following  the demise of Reconstruction, Elliot founded a private law practice, which did not succeed. In 1879, he became a special customs inspector for the Treasury Department in Charleston, but on a trip to Florida, he contracted malaria, which caused his health to decline. He was later transferred to New Orleans, but was dismissed from the Treasury Department in 1882. He attempted to found another law practice, but it failed, and he died in poverty on August 9, 1884.

Rep. Stephens resigned from Congress in 1882, and subsequently was elected Governor of Georgia in 1882, serving until his death in Atlanta on March 4, 1883.

Comments (4)

  1. Wow.

  2. Very complete article which takes a neutral stand on the issue. It can be trusted.

  3. Why was stevens allowed to serve in congress in light of the 14th amendment?

    • Hello. Please send your question to our Ask A Librarian Service here and it will be assigned to a reference librarian.

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