Speech by John C. Underwood (January 16, 1868)

The Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of VirginiaThe Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of VirginiaThe Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of VirginiaThe Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of VirginiaThe Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of VirginiaThe Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of VirginiaThe Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of VirginiaThe Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of VirginiaThe Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of VirginiaThe Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of VirginiaThe Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of Virginia

In this speech delivered to the Constitutional Convention on January 16, 1868, John C. Underwood, a federal judge and the body’s president, proposes removing a ban on clergymen serving in the General Assembly that had been in force since the Constitution of 1776, allowing all African Americans to vote, particularly veterans, and granting the vote to women.


The Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of Virginia

I rise to present a resolution, which I presume will go to the appropriate committee, but upon which, with the unanimous consent of the House, I desire to submit a few remarks after it shall have been read. The resolution is as follows:

Resolved, That the Committee on the Elective Franchise and Qualifications for Office be instructed to report in favor of giving the franchise and the right to hold civil office to every citizen of this State of full age, of sound mind and of good reputation.

Mr. President: Three very considerable classes of our fellow-citizens have, by our former constitutions, been deprived of one or both the rights referred to in the resolution just submitted. First, the clergy have been denied the right of holding office. Various reasons have been assigned for this denial. The most plausible has been that their minds might not be diverted from their important and holy calling of saving the souls of men. None of the pretences have been satisfactory to me, nor many of them, in my judgment, sincere, nor altogether sufficient to justify a violation of the great law of equality of rights and privileges—a law which should never be invaded but for the strongest and most weighty reasons.

I have the highest respect for sincere and self-denying moral and religious teachers—those who are the genuine followers of our Divine Saviour, who “went about doing good,” and though denounced by gentlemen of property and standing of his time as a pestilent fellow, who even ate with publicans and sinners, turned the world upside down

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and by his doctrines of democratic equality and want of respect for persons inflated with egotism and self-esteem, made himself as offensive to the Scribes and Pharisees of old, as the Abolitionists and Republicans are to the Conservatives and aristocrats of the present day. In the language of Cowper:

“I venerate the man whose heart is warm,
Whose hands are pure, whose doctrine and whose life
Coincident, exhibit lucid proofs,
That he is honest in the sacred cause.”

I am gratified to see that we have nearly twenty of that profession in this Convention, many whom I know to have been faithful among the faithless, and all, I hope, fully determined to devote themselves, in the fear of God and with love to all mankind, to the great work in which we are now engaged. Gladly would I see such men employed in every department of the public service. You cannot degrade such men by engaging them in the conduct of your affairs, nor can you drag them down into the filth of politics. On the contrary, if listened to and respected, they will lift you and all of us out of that filth, and dignify and ennoble every branch of business which may be entrusted to their care, to their guidance and direction. Nothing has more tended to our degradation in morals than the practice, in this State, of excluding good men from office, to give place for drunkards and libertines. In my deliberate judgment, the terrible calamities we have witnessed, our late civil war, with its consequent destruction of more than half our property, the loss of tens of thousands of valuable lives, the poverty, starvation, suffering and insolvency now surrounding us are fairly attributable to our practical atheism in rejecting good men and good influences from the counsels of the State. And if the fashionable pulpits among us have, in many instances, been recreant to their duty, much allowance should be made for the trials and temptations which have surrounded them. Never shall I forget the case of a very worthy, talented, and then popular, clergyman who, residing in Winchester some twelve years ago, and about the time 1 was exiled from the State for my opinions in favor of human equality, literally came to me by night for counsel in his difficulties, being satisfied that a faithful preaching of the whole gospel of Christ would entail upon him starvation, banishment or death. On full consideration, he concluded to shake off the dust of his garments, resigned a lucrative situation, and went forth to proclaim the terrible wrongs of the great prison-house of slavery, and, I am glad to say, to receive the rewards of a good conscience and the approbation of God and all just men. But we cannot expect such heroism of weak, infirm, or even of ordinary men, oppressed with the daily needs of themselves and their families. It is to be expected of them that they will be more likely to imitate the poor preacher who lived in a cold mountain region where rye was as much the medium of exchange of values as tobacco was in the early history of Virginia. This preacher, having hired for a stipulated quantity of the grain for six months, and longer at the same rate if his doctrines suited, on being threatened with dismissal protested, and declared that if his doctrines did not suit he was willing to preach any other doctrines, for the rye he must have.

From our treatment of the clergy, we ought to expect them to become either mere dilletanti or a fox-hunting priesthood, looking upon themselves as chief menials at the planter’s table, at his bidding turning truth into error, day into darkness, perverting everything sacred, making even the command to “visit the widow and fatherless,” mean an interested and selfish call on the rich widow and her attractive daughters, who live in the palatial mansion on the summit of the hill, and own the great plantation around it, instead of going down to the wretched abodes of poverty, suffering and sin, visiting them as God would visit, to benefit and to bless.

Let us not be uncharitable or too severe upon those teachers who were not made to be martyrs, and did not exhibit the highest degree of moral courage, especially when the State itself had emasculated them of one of the noblest rights of manhood, and surrounded them with the commanding crimes of slavery and land monopoly. It is not strange that a vast majority should have shown the character of moral eunuchs, and bowed before the storm of popular hatred awaiting the doctrine, humbling to human pride, that the test of worth and destiny, in every great and final day of judgment, is our treatment of the down-trodden and oppressed, of the little ones, of the least even of our brethren of the human race. Let us remember that a bold and faith-

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ful testimony to those great truths of Jesus would, a few years ago, inevitably have brought upon his followers his own martyrdom in almost every portion of this State. Such infidelity was a grievous fault to be sure, but it was more the fault of our institutions than of the fallible men who were but the natural and legitimate outgrowth of such partial, unequal and unjust institutions. On slight consideration, it might be difficult to determine which has suffered most from the folly of excluding an educated class of men, of at least average moral perceptions, from all participation in our public and political affairs—the clergy or the body politic. Full reflection will, however, satisfy us that here, as in all other cases of injustice, the wronged in the end suffers much less than the wrongdoers, and so the justice of Providence vindicates itself.

A State, which thus closes the door to the entrance of good influences, must of course degenerate, and having cut loose from such salutary restraints, would naturally turn to the worship of strange gods, and soon go back to the most popular deities of the heathen world, and we should not be surprised to find that in the opinion of sound thinkers and keen observers in other States, we have shown an undue respect for property, power and pleasures, and have seemed to say to them, “Be ye our gods. Let Mammon and Mars and Bacchus receive our principal adoration, and let only such priests as can accommodate themselves to this new order of things, be accepted by the grand people who have determined to base their institutions on the cornerstone of human slavery.” On the other hand, let us, in our new Constitution, try the effect of justice, and see if we cannot produce a race of preachers who will dare to reprove fashionable sin, and to rebuke iniquity even in high places.

If governed by no higher principles than a regard to our material prosperity, we should be wise to give to moral and religious teachers their full share in the government of the country. The experiment, in America, of both plans or systems, has already been tried upon a grand scale, and the result should satisfy every man of common observation. Look at the first two great English settlements on this continent for a solution of the problem:

On the 13th day of May, 1607, under the auspices of the London company, Captain John Smith, with a gay and rollicking ship-load of well-supplied adventurers, landed at Jamestown, a little distance down our noble river. They came, as history tells us, in search of gold, inspired principally with a desire to better their material interests, and when they were disappointed in finding the precious metal they coveted, their attention was directed to the production of a new narcotic stimulant, then lately discovered on the island of Tobago, from which it took its name. This plant had been taken to England, and introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh to the first circles of British society, was in great demand, and its cultivation promised the richest rewards, and to this object our gay adventurers, whom contemporaneous history describes as “goldsmiths, refiners, gallants, gentlemen, rakes and libertines,” turned their undivided attention. The hunt for gold was abandoned—the tobacco crop was good and immensely profitable; no need was felt of schools or churches; of either literary or religious teachers. Their only or principal want was for wives, and this was cheaply supplied from the abounding population of London. Girls were imported in cargoes, and sold to the planters for about their weight, not in gold or silver, but in tobacco, the money of the country. History informs us that the usual price was 120 pounds of tobacco for a wife, though those who were very pretty brought 150 pounds.

This is the historical account of the first marriage and domestic relations of

Virginia. And now let us glance at the origin of the Plymouth settlement in a land of ice and granite: On the 22d day of December, 1620, thirteen and a half years after the other settlement, we see the occupants of the Mayflower, 120 exiles from home for fidelity to their religious convictions, landing, in the deep snow of a New England winter. They came, under the lead of their religious pastors, with little thought of worldly gain, but imbued thoroughly with the idea of the free worship of the God of their fathers. Their first care, after providing food and shelter for their families, was for spiritual food for their souls. The church and school-house are quickly erected; the clergyman and school master are at their great work. More than two hundred years since those settlements were made have passed away, and that settlement, inspired by love of gain and devoted to material improvement, is now a desolation. The congressional district which embraces Jamestown and extends over

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2,000,000 acres of fertile land, watered by four great navigable rivers, with the best fisheries on the continent, with a mild and healthful climate, fitted for the abode of plenty, is occupied by a poor, sparse and ignorant population. And so long has the school-master been abroad and away, that not half of the native men and women can read or write. The first district still maintains the character which its eccentric member of Congress boastingly gave it more than thirty years ago, and is not cursed nor blessed with the publication of a single newspaper within its broad limits. Jamestown itself, more fallen than Tyre or Sidon or Thebes or Palmyra, has not enough of ruins left for bats to flit or owls to hoot in; and the twenty counties of this district have been so wasted that, if put up at auction, they would not probably sell for as much as if clothed in the original forests which greeted the arrival of our adventurers.

But, in contrast with this sad picture, look at the rock-bound coast of New

England, and at the spot pre-eminently marked as the settlement in the interest of religious freedom, mental and moral independence, and under the immediate direction of that noble teacher and preacher, Roger Williams. The half-million acres of stony soil which lie within the boundaries of the State of Rhode Island —only one-fourth the extent of our first district—comprise two of the richest, most highly cultivated and refined congressional districts in the United States; and the city, on the very spot where Williams lauded, and which—Providence —bears the name of the power on which he relied, one of the richest towns in the world in proportion to its numbers, is the abode of peace and plenty, of hospitality and philanthropy, and, in the language of another of her great preachers, has signally displayed the moral dignity of the missionary enterprise and the truth that Godliness is gain, and that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

The Plymouth settlement never proscribed ministers of the Gospel, but had always many of them in her Legislatures.

The Jamestown settlement always proscribed them, and would not allow them seats in her Legislature, but was very careful to keep them, like the colored people, in their proper places. Has not Heaven written, with the hand of ruin and desolation, its abhorrence of this shameful respect of persons and professions?

But another, and much larger class of our fellow citizens have, by the later constitutions of this State, been deprived of both the right to vote and hold office. This class, numbering more than 100,000, embraces all men who have any proportion of African blood in their veins, and includes many of the sons of our oldest and proudest families, many who have so little of the proscribed blood that it is scarcely visible to the naked eye; and if this feature of our old Constitution shall be retained, we will be compelled to employ inspectors of color, who must use the most scientific tests to determine who are and who are not entitled to their full political rights.

No loyal man, certainly, can hesitate to award equal rights and enfranchisement to our colored fellow citizens, when he remembers with what promptness they took up arms and breasted the storms of war to secure the unity and threatened liberties of the country.

How can any rights be denied to the 200,000 brave men who were engaged in the late deadly struggle on the battle-fields, and the children and friends of the 30,000 who fell in the same great struggle? I can well understand the hostility of those who were arrayed against the United States, and who still entertain their former views on the great questions that were involved in the contest. But, Republicans who believe in the brotherhood of man, who only ask for themselves what they are willing to award to all other loyal citizens, can have no doubt upon this question.

But, shall we adopt manhood suffrage pure and simple, or shall we admit property or literary qualifications? In my judgment, poverty and ignorance are not good reasons for rejection, since the poor and ignorant have been denied all means of education by our laws, and are in the greatest need of the protection of the ballot. The simplicity of these men is much less likely to mislead them in the exercise of the franchise, than the pride, arrogance and self-interest of many more favored and educated. The rich man, with all the influence, power and profit of his wealth, cani better spare his vote than the poor man, who, without it, is left, to all human appearances, as helpless as Daniel in the lion’s den. Nor can education or high culture even be as important as many seem to suppose. The educated men of Virginia, who, for the last seven years have wielded our State Government, have not been eminently successful in adding to their

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own wealth, power, happiness and contentment, or to the glory and greatness of the old Commonwealth; and I doubt whether the simplicity of any portion of our people could have made more egregious blunders and mistakes. The arch-enemy of the human race, the hero of Paradise lost, is never represented as deficient in intellect or education, and yet I would sooner trust the judgment of a very ordinary mind, if guided by a heart thoroughly imbued with the love of God and man. Nine-tenths of the mistakes of human conduct may be traced rather to moral than to mental causes. If we would judge correctly on any question of duty, and especially of public duty, let us first endeavor to rise above the fogs of sense, the storms of passion and the mists of avarice and arrogance, and take our position on the great table land of philanthropy, where the air is purified by the light and heat that comes down from the sun of righteousness, and with single-hearted simplicity, ask direction of the monitor which God has enthroned within us, and guided implicitly by

“What conscience dictates to be done,”

we shall very seldom go astray. Certainly, wise men and Republicans, claiming to be Christians, ought to look more than skin deep, and to consider character rather than complexion, in determining the rights of men. To those who claim that wealth or the ownership of broad acres of land is a high qualification we would say, the greatest good and happiness of the greatest number of the people is the proper object and just aim of all legislation, of all laws, of all voting, in every republican government. And shall we be told that the land monopolist, the haughty lordling, who will say to his poor tenant, “vote for me at your peril,” is best qualified? “Vote for me, or as I say, or I will drive you and your wife and children into the street, even in the dead of winter, to starve or freeze, though my land, from the want of your labor, may grow up in broom sedge and scrub pine. Vote for me, though the consequences of that vote shall be forever to deprive you of another right or privilege to vote, and to reduce you and all who are near and dear to you—the wife of your bosom, the children of your love and your loins—to a condition worse by far (as I have always predicted) than your former slavery, with all the unutterable woes of chattelhood, and of unceasing and unrequited toil.” Is this disposition and this language satisfactory evidence of the highest qualification for the elective franchise? And yet, this is the language and the spirit which we have been compelled to witness in this hall. For myself, I cannot doubt that the all-important qualifications are of the heart rather than of the head, and not at all of external circumstances. I remember, nearly twenty years ago. when the subject of the extension of the right of suffrage was much agitated in this State, a very learned and pretentious gentleman, President of old William and Mary College, who had married in my county of Clarke, undertook to enlighten us on this question, and in one of his highest flights of oratory he triumphantly asked: “How can that man intelligently exercise the right of suffrage who follows the plow, and whose talk is of cattle?” My answer then, as now, to President Dew was and is: The man you describe, who follows the plow, communing with God and his own soul, cooling his passions by his daily toil, meeting the stern realities of life with manly efforts to work out an honest living, in humble imitation of the Great Master who says, “my Father worketh hitherto, and I work,” knows more of the real wants and necessities of his fellow-men, and thus gaining knowledge from experience, will vote with more wisdom than any purse-proud aristocrat or literary dandy that struts upon the surface of this green earth.

While holding court at Norfolk, a few days after our recent election, a gentleman looking strange, on taking a seat near me at the table of the hotel, let me know that he was a magistrate of the county of Surry, and to the inquiry of the news from Surry he replied that the negroes had carried the county, by an almost unanimous vote, for the Radical ticket; but added, with a flourish of words and in a bitter and vindictive tone, that they would get paid for it; that one gentleman, whom he named, living in Richmond, owning 12,000 acres of land in Surry, and employing 300 negroes in cutting wood upon it, had given them timely notice that every one who voted the Radical ticket would be discharged. Whether this threat was executed I have not heard; and sincerely do I hope that a second sober thought of our mutual dependence, duties and rights may have prevented its execution. But God pity the poor where such sentiments prevail; and God pity the oppressors where they seem to be thus filled with the pride that goeth before

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destruction, and the haughty spirit that goeth before a fall. Such was the spirit exhibited, in thousands of instances, at the late election. It is the spirit of the whole Conservative press of this State. It is the spirit which is to be carried, by those lately in arms against the United States, into the election soon to decide the question of the adoption of the Constitution we are now framing. It is a spirit which, but for the restraint exerted at this time by the military authorities, and excellent management of General Grant and General Howard, and the forces under them, would fill the South with the murder and assassination of the poor freedmen, and make it a land of terror and of blood.

Let me contrast with this spirit, another spirit which was shown in thousands of the cottages and cabins of our poor people. The head of the family has been threatened with ejectment from his humble home, claimed by another, if he dared to vote in accordance with the dictates of his conscience. He looks at his dependent children, and his heart swells within him as he exclaims: “what shall I do? Shall I vote for their education and elevation, at the risk of loss of place and of this poor but only shelter, of almost unavoidable starvation, for them, for their mother and myself? Oh, thou God of the poor and friendless, help me in this dreadful extremity.” And how was that prayer answered? History hardly furnishes an example so glorious and astonishing. The only wonder is at the rare instances of those who fainted or faltered by the way. Almost, without exception, the same answer came to him, and frequently through the angel voice of his wife, saying, “my poor husband, vote for our children, for me, and for the cause of justice and humanity, trusting in that Divine Power which has led us through the Red sea of a four years’ war to the near prospect of the Canaan of our liberty— liberty to spell the blessed name of Jesus, the poor man’s friend, without fear of the lash or the whipping-post—liberty to learn to read the Bible, which teaches that the laborer is worthy of his hire, that God has made of one blood all nations of the earth, and that happiness and Heaven shall be the reward of those who love mercy, walk humbly, and render unto every one his just dues; liberty to read the books and papers which tell of the great and good men of the past and present times, of Lovejoy and Lincoln and John Brown, who have died for our freedom, and of Garrison and Greeley and Gerritt Smith and Stevens and Sumner and Pomeroy and Butler, who are still laboring to lift up the down-trodden and oppressed; liberty to toil and hope for the security and sanctity of a home which can never be invaded by the slave-trader, hurrying the family to the auction-block and the coffle-gang, to be scattered over the cotton fields and sugar plantations of the far South, never again to meet and mingle our tears and sorrows on this side of the grave; liberty to provide for ourselves and our little ones, to bring them up in the love and fear of our Heavenly Father, and with the power of growing and learning, and becoming manly and womanly, and attaining the full measure and stature which nature has permitted and designed; liberty of laying up, by honest industry, something for our old age, and of leaving what may be left to those who shall inherit our blood and bear our names, of living and dying like other men and women, owning ourselves, calling no man master and obeying only our Creator and the equal laws of this great land, which we can truly and thankfully call our country. And let me tell you, sir, and our Conservative friends, that this feeling of manliness and independence, now pervading the cabins of this State, is the best qualification for voting that can be conceived. It is an inspiration from on high, and can no more be resisted, excluded or controlled than the sunlight, the all-pervading atmosphere, or the tides of old ocean. It dignifies labor; it, and it alone, will lift up our crushed hopes and place our State upon the highway of a prosperous and happy future. It carries within itself both a prophecy and a guarantee of every needed blessing to all classes of our people. Contemplating this feeling, we may well say with Pope and Burns, the sweet poets of Christian Democracy:

“An honest man, the noblest work of God,
And surely in fair virtues heavenly road;
The cottage leaves the palace far behind:
What is a lordling’s pomp? a cumbrous load,
Disguising oft the wretch of human kind,
Studied in arts of hell, in wickedness refined.”

It affords me great pleasure to bear testimony, to the general sobriety and industry of our colored people. I have mingled much with them, both here and at my home in Alexandria, and in Washington, in both of which last cities I was President of the Freedmen’s Relief Association before the Bureau was established. I have seen comparatively few of them

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intoxicated, not more than one to ten drunken white men, in proportion to their numbers, and I have always found them not only willing but anxious to work, even for very moderate wages.

The President of one of the Virginia railroads who has already repaired the ravages of the war, and is now extending his road, informs me that in the embarrassment of his company he could only do this work by the freedmen who labor faithfully as day laborers, as carpenters and blacksmiths for just about half that white labor would cost, and yet these men, ever ready and earnest in seeking work, are accused of idleness by men who never did a hard day’s labor in their lives. An honorable gentleman the other day, when one of our galleries was filled with those who had thronged to this city on the occasion of the assembling of the Conservatives to inaugurate a war of races, and when many of the Conservatives had been, by your courtesy, admitted to the body of this hall in a manner, if not intended, well calculated to excite the most hostile feelings, taunted the occupants of the other gallery with idleness. He said, as nearly as I cn remember, “these helpless, shelterless and starving blacks are living in idleness like the hundreds hanging around this body.”

For my part, sir, I am glad to see our colored trends here taking an interest in our work, they will learn who are their real friends; but I mistake, they already understand the whole matter, and in that knowledge is our safety. They read the papers, they have perhaps read the Fredericksburg News of the 6th instant, a paper which may not express the sentiments of the honorable member from that city. Indeed, after reading the paper I could hope its inspiration did not come from that gentleman. In a report of our late action it says editorially:

“Mr. Porter (white, we believe; where they are all black at heart, we forget the color of the outside cuticle) replied and said, “the right of suffrage could not now be taken from the colored people, except through the dreadful avenue of blood.”

[Exactly —in twelve months we expect that any negro who offers to vote will be shot, as he ought to be. And we believe Northern men will come down to guard the polls against the absurdity and outrage of negro suffrage. Ed. News.]

Can more cruel and diabolical sentiments be entertained? Could fiends sink to greater degradation or work more industrious to cause bloodshed and war? Is not this the language of those who, having failed to exterminate the Yankee nation, are now bent on fighting the quiet, industrious, peaceable, law-abiding, sober, religious colored men of the country? Let me say, sir, to our opponents, abandon all the plans for a war of races, which may have been formed by the wicked conspiracy of desperate men lately in arms against liberty and union, and assembled in this city on the 11th and 12th of last month. Those plans must and shall be defeated. At least 30,000 Christian white men in this State always at heart true to the flag of the county, have resolved that blood enough has been shed in following the atheistic and man-dishonoring illusions of the South Carolina school of wild fanatics. We have determined to return to the doctrines of our revolutionary fathers who honored labor and were faithful to the rights of man. These 30,000 include the Methodists who adhered to the principles of John Wesley, that slavery is the sum of all villainy and the vilest system that ever saw the sun. They include the peaceful followers of George Fox and Wm. Penn. They include all the humble Christians and Dunkards who, by the sweat of their own brow, are earning an honest living in the western part of this State, and would be as unwilling to call any man slave as to acknowledge any man master. They include a considerable minority of sober and thoughtful men, even in the Episcopal, Baptist and Presbyterian churches whose leaders may be led into the conspiracy for a war and the extermination of the colored race, as they were for a war against our flag and nation. And I am happy to be able to say there were many men here on those two dark days of December and all over the State who were seduced into the first conspiracy, but who now shrink back with horror from the more desperate and wicked designs of the new conspiracy to reduce the colored men by vagrant and apprenticeship and pauper laws to a condition worse by far than their ancient slavery. These 30,000 good men have determined to go back to the old paths. And let us here and now take a refreshing review of the doctrines of the men who honored Virginia before she yielded to the syren opinions and counsels of Calhoun, that cotton was king, that mammon was God, that slavery was a divine institution, that colored men had no rights which white men were bound to respect.

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At the time of the Revolution the feeling against slavery was almost universal, and the great men of Virginia were not halting in their testimony on the subject. On the 18th of July, 1774, nearly two years before the Declaration of Independence, a meeting of the free-holders of Fairfax county was held in the town of Alexandria, presided over by Colonel George Washington, of Mount Vernon, and a part of its proceedings, signed by its officers, was as follows: “It is the most earnest wish of America to see an entire stop forever put to the wicked, cruel and unnatural trade In slaves.” In a letter written in 1783, to his friend, the Marquis Lafayette, who, after fighting the battles of liberty, had just given freedom to his own slaves, in the French colony of Cayenne, General Washington said: “The scheme which you propose, my dear Marquis, as a precedent, to encourage the emancipation of the black people in this country from the state of bondage in which they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your heart.” In another letter, dated April 12, 1780, he said: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.”

It is well known that Mr. Jefferson, in writing the great Declaration of Independence, added a charge against the British King, which, out of deference to the prejudices of South Carolina was omitted —South Carolina then, as ever, the champion of oppression. That omitted paragraph was in these words: “He,” King George, “has waged a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery, in another hemisphere, or to incur a miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.”

In his “Notes on Virginia,” he says: “With what execration should the statesman be loaded who, permitting one-half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots and these into enemies.” Mr. Madison writes, “we have seen the mere distinction of color made, in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”

Mr. Monroe, who occupied your chair in our State Convention of 1830, said, while speaking of slavery in that Convention, “we have found that this evil has preyed upon the very vitals of the Union, and has been prejudicial to all the States in which it has existed.”

Colonel George Mason, author of our Bill of Rights, who gave honor to a now degenerate name in this State, said —speaking like a political philosopher —”every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.”

Had he lived now he would have told us that the orphanage and widowhood, desolation, poverty and insolvency, which spread, like a funeral pall, over the length and breadth of Virginia, are but the judgments of Heaven for the sins of our people, not less significant of the displeasure of the Almighty, than were the plagues of Egypt for the oppression of the children of Israel. That the fires which lit up the hills of this city on the 3d of April, 1865, were as signal and direct a punishment of offended and eternal justice as were those which consumed ancient Sodom and Gomorrah.

Patrick Henry said: “It would rejoice my very soul that every one of my fellow beings were emancipated. Believe me, I shall honor the Quakers for their noble efforts to abolish slavery.”

John Randolph, in the debate on the Missouri Compromise, pointing his bony finger at a Northern apologist, exclaimed: “Sir, I envy neither the heart nor the head of the man from the North who rises here to defend slavery.”

Henry Clay, one of Virginia’s most eloquent sons, in the great senatorial debate of 1850, said: “So long as God allows the vital current to flow through my veins, I will never, never, never, by word or thought, by mind or will, aid in admitting one rood of free territory to the everlasting curse of human bondage.”

Referring to this speech of Mr. Clay, Thomas H. Benton said: “That was a proud day. 1 could have wished that I had spoken the same words; I speak them now, telling you they were his, and adopted them as my own.”

How many of us, in our school-boy

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days, learned for declamation the speech of our own Patrick Henry, whose electric soul kindled the fire of freedom in the bosoms of our brave fathers, and in whose sober judgment, liberty was dearer and more valuable than life itself. Who, having learned, can ever forget that great speech of his in the first colonial convention, held in Richmond during the spring of 1775, in the church, still standing, and that crowns the neighboring hill? That noble gush of humanity—”Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death[“]? And how can any one who has been taught to accord to others that mercy and those blessings which he implores from Heaven, but desire to see perfect freedom secured by the ballot—the heritage of every being on whose form God has stamped the image of himself, and on whose forehead is inscribed the proud title of the human race.

After leaving school, one of my first visits was to that shrine on the Potomac, consecrated to freedom by the common consent of men: and standing at the tomb of the mighty dead who slumbers at Mount Vernon, and contemplating that noble life devoted to the rights of his fellow-men, it seemed to me that the brightest jewels in the crown of his immortality were his efforts for the poor and lowly—his assertions that he would never, unless under peculiar circumstances, purchase a slave; that the system ought to be abolished by legislative authority; that his voice and vote should never be wanting for that purpose; and, finally, that finishing and most solemn act, by his last will and testament, giving freedom to all his slaves.

More than thirty years ago I made my first pilgrimage to Monticello, and under the majestic oaks which stretch their branches above the grave of Jefferson, I remembered not only his great declaration “that all men are created equal,” but his countless and priceless words of wisdom, asserting in terms of fervid piety and inimitable beauty, that he “trembled for his country when he reflected that God is just, that His justice could not sleep forever, and that the Almighty had no attribute that could take sides with slavery.”

During the same journey I was permitted to sit at the table of James Madison, and while memory lasts I can never forget his calm, mild, but prophetic deprecation of the evils of slavery, which were then blighting the physical and moral prospects of this fair land.

And I would recommend to our Conservative friends the speeches of Governor McDowell, of Charles James Faulkner, of George W. Summers, and many other distinguished men of that day, in the Convention of 1830, and the Legislatures immediately succeeding; and the editorial of the Richmond Enquirer of the same time, then under the control of the elder Ritchie—all full of the spirit of freedom and emancipation, worthy of Wendell Phillips and the Abolitionists of the present day. After reading up and refreshing themselves with the old Enquirer, they will be prepared to appreciate the great descent of that paper—a descent like that of Lucifer—to a depth of folly and apostacy from which it can hardly hope to rise again, and which leaves us only the privilege of sadly and charitably saying of it that, like the potato crop, its value is principally underground. And yet I have more respect for the Enquirer, in its late consistent error and blindness, than for a paper which one day approaching our principles and more than half endorsing them, with the offer of fully doing so if paid for it, and then, rejected in its wooings, going back like the dog to his vomit, and like the washed sow to her wallowing in the mire.

Such were the men and the sentiments of regard for human rights which once honored Virginia. How different from the politicians who, beaten in a regular election, appealed from the ballot-box to the cartridge-box, and in order to degrade labor and to crush the poor, are now anxious to engage in a war of races; which, however, by the moderation and peaceful disposition of our loyal people, of all colors, and the protection of United States troops, is simply impossible. Our only weapons are love and law, and that little ballot,

Which comes down as still
As snow-flakes fall upon the sod,
But executes a freeman’s will,
As lightning does the will of God

Again, I urge our opponents not to countenance the mad efforts of the rebel press and rebel politicians to bring on a war of races. If aid is expected for this purpose from Northern Copperheads, you will be as much disappointed as you were when you relied upon them in 1861–’62. Promote peace with the best and cheapest cul-

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tivators of Southern soil that can anywhere be found. Treat them kindly. Do not oppress by extravagant rents, by imposing hard conditions, either of social or political existence. Apply to them the golden rule of our common Lord and Saviour. Respect their equal rights of manhood, and be willing to share with them the Bounties of that gracious Providence whose parental care is ever over all His children, from the least to the greatest. Take this course and you shall find these poor people, as I have ever found them, overflowing with gratitude and all the best affections of their generous natures, disposed to do their full part in making this redeemed and restored State of ours one of the richest, happiest and most prosperous of the great sisterhood forming our glorious American Republic.

And let us all ”learn the luxury of doing good,” of acting generously and justly, and realize the truth that there is more honor and substantial happiness in living by the sweat of our own than of another’s brow; that there is more true glory in raising than in rising in this world; that we never reach such a sublimity of moral elevation as when we stoop to lift up the lowly and unfortunate.

I confidently hope that this Convention will find no difficulty in coming up to the full and entire enfranchisement of these two classes —the clergy and the colored men of the State—and thus place ourselves on the platform of the more advanced and enlightened States of the Union.

There is a third and much larger class who, if my voice could effect it, should also be speedily enfranchised—I mean our female citizens. But such is the prejudice of our people, and so little are we yet advanced beyond that savage state of society which makes conscientious and heaven-inspired woman the drudge or toy of her stronger and coarser companion, that I despair at this time of securing so desirable a progress, and I will only, therefore, now take enough of your time to declare the earnest hopes I have long cherished of seeing the finer moral instincts of our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters made available in raising our codes, our habits and our lives to a higher and nobler plane of civilization, by giving them a voice, influence and vote in shaping our political affairs. When society shall do this, drunkards and libertines, oppressors and slanderers will seldom disgrace our halls of legislation, or fill our judicial and executive departments, but such monsters will skulk from the places they now defile, as they ever do from the presence of a refined and truly noble woman. Woman! who is the moral monitor and conscience of our race. We already give woman a vote in our monied institutions and stock companies, where she has a pecuniary interest, and I trust the time will come when we shall bless ourselves by allowing her elevating and sanctifying power to be felt in all the departments of religious association and civil government.

And, in conclusion, I will hope that we shall keep our tempers sweetened by Christian charity and universal love. When taunted by our opponents with our motley and varied complexions on this side of the House, we may perhaps ask them whether what they regard a reproach is not mainly attributable to their own violent and ungovernable passions, and to the licentiousness of their own sons and brothers, and whether it is exactly manly and honorable and chivalrous to punish us for their own vices and crimes. Let us resolve that while others threaten war, we will labor for peace, conscious that the only permanent peace-makers on earth are truth and justice, freedom and equality. Let us do nothing for punishment or revenge, but everything for peace and safety. If it is necessary for a time to exclude from voting the unrepentant and bloody-minded enemies of the country, let us keep the door open for returning prodigals and converted Confederates. Let us confidently expect that many a persecuting Saul will, in the future, as in the past, become a preaching Paul, laboring zealously in the cause of equal rights and impartial liberty.

‘”Tis education forms the common mind;” and as Jefferson has told us, the man must be a prodigy whose manners and morals were not corrupted by the school of slavery and despotism. While we sternly oppose wrong and oppression, let us be kindly and forgiving, as our Great Master ever was, to all repentant wrong-doers and oppressors. How many of them were the mere victims of circumstances, of a vicious system entailed upon them! How many of us, under their circumstances, would have resembled them!

What this starving, suffering and bankrupt State first needs is a speedy and peaceful reconstruction. Millions of Northern capital are waiting that event for investment here. Hardly a day passes that does not bring me evidence of this in numerous letters.

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With this reconstruction will come the immigration we want of capital and skilled labor, which shall convert our wild and neglected hill-sides into vineyards and gardens of beauty; which shall cover our western hills, now frowning with primeval forests, with green pastures of bleating flocks and lowing herds; which shall bring out from the bowels of our State the hidden coal to warm and enlighten millions of our race, to set in motion thousands of steamboats, rail-cars and work-shops, which shall drown the noise of our hitherto undisturbed water-falls in the music of the wheel and the loom, the hammer and the anvil; which shall dot our land all over at its cross-roads and hamlets with school-houses and temples of worship, where our children shall be taught, not only in literature and science, but to love liberty and one another; where anthems of freedom shall continually ascend as incense to Heaven for the great good educed from the desolating evils and stormy troubles of war and famine which have been forced upon us by the wisdom of an inscrutable but unerring Providence.

And finally, let us earnestly labor and pray for the speedy coming of that good time when the sun, in his daily circuit over this Old Dominion, looking down upon a State full of free, equal, industrious, educated, labor-honoring, God-fearing liberty and Union-loving citizens, shall never again gild the proud palace of an unfeeling tyrant, or light up the cabin of a tasked and down-trodden tiller of the soil.

APA Citation:
General Assembly. Speech by John C. Underwood (January 16, 1868). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
General Assembly. "Speech by John C. Underwood (January 16, 1868)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 30 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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