The Lost Museum Archive

P. T. Barnum's speech on "Negro Suffrage," May 26, 1865 (excerpts)

In May, 1865, the Connecticut state legislature voted to ratify the 14th amendment to the United States constitution, outlawing slavery forever. When the legislators turned to the question of modifying their state constitution to allow African-American men to vote (no women of any race could vote in 1865), the debate became more contentious. P. T. Barnum, the representative from Fairfield, made a passionate speech in support of "negro suffrage" that championed whites’ moral obligation to elevate African Americans out of the ignorance imposed by slavery and argued for African Americans’ ability to succeed if given the opportunity. Whether and to what extent to extend full citizenship rights to the newly emancipated slaves was a central political and social question in the years following the Civil War, and Barnum’s speech, excerpted below, reflects many of the arguments made for and against this pivotal change, including the disparaging references to the fitness for citizenship of immigrants and poor southern whites.

Mr. Speaker:--I will not attempt to notice at any length the declamation of the honorable gentleman from Milford, for certainly I have heard nothing from his lips approaching to the dignity of argument. I agree with the gentleman that the right of suffrage is ‘dearly and sacredly cherished by the white man’; and it is because this right is so dear and sacred, that I wish to see it extended to every educated moral man within our State, without regard to color. He tells us that one race is a vessel to honor, and another to dishonour; and that he has seen on ancient Egyptian monuments the negro represented as a ‘a hewer of wood and a drawer of water.’ This is doubtless true, and the gentleman seems determined always to keep the negro a ‘vessel of dishonor,’ and a ‘hewer of wood.’ We, on the other hand, propose to give him the opportunity of expanding his faculties and elevating himself to true manhood. He says he ‘hates and abhors and despises demagogism.’ I am rejoiced to hear it, and I trust that we shall see tangible evidence of the truth of what he professes in his abandonment of that slavery to party which is the mere trick and trap of the demagogue.
. . .
And now, Mr. Speaker, let me remind our democratic friends that the present question simply asks that a majority of the legal voters, the white citizens of this State, may decide whether or not colored men of good moral character, who are able to read and who possess all the qualifications of white voters, shall be entitled to the elective franchise. The opposition may have their own ideas, or may be in doubt upon this subject; but surely no true democrat will dare to refuse permission to our fellow-citizens to decide the question.

Negro slavery and its legitimate outgrowths of ignorance, tyranny and oppression, have caused this gigantic rebellion which has cost our country thousands of millions of treasure, and hundreds of thousands of human lives in defending a principle. And where was this poor, down-trodden colored race in this rebellion? Did they seize the ‘opportunity’ when their masters were engaged with a powerful foe, to break out in insurrection, and massacre those tyrants who had so long held them in the most cruel bondage? No, Mr. Speaker, they did not do this. My ‘democratic’ friends would have done it. I would have done it. Irishmen, Chinamen, Portuguese, would have done it; any white man would have done it; but the poor black man is like a lamb in his nature compared with the white man. The black man possesses a confiding disposition, thoroughly tinctured with religious enthusiasm, and not characterized by a spirit of revenge. No, the only barbarous massacres we heard of, during the war, were those committed by their white masters on their poor, defenceless white prisoners, and to the eternal disgrace of southern white ‘democratic’ rebels, be it said, these instances of barbarism were numerous all through the war. When this rebellion first broke out, the northern democracy raised a hue-and-cry against permitting the negroes to fight; but when such a measure seemed necessary, in order to put down traitors, these colored men took their muskets in hand and made their bodies a wall of defence for the loyal citizens of the north. And now, when our grateful white citizens ask from this assembly the privilege of deciding by their votes whether these colored men, who, at least, were partially our saviors in the war, may or may not, under proper restrictions, become participants in that great salvation, I am amazed that men calling themselves democrats dare refuse to grant this democratic measure. We wish to educate ignorant men, white or black. Ignorance is incompatible with the genius of our free institutions. In the very nature of things it jeopardizes their stability, and it is always unsafe to transgress the laws of nature. We cannot safely shut ourselves up with ignorance and brutality; we must educate and christianize those who are now by circumstances our social inferiors.

Years ago, I was afraid of foreign voters. I feared that when Europe poured her teeming millions of working people upon our shores, our extended laws of franchise would enable them to swamp our free institutions, and reduce us to anarchy. But much reflection has satisfied me that we have only to elevate these millions and their descendants to the standard of American citizenship, and we shall find sufficient of the leaven of liberty in our system of government to absorb all foreign elements and assimilate them to a truly democratic form of government.

Mr. Speaker: We cannot afford to carry passengers and have them live under our government with no real vital interest in its perpetuity. Every man must be a joint owner.
. . .
Do our democratic friends assume that the negroes are not human? I have heard professed democrats claim even that; but do the authors of this minority report insist that the negro is a beast? Is his body not tenanted by an immortal spirit? If this is the position of the gentlemen, then I confess a beast cannot reason, and this minority committee are right in declaring that "the negro can develop no inventive faculties or genius for the arts." For although the elephant may be taught to plow, or the dog to carry your market-basket by his teeth, you cannot teach them to shave notes, to speculate in gold, or even to vote; whereas, the experience of all political parties shows that men may be taught to vote, even when they do not know what the ticket means.

But if the colored man is indeed a man, then his manhood with proper training can be developed. His soul may appear dormant, his brain inactive, but there is a vitality there; and Nature will assert herself if you will give her the opportunity.
. . .
So it is with the poor African. You may take a dozen specimens of both sexes from the lowest type of man found in Africa; their race has been buried for ages in ignorance and barbarism, and you can scarcely perceive that they have nay more of manhood or womanhood than so many orang-outangs or gorillas. You look at their low foreheads, their thick skulls and lips, their woolly heads, their flat noses, their dull, lazy eyes, and you may be tempted to adopt the language of this minority committee, and exclaim: Surely these people have "no inventive faculties, no genius for the arts, or for any of those occupations requiring intellect and wisdom." But bring them out into the light of civilization; let them and their children come into the genial sunshine of Christianity; teach them industry, self-reliance, and self-respect; let them learn what too few white Christians have yet understood, that cleanliness is akin to godliness, and a part of godliness; and the human soul will begin to develop itself. Each generation, blessed with churches and common schools, will gradually exhibit the result of such culture; the low foreheads will be raised and widened by an active and expanded brain; the vacant eye of barbarism, ignorance and idleness will light up with the fire of intelligence, education, ambition, activity and Christian civilization; and you will find the immortal soul asserting her dignity, by the development of a man who would startle, by his intelligence, the honorable gentleman from Wallingford, who has presumed to compare beings made in God’s image with "oxen and asses."
. . .
Let the educated free negro feel that he is a man; let him be trained in New England churches, schools and workshops; let him support himself, pay his taxes, and cast his vote, like other men, and he will put to everlasting shame the champions of modern democracy, by the overwhelming evidence he will give in his own person of the great Scripture truth, that "God has made of one blood all the nations of men." A human soul, "that God has created and Christ died for," is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit; and amid all assumptions of caste, it will in due time vindicate the great fact that, without regard to color or condition, all men are equally children of the common Father.
. . .
The state of Connecticut, like New Jersey, is a border State of New York. New York has a great commercial city, where Aldermen rob by the tens of thousands, and where principal is studied much more than principle. I can readily understand how the negro has come to be debased at the North as well as at the South. The interests of the two sections in the product of negro labor were nearly identical. The North wanted Southern cotton and the South was ready in turn to buy from the North whatever was needed in the way of Northern supplies and manufactures. This community of commercial interests led to an identity in political principles especially in matters pertaining to the negro race—the working race of the South—which produced the cotton and consumed so much of what Northern merchants and manufacturers sold for plantation use. The Southern planters were good customers and were worth conciliating. So when Connecticut proposed in 1818 to continue to admit colored men to the franchise, the South protested against thus elevating the negroes, and Connecticut succumbed. No other New England State has ever so disgraced herself; and now Connecticut democrats are asked to permit the white citizens of this State to express their opinion in regard to re-instating the colored man where our Revolutionary sires placed him under the Constitution. Now, gentlemen, "democrats" as you call yourselfes, you who speak so flippantly of your "loyalty," your "love for the Union" and your "love for the people;" you who are generally talking right and voting wrong, we ask you to come forward and act "democratically," by letting your masters, the people, speak.

The word "white" in the Constitution cannot be strictly and literally construed. The opposition express great love for white blood. Will they let a mulatto vote half the time, a quadroon three-fourths, and an octoroon seven-eighths of the time? If not, why not? Will they enslave seven-eighths of a white man because one-eighth is not Caucasian? Is this democratic? Shall not the majority seven control the minority one? Out on such "democracy."

But a Democratic minority committee (of two) seem to have done something besides study ethnology. They have also paid great attention to fine arts, and are particularly anxious that all voters shall have a "genius for the arts." I would like to ask them if it has always been political practice to insist that every voter in the great "unwashed" and "unterrified" of any party should become a member of the Academy of Arts before he votes the "regular" ticket? I thought he was received into the full fellowship of a political party if he could exhibit sufficient "inventive faculties and genius for the arts," to enable him to paint a black eye. Can a man whose "genius for the arts" enables him to strike from the shoulder scientifically, be admitted to full fellowship in a political party? Is it evident that the political artist has studied the old masters, if he exhibits his genius by tapping an opponents head with a shillelagh? The oldest master in this school of art was Cain; and so canes have been made to play their part in politics, at the polls and even in the United States Senate Chamber.
. . .
I have repeatedly travelled through every State in the South, and I assert, what every intelligent officer and soldier who has resided there will corroborate, that the slaves, as a body, are more intelligent than the poor whites. No man who has not been there can conceive to what a low depth of ignorance the poor snuff-taking, clay-eating whites of some portion of the South have descended. I trust the day is not far distant when the "common school" shall throw its illuminating rays through this Egyptian pall.

I have known slave mechanics to be sold for $3,000 and even $5,000 each, and others could not be bought at all; and I have seen intelligent slaves acting as stewards for their masters, travelling every year to New Orleans, Nashville, and even to Cincinnati, to dispose of their master’s crops. The free colored citizens of Opelousas, St. Martinsville, and all the Attakapas country in Louisiana, are as respectable and intelligent as an ordinary community of whites. They speak the French and English languages, educate their children in music, and "the arts" and they pay their taxes on more than fifteen millions of dollars.
. . .
But some persons have this color prejudice simply by the force of education, and they say, "Well, a nigger is a nigger, and he can’t be anything else. I hate niggers, anyhow." Twenty years ago I crossed the Atlantic, and among our passengers was an Irish judge, who was coming out to Newfoundland as chief justice. He was an exceedingly intelligent and polished gentleman, and extremely witty. The passengers from the New England States and those from the South got into a discussion on the subject of slavery, which lasted three days. The Southerners were finally worsted, and when their arguments were exhausted, they fell back on the old story, by saying: "Oh! curse a nigger, he ain’t half human anyhow; he had not business to be a nigger, etc." One of the gentlemen then turned to the Irish judge, and asked his opinion of the merits of the controversy. The judge replied:

"Gentlemen, I have listened with much edification to your arguments pro and con, during three days. I was quite inclined to think the anti-slavery gentlemen had justice and right on their side, but the last argument from the South has changed my mind. I say ‘a nigger has no business to be a nigger,’ and we should kick him out of society and trample him under foot—always provided, gentlemen, you prove he was born black at his own particular request. If he had no word to say in the matter of course he is blameless for his color, and is entitled to the same respect that other men are who properly behave themselves!"

Mr. Speaker: I am no politician, I came to this Legislature simply because I wished to have the honor of voting for the two constitutional amendments—one for driving slavery entirely out of the country; the other to allow men of education and good moral character to vote, regardless of the color of their skins. To give my voice for these two philanthropic, just, and Christian measures is all the glory I ask legislativewise. I care nothing whatever for any sect or party under heaven, as such. I have no axes to grind, no logs to roll, no favors to ask. All I desire is to do what is right, and prevent what is wrong. I believe in no "expediency" that is not predicated of justice, for in all things—politics, as well as everything else, "I know that honesty is the best policy," A retributive Providence will unerringly and speedily search out all wrong doing; hence, right is always the best in the long run. Certainly, in the light of the great American spirit of liberty and equal rights which is sweeping over this country, and making the thrones of tyrants totter in the old world, no party can afford to carry slavery, either of body or of mind. Take down the blinds from his intellect, and let in the light of education and Christian culture. When this is done you have developed a man. Give him the responsibility of a man and the self-respect of a man, by granting him the right of suffrage. Let universal education, and the universal franchise be the motto of free America, and the toiling millions of Europe, who are watching you with such intense interest, will hail us as their saviors. Let us loyally sink "party" on this question, and go for "God and our Country." Let no man attach an eternal stigma to his name by shutting his eyes to the great lesson of the hour, and voting against permitting the people to express their opinion on this important subject. Let us unanimously grant this truly democratic boon. Then, when our laws of franchise are settled on a just basis, let future parties divide where they honestly differ on State or national questions which do not trench upon the claims of manhood or American citizenship.

Source: Struggles and Triumphs: or, Forty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself
(New York: American News Company, 1871), pp. 621-637.