« PreviousContinue »
grounds without necessary business, and refusing to depart, were fined twenty dollars, or confined to hard labor for thirty days for each offence. A free colored person found in the street after ten o'clock P. M., without a pass from a white person, was fined and locked up till morning; for receiving an antislavery paper he was fined twenty dollars, committed to the workhouse, and his sureties rendered void. A slave receiving such paper was to be punished with thirty-nine stripes. Under the same act, the corporation might license persons to engage in the domestic slave traffic by paying the sum of four hundred dollars.
On the 24th of February, 1862, Mr. Wilson, in pursuance of previous notice, introduced a bill for the repeal of these and other laws and ordinances of the District respecting people of color. Briefly reciting what it was proposed to repeal, he said: "Such, Mr. President, are the laws enacted or permitted by this Christian people, this republican government. A sense of decency should prompt Congress to erase these laws and ordinances from the statutes of the Republic." Mr. Wilmot expressed the conviction that the abolition of slavery, as the more comprehensive measure, would cover the whole ground. "It embraces," he said, "the bill of the Senator from Massachusetts; it embraces every question that can be raised on this subject." Mr. Wilson, however, expressed the idea that his bill was supplementary and necessary, as indeed "only following up that bill and repealing the black code of the District, the laws applicable to all persons of color in the District." The bill was then referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia.
Subsequently, in the May following, during a debate on an educational bill in behalf of the people of color in the District, the Committee on the District of Columbia not having reported on the black code, which had been referred to it, Mr. Wilson introduced a new section to the bill under consideration; de signed to cover other abuses and to remove other evils than those relating to schools. He thus explained its design and import: "We have some laws that everybody admits are very oppressive upon the colored population of this District; some
of them old laws made by Maryland; others, ordinances of the cities of Washington and Georgetown. As we are now dealing with their educational interests, I think we may as well at the same time relieve them from these oppressive laws, and put them, so far as crime is concerned, and so far as offences against the laws are concerned, upon the same footing, and have them tried in the same manner, and subject them to the same punishments, as the rest of our people."
The amendment provided that all persons of color should be amenable and subject to the same laws and ordinances to which white persons were amenable and subject; that they should be indicted, tried, and punished in the same way; and "that all acts, or parts of acts, inconsistent with the provisions of this act are hereby repealed." The amendment was accepted, the bill, as amended, was passed; and thus by this simple act were swept from the statute-book of the District those terrible laws with their consequent abuses which had so long oppressed and distressed a prostrate race, disgraced and debauched the nation, and made the great Republic a byword and reproach throughout the civilized world, not only on account of their intrinsic inhumanity and injustice, but because of their glaring and mocking inconsistency with its vaunted principles of human equality and self-government.
Closely connected, if not as cause and effect, perhaps better, as the correlated results of a common cause, were this black code, the county jail of the District, and its fearful abuses. While the former revealed the spirit and purpose of those who accepted slavery with its natural conditions and concomitants, the latter disclosed its practical results and the utter heartlessness and cruelty of a people growing up and living where it was admitted as a dominant and controlling force. This idea was well expressed by Mr. Sumner in his remarks upon a resolution introduced by his colleague, Mr. Wilson, on the 4th of December, 1861, directing the discharge of all "persons claimed as fugitives from service or labor, confined in the county jail in the District of Columbia." "There is," he said, "a black code in this District, derived from the old legislation of Maryland, which is a shame to the civilization of
our age. If any one wishes to know why such abuses exist in our prisons and in our courts here, as have been to-day so eloquently pointed out, I refer him to that black code. You will find in that black code an apology for every outrage that is now complained of. If, therefore, Senators are really in earnest; if they are determined that the national capital shall be purified, that the administration of justice here shall be worthy of a civilized community, they have got to expunge that black code from the statute-book." The reason, he said, why justice is so offensively administered in the District" must be looked for in the black code and "those brutal sentiments generated by slavery."
Mr. Wilson, on introducing his resolution, remarked that he had visited the jail and there found such a scene of degra dation as he had never witnessed; and his testimony in that regard was corroborated by Mr. Sumner, who had also visited the same. He also spoke of the visit of gentlemen who were investigating the subject of prisons, and who had traversed the world for that purpose. Their testimony was that, with one exception, a prison in Austria, they had never found any thing so disgraceful. Describing his visit, he said: "There are persons there almost entirely naked, some of them without a shirt. Some of these are free persons; most of them had run away from disloyal masters, or had been sent there by disloyal persons, for safe keeping, until the war is over." He also read the report of a government official setting forth substantially the facts in regard to sixty persons there confined. He also expressed the wish that, with the discharge of those there confined, a law might be enacted punishing any who should be guilty of arresting those whose only crime was an attempt to escape from the thraldom of slavery, and that the time would soon come when slavery itself should be swept from the capital it had so long polluted and disgraced. Mr. Fessenden of Maine expressed a similar wish, and a special abhorrence of the idea that fugitives should be arrested by army officials and returned to their masters, saying that he deemed it an outrage to which he would not submit unless compelled. "I have," he said, "three sons in the army, out
of four, and I never would have consented that one of them should be there if his life was to be perilled, exposed to sickness or other dangers, under the authority of men who ordered him to arrest fugitive slaves and return them to their masters."
"I am very glad," said Mr. Hale of New Hampshire, "that this report has been made and presented here, because it will help to answer a question that was put to me a great many times long and long ago, what the North had to do with slavery. I think, when the Northern States find out that they are supporting here in jail the slaves of Rebels who are fighting against us; that we are keeping at the public expense their slaves for them until the war is over, it will have a tendency to enlighten some minds in regard to the proper answer to that question. If there be any duty which this Congress owes to humanity and to itself, it is to look into the administration of justice in this District, and to see to it that those who have been ground to the earth heretofore may not be ground still more under your auspices and your reign.'
Other resolutions of similar tenor were introduced. Among them one by Mr. Clark of New Hampshire, calling upon the marshal of the District to inform the Senate upon what authority he received the slaves of masters for safe-keeping in the county jail. On the 6th of January, 1862, Mr. Grimes of Iowa reported a bill for the removal of the abuses complained of, and for the better definition of the principles and rules to be adopted for the government of those who had the jail in charge. In his speech accompanying its introduction he said: "I am not very fresh in my reading of history; but, from my recollection of the descriptions of prisons I have read of, I think that there never was a place of confinement that would be compared with the Washington jail as it was at the commencement of the present session, except the French Bastile and the dungeons of Venice. When I visited the jail the other day, I had hardly entered the threshold before a colored boy stepped up to me, and tapped me on the shoulder. He happened to know who I was. Said he, I have been here a year and four days.' I asked him for what offence. He said
he was confined as a runaway. I asked him if any one claimed him. 'No.' 'Are you a free boy?' 'Yes.' Turning around to the jailer, I asked him if that was so. He said it was. I asked him, 'How do you know it to be so?' I found that the boy had been confined, not twelve months only, but for more than fourteen, and that simply on the suspicion of being a runaway."
Mr. Powell of Kentucky, remarking that "the effect of the bill clearly will be to release every fugitive slave from jail, moved an amendment exempting such from the operations of the bill. Mr. Collamer very earnestly opposed the amend ment, and it received but five votes. Mr. Pearce of Maryland opposed the measure on the ground that any action of the government conveying and strengthening the impression that its policy was one of emancipation would diminish the chances of maintaining the Union. Mr. Carlile of Virginia, though he could not vote for the bill, desired "to get rid of it; and thus one peg, at least," he said, "will be taken from gentlemen, upon which they hang their sympathetic speeches for the negro race." With the adoption of an amendment providing that no one should be committed without a warrant, the bill was adopted, only four voting against it.
On the 12th of February Mr. Wilson introduced a bill for the appointment of a warden of the jail. He accompanied its introduction with remarks upon the proslavery character and course of the individual who then held the office of superintendent. Speaking, of him as "our man Wise, our negro thief," of whose conduct he specified two or three examples, he said: "I want it understood, in the Senate and by the men who, on their bended knees and over their Bibles, prayed in the year 1860 for an end to these crimes against humanity, that this man is kept there by our votes and influence, and we are responsible for it before God; and, for one, I wash my hands of the crime, and I denounce it." The bill was referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia, which in a few days reported it back with an amendment in the form of a substitute, which, after a brief debate, was adopted without division.