In the Senate, Thursday last, Mr. Harlan made the following reply to Mr. Davis of Kentucky, the subject under discussion being the ever present contraband.
Mr. HARLAN (of Iowa) – Mr. President, I do not intend to reply in detail to the somewhat extraordinary speech that has just closed for two reasons satisfactory to myself. In the first place I should hardly hope to equal the eloquence and learning that have been displayed and in the second place I agree too fully with many things that have been said to make it necessary for me to attempt a detailed response to the speech. I will say, however and I trust the Senator will pardon me for the allusion that it does seem to me that the whole speech has been a little ill timed and especially that part of the speech which makes it necessary for me to say one word. The Senator has expressed the hope that the unending Slavery question may not agitate this body and the country and yet, as extraordinary as it may seem in connection with that expression he himself has unnecessarily detained the Senate and retarded the public business of the country for more than an hour in the discussion of that very question. Sir, what is the question now before the Senate? The propriety or the impropriety of retaining as a member of this body the sitting Senator from Indiana. Now I ask what pertinency to that question has been the whole speech which has occupied the Senate for more than two hours to-day? I make this remark not for the purpose, not with the desire, of chiding the Senator who has taken his seat but I wish the Senator to bear me witness here and the country to take notice of the fact that every long labored excited discussion of the Slavery question that has taken place in this Chamber for the last six years in which I have had the honor to occupy a seat here has been lugged in in that manner and by gentlemen holding seats from Slaveholding States.
Mr. DAVIS – Will the gentleman allow me to say a word?
Mr. HARLAN – Certainly.
Mr. DAVIS – I confess to the gentleman’s impeachment that a great part of my speech was inappropriate but it was designed in some measure to meet the numerous petitions that have been presented by the Senator from Massachusetts and other gentlemen upon this floor.
Mr. HARLAN – I will however, Mr. President, while I am on the floor and before I allude to the proper question of discussion attempt to set myself right on the point alluded by the Senator. When I made the remarks to which he evidently alluded, this body was entertaining and considering Senate joint resolution No.  which proposes to authorize the commander of the army in the Western Division, including Kansas, to muster into the United States service such persons as may present themselves for that purpose and organize them therefore and to retain them therein such length of time as in the opinion of such commander the exigencies of the service may require. This was opposed on the ground that the commander of that division of the army might, using his personal discretion, muster into the service of the United States Indians and persons of African descent. I expressed myself in favor of the proposition and in reply to some remarks dropped by the Senator from Delaware (Mr. Saulsbury) I stated that I individually had no objection to mustering into the service of the United states men of color, either Indians or negroes, and I attempted in a few brief remarks to illustrate my view on that subject. I stated that I could perceive no reason why an able bodied man native born in the United States should not aid and defending the Constitution and the laws. Nor do I now perceive a reason why this should not be done. I know it is said in language pathetic and eloquent. What, arm the slaves against their masters? I might make a truthful appeal still more startling and ask, What arm the children against their fathers? And yet that is being done by your mustering officers every day where the father chances to be a traitor and a rebel. Are you not to permit the young men of the country to arm themselves in defence of the Constitution and the laws because their parents happen to be traitors? – You exercise the right to take my son under the age of twenty one years and place him between your violated Constitution and the country’s foes regardless of my rights to his service or the control of his person. Now I ask the Senator from Kentucky what better is his slave then my son.
Mr. DAVIS – Not half so good.
Mr. HARLAN – I will illustrate what I mean on this subject by supposing that the Senator with some of his well taught and Christian slaves was engaged in a personal contest for life and death between me and my son. As we gradually become exhausted on the one side and the other, I knowing full well that the moment I give his slaves the intimation that I would protect them they would flee from their master to my defense, should I be much short of an idiot, much short of a fool, if I were not to invite them away? The loyal States of this nation are now engaged in a contest for its very existence. On the one side we have arrayed the loyal old men and middle aged men of this country. On the other side we have the rebel owners of slaves arraying their young men and slaves. On the other there are some hundreds of thousands of colored people, native born on the soil on which they live, who will leave their rebel masters the very moment they have an intimation that they will receive the protection of the Constitution and laws of the United States, and yet we insanely continue this controversy, not permitting these strong armed men to aid us and save the lives of our brothers and our sons. But the Senator from Kentucky said that he thought on this subject with horror when he reflected what massacres had occurred of white people in some of the West India Islands. Mr. President oppressed people in every age, in asserting their right to themselves, have committed acts of atrocity that civilized communities could never justify. It is no more common to the African race than to the Anglo Saxon or the Caucasian of whatever country. I will ask him with his perfect knowledge of history to compare the scenes of carnage and blood enacted there with those enacted but a few years since in the streets of Paris, the capital of one of the most enlightened and refined nations that have existed and which at this time stands at the very head of the civilized nations of the world. The proposition which was made to which I was speaking was a proposition to allow the commander of this division of the army to muster into the service of the United States such loyal persons as might present themselves irrespective of color. What does that imply? That they shall be organized, that they shall be officered, that they shall be commanded, that they shall be controlled by the laws of the United States and by the articles of war. I took some pains to state on that occasion that I would not advocate a proposition to arm indiscriminately the mass of the servile population even in the rebel States, but that if arms were placed in their hands they should be organized, disciplined and placed under the ordinary restraints of military rule. I have no criticism to make in regard to the Senators eulogium of the peaceful condition of his own slaves other than this. If they are the character which he has described and have ever been ready to stand by him and their masters in times of pestilence and danger – if that statement of the character of his own slave household be correct, I draw the conclusion that the alarm of the Senator is totally without foundation. If they are thus Christianized, are thus enlightened, and will stand by their masters through every kind of calamity that can arise what will be the danger of placing them in an attitude not only to defend themselves but their masters and their country? But. [Since] all this eulogium of the character of the houses and clothing of the slaves, if it were a legitimate subject of discussion at this time, I take it, might be said with equal truth of the Senator’s horses and cattle and oxen and mules. I would ask him if he treats his slaves as men, possessing spirits immortal, that are to live parallel with his own spiritual existence and if he gives them the means of mental cultivation and moral development or if it be not in his own State with his sanction a penitentiary offence to teach these slaves to read the word of God? They are well clothed so would be his cattle if necessary to their health and vigor. They are tenderly treated, so is every other species of property that is under his control.
The question however with me is not how this Christian gentleman or the other may happen to treat those over whom he may exercise absolute control but what is the system? How may he with impunity treat those human cattle if he chose to treat them with severity? – I will venture here to throw in the remark, and risk its being successfully contradicted, that there is not now in existence and has not been in existence since the dawning of civilization a system of Slavery so bad as the one now in existence in the United States. There never has existed and does not now exist, a system of human bondage on this whole earth so loathsome as the one that now exists in the bosom of this Christian Nation. And I defy successful contradiction. I do not say that Christian gentlemen may not, regardless of the law and regardless of the system treat their slaves humanely. They do, I know they do. I am proud to say that I know they do. But it is a tribute to humanity and to the influence of Christianity on the minds of men and not a tribute to the system of slavery itself. I united very cordially with the Senator in his expression of the hope that these collateral outside questions may not be discussed, and that we may unite harmoniously for the purpose of putting down this rebellion and I trust that he may be willing out of the abundance of his patriotism even to give his slaves to the cause of the Union if it becomes necessary, and not be giving the weight of his influence and of his talent – which is by no means small – unintentionally on his part, to the cause of the rebellion. If any speech delivered during this session of the congress of the United States shall see the light in the rebel States, it will be the speech which the Senator from Kentucky has just concluded and thus has he very unintentionally on his part, neutralized much that he has said of the policy and bearing of the Senator from Indiana during the earlier part of this rebellion, which he has so severely criticized. I had intended, Mr. President, after making these explanations to say a few words in relation to the legitimate subject of discussion before the Senate, but on account of the lateness of the hour I will not claim the further indulgence of the Senate.
– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, February 1, 1862, p. 3