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Civil War and Reconstruction
Reconstruction and Rights
Senators Debate Equal Rights

By 1871, events had made clear to many that black Americans had not, simply by virtue of slavery's end and voting rights for men, gained equality. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts tried to address inequities in travel, public accommodations, and education by introducing an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Throughout 1871 and 1872, he introduced his amendment several times, trying to attach it to various pieces of legislation. The debate below occurred in 1871 and involved Sumner and Senator Hill from Georgia. What is the main point of disagreement between the two senators? What arguments does each make? Which arguments are most persuasive?

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Mr. SUMNER. I should like to bring home to the Senator that nearly one-half of the people of Georgia are now excluded from the equal rights which my amendment proposes to secure; and yet I understand that the Senator disregards their condition, sets aside their desires, and proposes to vote down my proposition. The Senator assumes that the former rebels are the only people of Georgia. Sir, I see the colored race in Georgia. I see that race once enslaved, for a long time deprived of all rights, and now under existing usage and practice despoiled of rights which the Senator himself is in the full enjoyment of.

Mr. HILL. I never agree in the proposition if there be a hotel for the entertainment of travelers, and two classes stop at it, and there is one dining-room for one class and one for another, served alike in all respect, with the same accommodation, the same attention to the guest, there is anything offensive or anything that denies the civil rights of one more than the other. Nor do I hold that if you have public schools, and you give all the advantages of education to one class as you do to another, but keep them separate and apart, there is any denial of a civil right in that. I also contend that even upon the railways of the country, if cars of equal comfort, convenience, and security be provided for different classes of persons, no one has a right to complain if it be regulation of the companies to separate them.

Mr. SUMNER. Mr. President, we have a vindication on this floor of inequality as a principle and as a political rule. . . . The Senator mistakes a substitute for equality. Equality is where all are alike. A substitute can never take the place of equality. It is impossible; it is absurd. I must remind the Senator that it is very unjust; it is terribly unjust. We have received in this Chamber a colored Senator from Mississippi; but according to the rule of the Senator from Georgia we should have put him apart by himself; he should not have sat with his brother Senators. Do I understand the Senator as favoring such a rule?

Mr. HILL. No sir.

Mr. SUMNER. The Senator does not.

Mr. HILL. I do not, sir, for this reason: it is under the institutions of the country that he becomes entitled by law to his seat here; we have no right to deny it to him.

Mr. SUMNER. Very well; and I intend to the best of my ability to see that under the institutions of the country he is equal everywhere. The Senator says he is equal in this Chamber. I say he should be equal in rights everywhere; and why not, I ask the Senator from Georgia?

Mr. HILL. I am one of those who have believed that when it pleased the Creator of heaven and earth to make different races of men it was His purpose to keep them distinct and separate. I think so now.

Mr. SUMNER. The Senator admits that in the highest council Chamber there is and should be, perfect equality before the law; but descend into the hotel, on the railroad, within the common school, and there can be no equality before the law. The Senator does not complain because all are equal in this Chamber. I should like to ask him, if he will allow me, whether, in his judgment, the colored Representatives from Georgia and South Carolina in the other Chamber ought not on railroads and at hotels to have like rights with himself? I ask that precise question.

Mr. HILL. I will answer that question in this manner: I myself am subject in hotels and upon railroads to the regulations provided by the hotel proprietors for their guests, and by the railroad companies for their passengers. I am entitled, and so is the colored man, to all the security and comfort that either presents to the most favored guest or passenger; but I maintain that proximity to a colored man does not increase my comfort or security, nor does proximity to me on his part increase his and therefore it is not a denial of any right in either case.

Mr. SUMNER. May I ask the Senator if he is excluded from any right on account of his color? The Senator says he is sometimes excluded from something at hotels or on railroads. I ask whether any exclusion on account of color, bear on him?

Mr. HILL. I answer the Senator. I have been excluded from ladies' cars on railroads. I do not know on what account precisely; I do not know whether it was on account of my color; but I think it more likely that it was on account of my sex. [Laughter.]

Mr. SUMNER. But the Senator, as I understand, insists that it is proper on account of color. That is his conclusion.

Mr. HILL. No; I insist that it is no denial of a right, provided all the comfort and security be furnished to passengers alike.

Mr. SUMNER. The Senator does not seem to see that any rule excluding a man on account of color is an indignity, an insult, and a wrong; and he makes himself on this floor the representative of indignity of insult, and of wrong to the colored race. Why, sir, his State has a large colored population, and he denies their rights.

Mr. HILL. If the Senator will allow me, I will say to him that it will take him and others, if there should be any others who so believe, a good while to convince the colored people of the State of Georgia who know me, that I would deprive them of any right to which they are entitled, though it were only technical; but in matters of pure taste I cannot get away from the idea that I do them no injustice if I separate them on some occasions from the other race...

Mr. SUMNER. The Senator makes a mistake which has been made for a generation in this Chamber, confounding what belongs to society with what belongs to rights. There is no question of society. The Senator may choose his associates as he pleases. They may be white or black, or between the two. That is simply a social question, and nobody would interfere with it. The taste which the Senator announces he will have free liberty to exercise, selecting always his companions; but when it comes to rights, there the Senator must obey the law and I insist that by the law of the land all persons without distinction of color shall be equal in rights. Show me, therefore, a legal institution, anything created or regulated by law, and I show you what must be opened equally to all without distinction of color. Notoriously, the hotel is a legal institution, originally established by the common law, subject to minute provisions and regulations; notoriously, public conveyances are common carriers subject to a law of their own; notoriously, schools are public institutions created and maintained by law; and now I simply insist that in the of these institutions there shall be no exclusion on account of color.

Mr. HILL. I must confess sir, that I cannot see the magnitude of this subject. I object to this great Government descending to the business of regulating the hotels and the common taverns of this country, and the street railroads, stagecoaches, and everything of that sort. It looks to me to be a petty business.

Mr. SUMNER. I would not have my country descend; but ascend. It must rise to the heights of the Declaration of Independence. Then and there did we pledge ourselves to the great truth that all men are equal in rights. And now a Senator from Georgia rises on this floor and denies it. He denies it by a subtlety. While pretending to admit it, he would overthrow it. He would adopt a substitute for equality.

Mr. HILL. With the permission of the Senator, I will ask him if this proposition does not involve on the part of this Government an inhibition upon railroad companies of first, second, and third class cars?

Mr. SUMNER. Not at all. That is simply a matter of price. My bill is an inhibition upon inequality founded upon color. I had thought that all those inequalities were buried under the tree at Appromattox, but the Senator digs them up and brings them into this Chamber. There never can be an end to this discussion until all men are assured in equal rights....
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