“The North Owes the Colored Race a Deep Obligation” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Using vivid language and rhetoric in this speech to the president, Hiram Revels, the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate and the embodiment of the Fifteenth Amendment, presented himself as a representative of all free black men and women throughout the country. He passionately spoke about reinstating black lawmakers in Georgia who were forced out of office in 1868 by moderate white Republicans and Democrats. Revels argued that the North was obligated to support these black legislators because of all of the sacrifice blacks gave during the war in order to save the Union. Rather than engaging in bloody revolt against their former oppressors, African Americans exhibited responsible, loyal behavior. Thus, they deserved the right to vote and hold political office, which the federal and state law sanctioned.

Summary Overview

Using vivid language and rhetoric in this speech to the president, Hiram Revels, the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate and the embodiment of the Fifteenth Amendment, presented himself as a representative of all free black men and women throughout the country. He passionately spoke about reinstating black lawmakers in Georgia who were forced out of office in 1868 by moderate white Republicans and Democrats. Revels argued that the North was obligated to support these black legislators because of all of the sacrifice blacks gave during the war in order to save the Union. Rather than engaging in bloody revolt against their former oppressors, African Americans exhibited responsible, loyal behavior. Thus, they deserved the right to vote and hold political office, which the federal and state law sanctioned.

Revels' entrance into the U.S. Senate marked him as the voice and leader of African Americans during this time period. He personified African American freedom and enfranchisement. Although he was a moderate politician who was embraced by both Republicans and Democrats, this portion of Revels' speech reveals that Revels unapologetically refused to be diplomatic on the issue of denying African Americans their basic rights as American citizens. It also reveals the historical trend within the counter-narrative of African American history that African Americans as well as other subaltern groups participated in war efforts in order to prove their loyalty and gain equal rights in an American society that privileged the white male.

Defining Moment

The conclusion of the Civil War ushered in a period known as Reconstruction in which the Union sought to reconcile with the Confederate states and reconstruct the South. Because President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the Civil war ended, his vice president Andrew Johnson was put in charge of reintegrating the South back into the Union. Republicans dominated in the former Confederate states and would only allow Southern states to be readmitted into the Union if the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were ratified into the Constitution. Passed in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment made it illegal to have people perform coerced work unless incarcerated while the Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868 under the first Reconstruction Act, recognized African Americans as citizens. This right had been denied to slaves in the Dred Scott U.S. Supreme Court decision, which stated that African Americans could not testify in court because they were not citizens. Under the Reconstruction Act, new constitutions were drawn up in the Southern states, and the South was redrawn into five military districts and subject to martial law. Finally, in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified and guaranteed the right to vote for African American men. It enabled African Americans to be elected into the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate and thus set the stage for Hiram Revels to be elected into the U.S. Senate early that year.

Congress took over Reconstruction from President Johnson in 1867 and implemented its own vision for rebuilding the South. This period differed from Presidential Reconstruction because Congress supported the political rights of former slaves while President Johnson neglected their well-being. During this period African Americans were elected into office, although several white Southern men refused to vote because they disliked that suffrage was extended to African American men. Over 600 African Americans were elected to state legislatures in the South; whites turned to both violent and nonviolent tactics to try and keep African Americans out of the government. Black Codes were enacted in the Southern states that limited the rights of African Americans such as the right to enter into contracts, live in cities or towns, and bear arms. Vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan sprung up in order to terrorize blacks and prevent them from exercising their right to vote.

Despite the attempts of Southern Democrats to prevent the U.S. Senate from allowing Revels to be a senator, the majority Republicans in the Senate prevailed in seating him. In his first speech to the Congress, he spoke before a packed gallery and chamber filled with white lawmakers as well as black men and women and addressed a bill regarding readmitting the former Confederate state of Georgia back into the Union. The bill addressed the representation in the Union for Georgia that included an amendment that made it illegal for African Americans to hold state office. Revels contended that the Republican Party and the North owed the black legislators in Georgia their support. In 1868, voters in Georgia ratified a new state constitution that extended suffrage to African American men, a necessary step under the stipulations of Congressional Reconstruction to allow Georgia to be readmitted to the Union. In that same year, twenty-nine black legislators were elected into the state house of representatives and three to the Georgia senate. When the state legislature convened later that year, however, white legislators from both parties unseated the black lawmakers because they claimed that the state constitution did not allow African Americans to hold office. African in Americans in Georgia turned to the federal government to intervene and force Georgia to comply with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Revels spoke vehemently in favor of getting the black lawmakers reinstated as a prerequisite for Georgia to be readmitted. Eventually, a congressional mandate was agreed upon that reinstated the black lawmakers in order for Georgia to rejoin the Union in July 1870.

As the 1870s wore on, the North felt less inclined to support Reconstruction in the South because of the turmoil it was causing in the South. African American politicians and members of the Republican Party were being driven from their offices and murdered in their homes by disgruntled white Southerners. Northerners felt that peace could only be achieved if Southern whites won back control of both state governments and African Americans despite the fact that whites would dominate once again and undermine the notion of equal rights. White Democrats regained control of the South and enacted various measures to prevent African Americans from voting through poll taxes, property qualifications, and other means. Although Revels embodied the achievements of Reconstruction, those achievements were short-lived, as the Reconstruction acts were struck down and the status of African Americans soon resonated with their status in the antebellum period.

Author Biography

Hiram Revels was born on September 27, 1827 in Fayetteville, North Carolina a freeman to parents of European and African ancestry. Early on he received an education by an African American woman at an all-black school. In 1838 he moved to Lincolnton, North Carolina to live with his older brother where he worked as an apprentice in his brother's barbershop. He attended the Union Quaker Seminary in Indiana and then furthered his studies at a black seminary in Ohio. In 1845, Revels became a minister at African Methodist Episcopal Church and worked as a preacher and teacher throughout the Midwest states. Throughout his career as a religious teacher and preacher, Revels faced some opposition and was even imprisoned in 1854 for preaching the gospel to African Americans. In 1862, he served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army where he partook in the recruitment and organization of black regiments for the Union during the Civil War in both Missouri and Maryland. When African Americans were allowed to fight for the Union in 1862, Revels served as a chaplain in various campaigns, most notably one in Vicksburg.

Revels' political career as a Republican took off during Reconstruction. In 1869, he was elected to Congress to represent Adams County in the state senate in Mississippi. Because less than one thousand free blacks in Mississippi received an education, Revels' entrance into politics because essential to the Republican Party to rally a new electorate after the war when blacks were enfranchised. Although reluctant to enter into politics out of fear of violent opposition, Revels was quickly embraced by both whites and blacks because he was moderate and held empathetic political beliefs. In 1870, Revels was overwhelmingly elected by the Mississippi state senate to finish out the last year of the term of a vacated U.S. Senate seat as a result of the Civil War, which made him the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress when he was sworn in on February 25, 1870. Democrats opposed Revels filling the seat and pointed to the Dred Scott decision, which stated that African Americans could not testify in court because they were not citizens. Furthermore, they contended, no African American man was a citizen prior to the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which meant that Revels did not meet the requirement for holding political office that mandated that he had to be a U.S. citizen for at least nine years. Nonetheless, Revels was elected because Republicans dominated the U.S. Senate, and the vote split along party lines.

Once sworn into the Senate, Revels was assigned to the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on the District of Columbia. He became the voice and representative for all black men and women throughout the country, and he advocated for reinstating black legislators who were forced from office in Georgia by white Democrats in 1868. As a moderate, he also favored granting amnesty to former Confederates as long as they swore an oath of loyalty. Revels promoted civil rights for African Americans throughout the year he held a Senate seat. At the conclusion of his term, he declined various positions offered to him by President Ulysses Grant and opted to return to Mississippi and serve as the first president of Alcorn University, an all-black college. Revels retired in 1882 and died suddenly at a religious conference on January 16, 1901. Despite his limited success while he served the U.S. Congress, Revels was a symbol of Union victory in the Civil War as well as the idealism evident during Radical Reconstruction.

Document Analysis

The Reconstruction era in the South offered a glimmer of hope for African Americans in the South to obtain equal rights as citizens and to be integrated into the political process. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments recognized African Americans as citizens under the law and enfranchised African American men, which opened up the doors for African American men to be elected into office. Although African American members symbolized a new democratic order in the United States, they did not achieve as much success as their white counterparts who held higher political positions during Reconstruction. Nonetheless, they had a significant role as advocates for America's newest citizens. On February 25, 1870, Hiram Revels, a highly educated and religious man, became the first black man to be elected into the U.S. Congress to finish out the term of former Mississippi senator. Revels embraced his role as an advocate for all African Americans and articulated his beliefs unapologetically in his maiden speech. In a poignant part of his speech, Revels argues that the North owed the “colored race” protection as free citizens because of their service to the Union during the Civil War. Fervent in his conviction, Revels uses vivid and descriptive language to paint African Americans as loyal saviors for this country during the most desperate and desolate times. He alludes to the fact that despite being free African Americans remain a “defenseless race” in need of protection by the federal government. Addressing a packed gallery and chambers composed of both white and black spectators for the first time, Revels delivered a passionate and eloquent plea to legislators to address and rectify the injustice that occurred in Georgia. Revels depicts himself as a staunch advocate for and representative of all African Americans throughout the country and conveys a sense of hope that the government would recognize and appreciate the sacrifices African Americans made in order to save the Union.

Despite the fact that African Americans were free and equal citizens by law, Revels characterizes them as a “defenseless race,” which the expulsion of black lawmakers in Georgia clearly demonstrated. In November 1867, an election in Georgia was held under Congressional Reconstruction policy in order to create a new state congress who would draft a new state constitution. Both black and white voters participated, although many white voters abstained from voting because they were upset that African Americans had the right to partake in the elections. As a result, several black candidates were voted into office. However, by 1868 white legislators in Georgia concluded that the Reconstruction acts were unconstitutional and asserted that anyone with 1/8 African blood or more could not serve in the state legislature. As a result, twenty nine black lawmakers were forcibly removed from office. Congress did not intervene in Georgia, thereby allowing white lawmakers to infringe on the rights of black people preserved in Georgia's new state constitution. Although a moderate politician throughout his career, Revels felt obligated to address this injustice in his inaugural speech as a member of the Senate because he wanted to show that he would become the defender of justice for all African Americans in the federal government since they have never had one before.

Using vivid and emotion language, Revels imparts his belief that the North was in debt to African Americans because they helped secure a Union victory during the bleakest moments of the Civil War. During the war, many male slaves sought liberty by running away to the Union lines despite receiving harsh treatment by Union soldiers. At the outset of the war, the Union army put escaped slaves to work as cooks, construction workers, drivers and blacksmiths. In 1862, African American men were allowed to serve in the army because less white men wanted to serve in the Union army “thinned by death and disaster.” Most African American soldiers were former slaves in the South, and they served in all-black regiments that faced unfair government policies such as lower pay and inferior weaponry. Many whites in the North did not think that African Americans were fit or competent to fight because slavery rendered them servile and docile. However, once they began to fight, their white critics had a quick change of mind and were surprised how valiantly and courageously they fought. Revels stresses these qualities in his speech when he characterizes them as valiant and intrepid.

Revels cites how slaves quelled the looming threat of foreign interference to help the South win the war. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which freed the slaves in Southern states but not in the border states. Lincoln believed that freeing the slaves would hasten the end of the war by breaking the South's resistance. Furthermore, it was a preemptive measure to safeguard against the possibility of Great Britain entering the war on the South's side because England depended on cotton produced in the South. Britain espoused an anti-slavery sentiment, so by freeing the slaves Lincoln was confident that England would stay out of the war and northern victory would ensue. As a result of their contributions once freed, the Union army ultimately prevailed against the Confederate army, which is why Revels believes the North owes the black legislators in Georgia protection.

Revels uses hyperbolic language in order to emphasize how indispensable African Americans were to the Union's victory and to convince his black spectators that he would fight to protect their rights while in office. The “sable son of the South” bravely came to rescue the Union, and without them many northern families would not have survived the war. He reiterates the fact that without the help of African Americans during the war, the white elite would have perished. It is ironically those “noble women of New England” and “men in the middle states” that African Americans saved are the very people that African Americans rely on for safety and security. However, they remain a defenseless race despite their contributions. Revels' assertion alludes not only to the injustice in Georgia but also to the reality that since emancipation former slaves faced unchecked violence by vigilante groups, white mobs and disgruntled Democrats. Violence or the threat of violence against African Americans was widespread and random. An age of lynchings commenced during Reconstruction whereby white Southerners would murder African Americans as a spectacle for the public to see. These heinous attacks occurred often with the participation of law enforcement officials, and the perpetrators were seldom punished or punished very lightly. The murder of African Americans was thus viewed not as murder in the eyes of the law but pushed into a separate legal category by a government undergirded by white hegemony. Furthermore, white vigilante groups formed in the South to terrorize African Americans and prevent them from exercising their rights as free people. Revels recognized the fabric of American society for African Americans changed very little years after emancipation, so he invoked hyperbolic language to depict the African American contributions during the Civil War as indispensable to saving both the lives of northerners as well as the Union itself.

Framing his plea for federal intervention in Georgia around the concepts of justice and injustice, Revels stresses that the loyalty shown and sacrifices made by African Americans during the Civil War must be rewarded. Countless black men lost their lives fighting to save the Union, and Revels declares that if they were alive they would plead to the federal government to help protect their civil rights that the U.S. Constitution promised to protect. Revels makes an emotional appeal to the U.S. Congress to not let those black men and women who protected them and preserved the Union die in vain. He represented their intermediary, and he felt an obligation to listen to their pleas for protection. Using the metaphor of illness to represent injustice, Revels suggests that if the federal government does not protect its loyal citizens in the state of Georgia then other states will follow in Georgia's footsteps and the disease of injustice would become more “chronic.” It is this “malady” that the government sought to eradicate with the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment. Revels' speech thus criticizes the apathy of the federal government to protect its loyal citizens in the face of racial injustice. This emotional plea to the government to stand up for African Americans suggests that because many African Americans died both during slavery times and during the war that Revels saw himself in his political role as the voice and representative of the black community. Many black members were in the audience and were hopeful that he would stand up and vouch for them, which Revels did so through this subtle critique and emotional appeal to lawmakers to recognize the African American man as their brother.

Essential Themes

As the first African American man to take a seat in the U.S. Senate, Hiram Revels emerged as a representative for all African Americans throughout the country. His speech illustrates the important theme that during the Reconstruction period as well as afterwards, Southern whites, former slave owners and white lawmakers resisted treating African Americans as free. Even if they reconciled themselves to the notion that African Americans were no longer slaves, Southern whites believed that African Americans were not equal citizens and thus should not be granted the same rights as privileges as whites. Certain racial stereotypes were perpetuated throughout the Reconstruction era in order to espouse this view. Black legislators in Georgia voted into office had their rights violated in 1868 because of these prevailing attitudes towards the African American community despite the fact that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified into both the U.S. Constitution as well as in Georgia's new state constitution. Although a moderate politician, Revels could not stay silent regarding the federal government's apathy toward the violation of civil rights that occurred there

Many times throughout U.S. history African Americans as well as other subaltern groups fought in wars in order to prove their loyalty and worthiness of citizenship and equal rights. Despite facing hardships, African Americans felt proud of their wartime contributions and felt that they earned freedom for their families and for themselves. Revels vividly reminds the audience that when it appeared that the Union was going to lose, African American men from the South courageously came to its rescue. He further emphasizes the loyalty and sacrifices African Americans made for the Union during the war in order to argue that they merited protection when their civil rights were so viciously trampled on thereafter. African Americans saw World War I as a good opportunity to prove themselves as Americans and believed that if they fought in the war they would be entitled to rights. The war thus ushered in the “New Negro” movement which revived a sense of expectation in the African American community not seen since emancipation during the Civil War. Revels convey a sense of hope and expectation that the U.S. government would reward its loyal citizens by protecting the oppressed for their oppressors.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • Goldman, Robert M. Reconstruction and Black Suffrage: Losing the Vote in Reese and Cruikshank. Kansas: UP of Kansas, 2001. Print.
  • Kelley, Robin D. G., and Earl Lewis. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print. Potts, Kenneth. “Hiram Rhoades Revels,” in Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Notable Black American Men. Farmington Hills: Gale, 1999. Print.
  • Lawson, Elizabeth. The Gentleman From Mississippi: Our First Negro Representative, Hiram R. Revels. New York: The Author, 1960. Print.
  • Matthews, John M. “Negro Republicans in the Reconstruction of Georgia,” in Donald G. Nieman, ed., The Politics of Freedom: African Americans and the Political Process During Reconstruction. New York: Garland, 1994. 253–268. Print.
  • U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian. “Revels, Hiram Rhodes.” U.S. House of Representatives, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.
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