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Robert Ingersoll Suffrage Address

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Suffrage Address

Robert Green Ingersoll

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Contents of this file                           page

SUFFRAGE ADDRESS.                                      1
THE THREE PHILANTHROPISTS.                             7

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This address was delivered at a suffrage Meeting in
Washington, D.C., January 24, 1880.



LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: I believe the people to be the only
rightful source of political power, that any community, no matter
where, in which any citizen is not allowed to have his voice in the
making of the laws he must obey, that community is a tyranny. It is
a matter of astonishment to me that a meeting like this is
necessary in the Capital of the United States. If the citizens of
the District of Columbia are not permitted to vote, if they are not
allowed to govern themselves, and if there is no sound reason why
they are not allowed to govern themselves, then the American idea
of government is a failure. I do not believe that only the rich
should vote, or that only the whites should vote, or that only the
blacks should vote. I do not believe that right depends upon
wealth, upon education, or upon color. It depends absolutely upon
humanity. I have the right to vote because I am a man, because I am
an American citizen, and that right I should and am willing to
share equally with every human being. There has been a great deal
said in this country of late in regard to giving the right of
suffrage to women. So far as I am concerned I am willing that every
woman in the nation who desires that privilege and honor shall
vote. If any woman wants to vote I am too much of a gentleman to
say she shall not. She gets her right, if she has it, from
precisely the same source that I get mine, and there are many
questions upon which I would deem it desirable that women should
vote, especially upon the question of peace or war. If a woman has
a child to be offered upon the altar of that Moloch, a husband
liable to be drafted, and who loves a heart that can be entered by
the iron arrow of death, she surely has as much right to vote for
peace as some thrice-besotted sot who reels to the ballot-box and
deposits a vote for war. I believe, and always have, that there is
only one objection to a woman voting, and that is, the men are not
sufficiently civilized for her to associate with them, and for
several years I have been doing what little I can to civilize them.
The only question before this meeting, as I understand it, is,

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Shall the people of this District manage their own affairs --
whether they shall vote their own taxes and select their own
officers who are to execute the laws they make? and for one, I say
there is no human being with ingenuity enough to frame an argument
against this question. It is all very well to say that Congress
will do this, but Congress has a great deal to do besides. There is
enough before that body coming from all the States and Territories
of the Union, and the numberless questions arising in the conduct
of the General Government. I am opposed to a government where the
few govern the many. I am opposed to a government that depends upon
suppers, and upon flattery; upon crooking the hinges of the knee;
upon favors, upon subterfuges. We want to be manly men in this
District. We must direct and control our own affairs, and if we are
not capable of doing it, there is no part of the Union where they
are capable. It is said there is a vast amount of ignorance here.
That is true; but that is also true of every section of the United
States. There is too much ignorance and there will continue to be
until the people become great enough, generous enough, and splendid
enough to see that no child shall grow up in their midst without a
good, common-school education. The people of this District are
capable of managing their educational affairs if they are allowed
to do so. The fact is, a man now living in the District lives under
a perpetual flag of truce. He is nobody. He counts for nothing. He
is not noticed except as a suppliant. Nothing as a citizen. That
day should pass away. It will be a perpetual education for this
people to govern themselves, and until they do they cannot be manly
men. They say, though, that there is a vast rabble here. Very well.
Make your election laws so as to exclude the vast rabble. Let it be
understood that no man shall vote who has not lived here at least
one year.

Let your registration laws prohibit any man from voting unless
he has been registered at least six months. We do not want to be
governed by people who have no abode here -- who are political
Bedouins of the desert. We want to be governed by people who live
with us -- who live somewhere among us, and whom somebody knows,
and if a law is properly framed there will be no trouble about
self-government in the District of Columbia. Let the experiment be
tried here of a perfect, complete and honest registration; let
every man, no matter who he is or where he comes from, vote only by
strict compliance with a good registry law. We can have a fair
election, and wherever there is a fair election there will be good
government. Our Government depends for its stability upon honest
elections. The great principle underlying our system of government
is that the people have the virtue and the patriotism to govern
themselves. That is the foundation stone, the corner and the our
base of our edifice, and upon it our Government is on trial to-day.
And until a man is considered infamous who casts an illegal vote,
our Government will not be safe. Whoever casts an illegal vote
knowingly is a traitor to the principle upon which our Government
is founded. And whoever deprives a citizen of his right to vote is
also a traitor to our Government. When these things are understood;
when the finger of public scorn shall be pointed at every man who
votes illegally, or unlawfully prevents an honest vote, then you
will have a splendid Government. It is humiliating for one hundred
and seventy-five thousand people to depend simply upon the right of
petition. The few will disregard the petition of the many.

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I have not one word to say against the officers of the
District. Not a word. But let them do as well as they can; that is
no justification. It is no justification of a monarchy that the
king is a good man; it is no justification of a tyranny that the
despot does justice. There may come another who will do injustice;
and a free people like ours should not be satisfied to be governed
by strangers. They would better have bad men of their own choosing
than to have good men forced upon them. You have property here, and
you have a right to protect it, and a right to improve it. You have
life and liberty and the right to protect it. You have a right to
say what money shall be assessed and collected and paid for that
protection. You have laws and you have a right to have them
executed by officers of your own selection, and by nobody else. In
my judgement, all that is necessary to have these things done is to
have the subject properly laid before Congress, and let that body
thoroughly and perfectly understand the situation. There is no
member there, who rightly understanding our wishes, will dare
continue this disfranchisement of the people. We have the same
right to vote that their constituents have precisely -- no more and
no less.

This District ought to have one representative in Congress, a
representative with a right to speak -- not a tongueless dummy. The
idea of electing a delegate who has simply the privilege of
standing around! We ought to have a representative who has not only
the right to talk, but who will talk. This District has the right
to a vote in the committees of Congress, and not simply the
privilege of receiving a little advice. And more than that, this
District ought to have at least one electoral vote in a selection
of a President of the United States. A smaller population than
yours is represented not only in Congress, but in the Electoral
College. If it is necessary to amend the Constitution to secure
these rights let us try and have it amended; and when that question
is put to the people of the whole country they will be precisely as
willing that the people of the District of Columbia shall have an
equal voice as that they themselves should have a voice.

Let us stop at no half-way ground, but claim, and keep
claiming all our rights until somebody says we shall have them. And
let me tell you another thing: Once have the right of self-
government recognized here, have a delegate in Congress, and an
electoral vote for President, and thousands will be willing to come
here and become citizens of the District. As it is, the moment a
man settles here his American citizenship falls from him like dead
leaves from a tree. From that moment he is nobody. Every American
citizen wants a little political power -- wants to cast his vote
for the rulers of the nation. He wants to have something to say
about the laws he has to obey, and they are not willing to come
here and disfranchise themselves. The moment it is known that a man
is from the District he has no influence and no one cares what his
political, opinions may be. Now, let us have it so that we can vote
and be on an equality with the rest of the voters of the United
States. This Government was founded upon the idea that the only
source of power is the people. Let us show at the Capital that we
have confidence in that principle; that every man should have a
vote and voice in the South, in the North, everywhere, no matter
how low his condition, no matter that he was a slave, no matter

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what his color is, or whether he can read or write, he is clothed
with the right to name those who make the laws he is to obey. While
the lowest and most degraded in every State in this Union have that
right, the best and most intelligent in the District have not that
right. It will not do. There is no sense in it -- there is no
justice in it -- nothing American in it. If this were the case in
some of the capitals of Europe we would not be surprised; but here
in the United States, where we have so much to say about the right
of self-government, that two hundred thousand people should not
have the right to say who shall make, and who shall execute the
laws is at least an anomaly and a contradiction of our theory of
government, and for one, I propose to do what little I can to
correct it. It has been said that you had once here the right of
self-government. If I understand it, the right you had was to elect
somebody to some office, and all the other officers were appointed.
You had no control over your Legislature; you had very little
control over your other officers, and the people of the District
held responsible for what was actually done by the appointing
power. We want no appointing power. If it is necessary to have a
police magistrate, I say the people are competent to elect that
magistrate; and if he is not a good man they are qualified to
select another in his place. You ought to elect your judges. I do
not want the office of the judiciary so far from the people that it
may feel entirely independent. I want every officer in this
District held accountable to the people, and, unless he discharges
his duties faithfully, the people will put him out, and select
another in his stead.

I want it Understood that no American citizen can be forced to
pay a dollar in a State or in the district where he lives who is
not represented, and where he has not the right to vote. It is all
tyranny, and all infamous. The people of the United States wonder
to-day that you have submitted to this outrage as long as you have.

Neither do I believe that only the rich should have the right
to vote; that only they should govern; or that only the educated
should govern. I have noticed among educated men many who did not
know enough to govern themselves. I have known many wealthy men who
did not believe in liberty, in giving the people the same rights
they claimed for selves. I believe in that government where the
ballot of Lazarus counts as much as the vote of Dives. Let the
rich, let the educated, govern the people by moral suasion and by
example and by kindness and not by brute force. And in a community
like this where the avenues to distinction are open alike to all,
there will be many more reasons for acting like men. When you can
hold any position, when every citizen can have conferred upon him
honor and responsibility, there is some stimulus to be a man. But
in a community where but the few are clothed with power by
appointment, no incentive exists among the people. If the avenues
to distinction and honor are open to all, such a government is
beneficial on every hand, and the poorest man in the community may
say to himself, "If I pursue the right course the very highest
place is open to me." And the poorest man, with his little
tow-headed boy on his knee, can say, "John, all the avenues are
open to you; although I am poor, you may be rich, and while I am
obscure, you may become distinguished."

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That idea sweetens every hour of toil and renders holy every
drop of sweat that rolls down the face of labor. I hate tyranny in
every form. I despise it, and I execrate a tyrant wherever he may
be, and in every country where the people are struggling for the
right of self-government I sympathize with them in their struggle.
Wherever the sword of rebellion is drawn in favor of human rights
I am a rebel. I sympathize with all the people in Europe who are
endeavoring to push kings from thrones and struggling for the right
to govern themselves. America ought to send greeting to every part
of the world where such a struggle is pending, and we of the
District of Columbia ought to be able to join in the greeting, but
we never shall be until we have the right of self-government
ourselves. No man who is a good citizen can have any objection to
self-government here. No man can be opposed to it who believes that
our people have enough wisdom, enough virtue, enough patriotism to
govern themselves. The man who doubts the right of the people to
govern themselves casts a little doubt upon the question, simply
because he is not man enough himself to believe in liberty. I would
trust the poor of this country with our liberties as soon as I
would the rich. I will trust the huts and hovels, just as soon as
I will the mansions and palaces. I will trust those who work by the
day in the streets as soon as I will the bankers of the United
States. I will trust the ignorant -- even the ignorant Why? Because
they want education, and no people in this country are so anxious
to have their children educated as those who are not educated
themselves. I will trust the ignorant with the liberties of this
country quicker than I would some of the educated who doubt the
principles upon which our Government is founded. But let the
intelligent do what they can to instruct the ignorant. Let the
wealthy do what they can to give the blessings of liberty to the
poor, and then this Government will remain forever. The time is
passing away when any man of genius can be respected who will not
use that genius in elevating his fellow-man. The time is passing
away when men, however wealthy, can be respected unless they use
their millions for the elevation of mankind. The time is coming
when no man will be called an honest man who is not willing to give
to every other man, be he white or black every right that he asks
for himself.

For my part, I am willing to live under a government where all
govern, and am not willing to live under any other. I am willing to
live where I am on an equality with other men, where they have
precisely my rights, and no more; and I despise any government that
is not based upon this principle of human equality. Now, let us go
just for that one thing, that we have the same right as any other
people in the United States -- that is, to govern this District
ourselves. Let us be represented in the lawmaking power, and let us
advocate a change in the fundamental law so that the people of this
District shall be entitled to one vote as to who shall be President
of the United States. And when that is done and our people are
clothed with the panoply of citizenship, you will find this
District growing not to two hundred thousand, but in a little while
one million of people will live here. Now, for one, I have not the
slightest feeling against members of Congress for what has been
done. I believe when this matter is laid before them fully and
properly you will find few men in that august body who will vote
against the proposition. They have had trouble enough. They do not

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Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201


understand our affairs. They never did, never will, never can. No
one who does not live here will. The public interests are so many
and so conflicting, and touch the sides of so many, that the people
must attend to this matter themselves. They know when they want a
market, a judge, or a collector of taxes, and nobody else does and
nobody else has a right to.

And instead of going up to Congress and standing around some
committee-room with a long petition in your hands, begging somebody
to wait just one, it will be far better that you should go to the
polls and elect your representative, who can attend to your
interests in Congress. But above all things, I want to warn you,
charge you, beseech you, that in any legislation upon this subject
you must secure a registration law that will prevent the casting of
an illegal vote. Do this before it is known whether the District is
Republican or Democratic. I do not care. No matter how much od a
Republican I am, absolutely, I would rather be governed by
Democrats who live here than by Republicans who do not. And now,
while it is not known whether this is a Democratic or Republican
community, let us get up a registration that no one can violate;
because the moment you have an election, and it is ascertained to
be either Democratic or Republican, the victorious party may be
opposed to any registration or any legislation that will put in
jeopardy their power. I have lived long enough to be satisfied that
any State in this Union, whether no matter weather Democratic or
Republican, will be safe as long as the people have the right to
vote, and to see that the ballots will be counted. This country is
now upon trial. In nearly every State. in this Union there is
liable to happen just the same thing that only the other day
happened in Maine.

In every State there can be two legislatures, one in the
State-house and the other on the fence. Let us in this District so
guard the right to vote and the counting of the ballots, that we
shall know after the election who has been elected and know with
certainty the men who have been elected by the legal voters of the

It becomes us all, whether Republicans or Democrats to unite
in securing such a law. Let us act together, Democrats and
Republicans, black and white, rich and poor, educated and ignorant
-- let us all unite upon the principle that we have the right to
govern ourselves. Then it will make no difference whether the
District of Columbia shall be Democratic or Republican, provided it
is the will of a legal majority of her people.

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.

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