February 23, 1861
Richmond, Feb. 20, 1861.
Mr. Clemens rising to a privileged question, offered a resolution, before proceeding to a personal explanation, that the President of the Convention be authorized to employ competent reporters to report the proceedings of the Convention, with a view to their publication hereafter if deemed expedient. Mr. Fisher offered a similar resolution as a substitute, which was accepted by Mr. Clemens, who then proceeded:
Mr. Clemens—I now proceed, Mr. President, to the consideration of the matters to which I directly alluded in my opening remarks. I know, sir, that in times of political trail [sic] and political excitement, a public man is supposed to be, in this age, public property. And I have had a sufficient degree of experience in public life to know, also, that a thin, scurf skin is not suited to its hot and fierce encounters, and that those who are most accustomed to them will find that for a coat of arms a terrapin or an armadillo is the best insign[i]a of at least their powers of endurance. I confess that in alluding to the matter to which I conceive it to be my duty to allude, I acknowledge self-abasement and humiliation. Before this grave body, by all odds the gravest and most gifted with which I have ever had the honor of being associated, I feel it to be my duty, due to the proprieties of the place and the occasion, to restrain the sentiments of just indignation which leap to my lips and crave utterance.
We are told, sir, by high authority, that “he who conquereth his own spirit, is greater than he who taketh a city,” and in times like these a man is not fitted to govern others who has not the capacity to govern himself. I had supposed it possible that among those who in other days were associated with me and shared my acquaintance in this magnanimous city, many of whose familiar faces I now see around me, and who hung with brotherly love over a sick couch, and ministered to the necessities of a broken body; I had hoped that among those of God’s fairer and better part of creation many of whose fair faces now beam upon me, and whose soft and velvety hands ministered to the necessities of a sick chamber, I would find when these accusations were traveling their round in the public press, some sense of indignant remonstrance coming to my relief, against the charge that I, a member of Congress from Virginia, could deliberately, and in cold bold, send under my hand, franked documents to free negroes. Sir, if I had no sense of self-respect left, I had hoped that those who knew me, and who knew the honorable families in Eastern and Western Virginia, in Georgia, in Alabama, in Louisiana, in Kentucky, in Missouri, in whose veins course kindred blood, would suppose that, however mean I might be, I would not double a rose leaf under their pillow, to give a moment’s pain. It is one of the darkest portents of the times, that under these circumstances gentlemen—Virginia gentlemen—have affected to believe such a charge against me. Sir, if there is any gentleman in this State who has hitherto shared my acquaintance, and who, knowing me in days past, has believed I could be guilty of so mean an act, let him never dare to raise his eyes or hand in kindness to me again.
But, sir, I do not choose to deal with that question in this indirect way. It happens that I have the fullest and the most complete proofs which will be submitted to the proper authorities at Washington. It happens that I left Washington City ten days before the assembling of this Convention, and was at home canvassing for a seat in this honorable body, and during my absence, without consultation with me, without my knowledge, without my concurrence in any shape or form, a half sheet of the National Intelligencer, containing the speech of the Hon. John S. Millson, of this State, a speech of the Hon. Mr. Nelson, of Tennessee, and my own speech delivered in Congress, was distributed broadcast over Eastern Virginia. I authorized no one to use my frank. I left no franks for anybody to use. I was not a party indirectly or directly in any shape or form to the sending the half-sheet of the National Intelligencer to any part of Virginia. I assert the fact to be, and no man can deny it, that there is not, within the limits of this broad land, a single gentleman who has received under my frank, a copy of that paper. It happens that I kept a list of all the documents sent. I sent none but pamphlet copies. I commenced with Princess Anne, and sent one copy to that county, and I sent some copies to Essex to gentlemen I know there. I sent copies to Fredericksburg. I sent none to Orange, none to Albemarle, none to Fluvanna, and not a single copy to Middlesex.
The charge is made by the Charlottesville Jeffersonian, and copied into the Richmond Examiner, that I sent under my frank, copies of public documents to free negroes in the county of Orange. The Alexandria Sentinel, asserting the same fact, says that copies were received in Fluvanna; and a friend from the county of Essex has written to me that copies were received at Jamaica Plains and at Urbanna, in Middlesex. It happens that the only person I do know is the gentleman from Middlesex who represents that county so honorably upon this floor. I did not send a copy to him. That disposes of the whole question. I have the franks and the envelopes, and any gentleman who is accustomed to trace similitude in hand-writing, can decide at once that the whole thing is an ignoble and base forgery. Whether it was the result of ignorance or the result of malice, it is the same, and I put the heel of my indignation upon it; and if I can trace it back to its author he will have to meet an accountability far greater than that of my own.
Mr. Montague—Since my name has been referred to in this matter, it is proper that I should make a statement. Of course, I know nothing about this matter of franking. I am no member of Congress; I know nothing of the benefits or the abuses of the franking privilege. But I do know this: that there came to my post office at home—and it is now in my room at the hotel—under the frank of Sherrard Clemens—whether genuine or not I do not know, for I am not acquainted with the gentleman’s hand-writing—his speech, Mr. Millson’s speech, Mr. Nelson’s speech and an address of Mr. Stuart to his constituents. And there came to a post office in my county, which have been sent to me in Richmond, copies of documents under the gentleman’s frank—whether genuine or not I do not know—addressed to two men whom I know to be free negroes, one whom I know can read. I know further, from consultation with a worthy and respectable friend, a delegate upon this floor, from the counties of King and Queen and Essex, that similar documents, under the same frank, have gone to free negroes in those two counties. Similar documents under the same frank have been sent to free negroes, as I understand it, in the county of Orange. Whether this be correct or not, I do not know. I make no charge upon that ground. This is all I have to say in regard to the matter.
Mr. Clemens—(The franks being shown to Mr. C.) I pronounce both of these signatures to be forgeries.
Mr. Montague—I am glad to hear it. If your Government at Washington, which some of us are disposed to worship has become so corrupt, and rotten, that it has resorted to forgeries for the purpose of disseminating incendiary doctrines among the free negroes in Virginia, is it not time—
A Member—I beg to inquire what the subject before the House is?
Mr. Montague—I have said all I desire to say.
Mr. Hall, of Wetzel—I have been acquainted with Mr. Clemens’ hand writing for at least 14 years, and I unhesitatingly think, from the best of my judgement, that these endorsements are forgeries.
Mr. Holcombe—Reference has been made by the gentleman from Wheeling (Mr. Clemens) to a statement in the Charlottesville Jeffersonian—a paper published in my county by one one [sic] of my constituents—that documents were sent to free negroes in that county, purporting to be under the frank of Mr. Clemens. Now, sir, I heard a Post Master in that county say, that such documents, under such frank, had come to me in that county whom he knew to be free negroes. That, I believe, was the entire statement made in the Jeffersonian Republican. I do not remember the article, but I do not believe that there was any statement in it which necessarily implicated Mr. Clemens in a manner inconsistent with the explanation he has given to the Convention. The statement of the paper that documents came to these persons, was true.
Mr. Morton—In connection with the explanation which the gentleman from Wheeling has made, as my constituents are interested in this matter, and as their representative, they placed in my hands the papers which have been submitted to the consideration of this house. I think it proper to state that I have a letter from five or six gentlemen, of high respectability, in that county, (Orange) who mentioned the names of free negroes who have received incendiary documents under the frank of the gentleman from Ohio, (Mr. Clemens.) I state further, that numerous documents of the same character had been sent to the county of Harrison, and such was the public indignation on their reception that they were collected and publicly burned. I am gratified with the explanation made by the gentleman, and I hand over these papers to him with a great deal of pleasure, with the simple request that after he makes the investigation, that he may deem due to himself to make, he shall return them to me.
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Timeline of West Virginia: Civil War and Statehood: February 1861