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(1869) John Willis Menard, “Speech Before the United States House of Representatives”

John Willis Menard, (1838-1893) was the first African American elected to Congress when on November 3, 1868 he received the majority of votes to fill the unexpired term of Louisiana Second District Congressman James Mann. On the strength of the vote Menard went to Washington to be seated. However his opponent Caleb Hunt challenged the election. The Committee on Elections of the U.S. House of Representatives refused to seat either candidate. Menard’s speech to the House on February 23, 1869, which appears below, was part of his unsuccessful effort to be seated.

Mr. Speaker: I appear here more to acknowledge this high privilege than to make an argument before this House. It was certainly not my intention at first to take any part in this case at all; but as I have been sent here by the votes of nearly nine thousand electors, I would feel myself recreant to the duty imposed upon me if I did not defend their rights on this floor. I wish it to be well understood, before I go further that in the disposition of this case I do not expect, nor do I ask, that there shall be any favor shown me on account of my race, or the former condition of that race. I wish the case to be decided on its own merits and nothing else. As I said before the Committee of Election, Mr. Hunt, who contests my seat, is not properly a contestant before this House, for the reason that he has not complied with the law of Congress in serving notice upon me of his intention to contest my seat. The returns of the Board of Canvassers of the State of Louisiana were published officially on the twenty-fifth of November, and the gentleman had sufficient time to comply with the law of Congress if he had chosen to do so. When Congress convened on the seventh of December, he presented to the Speaker of this House a protest against my taking my seat. I did not know the nature of that protest until about the middle of January, when the case was called up before the committee.

Upon this point of notice I desire to call the attention of the House to this fact: