Review of ‘Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress’

Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress
William Lee Miller
Alfred A. Knopf

In the early decades of the Republic, the United States Congress was a deeply flawed institution. In the famous compromise known as the three-fifths rule, the Constitution had allowed slave states to add 60 percent of their servile population to their white electorate in order to determine the number of Congressional seats that each state would have. (Slaves themselves were, of course, denied all legal rights, including the vote.)

The result gave the Southern block up to 40 extra seats in the House of Representatives and effective control over legislation. Slaveholders dominated the rest of the government. They included five of the first seven Presidents (excepting the two Adamses), the majority of Cabinet officers and members of the Supreme Court, and for 28 of the nation's first 35 years, the powerful Speaker of the House.

In the 1830s, those few Americans who actively sought to abolish slavery were treated as a lunatic fringe. As William Lee Miller points out in this often riveting story of the nation's first great political battle over the servitude of African-Americans, slavery was an interest, "concentrated, persistent, practical, and testily defensive," while antislavery was a mere sentiment, "diffuse, sporadic, moralistic and tentative." Spurred by the Christian evangelical fervor of the era, abolitionism was just beginning to coalesce from a set of privately held beliefs into a political movement that generated a growing stream of books, pamphlets-and petitions.

The Second Amendment's right of petition may today be the least remembered of the Constitution's guaranteed freedoms. However, in the early 19th century, as Miller puts it, "before the nation had marinated itself in modern cynicism about republican government, the modest exercise of signing a petition was the chief way the public made known its sober will to its representatives."

Virtually with a single voice, representatives from the South insisted that slavery was a positive good. As James Henry Hammond of South Carolina unabashedly declared, "I believe it to be the greatest of all the great blessings which a kind Providence has bestowed upon our glorious region." To such men, the abolitionist petitions that increasingly appeared on the desks (they had no offices in those days) of the few sympathetic Congressmen were an outrage. The Southerners' answer to the accumulating piles of petitions was to set about muzzling anyone who sought to challenge the ideology of slavery.

The controversy raged on with rising vehemence for eight years, often dominating all other Congressional business. Ultimately, it proved to be a watershed in shifting American public opinion away from tolerance of slavery, and in the evolution of American democracy itself: "It was one of those moments when a new moral perception swept through the community and a new movement was born. The new moral perception was not only that slavery was wrong-many had been saying that for years-but that its wrongness had the highest priority."

In an effort to suppress the still feeble antislavery forces, Southern Congressmen proposed what was, in effect, an intellectual blockade. They urged federal authorities to allow states to censor literature that they deemed "incendiary," including not only abolitionist broadsides but also a wide range of general magazines, Northern newspapers and religious journals that only occasionally mentioned slavery. Postmasters were encouraged to monitor citizens' mail and remove anything that they deemed related to abolitionism. All petitions to Congress on the subject of slavery were to be automatically tabled, without being printed or referred to in any way.

More shocking still, a gag rule imposed by Southerners and their Northern Democrat allies forbade members to discuss the subject of slavery upon the floor of Congress, under threat of censure. Not only was the enslaved black person denied every freedom but now the white person was even to be denied the freedom to talk about it.

The hero of Miller's story is John Quincy Adams, the only former President in American history to later be elected to Congress, where he served with distinction for 17 years. Steeped from childhood in the hardheaded New England idealism of the Revolutionary era, Adams not only deplored slavery in principle, as many of his contemporaries did, but went far beyond most of them in condemning racial prejudice, which, as he put it, "taints the very sources of moral principle" by establishing "false estimates of virtue and vice."

Beginning in 1836, and for nearly a decade, Adams relentlessly fought the gag rule, struggling to make white citizens see that the South's determination to protect slavery at all costs represented an assault upon their own treasured rights. It was a lonely and humiliating battle, almost without allies. Although a vigorous septuagenarian, Adams was openly scorned as a dotard by his enemies. He was at least twice threatened with assassination. At one point, the ex-President was nearly censured for daring to attempt to submit what his colleagues believed was a petition from a group of Maryland slaves. "Had anyone, before today, ever dreamed that the appellation of 'the people' embraced slaves?" demanded Aaron Vanderpoel, an influential New York Democrat and frequent apologist for slavery.

Adams' enemies desisted only when they realized that censuring him would simply serve to draw more attention to his argument. On another occasion, his enemies threatened to call him before a grand jury for allegedly inciting the slaves of the District of Columbia to rebellion.

Unbowed, Adams responded: "Let every gentleman, let every member of this House, ask his own heart with what confidence, with what boldness, with what freedom, with what firmness, he would give utterance to his opinions on this floor, if, for every word, for a mere question asked of the Speaker, involving a question belonging to human freedom, to the rights of man, he was liable to be tried as a felon or an incendiary, and sent to the penitentiary."

The gag rule was not overturned until 1844, when the alliance of Northern and Southern Democrats at last began to fissure. But it would take a civil war before the questions raised by Adams were finally answered. Yet, in those debates of the 1830s, tectonic plates had shifted. Adams had shaken the "immense, rooted institution" of slavery as no one had before. The effort to silence Adams and his handful of allies had only intensified popular concern over the moral and political cost of protecting slavery.

As a result, abolition had moved from the margins to the center of public debate. In areas where abolitionists had been treated as fanatics and misfits, said one Pennsylvania Democrat, "they now called meetings to discuss the right of petition and talked about slavery for hours on end." The majority of Northerners, at least, had begun to make the crucial connection that the rights of enslaved African-Americans were indissolubly linked to the freedom of all Americans. From that recognition there would be no going back.

This is not only fine and provocative history. In it lies a message for modern Americans as well: that politics matters, and that even if they fail in their immediate aim (Adams was never permitted to submit a single abolitionist petition), free argument and debate have the capacity to shift our minds for the better.

Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century.

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