Arguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress

Arguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress

by William Lee Miller
     
 

Here is the United States Congress in the 1830s, grappling (or trying unsuccessfully to avoid grappling) with the gravest moral dilemma inherited from the framers of the Constitution. Here is the concept (and reality) of the ownership of human beings confronting three of the most powerful ideas of the time: American republicanism, American civil liberties, American… See more details below

Overview

Here is the United States Congress in the 1830s, grappling (or trying unsuccessfully to avoid grappling) with the gravest moral dilemma inherited from the framers of the Constitution. Here is the concept (and reality) of the ownership of human beings confronting three of the most powerful ideas of the time: American republicanism, American civil liberties, American representative government. This book re-creates an episode in our past, now forgotten, that once stirred and engrossed the nation: the congressional fight over petitions against slavery. The action takes place in the House of Representatives. Beginning in 1835, a new flood of abolitionist petitions pours into the House. The powers-that-be respond with a gag rule as their means of keeping these appeals off the House floor and excluding them from national discussion. A small band of congressmen, led by former president John Quincy Adams, battles against successive versions of the gag and introduces petitions in spite of it. Then, in February 1837, Adams raises the stakes by forcing the House to cope with what he calls "The Most Important Question to come before this House since its first origin": Do slaves have the right of petition? When the Whigs take over in 1841, some expect the gag rule to be repudiated, but instead it is made permanent. A small insurgent group of Whigs, collaborating with Adams, opposes party policy and makes opposition to slavery their top priority. They constitute the seedbed for the formation of the Republican Party which will be, in the next decade, the beginning of the end of slavery. Congressional leaders try to censure Adams, and his well-publicized "trial" in the House brings the entire matter to the nation's attention. The anti-Adams effort fails, and finally, after nine years of persistent support of the right of petition, Adams succeeds in defeating the gag rule. Throughout, one can see the gradual assembling not only of the political but also of the moral and intellec

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In tracing the growing hostility between North and South over the extension of slavery into the Western territories, Miller (The First Liberty) pays special attention to the so-called gag rule, in force from 1834 to 1844, which blocked discussion of antislavery proposals in the House of Representatives. The central figure in Miller's study is John Quincy Adams, in his second career as U.S. representative from Massachusetts, and his heroic fight for repeal of the gag rule and for the right to petition Congress for the abolition of slavery. The author recounts how the ex-president succeeded in spite of the bitter denunciation of his opponents and a concerted effort in 1842 to have him censured. Miller calls the repeal of the gag rule ``the first clear victory over the Slave Power in the United States.'' He captures the confrontations on the floor of the House and the eloquence of the speakers, in a conflict of words and ideas that would ultimately lead to the Civil War. BOMC selection. (Jan.)
Library Journal - Library Journal
Miller (The First Liberty, LJ 2/1/86) covers the great debates in the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1845 on the legality of slavery in the United States. Even though the period is well before the Civil War, the author feels that this battle really began the intense feelings that culminated in the war. He sets the stage for the debate, then intersperses direct quotations from the Congressional Globe and Register of Debates, with the personal beliefs of the participants, the mood and feelings from the various regions or states, as well as his own interpretation of the discussions. Miller ties all this together within a framework of the political climate and writings of the period. He gives an excellent portrayal of the House of Representatives, its makeup, and especially its leadership. His book should be required reading for anyone interested in the slavery issue, as well as the history of the U.S. Congress, since it examines both with exceptional clarity.-W. Walter Wicker, Louisiana Technical Univ., Ruston
Bonnie Smothers
According to Miller, he was working on a project "on America's moral and intellectual underpinnings" when he came upon the subject of this book, and it grabbed him by his collar, threw him to the floor, sat on his chest, and insisted that it be told. A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but his subject is an extraordinary episode in U.S. history. It was a long argument that took place mostly on the floor of the House of Representatives, in the 1830s and early 1840s, over the right of the people, particularly nonvoting women, to petition, when those petitions begged for the ending of the slave trade in the capital, when those petitions came from slaves ("they are property, not persons; they have no political rights" ), and, in the end, when those petitions even mentioned slavery. So then, this little-known controversy was an argument to end American slavery without destroying the Union, before there was an inkling of the Civil War. The hero is John Quincy Adams, an ex-president, who presented more of those petitions than any other representative, particularly after Representative Waddy Thompson attempted to censure him for it. Thompson didn't realize "he mistook his man." After a nine-year struggle, during which gag rules were passed and two attempts were made to censure him, Adams defeated the gag rule on petition. Miller's book is of the utmost importance, for it shows how close we were to moral destruction in those days of state's rights and suggests how close we are again.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780394569222
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/16/1996
Edition description:
1st ed
Pages:
608
Product dimensions:
6.62(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.84(d)

Meet the Author

William Lee Miller has taught at Yale University, Smith College, Indiana University, and the University of Virginia, where he is currently Miller Center of Public Affairs Scholar in Ethics and Institutions. He has been an editor and writer on a political magazine, a speechwriter, and a three-term alderman. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Arguing About Slavery, which won the D.B. Hardeman Prize for the best book on Congress.

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