Professor William Lee Miller indicated that prior to the Civil War and the 14th Amendment each U.S. President on up to the U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott decision and the Civil War were slaveholders, as well as Founder Fathers of the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court Justices. The period of American History prior to the Civil War and the 14th Amendment was a pivotal and important time that influenced events leading up to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. It was indicated: “ the fact is that battle over slavery didn’t start with Sumter or the Confederate Secession. It started twenty-five years before Lincoln’s inauguration, on the floor of Congress.
The country was divided on many things, but slavery was not one of them. The North vs. South mentality, as it then existed, was based almost entirely on industrial threats to agriculture and the economic and social implications of this tension. The institution of slavery was practically embalmed in the Constitution itself; it had been the great compromise of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Now it was a part of America and the greatest contradiction of its time went virtually unquestioned by the republic that led Europe to liberty. Even the Northern states that had abolished slavery within their borders, ignored it elsewhere. It was an embarrassing reality that was best not brought up, because nothing could possibly be done about it. In 1830 Abolitionism was a pathetic minority movement that tried to survive in Maine and a few other northeastern states, and was resented and considered radical even by the North. The violent anti-abolitionist reaction to the formation of the American Anti-Slavery society reflected public opinion. It was not encouraging.
But, as is always the case in a good story, there were a few brave people who stood up to the tyranny, people who not only saw the evil of slavery as a crying shame, but had the foresight to realize that it must either be abolished or drag America down into moral and eventually social collapse. Enter John Quincy Adams, cast as the indomitable hero. After a long, productive life of celebrated public service, Adams, nicknamed ‘Old Man Eloquent’ returned to the House of Representatives at age sixty-three, to fight his final political battle.
Using the original transcripts of the Congressional proceedings, Miller tells how the change that started in the House of Representatives infected the rest of the country, and brought about a 180-degree transformation that was nothing short of miraculous. Full of wit and color, the story is told with lively characterization, wry humor that borders on comic relief, and plenty of historical context that makes the era come alive. In addition, we learn a great deal about the practical side of how Congress actually works, about rules and technicalities that are constantly being manipulated to serve a particular purpose.
The book doesn’t get to the Emancipation Proclamation or the Thirteenth Amendment. It ends with the overturning of the infamous gag-rule which had officially prevented discussion of slavery in Congress for years. It was the end of a long, tedious battle against the suppression of free speech and the right to question the moral justification of an accepted conventionality – the right to argue. It was the beginning of a much larger battle that would ultimately decide not only a massively important moral question, but also the destiny of millions of desperate human beings. But that battle could never have been fought if it weren’t for the movement that started in Congress with a few courageous men arguing about slavery.
Professor William Lee Miller’s book provides a blow-by-blow re-creation of the battle royal that raged in Congress in the 1830s, when a small band of representatives, led by President John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, employed intricate stratagems to outwit the Southern (and Southern-sympathizing) sponsors of the successive “gag” rules that had long blocked debate on the subject of slavery.
From Publishers 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.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From 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
This is the story of America’s struggle to end slavery without destroying the union. The book deliberately focuses on the rhetoric of white male politicians and thus does not purport to tell the “whole” story, but only that part of the story which is most recoverable and hence most knowable. Many early 19th century politicians averred that the Northern textile industry, which was roughly as powerful as today’s oil industry, depended on Southern slavery. An industry with such power and control over the financial interests of the country can, Miller argues, cause social changes to come about more slowly. When talking about slavery, Miller submits, American politicians of the time had to deal with inherent contradictions in the American tradition: a nation that celebrated equality and the virtues of the “common man” had to come to terms with the fact that African slaves, officially excluded from citizenry, embodied the “common man” ideal but were not permitted to climb the social and economic ladder. Most politicians did not believe slavery could end abruptly but would end gradually as economic dependence turned elsewhere. Slavery went against all the principles and rhetoric of America’s founding documents, and yet there it was, a thriving and ubiquitous industry.
The book begins in 1835, when Congress deliberated over petitions to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Congress took on these petitions reluctantly, unwilling to address a contentious and divisive issue that would disrupt congressional and governmental harmony. Congress wished the issue would just go away—but realized that it could not. During this congressional session, most of the speechmaking came from proslavery Southerners, since Northern politicians were, generally, too afraid to take a stand one way or the other.
Major figures from this session include the following:
President Andrew Jackson
John Fairfield: Congressman from Vermont who introduces the petitions to abolish slavery in D.C.
Franklin Pierce: Eventually the fourteenth President, he is, at this time, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is a Northerner with Southern sympathies.
James Henry Hammond: Congressman from South Carolina who opposed Fairfield and Adams.
John Quincy Adams: A former president (the nation’s sixth), he is, at this time, a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts.
Henry Laurens Pinckney: A Congressman from South Carolina who opposed Fairfield and Adams but who also did not get along with John C. Calhoun.
John C. Calhoun: A U.S. Senator from South Carolina, having resigned from the Vice Presidency.
Martin Van Buren: Eventually a U.S. President (the nation’s eighth), he is, at this time, the Vice President under Andrew Jackson.
James K. Polk: Eventually a U.S. President (the nation’s eleventh), he is, at this time, a member of the U.S. House from the State of Tennessee.
The debates in Congress were fueled by abolitionist literature (written by people like John Greenleaf Whittier, William Lloyd Garrison, and Elizur Wright, Jr.) and oration that maintained not only that slavery was wrong (as people had maintained for decades) but also that its demise was the nation’s highest priority. Congress could not “sit on its hands” while abolitionists protested and demanded change; it had to respond, albeit reluctantly, to an institution that many congressmen assumed was already doomed. The demise of slavery was supposed to be inevitable, according to the common logic, yet it persisted; therefore, the abolitionists forced Congress to address slavery, the demise of which, the abolitionists argued, was not as inevitable as people supposed.
The Senate also faced petitions. Senator Calhoun became the most colorful and powerful figure opposing these positions. Calhoun and his followers often employed “liberal” rhetoric on the Senate floor. Henry Laurens Pinckney authored the gag rule, which was an attempt to stop citizens from submitting antislavery petitions. (Calhoun despised Pinckney so much that he endorsed unionist candidates to take over Pinckney’s Congressional seat.) The gag rule was adopted by a 117-68 vote, thus suggesting that the nation was more united on the issue of slavery than popular thought maintains. The gag rule required congressmen to set aside slavery petitions immediately, without so much as printing them. John Quincy Adams would spend the following years in Congress battling the so-called gag rule.
At this point in the book, Adams becomes the central figure. Adams, then a distinguished ex-president, was in his 60s and 70s as he fought against the gag order. He maintained that not only abolitionists but also slaves could petition. Miller argues that this position shows the extent to which Adams was willing to risk his reputation and what was left of his career in order to stand up to the Southern gag order. Other congresspersons were slow to join Adams in his fight. During these debates, very little was said of African Americans, and most of the debates focused on the rights and roles of government and ignored the human persons that that government was supposed to serve and protect.
After Martin Van Buren became president, succeeding Andrew Jackson, he announced that he would veto any bill involving the issue of slavery in D.C. or the slave states. Nevertheless, the petitions continued to pour in. Adams himself began submitting petitions. The gag resolutions had to be passed each session, but a gag rule was announced in 1840 that, in essence, made the “gagging” permanent. Adams led the effort to rescind this rule. He grew closer and closer to the abolitionists as he precipitated disarray in the House. He also made several speeches despite threats against his life. Adams’s opponents tried to get the entire House to censure him, but they failed. Adams used the censure trials as an occasion to bring slavery to the forefront of Congressional debate. In 1844, Adams succeeded in having the gag rule abolished ” –