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.