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Arguing About Slavery

February 21, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

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I’m working hard at realizing my New Year’s resolution of reading fewer books this year, making only slow progress through my current book, Joseph O’Neill’s Blood-Dark Track: A Family History (about which, more some time soon, but what a fabulous mix of family, Irish, and Turkish early-to-mid-twentieth-century history). The last thing I need is more tips on good books to read. Alas, now I have another to add to my list, William Lee Miller’s 1996 Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress.

In my post of a few minutes ago, I wrote of my love for Charles Pierce’s daily writings on politics at Esquire and the effort I make not to devote post after post to his latest comments. Now I’m about to succumb twice in succession, for it was in a post this morning that I learned of Miller’s book.

Pierce has an ongoing series, This Week in the Laboratories of Democracy, about the latest legislative acts of craziness at the state level. Today we learn about the goings on “in Missouri, where they not only don’t like gun laws very much, but they also don’t like people who talk about passing gun laws, so they…wait for it…wrote up a law to prevent people from talking about gun laws. The law’s proponent, one Mike Leara, makes it quite plain right at the start that he’s wasting everybody’s time, including his own, but that he’s wasting time because, you know, FREEEEEDOOOOMMMMMMM!!!!!!”

Pierce then connects this news to a nineteenth-century precursor, which is where Miller’s book comes in parenthetically:

As with everything emanating from those parts of the country who think things went badly wrong on the third day at Getttysburg and nothing ever was quite the same again, this particular exercise in highly principled futility has its philosophical roots in the constitutional crisis occasioned by the right to own black people, which at least was a constitutional crisis stemming from a clear interpretation of what the Constitution actually said. In 1837, congresscritters from the slave-holding states were fed up with the flood of petitions from abolitionists demanding an end to the abomimation in question in Washington and in federally held territories elsewhere. The House thereupon passed a rule that banned discussion of these petitions. That rule stayed in effect for eight years. Former president John Quincy Adams, who’d been elected subsequently to the House from the Commonwealth (God save it!), led a ferocious counterassault against the so-called gag rule, finally achieving its repeal in 1844. (The history of the rule and the fight to repeal it is described brilliantly in William Lee Miller’s Arguing About Slavery.) The gag rule was the parliamentary manifestation of a desire not only to squash any attempt to rid the country of slavery, but also to squash any discussion of ridding the country of slavery.

In looking to learn more about Miller’s book, I found a Sunday NYT review from January 1996 by Drew Gilpin Faust, famed Civil War historian and current president of Harvard. She writes that

[Congressman] Hammond’s motion began a nine-year battle between those wishing to gag all discussion of slavery and those who believed that the maintenance of republican institutions required freedom of petition and debate.

Mr. Miller’s goal, as he says, is not simply to “summarize and report” this battle, but to “re-create it.” His account — dramatic, immediate, immensely readable — does nearly that. With extensive quotations from records of the Congressional debates, he transforms much of his text into something like a screenplay — almost a cinematic presentation of the verbal exchange that served as the essence of the battle.

But Mr. Miller does more than simply reproduce the debates. Perhaps his most valuable contribution is his lucid explanation of how the machinery of rules and parliamentary methods in the House became a matter of substance, not just procedure. It came to make a considerable difference, for example, that a simple majority could lay a question on the table, but a two-thirds vote was required to take it off. One of Mr. Miller’s larger agendas is to show how politics can operate as a vehicle for translating ideals into action and to demonstrate that the “practical and realistic bent” of politicians makes them not contemptible but admirable, no “less worthy than the abolitionists and reformers” who have garnered the bulk of credit for the antebellum struggle against human bondage.

Additional praise is found in Fergus Bordewich’s review from the December 1996 Smithsonian:

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.”

[snip]

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.

I don’t know when I’ll get to it, but it’s on the list.

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