Book Review: Arguing About Slavery

Katie Short

Arguing About Slavery: The Great Debate in the United States Congress
by William Lee Miller
(New York, Knopf, 1997 514 pp, plus appendix and notes)

If you ever feel that you need a break from the abortion issue and are looking for something completely different, don’t read this book. Rather than taking your mind off the victories, the defeats, the alliances, the betrayals, the tactics and the tacticians that surround anyone involved in the pro-life movement, every chapter of this book introduces another strikingly familiar personality or situation. The political party which rewards its turncoats and ignores or punishes those who uphold its principles? It’s here. The other political party which never seems to have any turncoats, and whose members fall over one another to demonstrate their allegiance to an evil institution? It’s here, too. The parliamentary maneuver which snatches defeat from the jaws of victory? It’s here. The dedicated individuals in the movement who don’t let defeat slow them down, but who get up, dust themselves off, and prepare for the next battle? Thank Heaven, they are here, too.

The setting is the United States House of Representatives; the time, the 1830s and 1840s. The chief protagonist is John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States. After a lackluster single term in the White House, Adams lost his bid for re-election and returned to private life.

Two years later, in 1830, he consented to run for Congress at the age of 63. He served in the House of Representatives for 17 years, and there earned the sobriquet “Old Man Eloquent.” The topic is not slavery itself, but how, at this juncture and in this forum, slavery and its legality were discussed. In the 1830s, the organized movement to abolish slavery was just getting off the ground. Abolitionists were still very much political outsiders. Not only did abolitionists not get elected to Congress; most people wouldn’t admit to knowing any. However, the abolitionists made their presence felt in Congress through the submission of petitions on the subject of slavery and the slave trade. And when the right of this politically impotent movement to be heard came under attack, John Quincy Adams stepped forward to champion the constitutional right of petition.

At first glance, the right to petition Congress, a right so arcane that the author has to explain to the modern reader what it means and where it comes from, might seem hardly worth fighting for, or, for that matter, fighting against. After all, these petitions didn’t actually do anything.

They didn’t put an issue on the ballot; they didn’t force Congress to take any action; they couldn’t, of themselves, change anything. These petitions, usually praying for an end to slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, were routinely presented and systematically ignored. That is, until the day in 1835 when certain congressmen from slave states decided that they didn’t want to hear any more about the evils of slavery.

In the minds of these members of Congress, objections to slavery, no matter how gently couched, were an affront to their honor, an incitement to slave insurrection, or both. So carried away did they get with their own rhetoric that during the course of these debates, they frequently asserted that the institution of domestic slavery was the best guarantee of equality and liberty in society. Figure that one out. (“Pro-Child, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice,” anyone?)

In order to protect the blessings of equality, liberty, and democracy conferred by the existence of slavery, it was necessary to reject these petitions. They should be stopped at the door, and, if it had been in Congress’s power to do so, shoved back in the faces of the petitioners. Thus was born the gag rule, a resolution adopted in the Twenty-fourth Congress, and made a permanent rule of the House in the Twenty-sixth Congress: “No petition, memorial, resolution, or other paper praying the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or any State or Territory, or the slave trade between the States or Territories of the United States in which it now exists, shall be received by this House, or entertained in any way whatever.”

Miller notes that this rule, Rule 21, nestled among parliamentary rules about motions and seconds and orders of the day, “jumps off the page” at the reader. In much the same way, a hundred years from now, bubble-zone laws and other restrictions on speech at “health care facilities” will jump out from the background of leash laws and zoning variances at someone perusing various municipal codes. If one didn’t know about abortion, one would read these convoluted ordinances about “access areas” and “requests to withdraw” and “protest, education, and counseling,” and wonder what that was all about.

Even during the 1830s, some argued that the right to petition was anachronistic and unnecessary in a republican form of government, in which the people elect their leaders. However, for those who did not have the right to vote, including women and many free Negroes, petitioning Congress was their only avenue of participation in the political process. They couldn’t elect their representatives, but at least they could petition them.

Pro-lifers today are in a somewhat analogous situation. Because of the hegemony of the courts, both state and federal, over abortion, we are in large part disenfranchised on this issue. Almost thirty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the abortion laws of all fifty states; just last year, it effectively struck down partial birth abortion laws passed in over half the states. In California, our state supreme court stands ready to strike down any restrictions on abortion or abortion funding that might slip past the U.S. Supreme Court. It is hardly surprising that many pro-lifers choose to devote more energy to education and protest than to the political arena.

Nor is it surprising that, just as representatives of the slave power sought to choke off the right to petition as an outlet of anti-slavery sentiment, today’s representatives of the pro-abortion status quo are intent on carving out anti-abortion speech as an exception to the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. And, like the slaveholders of the 19th century, they anchor their position on the rock of individual rights: This speech must be suppressed because allowing people to agitate against [slavery/abortion] threatens our constitutional right to practice it. In making this argument, they tacitly admit that their “constitutional right” might not survive under the spotlight of truth.

Because the Supreme Court today frowns on blatantly viewpoint-based restrictions on speech, abortion advocates have to be a little more nuanced than the Twenty-sixth Congress in squelching pro-life speech. But the effect they are trying for is the same, and to the extent they succeed, Arguing About Slavery provides much food for thought.

One technique that Adams and others used to evade the gag rule was, in effect, to make the defenders of slavery condemn themselves out of their own mouths. For example, one congressman introduced a resolution stating that on a certain recent date, about fifty men, women, and children chained together had been seen being driven down the street, right past the doors of the Capitol. His resolution asked for the appointment of a committee to investigate the incident to determine whether these men, women, and children had committed any crime, where were they being taken, etc. The resolution was voted down. Another congressman introduced a petition asking for the appointment of a committee to investigate the laws of the District of Columbia and the territories, and to repeal all laws not consistent with the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule. That petition was rejected at the door. (Cf. the pro-abortion response to the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the Born Alive Infants Protection Act.)

Although they had the votes to easily defeat these and other impertinent resolutions and petitions, one can imagine the discomfiture of these congressmen being forced time and again to vote against appeals to common principles of justice and humanity when those appeals arose in the context of their “peculiar institution.” Indeed, that is the theme running through this book, that the basic inconsistency between slavery and a government committed to republican principles of liberty and equality would necessarily be exposed, as long as the topic could be addressed. Slavery was truly in the ascendancy not when a particular abolition petition was tabled or a resolution voted down, but when the debate was silenced.

I’ve read this book three times in the past four years, and each time I have found it not only enlightening but entertaining. Miller, a professor at the University of Virginia, has obviously had years of experience holding the wandering attention of students, as well as communicating to them some of the energy and emotion which invigorated the great debates of bygone eras. He springs the occasional anachronism on the reader, such as describing one rancorous debate as “using up all the shopping days before Christmas.” After relating the debate over granting statehood to Arkansas (whose constitution guaranteed a right of slavery in perpetuity), Miller wryly notes, “Let it be recorded, for whatever interest it might have in 1996, that John Quincy Adams voted against the admission of Arkansas to the Union.”

Again, if you are looking for a book to take your mind off the abortion battles, this isn’t it. But for providing perspective on where the pro-life movement fits into our country’s history of dealing with challenges to the status quo on an issue of fundamental human rights, Arguing About Slavery is invaluable.