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The Most Inspiring Political Story I Ever Heard-The Fight Against Slavery [View All]

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Time for change Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Feb-16-06 06:34 PM
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The Most Inspiring Political Story I Ever Heard-The Fight Against Slavery
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Edited on Thu Feb-16-06 06:51 PM by Time for change
The Most Inspiring Political Story I Ever Heard-The Fight Against Slavery in the U.S. House of Representatives

In these troubled times, when we are in danger of losing our democracy;
when our votes are counted by electronic machines with secret programming and few national politicians even from our own party will fight against them;
when our national news media is controlled by corporate interests who continually misrepresent the news to suit their own interests;
when our president feels that neither international law governing the humane and fair treatment of other humans, nor the laws of our nation apply to him;
and when our country is ruled by the most ruthless bunch of greedy, conscienceless, war-mongering thugs who have ever ruled it;
I find it so inspiring to recount the story of an American politician from another time who saw a great evil in our country and who successfully devoted his life to fighting it that I cry when I think about it.

The evil, which was the greatest evil in the United States at that time, was the institution of slavery. The politician whom I refer to had a life with some striking parallels to that of our ex-President Jimmy Carter: Like Carter, he had suffered through a Presidency that was not fully successful, and he had failed in his effort to be elected to a second term. And then he decided that the main achievements of his life would be in the future rather than in the past.

Why John Quincy Adams did not address the slavery issue while he was President is not clear to me. Copious entries in his diaries have made it clear that all his adult life his heart was not only passionately anti-slavery, but well beyond that, as exemplified by an entry which noted the false and heartless doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity depend on the color of the skin. Perhaps he believed that had he addressed the issue as President it would have created so much animosity that he would not only have failed to affect the slavery issue, but he would not have been able to accomplish anything else during his Presidency.

Adams was elected to a Massachusetts seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1830, two years after he was soundly defeated in his bid for a second term as President. He served in the House for the remainder of his life, beginning his long fight against slavery shortly after being elected to his first term, and against our involvement in the War against Mexico several years later, before dying in 1848 at the age of 80. During his 18 years in the House he became the most predominant voice against slavery of any American politician. The story of his courageous fight against slavery is told by William Lee Miller in his wonderful book Arguing About Slavery John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress. Millers story centers around Adams opposition to the notorious gag rule.

The effort by southern Congressmen to silence opposition to slavery in the U.S. House of Representatives

In those days speaking against slavery by government officials was about as taboo as anything could be. We have our own taboos today, including the suggestion that a Presidential election was stolen, that our corporate media is heavily right wing and operates against our interests, or that a Presidential administration might have been complicit in an attack against our country. In the 1830s, speaking against slavery was every bit as taboo as those things.

Why was speaking against slavery taboo? For similar reasons as why those other things are taboo today: Slavery was then, and had always been, completely inconsistent with the principles upon which our country was founded. Both our Declaration of Independence and the first ten amendments to our Constitution (The Bill of Rights) speak of sacred principles which are the antithesis of slavery (notwithstanding the fact that our Constitution allowed its existence). Though southern slave-holding politicians would for several decades make every attempt to put slavery in the best light possible, they certainly knew deep down that it was not consistent with the principles that they were elected to serve, and therefore they must have realized that the more slavery was talked about the more the contradictions between the ideals and the reality of their country would become evident, as would their own great hypocrisy.

As early as 1828, anti-slavery petitions from the constituents of various northern Congressmen had been trickling into Congress, presented by those Congressmen, including Adams, but never with the avowed approval of those petitions by the Congressmen presenting them. And they were easily disposed of without much discussion or notice.

But by late 1835 petitions from constituents praying for (i.e., requesting) the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia (for which states rights could not be an issue) were flowing into Congress. And then, in December of 1835, Congressman William Slade of Vermont presented an anti-slavery petition and had the temerity not only to agree with the petitioners but to add some rousing anti-slavery speeches of his own.

All of this put the southern members of Congress in a very difficult position. They not only vehemently disagreed with the petitioners, but they were tremendously insulted by them, as indicated by their reference to the petitioners as fanatics, murderers and fiends of hell. The main question was how vigorously and disrespectfully to reject the petitions. On the one hand, the most radical southerners wanted to reject them with a forceful disrespect that would be proportionate to the great insult to their honor that the petitions had engendered. But on the other hand, being too disrespectful towards the petitions might be seen not just as rejecting the anti-slavery movement, but as holding in contempt the sacred First Amendment rights of Americans to petition their government.

The issue was eventually resolved with the infamous gag rule, introduced in May of 1936 by Charles Pinckney of South Carolina. The gag rule stipulated that Petitions involving slavery would be automatically tabled, without any reference to committee, without any printing, without any members having to make a tabling motion, and without any response.

The opposition to the gag rule by Adams and others

The gag rule was voted on and easily passed, but not without the opposition of many northerners, including Adams, who stated among other things, I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the constitution of the United States, the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents.

The gag rule then became, in the U.S. House of Representatives, the focus of the anti-slavery movement for almost the next nine years, until it was finally repealed in December 1844.

Adams was the most prominent figure in that fight. When presenting anti-slavery petitions he would generally maintain that his main purpose was not that he agreed with the petitions (and he often said that he didnt agree with them), but rather that he was fighting for the sacred First Amendment rights of Americans to petition their government. This was a tactical decision, based on the consideration that speaking for the First Amendment was much more acceptable than speaking against slavery. But in so doing, over the course of those nine years he would introduce abolitionist petitions by the thousands, from his own constituents as well as from those of other states.

His attacks against the gag rule involved repeated motions to repeal it, as well as attempts to get around it by finding any number of ingenious ways to draw the slaveholders into discussions on slavery. For example, one time he requested that he introduce 350 petitions simultaneously, and that he be allowed to make a brief summary speech about them which would have violated the gag rule. And then he warned that if he was not allowed to make the speech he would be forced to introduce each petition individually, which would take two days of his colleagues time.

Another way to get around the gag rule was to introduce petitions that did not mention slavery per se, but which bore on related subjects that would be sure to draw slavery into the conversation once the discussion started. For example, Adams introduced numerous petitions praying that Texas not be annexed to the Union which would increase the power of the slaveholders substantially by adding another large slave state to the Union. In doing this, Adams not only created a good deal of debate on slavery but was probably instrumental in causing the Van Buren administration to call off plans for the annexation of Texas (though Texas was annexed a few years later).

And on another occasion he introduced a motion to repeal any law that was not consistent with the Declaration of Independence. Of course the slaveholders had to defeat this motion of Adams which they did because passing it would mean the end of slavery.

One of Adams favorite ploys was to make statements which so inflamed slaveholders that they could not be silent, so that their counter-attacks on Adams would begin long discussions of slavery-related issues as when he offered the opinion that the President had the right, during time of war, to emancipate slaves in areas where the fighting is occurring. Or as when he introduced petitions that questioned the consistency between the institution of slavery and the U.S. Constitution. And if that ploy didnt work, he would sometimes taunt the slave-holders by pointing out that the more they tried to repress discussion on slavery the more visible it would become, as in this speech:

Gentlemen of the South Why will you not discuss this question?... If you are so firm, so confident, so immovably resolute, why will you not speak?... Show us the blessings of this institution. Give us your reasons. Perhaps we shall come round.

Attacks on Adams

Needless to say, these tactics resulted in frequent malicious attacks against Adams. He was warned by one Congressman that he could be prosecuted for his speeches on the House floor on the charge of attempting to incite a slave insurrection. And as time went on he started receiving immense outpourings of abusive mail, including death threats. And on three separate occasions the House attempted to censure him.

The first occasion of an attempt to censure Adams arose when he actually requested permission to present a petition from slaves! The slaveholders became apoplectic at this suggestion, and some even wanted to expel Adams from the House for this great insult to their honor. In response, Adams eloquently defended the right of slaves to petition the government:

If this House decides that it will not receive petitions from slaves, under any circumstances, it will cause the name of this country to be enrolled among the first of the barbarous nations When you establish the doctrine that a slave shall not petition because he is a slave, that he shall not be permitted to raise the cry for mercy, you let in a principle subversive of every foundation of liberty, and you cannot tell where it will stop.

Adams not only did not mind these attempts to censure him, he positively encouraged them, knowing that once a motion against him arose, he would have the opportunity to speak as long as he wanted in defense of himself, and that in so doing he could raise any issue that he desired. So it came to be that, as a motion to remove Adams from his position as Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee was being considered for presentation, Adams actually presented it himself. The motion said that Adams was possessed of a species of monomania on all subjects connected with people as dark as a Mexican, and therefore could not be trusted to deal with important policy issues touching on Mexico. After presenting this motion, Adams used it as an excuse to initiate a discussion against slavery.

And the slave-holders tried to censure him one last time following Adams attempt to present a petition from his constituents that prayed for the dissolution of the Union, so that they would no longer have to be associated with slavery. On this occasion Adams friends and allies tried to table the motion, but Adams would have none of that, and he voted against the motion to table, saying, Lets have it out. Lets see if you can censure me. When the motion to table failed, Adams then used the opportunity to pound away at his favorite subject for a week, with abolitionist material given to him by his abolitionist friends. And then petitions flowed in against the censuring of Adams, so many that the effort to censure him was called off. And the next day Adams presented 200 more petitions.

Adams on the role of women in politics

Another thing that infuriated many of the slave-holders was that a good majority of the petitioners and signatories were women. This touched off a debate in the House as to the proper role of women in politics, including their right to petition. Adams response to this was:

Why does it follow that women are fitted for nothing but the cares of domestic life?... But I say that the correct principle is, that women are not only justified, but exhibit the most exalted virtue when they do depart from the domestic circle, and enter on the concerns of their country, of humanity, and their God.

And when someone pointed out that it made little sense to allow women the right to petition, since they had no right to vote, Adams responded:

Is it so clear that they have no such right And if not, who shall say that this argument of the gentlemans is not adding one injustice to another?

The final years of Adams and the gag rule

By 1841 Adams was tiring out (but with no intention of quitting). He was 74 years old then, which was a ripe old age for that era. Here is an entry from Adams diary that shows how exhausted he was getting from his fight:

All the devils in hell are arrayed against any man who now in this North American Union shall dare to join the standard of Almighty God to put down the African slave-trade; and what can I, upon the verge of my 74th birthday, with a shaking hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy brain, and with all my faculties dropping from me one by one, as the teeth are dropping from my head what can I do for the cause of God and man, for the progress of human emancipation, for the suppression of the African slave-trade? Yet my conscience presses me on

And as he aged he tended to lose his former restraint, as shown in this reply from Adams on the House floor, in response to a man who suggested that his actions could result in a civil war:

Though it cost the blood of millions of white men, let it come. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.

And then, in December of 1844, Adams finally won his fight against the gag rule. It was voted down, never to return, largely due to the defection of Northerners from the opposing party (the Democratic Party), who could no longer stomach their southern slave-holding fellow party members.

Adams continued in the House for three more years. He slumped over his desk in the House on February 21, 1848, when he was 80 years old, and died in a committee room of the House two days later. Ironically, a first term Congressman from Illinois whose thinking on slavery was very similar to that of Adams, and who would continue Adams fight and cause many of his goals and prophecies to come to fruition, though not without paying an enormous price was sitting two rows behind him at the time.

The gag rule fight in the U.S. House in perspective

As we all know, slavery was ended in the United States a little more than 18 years following the death of the gag rule, and there were many causes that came together to produce this monumental achievement. What role in this achievement was played by the fight in the U.S. House of Representatives to end the gag rule? Here is Millers take on that question:

The slave-holders saw all that petitioning and arguing as a potentially dangerous enemy, and they over-responded, and by that revealing over-response, they inadvertently strengthened the position they opposed. They gave Adams and others the evidence and the occasion to dramatize the conflict between slavery and the core American ideals of civil liberty; they provided Adams the opportunity to show both the intransigence and the imperialism that is, the willingness to reach an imperious hand into. what a public would begin to see and fear as the slave power.

That makes sense to me. And I have one question: Why do those people who Adams fought against remind me so much of todays Bush clique and their supporters am I crazy or what?
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