ARGUING ABOUT SLAVERY: The Great Battle in the United States Congress by William Lee Miller
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ARGUING ABOUT SLAVERY: The Great Battle in the United States Congress

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One might expect a voluminous, minutely detailed narrative of parliamentary maneuvers on the floor of the 24th through 28th Congresses (1835-45) to be tedious. Instead, Miller offers a dramatic account of the beginning of a great, and ultimately fateful, national conversation about slavery. According to Miller (Political and Social Thought/Univ. of Virginia; The First Liberty, 1986, etc.), the great national debate began over the right of Northern women abolitionists to petition Congress to end the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Northern congressmen, with no strong feelings about slavery and sharing the racist and sexist prejudices of the age, tended to defer to their Southern colleagues' attempts to silence the petitioners. As these attacks on the right of abolitionists to petition Congress became more strident, the House adopted temporary resolutions that put a ""gag"" on the presentation of such petitions; finally, a procedural rule was adopted that institutionalized the gag. What began as a battle between Democrats and Whigs over the right to petition turned into a conflict along sectional lines that was increasingly about slavery; as it focused attention on that peculiar institution, it also led Northerners to develop a radical disgust with it. Former president and secretary of state John Quincy Adams, now a member of the House, emerges as the hero of Miller's account. After a number of compromises with slavery (including negotiating the return of slaves freed by the British after the War of 1812), Adams became its relentless opponent, first as an astute parliamentary adversary of the gag rule, and then as an advocate for runaway slaves before the Supreme Court in the famous Amistad case. By the end of Miller's account, the debate over slavery has moved from the gag controversy to the character of the vast American territories--slave or free--a debate that would lead to the Civil War. Passionate and absorbing, this leaves one wondering: Why is there no national monument honoring John Quincy Adams?

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1996
Page count: 608pp
Publisher: Knopf