BOOK REVIEW: Arguing About Slavery by William Lee Miller - the lost history of the congressional civil rights battles that paved the way for the American Civil War
(Posted by Shannon Lise on October 10, 2011)
The country was divided on many things, but slavery was not one of them. The North vs. South mentality, as it then existed, was based almost entirely on industrial threats to agriculture and the economic and social implications of this tension. The institution of slavery was practically embalmed in the Constitution itself; it had been the great compromise of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Now it was a part of America and the greatest contradiction of its time went virtually unquestioned by the republic that led Europe to liberty. Even the Northern states that had abolished slavery within their borders, ignored it elsewhere. It was an embarrassing reality that was best not brought up, because nothing could possibly be done about it. In 1830 Abolitionism was a pathetic minority movement that tried to survive in Maine and a few other northeastern states, and was resented and considered radical even by the North. The violent anti-abolitionist reaction to the formation of the American Anti-Slavery society reflected public opinion. It was not encouraging.
But, as is always the case in a good story, there were a few brave people who stood up to the tyranny, people who not only saw the evil of slavery as a crying shame, but had the foresight to realize that it must either be abolished or drag America down into moral and eventually social collapse. Enter John Quincy Adams, cast as the indomitable hero. After a long, productive life of celebrated public service, Adams, nicknamed ‘Old Man Eloquent’ returned to the House of Representatives at age sixty-three, to fight his final political battle.
Using the original transcripts of the Congressional proceedings, Miller tells how the change that started in the House of Representatives infected the rest of the country, and brought about a 180-degree transformation that was nothing short of miraculous. Full of wit and color, the story is told with lively characterization, wry humor that borders on comic relief, and plenty of historical context that makes the era come alive. In addition, we learn a great deal about the practical side of how Congress actually works, about rules and technicalities that are constantly being manipulated to serve a particular purpose.
The book doesn’t get to the Emancipation Proclamation or the Thirteenth Amendment. It ends with the overturning of the infamous gag-rule which had officially prevented discussion of slavery in Congress for years. It was the end of a long, tedious battle against the suppression of free speech and the right to question the moral justification of an accepted conventionality – the right to argue. It was the beginning of a much larger battle that would ultimately decide not only a massively important moral question, but also the destiny of millions of desperate human beings. But that battle could never have been fought if it weren’t for the movement that started in Congress with a few courageous men arguing about slavery.