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Monday, November 25, 2013

Will ye hunt the souls of my people?

I have seen too much of slavery to be a gradualist. I say [the slaveholder] is able to let the oppressed go free. Oh, my very soul is grieved to find a northern woman thus “sewing pillows under all armholes,” framing and fitting soft excuses for the slaveholder’s conscience, while with the same pen she is professing to regard slavery as a sin. 

 - Angelina Grimké’s Letters to Catharine E. Beecher (1838)

I've been enjoying some further reading about John Quincy Adams and his attacks on the Gag Rule (and ultimately by extension, slavery itself, though that took some evolution on his part).  Since I'm a protocol geek, I love how he was able to use parliamentary procedure, as well as his opponents' predictability and emotions, to good effect.

For example, on February 6, 1837:

Mr. John Quincy Adams also presented a petition of Rachael Steers, and eight other women of Fredericksburg, in the State of Virginia, praying Congress to pass a law to abolish the stave trade in the District of Columbia; which petition was laid on the table, under the order of the 18th of January, ultimo.

Mr. John Quincy Adams then stated, that he held in his hand a paper purporting to be a petition from slaves, signed by 22 persons, declaring themselves to be slaves, and desired to know whether it came within the order of the House of the 18th of January.

Hijinks ensued:

The Speaker said he could not tell until he had the contents of the petition in his possession.

Mr. Adams said that if the paper was sent to the clerk's table it would be in possession of the house, and if sent to the speaker he would see what were its contents. Now, he (Mr. A.) wished to do nothing except in submission to the rules of the house. This paper purported to come from slaves, and it was one of those petitions which had occurred to his mind as not being what it purported to be. It was signed partly bv persons who could not write, by making their marks, and partly by persons whose hand writing would manifest that they had received the education of slaves. And the petition declared itself to be from slaves, and he was requested to present it. He would send it to the chair.

Mr. Lawler objected to its going to the chair.

The Speaker said that the circumstances of the case were so extraordinary, that he would take the sense of the house on the course to be pursued.

Mr. Lawler wished it to appear on the journal that he had objected to the paper going to the chair.

The Speaker said the gentleman from Massachusetts had stated that the petition came from slaves; but it had not been sent to the clerk's table. It was the first time, in the recollection of the chair, that persons, not free, had presented a petition to this house. The Chair wished to take the sense of the house, which he had a right to do.

Mr. Haynes said he felt astonished at the course which had been pursued by the honorable gentleman from Massachusetts, not only to-day, but every day for some time past, when ever petitions were presented; but his astonishment reached to a height which he felt it impossible to express, when Tie saw the gentleman rise in his place on this floor, and offer to present such a paper as this had been described to be. Mr. H. could not tell in what manner he would meet a proposition of this kind. It might be giving it more attention than it deserved, if he (Mr. H.) were to object to receiving it. He had risen mainly to express, so far as language could express, his unfeigned surprise that the gentleman from Massachusetts, or any other gentleman, should ever have made a question on a paper of this kind.

Mr. Adams called the gentleman from Georgia to order, on the ground that he was making personal reflections.

Mr. Pinckney said that he was opposed to a protracted discussion on the subject, which could only lead to useless excitement and confusion, the matter before the house being a subject for action, not for debate; and was going on to say that he hoped the house would act promptly and decisively, when the chair interposed...

There were immediate calls for censure, which gave Adams an opportunity to rail on the Gag Rule, slavery and such as part of his clever defense, during which he also suggested the censure resolutions be amended to be more accurate.  Boy howdy, did that upset Mr Pinckney, who was the original author of the Gag Rule that Adams was resisting.

This went on for a few days, with Adams summing up on February 9:

I beg leave to explain my views of the argument, on the right of petition. One of my colleagues (Mr. Gushing) has justly said, that the right of petition is not a right derived from the Constitution, but a preexisting right of man, secured by a direct prohibition in the Constitution to Congress to pass any law to im.pair or abridge it. Sir, the framers of the Constitution would have repudiated the idea that they were giving to the people the right of petition. No, sir. That right God gave to the whole human race, when he made them men — the right of prayer, by asking a favor of another. My doctrine is, that this right belongs to humanity, — that the right of petition is the right of prayer, not depending on the condition of the petitioner ; and I say, if you attempt to fix any limit to it, you lay the foundation for restriction to any extent that the madness of party spirit may carry it. This is my belief, and if the House decide that the paper I have described comes within the resolution, I will present it, and, in so doing, shall feel that I am performing a solemn duty.

What, sir ! place the right of petition on the character and condition of the petitioner, or base it upon a mere political privilege ! Such a decision would present this country to all the civilized world as more despotic than the worst of barbarian nations. The sultan of Turkey cannot walk the streets of Constantinople and refuse to receive a petition from the vilest slave, who stands to meet him as he passes by. The right of petition contests no power ; it admits the power. It is supplication ; it is prayer; it is the cry of distress, asking for relief; and, sir, sad will be the day when it is entered on the Journals of this House, that we will, under no circumstances, receive the petition of slaves. When you begin to limit the right, where shall it stop? The gentleman on my left (Mr. Patton, of Virginia) objected to another petition, which I did present, from women of Fredericksburg, because it came from free colored people. That was giving color to an idea with a vengeance ! But the gentleman went farther, and made the objection that I had presented a petition from women of infamous character — prostitutes, I think he called them.

[Mr. Fulton rose to explain. It was not so. When the gentleman presented that petition, which I knew came from mulattoes in a slave state, I meant to confine my objection to petitions of mulattoes or free negroes in the Southern States. I meant to rescue the ladies of Fredericksburg from the stigma of having signed such a petition. Sir, no lady in Fredericksburg would sign such a petition.]

Mr. Adams. With respect to the question what female is entitled to the character of a lady, and what not, I should be sorry to enter into a discussion here. I have never made it a condition of my presenting a petition here, from females, that they should all be ladies, though, sir, I have presented petitions for the abolition of slavery in this District, from ladies as eminently entitled to be called such, as the highest aristocrats in the land. When I have presented these petitions, I have usually said they were from women, and that, to my heart, is a dearer appellation than ladies.

But, sir, I recur to my first position — that 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. The next step will be that the character, and not the claims, of petitioners will be the matter to be discussed on this floor ; and whenever, as in the case of the gentle- man from Virginia, (Mr. Patton,) any member finds a name on a petition which belongs to a person whom he says he knows to be of bad character, a motion will be made not to receive the petition, or to return it to the member who offered it. The gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Patton) says he knows these women, and that they are infamous. How does the gentleman know it? [A laugh.]

[Mr. Patton. I did not say that I knew the women, personally. I knew from others that the character of one of them was notoriously bad.]

Mr. Adams. I am glad the gentleman now says he does not know these women, for if he had not disclaimed that knowledge, I might have asked how it was that made these women infamous,— whether it was those of their own color or their masters. I have understood that there are those among the colored population of slaveholding states, who bear the image of their masters. [Great sensation.]

Mr. Glascock, of Georgia, here went across the hall to the seat of Mr. Adams, and, amidst cries of *' Order," held up to him the petition of the women of Fredericksburg, and said, " Is not that your hand-writing, endorsed ' From ladies of Fredericksburg' ? "

Mr. Adams. Mr. Speaker, I did not designate them as ladies when I presented the petition. That is my handwriting ; but when I endorsed it, and sent it to the table, I did not know or suspect that the petitioners were colored people.

Here, then, is another limitation to the right of petition. First, it is denied to slaves, then to free persons of color, and then to persons of notoriously bad character. Now, sir, if you begin by limiting this right as to slaves, you next limit it as to all persons of color, and then you go into inquiries as to the character of petitioners before you will receive petitions. There is but one step more, and that is to inquire into the political faith of petitioners. Each side will represent their opponents as being infamous; and what becomes of the right of petition? Where and how will the right of petition exist at all, if you put it on these grounds ?

So finally it came to a vote:

1. Resolved, That any member who shall hereafter present any petition from the slaves of this Union, ought to be considered as regardless of the feelings of the House, the rights of the southern States, and unfriendly to the Union;

  • It passed in the negative,
  • Yeas, ... 92,
  • Nays, ... 105.


2. Resolved, That the Honorable John Q. Adams, having solemnly disclaimed all design, of doing any thing disrespectful to the House in the inquiry he made of the Speaker as to the petition purporting to be from the House and having avowed his intention not to offer to present the petition if House was of opinion that it ought not to be presented; therefore, all further proceedings in regard to his conduct do now cease.

  • And passed in the negative,
  • Yeas, ... 21,
  • Nays, ... 137.

Censure averted.  Adams would continue his crusade for several more years.  I'll examine another fun incident in a later post...


November 25, 2013 | Permalink


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Thanks for that. It's so amazing to see such a righteous argument at the start of this nation. That argument still goes on, since there are still those who try, and sometimes succeed (voting restrictions), in limiting the rights of petition (voting) of those of "lesser" standing.

Posted by: lea-p | Nov 25, 2013 10:12:52 AM

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