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More Than A President,
This review is from: Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress (Paperback)
Try discussing the relative role of slavery in the American Civil War, and the discussion will likely turn on its ear quickly, with little generated other than heated words. So often, it seems, we cannot discuss this subject except with anesthetic prose, or highly spirited points of view. Not so with William Lee Miller's Arguing About Slavery. The author, Thomas C. Sorensen Professor Political and Social Thought at the University of Virginia, has crafted a wonderfully expressed story of the battle over slavery in the 1830s and 1840s on the floor of Congress.
To those of us in the late twentieth century, the idea of petitioning to consider a prayer for action, the Constitutional sanctity of the act, and the relative abuse of the privilege by Congressmen both North and South seems the actions of an almost foreign government. The nearly maniacal desire of Congress to avoid any discussion of slavery in toto also seems incredible in light of government today. Using Congressional records to retell the story in the words of the participants, Miller weaves a fascinating tale as forces in the North try to ensure the rights of their petitioners, as well as deal with continued efforts to stop them dead in their tracks.
There are three major areas to the book: the opening of the slavery issues in Congress, with the presentation and fights by Southern radicals to keep any admittance of them from even appearing in Congress, the development and passage of the "gag rule," in which any attempt to place a petition in front of Congress regarding slavery was "gagged," and finally, the story of former President John Quincy Adams in these fights, and his efforts to support the rights of American constituents in these battles.
The story of Adams is the centerpiece of the book. In laying out the man who would not back down to both Southern and Northern Democratic interests, Miller brings back to life an American figure who is likely lost to many of our generation. Adams, already in his sixties as the slavery battles began, was an unlikely hero. Having served in nearly every capacity he could prior to agreeing to run for Congress after his presidential term, he brought a dogged determination to duty that is hardly recognizable in today's terms. Adams was not an abolitionist, but he was determined that the voices of his constituents, should they be of an abolition ideal, should be heard in the halls of Congress. To that end, he battled for a decade to make those voices heard.
Making use of Adams's massive personal diary, historical context, as well as the Congressional Globe coverage of the proceedings of Congress, Miller delivers the story of these battles in the words of those who were there. Thus, we can see the fanatical words of South Carolinian planter James Henry Hammond: "And I warn the abolitionists, ignorant, infatuated, barbarians that they are, that if chance shall throw any of them into our hands he may expect a felon's death," and Waddy Thompson, Jr.: "In my opinion nothing will satisfy the excited, the almost frenzied South, but an indignant rejection of these petitions [calling for the end of slavery in the District of Columbia]; such a rejection as will at the same time that it respects the right of petitioning, express the predetermination, the foregone conclusion of the House on the subject -- a rejection, sir, that will satisfy the South, and serve as an indignant rebuke to the fanatics of the North." And finally, we see and hear in our minds eye the torture of Adams as he struggles to balance his personal devotion to his country (he was a strong Unionist) with his obligations and duties to his office. Looking at war as a possibility between the two sides of the Union, he concludes in his diary: "It seems to me that its result [that of war] might be the extirpation of slavery from this whole continent; and, calamitous and desolating as this course of events in its progress must be, so glorious would be its final issue, that, as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired."
Much more than just a chronological narration of events, Miller weaves in background of the events and personalities in order to make his subject come alive. Arguing About Slavery is a book outside the mainstream of standard Civil War book fare, but a must if you have any desire to understand the people, events, and stories that led to the great conflict beginning in 1861.
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