JQA and the Debate Over Slavery Petitions
Those days in Congress in December brought to the fore two very important constitutional questions that needed resolution before a crisis of a larger magnitude, like disunion, would mar the nation forever. Did Congress have the constitutional right to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia? Could Congress reject anti-slavery petitions without them being heard? The issue fell along sectional lines like everything else to do with slavery. Interestingly, some who mobbed against radical abolitionists, like Congressman Samuel Beardsley of New York, objected to Hammond’s motion. But Southerners were digging in. They believed the abolitionists needed to be stopped before any possible slave insurrections could tear apart the fabric of Southern society. Henry Wise of Virginia interpreted the First Amendment in a unique manner, insisting that Congress was prohibited from passing a law in order to deny the right of petition, and as long as no legislation was passed doing so, Congress had the right to reject antislavery petitions at will.
On December 19, the events of the day before had urged two congressmen to approach Adams and to address the House on the controversy. Adams recorded in his diary, “I fear I must.” Two days later, William Slade of Vermont began the attack on the House floor, rejecting the premise of not receiving petitions. He did not couch his words, describing in lurid detail the evils of slavery and the slave trade in the District, while advocating natural rights for blacks and accusing the South of misplacing its angst over antislavery agitation, for the fear of insurrection was really collective guilt over slavery. In the House on December 21, after a discussion of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and whether there should be a “declaration of the conviction of the House, that they will not, and that Congress ought not, interfere in this matter,” Adams rose to speak.
Adams recounted that when he first took his seat as a member of the House his position was clear. Even though petitions were sent to him, and he respected the constitutional process of the “sacred right of petition,” he declined to support them, and the reason he declined to support them was “to keep the discussion of the subject out of the House.” He admitted that among his constituents “there were many among them . . . who disapproved of the course I pursued on that occasion.” But Adams foresaw problems lying ahead. “What will be the next consequence?” Adams asked. He saw that every speech made by a Northern congressman “will be an incendiary pamphlet, and what will you do with them?” Adams extended his argument, inquiring about what would happen if speeches in the House went public. Foreseeing with clarity what was about to happen, Adams rhetorically asked, “Will you introduce a resolution that members of the House shall not speak a word in derogation of the sublime merits of slavery?” This would go down a dark road, Adams intimated, for suppressing the right of petition would also suppress the right of free speech in the House as well. Thus, Adams concluded, “in deference to the respect which is due to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, I hope this petition [one from the morning session] will be left where it has been placed by the House, in the possession of the Committee on the District of Columbia, and that we shall hear no more about it.”