A Hero of Antislavery

Arguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress

by William Lee Miller
Knopf, 577 pp., $35.00

When we consider the troubled history of race relations during the hundred and thirty-odd years since Emancipation, it seems scarcely credible that the North, virtually as a unit, could have been willing to fight a long and costly war whose root cause was black slavery and the free states’ aversion to it. This is still sufficiently difficult to grasp that some historians have even been inclined to think slavery could not have been the “real” issue at all. There must have been others, hidden or indirect but somehow more fundamental, such as clashing economic interests; some have argued that antislavery feeling was only one of several factors along with nativism and temperance, and by no means the most significant one, that account for the rapid rise of the Republican Party in the mid-1850s.

But they are mistaken. It is true that in the late 1830s mobs in Northern communities were still running abolitionists out of town, and in more than a few cases doing worse. Yet by 1860 most people in the North had come sufficiently to see Southern slavery as an abomination that they were prepared to support a major act of challenge. They were not yet willing to do away with slavery, and were certainly not ready to conceive anything like racial equality. They had nevertheless run out of tolerance for the Southerners’ mad efforts not only to push their system into the unsettled territories but to cut off the least discussion of it, whether in their own home communities or in the US Congress. The people of the North were now prepared to elect to the presidency a man who in various ways had made known his conviction that slavery was bad and was doomed to extinction. They would do so in the face of grim advance warnings from all over the South that a Lincoln victory would be met by resistance in extremis, to the point of the Union’s breakup—to the point, even, of blood.

Many efforts have been made to understand this profound transformation of sentiment occurring over the thirty-year period before 1860, and there have been some distinguished examples. Yet the process of transition was sufficiently complex that new insights regarding it, and even new facts, can continue to turn up. William Lee Miller’s is the most recent attempt to effect this, and there is much to be learned from it. The fight over receiving antislavery petitions in Congress between 1835 and 1844 has long been recognized as more than a casual turning point, but the question of how pivotal it really was could not be fully faced until someone had the pertinacity to read through nine years of congressional proceedings with no lapse of attention.

True, Miller’s somewhat amateurish production of what too often reads like cocky feature-column journalism may irritate some readers, as I fear it did this one. So did its implication that the right way to think about this subject was mostly being announced here …

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