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.1 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 for the first time. Still, Miller has done something important which nobody else did before; he has examined a critical portion of the record in detail, and has written a book about it. Whatever the book’s deficiencies, it will have the great merit of motivating its readers—maybe even mostly the irritated ones—to revisit what they may already know about the famous petitions episode, to combine it with aspects of which they were previously unaware, and to think it through afresh for themselves.

The petition movement, first set in motion by the newly founded American Anti-Slavery Society, spread to communities all over the North, and the signers would eventually be numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Their standard tactic was the ostensibly limited one of entreating Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Since the District of Columbia was not yet in existence when the Constitution was first formed, it could thereby be claimed that the District would remain unaffected by whatever the framers had agreed to regarding slavery, or whatever others supposed they had agreed to, and that since the District was not a state, claims of states’ rights could not get in the way of congressional action there. Moreover, a small beginning in the national capital could serve as a powerful example. But of course the proslavery senators and representatives understood all this very well, and were implacably determined that it not be so much as talked about—that the subject of such petitions was not even debatable.

Up until 1835 a procedure had in fact been evolved, and had become more or less habitual, which ought to have satisfied them. Upon being presented by the member to whom they were addressed, the petitions would be routinely referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia, after which no more would be seen or heard of them. But by that year opposition to the Slave Power was increasing; more petitions for abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia than on any other subject came in during the session of 1835-1836; and the previous method of dealing with them was no longer decisive enough for the proslavery forces. They were now shifting from a defensive position on slavery to one loudly asserting that slavery was “a positive good,” that Congress had no authority whatever to interfere with it anywhere in the country, and that therefore any petitions presuming otherwise should not even be received, much less acted upon. Such petitions could be no less than a profound insult to Southern honor, and Southern members contended among themselves, sometimes with great acrimony, over the loftiest way of saying so. As for what to do with the petitions, many thousands of words were expended on the question of why no words at all should be wasted in taking any notice of them. What they came out with was a new House rule, passed in the spring of 1836 with the support of Northern Democratic adherents of the Jackson administration, providing that all such papers relating in any way to slavery should, “without being either printed or referred, be laid on the table and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.” This was the subsequently notorious “gag rule,” and a fair amount of the House’s time over the next eight years would be taken up with the issue of whether the rule should be retained, or made permanent, rather than simply reenacted each session, or whether it should be made even more stringent than it already was.


In those days the doings of Congress were regularly matters of front-page news, more undisputedly so than they are now. For one thing there were fewer competing kinds of news to read about. For another, a gloomy awareness of emerging sectional antagonisms—at their most visible in the national legislature—made for a special sensitivity in the public to all information of a political sort, which in turn provided the ground for much ordinary conversation in villages and towns across the land. And it was in that period of nine years between 1835 and 1844 that the spectacle of what was said and done in the United States House of Representatives with regard to slavery had a profound effect on the way the country came to feel about that subject.

During that time petitions came flooding in ever-mounting numbers, while a determined effort to abolish the gag rule, carried on at the beginning by a tiny minority, would in the end prevail, thanks largely to the effect changing public opinion was having on the gag’s Northern supporters, most of whom eventually crossed over. The prime mover in making all this happen, and without whose stubborn, skilled, and ingenious persistence it would very likely not have happened, was the venerable ex-President John Quincy Adams, who after his defeat for reelection had allowed himself to be sent to the House of Representatives and would serve there until literally the day of his death.

It is this extraordinary sequence of events, then, that forms the core of Miller’s story. As suggested above, there are some smudges in the telling; a few more could have spoiled it for good. Happily this, to my mind, hasn’t quite occurred, though for purposes of immunization two or three instances should probably be mentioned. Miller begins by announcing that the petitions episode (“now forgotten”) has actually been “scarcely known, even to the well-read.” This of course is preposterous; the story in outline has been well known, and its importance understood, for a long time; any college textbook one picks up will contain a description of it. Likewise with Theodore Dwight Weld, “who has pretty much slipped out of America’s consciousness, insofar as he was ever in it in the first place.” But Weld’s preeminence as the most effective of all the abolitionist agitators has not been questioned by anyone rudimentarily acquainted with the abolitionist movement, at least for the past sixty years. Even John Quincy Adams calls for a forty-page digression about who he and his parents were, as if Miller had doubts whether his readers had so much as heard of them. This and similar excursions, passages of editorial pontification (such as advice to the Southerners on how they might better have handled their cause), and plural “Endings” and “Epilogues” inflate the book’s prolixity and make it roughly twice as long as it needed to be. Especially since the author’s “Bibliography of Works Consulted,” one can’t help noting, is decidedly frugal.2

What is perhaps hardest to stick with is a mode of expression full of itself and jarringly ill-suited to viewing an era whose idiom and habits of mind were in significant ways divergent from ours. The prose mistakes windiness for breeziness and pops with anachronistic wisecrack clichés (“Be my guest,” “intellectual double hernia,” “using up all the shopping days before Christmas,” “one Massachusetts egghead endorsing another,” and the like), all making for a certain tone of blowsiness that somehow isn’t the right one for dealing with a great historical subject.


Still, when the story’s focus is sharpened and adjusted to the movements of John Quincy Adams and his adversaries, one begins to make out the workings of an extraordinary social process. Widespread conversion on a deeply felt and fiercely charged issue seldom occurs through direct argument and head-on assault. But it can, and sometimes does, occur in other ways. That it should have occurred in the 1830s and 1840s with regard to slavery, and under the hand of such as John Quincy Adams, still calls for some explaining, and for the tracing of a seemingly perverse analytical pattern.

Adams’s own presidential administration (1825-1829), during which the irascible first magistrate seemed able to do few things right, was one of the least effective and least popular in the presidency’s history. And yet here again was Adams, in the aftermath of his crushing defeat by Andrew Jackson in 1828 and at the onset of old age, conceivably chastened though probably not, shorn of all power except what might accrue to a lone Massachusetts congressman, and free to devote his mind to the one theme—slavery—that had come to obsess his days and nights. Surrounded by a raw new generation of public men, Adams was a kind of sole survivor. In place of one kind of power he could still be fortified by his own earliest experience: the example, aspirations, and values of the Republic’s founding generation—Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, all of whom he had known and with whom he had acted, in addition of course to his own father—and fortified as well by the conviction that something had gone amiss with their Republic and their aspirations. He could now assume a new role, as the public followed with rising fascination the frenzied—and ultimately fruitless—efforts of a hallucinated proslavery phalanx to shut him up. It was the role of the old patriot—the role, even, of the popular oracle.

Yet Congressman John Quincy Adams never spoke as an abolitionist, and never professed to be one. A substantial portion of the growing abolitionist contingent did not in fact have much use for him. On petition days (which of course had to remain open for petitions on other subjects) Adams would come in with an armload of them and would then for tactical purposes assure the House that he did not personally support the prayer of the petitioners to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. His only aim, he declared, was to see that they were heard—knowing of course that they could not be, on account of the gag rule.

Nor had he any patience with the position of William Lloyd Garrison and his followers, who insisted that the Constitution itself, countenancing slavery as it did, would have to be burned before the evil could be removed, that a Union containing both free and slave communities was intolerable, and that meanwhile trying to effect change through political means was both useless and wicked. Adams would have none of this; he was firmly attached to the Union and the Constitution, and had no doubt that there were circumstances under which Congress could legally interfere with slavery, and even get rid of it altogether. It was just that for now he had no intention of pursuing such a path, or so he said.

Still, what he did do was anything but quixotic. He could consume inordinate amounts of time reading off the subjects of the various petitions and the origins of the petitioners—there was no official way of preventing that much being done in some form—while apoplectic Southerners interrupted with torrents of abuse on the one hand and, on the other, with hyperbole in praise of what Adams with elaborate courtesy referred to as “the sublime benefit of slavery.” They resorted to protracted parliamentary maneuvers for blocking any move to circumvent, modify, or end the gag rule. But Adams himself knew every parliamentary trick in the book (the manual of procedure still in use had been written by his father’s friend Jefferson), and he had the sharpest tongue, quickest reflexes, and most agile wit in the House. He insisted that he was animated by one concern only, to defend the civil liberties that had been certified for all time by the Revolution: freedom of speech, freedom of debate, and, most particularly for present purposes, the sacred right of petition.

It is on this line of sight that Miller is at his best. He has himself acquired a good mastery of parliamentary procedure, an exceedingly complicated subject full of labyrinths, technicalities, and surprises. He has thus developed a sure eye for spotting what the players were up to, and for tracking them through the tortured turns they took. The fine print of the Congressional Globe and Register of Debates could thereby take on life and supply a stage upon which passions are aired and tales unfold, full of detail, circumstance, and particularity which we may have known were there, but were blurred and in shadow.

Yet the people of the time did know: it was spread before them in each day’s newspaper. Editorializing as we understand it today was not yet the widespread practice it became later on; nor, even, was “reporting” as we know it. What readers were given instead, to think about and talk about, were direct transcriptions of the debates themselves. Secrets were actually few; the script of the play was open, and the lines each principal spoke and the way he spoke them were there for anyone, in a public more functionally literate than it is now, to make what he pleased of them.

Nor was it often that this particular script dragged, and there was little question about who was keeping the plot moving. The proslavery legislators with their all-but-immobilized minds were simply no match for Adams, except in numbers, which for purposes of stagecraft would in the end be all to Adams’s advantage. Each year they reenacted the gag rule by thinner and thinner margins and by stratagems ever more transparent; each reenactment provoked a four- or fivefold increase in the torrent of petitions, providing Adams with one occasion after another for flights of eloquence on the hallowed right of petition sanctified by the Revolution and by the Creator of Mankind, acknowledged by rulers since antiquity, conceded to the meanest beggar by the most despotic oriental potentate, yet here denied to a sober, virtuous, and law-abiding people. The furious interruptions, cries of rage, and calls to order he thus goaded the Southerners into made for the liveliest reading. One sweating orator, in denouncing Adams and justifying slavery, declared:

The principle of slavery is a leveling principle; it is friendly to equality. Break down slavery and you would with the same blow break down the great democratic principle of equality among men. [Laughter from one portion of the House.]

(The script frequently included touches of stage business.) Despite Adams’s pious insistence that protection of civil liberty was his sole object, the proslavery cohort had no doubt that he was serving as agent for the “fiends of Hell,” the forces of abolition. He was “like the midnight incendiary who fires the dwelling of his enemy, and listens with pleasure to the screams of his burning victims.” Twice they sought a vote of censure, on one occasion for his having inquired of the Speaker whether a petition from slaves came under the rules of the House, and on another for presenting a petition urging that the Union be dissolved because the resources of one section were “annually drained to sustain the views and course of another section.” They also tried to get him removed from his chairmanship of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, on the unavowed but evident ground that he could not be trusted with any foreign relations that might in whatever way involve slavery or what remained of the overseas slave trade. Each of the attempts fell through, because the Northern votes that might once have been available had by now melted away, and it was only a matter of time before the curtain would ring down on the gag rule itself.

By the early 1840s public opinion in the North had had enough. The prestige of Adams had become enormous; now well into his seventies, he was a popular figure for the first time in his life. On his return to Massachusetts in the summer of 1842 he was received with public outpourings of enthusiasm; in the following year a family trip to Niagara Falls turned into a triumphal progress across New York state; an invitation to lay a cornerstone in Cincinnati brought similar demonstrations through Pennsylvania and Ohio. A great banner stretched across a Cincinnati street read “John Quincy Adams, the Defender of the Rights of Man.” The final extinction of the gag rule in 1844 would come almost as an anticlimax.

The Northern public had certainly not been converted to abolitionism. A substantial part of it had, however, been brought to something like a functional equivalent—an antislavery temper that had not been there before. It had come in not through the front door of abolition but by the side and back doors of values indirectly related—those of civil liberty, the rights of free speech and petition—and long since taken for granted but now, as growing numbers saw it, trampled upon and treated with arrogance and disdain. It was a process occurring through what Stanley Elkins some years ago shrewdly referred to as “the ‘fellow-traveler’ principle.”3

The proslavery forces, moreover, had their own fevered delusions to blame for it. They had imagined that the flow of petitions, if stifled, would expire for want of air to breathe; the very opposite ensued. One estimate had it that there were eventually enough petitions to fill a room twenty by thirty by fourteen feet, “close packed to the ceiling.” Bundles of them were reportedly burned in later years, but large piles are still there in the archives for any scholar who wants to look at them. The signers, from what can be traced of their origins, included far more than merely “middle-class reformers.” They came from all walks of life, high and low.

This, then, was the critical turn, and one fair conclusion would be that if there were any one individual more responsible than any other for imparting an antislavery direction to Northern sentiment, it was John Quincy Adams. A related conclusion would be more general and more complex. If a tactical model should be wanted for any comparable cause, for laying hold of a volatile mass of feeling and turning it around, for remaining resolutely at the side door to welcome the fellow-travelers—who won’t always be ideologically dependable but must always make up the swing vote—then again, for perspicacity, discipline, and persistence, one could do little better than with Adams’s example. The key isn’t so much “moderation” (Adams was nobody’s moderate); it’s a matter of striking for the soft spots. The sequence was not one of chances and accidents; it was managed all the way.

Still, it is obvious that any conclusion would be less than complete if there were not a significant place in it for the abolitionists. True, they went at their object head-on, yet it might be surprising to discover how many of their results, too, were achieved indirectly rather than by straightforward persuasion. They were never able in any case to speak with one voice or move as one body. Their ranks were continually being fragmented from within; they too, like the proslavery extremists, kept competing with each other for custodianship of the cause’s moral vocabulary. (For example, the Protestant clergy, great numbers of whom were in the movement’s vanguard, were dismissed by another abolitionist, Stephen Symonds Foster, as “a cage of unclean birds.”) Nor could they reach any agreement on the means whereby slavery might be brought to an end.

One technique widely followedwas that of the revival meeting, the object of which was to establish slavery as a sin in as many minds as possible, ending with an altar call to any and all so quickened. This appears to have produced some remarkable scenes, especially after abolition activity became less precarious in the 1840s. We cannot know how many of those so converted were in effect converted already, though it is a safe guess that they must have been more so afterward than before. But perhaps more strikingly effective—perhaps even indispensable for eventual success—was the spectacle of sufficient numbers willing to undergo some form of martyrdom for their convictions. Though few are known to have paid the ultimate price, here too there were plenty of functional equivalents. Those who witnessed a stoning or a beating, and knew what the reason was, could be good candidates for a powerful change of heart—just as anyone today who shoots a doctor outside an abortion clinic is sure to make new converts to the other side.

The abolitionist leader more successful than any of the others was Theodore Dwight Weld. Weld was hit on the head with stones more than once while speaking; he was also, as agent for the New York Anti-Slavery Society, a tireless organizer in the drive to keep the petitions coming. Weld’s most remarkable undertaking was to introduce a device novel for the time and not to see general use until the early twentieth century, when it became known as muckraking. It consisted primarily not of principled argument but of gathering the facts about a given abuse and getting them straight before going public with them. Weld and his wife, Angelina Grimké, devoted considerable time and care to assembling a book which they called American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses.4 They made great efforts to authenticate each horror story of plantation life they heard about and to give attribution for its source. The book sold 100,000 copies in its first year of publication (the equivalent of a sale of some 2 million today). Harriet Beecher Stowe is said to have carried a copy about with her in preparation for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When John Quincy Adams was himself introduced to Weld in 1842 his greeting was, “I know you well sir by your writings.”

A final segment to be fitted into this picture of motion and transformation concerns the emergence, in substantial numbers, of women as participants in public life. They contributed much of the energy needed to organize and circulate the petitions that passed through the hands of Adams in the 1830s and 1840s, and they put their own names to them. Meanwhile a remarkably cohesive system of domestic values, differentiated social roles, and defined work habits had taken shape by about 1830. It was a syllabus of norms calibrated with some nicety to the requirements, spiritual and material, of a newly emergent capitalist order ready for expansion. The spheres allocated to women did not, on the face of things, allow much scope for action in the world of affairs; they were not to meddle in politics or burden their minds with matters of business. Their responsibilities were those of domestic management, nurture of the young, and guardianship of morals. If spinsters, they might serve as teachers and missionaries.

But a kind of transcendent function of preceptorship and mercy saw women as superior in matters touching the finer feelings: subduing the brutishness of husbands, brothers, and sons, relieving distress, and ministering to the suffering and the oppressed. This was the loophole through which so many women poured during the mid-1830s to carry petitions on behalf of slaves in the District of Columbia.

They were becomingly deferential and respectful; they took all due care, so far as circumstances allowed, to stay within the limits marked out for them. “Fathers and Rulers of our Country” was their most typical formula of address:

Suffer us, we pray you, with the sympathies which we are constrained to feel as wives, as mothers, and as daughters, to plead with you in behalf of a long oppressed and deeply injured class….

These particular petitioners seem to have felt an unusual rapport with this particular class of the oppressed.

But the “Fathers and Rulers” met their pleas with exaggerated flourishes of honeyed gallantry, amounting in fact to sneers of contempt.

They are all gentleness, all kindness, all benevolence. Oh, yes, sir, and their objects are all designed for good; and so absorbed are they, in their benevolent designs, that they have not brought themselves to contemplate the awful consequences of their rash proceedings.

A member from Maryland was certain that

these females could have a sufficient field for the exercise of their influence in the discharge of their duties to their fathers, their husbands, or their children, cheering the domestic circle, and shedding over it the mild radiance of the social virtues, instead of rushing into the fierce struggles of political life.

Nor is it hard to imagine what iron may have entered the soul of any woman in the free states, however respectful, upon reading the oafish words of Congressman William Cost Johnson, leering and swaying from drink, announcing to the House that “the Representatives of the North had better tell their women petitioners to attend to knitting their own hose and darning their stockings, rather than come here and unsex themselves, be laid on the table, and sent to a committee to be reported on.”

Among the women so involved were Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lydia Maria Child, and Sarah and Angelina Grimké. John Quincy Adams enraged the Southern side of the House yet one more time when he observed that he was personally acquainted with two of them, and deemed it an honor to be so. Several of these same women were prominent in organizing the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in l848, only four years after the gag rule was ended. The experience of the petition campaign, including the provocations thrown in their faces during it, served as their preparation. Without that experience, there would be no plausible way to explain why the first organized expression of American feminism occurred as early as it did.

All the lines of force so far traced may be seen to have converged in some vital way upon the post-presidential career of an embattled old man who had been, and no doubt still is, one of the least memorable of American presidents.

This Issue

November 14, 1996