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Arguing About Slavery:
John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle
in The United States Congress

William Lee Miller
Paperback 577 pages

  

 

 

   

This book by Professor Miller is a rare and delightful volume of American history.   Rare in that it is about an almost forgotten, yet incredibly important, period of this nations development,.  Even rarer, and therefore delightful, in that it is a passionate and truthful attempt at conveying that importance.   

 

 

 

    

 

 

   First published in hardcover a few years ago and now available in paperback, Arguing About Slavery, covers the period of the critical debates on slavery between 1835 and 1848; as Miller accurately puts it, debates that were "nation-defining".  This is the period in which Southern slaveholders, and their northern allies, used the so-called "gag rules", in the U.S. House of Representatives, to silence slavery's critics, and of the battle for free speech and the right to petition which these tactics provoked. The leader of this fight was John Quincy Adams, the only American President to ever return to serve in the Congress after leaving the White House.

   What makes this book so enjoyable to read is that, unlike so many academics, William Miller has captured the spirit of this period, and the absolutely unique role that it played in shaping the character of the anti-slavery fight, and thus the future of this nation.  There is a wonderful tension, and excitement as we watch the battle unfold.  There is also an awe inspiring admiration for Adams, who almost single handedly, defines the issues in this fight from the highest, most principled standpoint. A great deal of this comes from Miller's liberal use of   excepts from the debates themselves.  Through these, his own words, we also  develop a love for "Old Man Eloquent", as Adams came to be known, as he wages this fight with a wit and humor that is contagious. 

   Most people, including most historians, would not necessarily associate Adams with the emergence of the abolitionist movement in America, leaving the field instead to the Lowells, and Lawrences, Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison.  But his role in shaping the anti-slavery impulse was central, as Miller documents, being not only the point man in Congress up until his death in 1848, but the moral reference point for a movement, both during and after his service.  After all, it would be the voice of John Quincy Adams that would resonate with Abraham Lincoln and the leaders of the Republican Party, when slavery was finally defeated in this nation two decades later.  This would be on a far higher basis than mere abolition, but rather upon those universal principles which this nation had been founded upon, but which had been subverted by the institution of human slavery. 

   Abolition in America, as much as every other question in this nations history, was a battleground for those policies and ideals which represented something truly universal, as opposed to being something less.  From the very beginning this battle as to the nations character had this quality. Would we as a nation be a republic in form, yet not in substance. Would we be nothing more that an ideological vassal of the very British Empire we sought independence from, and thus not really free at all. Slavery itself was a product of this fight, a poison planted upon our shores to foster a love of the very oligarchical and despotic system,  "the British system" as American's used to understand, that we had made a revolution against.  The opposition to slavery, which had existed with the founders and continued to mature through the early years of the Republic, itself became a front in this battle, with such abolitionists as Garrison mere pawns of British oligarchical power.  For Garrison, arguing to tear up the Constitution and Declaration, because they "were Covenants with the Slavepower", was little different from the states-rights zealots of the slaveholding South, who sought to destroy those same instruments by arguing that Garrison was right, they in fact did justify the barbaric institution of slavery and the system that created it.  In the end, both would destroy this nation and the republican experiment it represented.

   Deciphering this, there was not much difference between the absolutes of both North and South, and steering the fight against slavery to more solid ground was the great contribution of J.Q. Adams in this period.  While his voice was raised in opposition, neither of these doctrines of disunion could

prevail. What Adams did, which Miller demonstrates brilliantly by his depiction of this period, is educate the nation in true anti-slavery, making clear that both slavery and it's absolutist opponents hated the same thing: the universal principles of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.  That this nation was not one of oligarchs, nor were those horrid ideas and institutions which sustained it and slavery any part of the founding spirit or law of this nation. 

   Thus John Quincy Adams was one of those individuals unique in history. He was the indispensible advocate and interpretor of that set of principles that he had been bequeathed by the Revolutionary generation of his parents. As a result, he was able to, in turn, bequeath to a generation that produced such as Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Thaddeus Stevens, the ideals and principles to both end the abomination of slavery and guarantee this nations future.   In allowing us to see this, to in a sense stand next to Adams becoming part of the battle, and therefore appreciate both this incredible period in our nations history, and it's central figure, Professor Miller has done a great service to us all. 

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