Civil Liberties and the Antislavery Controversy

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Two civil liberties issues linked the freedom of communication enjoyed by whites with the cause of the slave: the mails controversy of 1835–1837 and the gag controversy of 1836–1844.

By 1835, southern political leaders, anxiety-ridden by threats to the security of slavery, were in no mood to tolerate a propaganda initiative of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which began weekly mailings of illustrated antislavery periodicals throughout the South. The first mailing was seized and burned by a Charleston, South Carolina, mob, an action condoned by Postmaster General Amos Kendall. President andrew jackson recommended legislation that would prohibit mailings of antislavery literature to the slave states. Senator john c. calhoun denounced this as a threat to the sovereignty of the states, while some northern political leaders objected to it on the grounds that it inhibited the first amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press of their constituents. In ensuing debates, the postal power under Article I, section 8, and the First Amendment became the center of debates on Jackson's counterproposal, which would have mandated interstate cooperation in suppressing abolitionist mailings. Ironically, in 1836, Congress apparently inadvertently enacted legislation making it a misdemeanor to delay delivery of mail. But by 1837, abolitionists abandoned the campaign for more promising antislavery ventures.

The gag controversy proved to be longer-lived. Opponents of slavery had been petitioning Congress ever since 1790 on various subjects relating to slavery, such as the international and interstate slave trade. Such petitions were routinely either tabled or shunted to the oblivion of committees. Southerners in Congress were extremely inhospitable to such petitions, especially when the Anti-Slavery Society discontinued its mails campaign in favor of a stepped-up petition and memorial drive in 1836 focusing on the abolition of slavery in the district of columbia. To cope with the resulting flood of unwelcome petitions, Calhoun proposed that each house, acting under the rules of proceedings clause of Article I, section 5, refuse to receive petitions concerning slavery, rather than receiving and then tabling them. More moderate congressmen, however, adopted alternate resolutions providing for automatic tabling of such petitions. This only stimulated the antislavery societies to more successful petition drives. In response, each house annually adopted evermore stringent gag rules, the House of Representatives making its a standing rule in 1840.

Congressman john quincy adams, the former President who represented a Massachusetts district in the House, carried on an eight-year struggle to subvert the gags; he slyly introduced abolitionist petitions despite the standing rule. Enraged southern congressmen determined to stop his impertinence by offering a motion to censure him in 1842. The move backfired because it gave Adams a splendid forum to defend the First Amendment freedom of petition and to dramatize the threat to whites' civil liberties posed by the attempted suppression of the antislavery movement. The Adams censure resolution failed. Proslavery congressmen then succeeded in censuring another antislavery Whig, Joshua Giddings of Ohio, for introducing antislavery resolutions in the House in 1842. He resigned his seat, immediately ran for reelection in what amounted to a referendum on his antislavery position, and was overwhelmingly reelected. Recognizing that the gags were not only tattered and ineffectual but now also counterproductive, stimulating the very debate they were meant to choke, Congress let them lapse in 1844.

William M. Wiecek


Wiecek, William M. 1977 The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 1760–1848. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

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Civil Liberties and the Antislavery Controversy

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