Arguing about slavery : the great battle in the United States Congress

by William Lee Miller

Paper Book, 1996




New York : A.A. Knopf, 1996.


A blow-by-blow re-creation of the battle royal that raged in Congress in the 1830s, when a small band of representatives, led by President John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, employed intricate stratagems to outwit the Southern (and Southern-sympathizing) sponsors of the successive "gag" rules that had long blocked debate on the subject of slavery.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Kathleen828
Very well written, obviously the product of prodigious research. It deals with an issue of weighty moral gravity, and has in it some of the best speeches I have ever read. Further, it wonderfully personifies John Quincy Adams, a man about whom I knew essentially nothing. Miller makes him a living, breathing, thinking, committed human being.
If you are wondering whether or not to read this, dive in - it is well worth the time.
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LibraryThing member DeputyHeadmistress
A well read person, said Miss Charlotte Mason, will be familiar with "Men and their motives, the historical sequence of events, principles for the conduct of life, in fact, practical philosophy, is what the emergencies of the times require us to possess and to be able to communicate."

We don't learn these good things in a year, but rather, these qualities "are the gathered harvests of many seasons' sowing of poetry, literature, history."

When Miss Mason talked about sowing literature and history, she was referring to putting children in touch with good books. Lucidity, personal conviction, directness- these are some of the qualities we look for when selecting the books for our children to read. We want what Charlotte Mason called 'living books.'

One such book is Arguing About Slavery. I knew we had found a living book, one written with that personal conviction which Charlotte [Mason] mentions, when I read this in the introduction:
"I discovered the true story told in these pages while I was working on
something else- on "America's Moral and Intellectual Underpinnings," as I
rather grandly put it. I had decided to deal with that subject, not a small
one, by telling stories. When I came across this one, it grabbed me by the
collar, threw me upon the floor, sat upon my chest and insisted on being told."

The author is William Lee Miller. He researched the congressional records during the decades prior to 1861, reviewing the discussions, arguments, and fights on the issue of slavery. He shares them here, with plentiful commentary and background research, meticulously documented. His style is riveting, the story fascinating, and his personal conviction clearly evident.

Our two oldest girls read it when they were 14 and 16. They were captivated. My eldest made a copybook of quotes from this book alone. MIdway through the 500 page
volume she had six pages (double sided) of handwritten quotes. She met people in the pages of this book whom she felt she 'knew' and she was eager to find out more about them.
The (then) 14 y.o. was also working through the book on her own, making her own
copybook. The two girls planned to share their quotebooks when they were
done, to see if they selected any of the same quotes. Years later, this remains one of their favorite books ever read for school or any other reason. The Head Girl actually wrote a fan letter to the author (we are not fan letter writers in general), and yes, he responded. She still keeps her notebook and refers to it occasionally. This was probably one of the ten most important books we've ever read for school.

It is not enough, said my educational mentor, "to teach reasoning, logic, we must have knowledge of character, of principles, of God most of all, because "without knowledge, Reason carries a man into the wilderness and Rebellion joins company."

Arguing About Slavery is full of good seed to sow.
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LibraryThing member bezoar44
This book offers an account of the fight in the US House of Representatives from 1835 - 1844 over efforts by Southern legislators to block reception of petitions asking for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. The central figure is John Quincy Adams, who had served as President for one term in the 1820s but was back in the House by the 1830s. The fight set the stage for the political battles of the 1840s and 1850s that in turn led up to the Civil War. Beyond the drama of the story, and the colorful leaders Miller depicts, the book offers wonderful insights into the strategies and tactics of the abolitionist movement. This has to be one of the first efforts in American history involving substantial numbers of third party, grassroots advocates -- that is, ordinary citizens organized in support of a goal that would not benefit them directly. The lessons learned in the petition fight have been transmitted through successive generations of advocates working on different causes, and are still useful lessons for those of us working to shape public policies today.… (more)
LibraryThing member Wombat
A fascinating history of some of the early congressional debates about slavery. For the most part these were debates about whether it would even be permissible to discuss the "peculiar institution" of the South in the U.S. House of Representatives. Miller makes excellent use of the original records of these debates and does a good job portraying the debates in terms of the concerns of the participants, people who had no foreknowledge that this issue would ultimately lead to the American Civil War. The book also provides a larger-than-life look at the last stage of the career of John Quincy Adams, the only former U.S. President to serve in the House of Representatives.… (more)
LibraryThing member ksmyth
Miller's book discusses the the breaking of the Gag Rule in the House of Representatives. This rule forbade the discussion of or criticism of slavery. Though we frequently forget that John Quincy Adams was much more than 6th president of the United States, he was also an early opponent of slavery, and served for many years in the house. It was he was instrumental in overturning this house rule.

Miller creates a great context to understand the nation and slavery's place in it--the growth of abolitionist movements, both within the church and outside of it, as well as the growing abolitionist press.
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