Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

PETITIONS
Chapter 29

The brightest years of the antislavery enlightenment were 1837 to 1839, despite adoption in the House of Representatives of the Pinckney report and in the Senate of Calhoun's resolutions. Stanton's powerful speech before the Massachusetts legislature was followed by an intensified petition campaign, and by publication of four special treatises: Weld American Slavery As It Is, Birney Correspondence with F. H. Elmore of South Carolina, Thome and Kimball Emancipation in the West Indies, and Beriah Green Chattel Principle.

The Constitution forbids Congress to make any law "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." The Pinckney report of May 26, 1836, and those other gag resolutions which followed it, would seem to have been clear violations of this constitutional provision, but they were rules of procedure, not laws governing individual conduct, and who was to say to the House that it must do thus and so. Because only the sovereign people at the ballot box could control Congress (and ultimately that was the solution of this problem) did not justify the House in passing the Pinckney report. It was not legal or illegal. It was not constitutional or unconstitutional. It was tyranny.

Anyone who permits himself to become involved in the abstract questions of what constitutes the right of petition, and whether these petitions should have been referred to a committee for systematic tabulation and periodic report, fails to grasp the hateful significance of the Pinckney report.1 The rule of procedure was preceded by a lengthy defense of slavery. They were inseparable. That report said: "They rejoice" (meaning the Committee and the House when it passed the report); "They rejoice, therefore, that the great body of the people of the non-slaveholding states, have come forward, as they have done, in the true spirit of American patriotism, to maintain their constitutional obligations to their southern brethren, and to arrest the disturbance of the public peace."

The report was then, first of all, a deliberate encouragement to mob violence. Never before, nor since, in this land of free institutions, has the rule of impartial law been so threatened by mobs as at this time. Force had triumphed over law everywhere in the land for many months and the contest had scarcely begun. The slave power, and its Northern allies, the colonizationists, who wanted to use mobs to put down discussion, insisted that mob violence was an expression of the will of the people. They insisted that the inalienable rights of individuals might be infringed at any time by this expressed will of a community. They insisted that the victims were responsible for the "excitement," in any given case. Every one of these perversions of truth and justice was wrapped up in this report. They were labeled patriotism. They were soon to be repeated and emphasized by the postmaster general and the President of the United States.

The report went on to say: "Every true patriot must be aware that a crisis has now arrived in the political condition of the country, in which

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