The Crisis Decade
On the federal level, in Congress, similar developments in attitudes toward the African American people may be illustrated in the persons of several Republican leaders. Joshua R. Giddings ( 1795- 1864) of Ohio was elected as a Whig from the Western Reserve in 1838; his experiences in Washington and the growing concern over slavery moved him steadily toward a position just short of the political Abolitionists. The tremendous excitement engendered by the slave uprising in 1839 aboard the Amistad and the litigation therefrom, which resulted in the slaves being declared free in 1841--and the central role in that case of John Quincy Adams, then Giddings's colleague in the House--furthered this move. The climax came that same year 1841 with the uprising of the slaves aboard the domestic slave-trading vessel, the Creole. The rebels in this case made it to the Bahamas, British territory in which slavery had been abolished recently. Despite desperate--even war- threatening--demands upon England from Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, the rebels retained their freedom.
Giddings, on the floor of the House, defended the rebels and compared them with the Republic's revolutionary fathers. For this, he was censured by the House, resigned, and was overwhelmingly returned to his seat in a special election. By December 1848 Giddings, now a Free Soiler, having been appalled by the sight of a slave coffle driven through the streets of the capital, introduced a bill that called for a plebiscite, to be participated in by "all the male inhabitants" of the District of Columbia, where the question would be for or against slavery therein. This provoked Representative Patrick W. Tomkins to inquire with some asperity whether the honorable gentleman from Ohio meant that slaves and the "free colored" also should vote. Giddings replied with elaborate courtesy--not failing to face the Louisiana congressman--that as he "looked abroad upon the family of men,"