Arguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States by William Lee Miller

Arguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States by William Lee Miller

By William Lee Miller

A blow-by-blow new version of the conflict royal that raged in Congress within the 1830s, while a small band of representatives, led through President John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, hired elaborate stratagems to outwit the Southern (and Southern-sympathizing) sponsors of the successive "gag" ideas that had lengthy blocked debate just about slavery.

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C O N G RE S S MA N F A I R F I E L D , unwittingly holding in his hand the har­ binger of great events, moved that the petition from the I72 women in Maine be referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia. That was the routine. That had been the usual action, back in those days of respect­ fulness; it would have started the petition, as many before it, on its quiet trip to oblivion. But some in the House now wanted a swifter, surer, and less respectful trip. Congressman Cramer, a Democrat from Martin Van Buren's home state, New York, moved that the petition be laid on the table-that familiar parliamentary device, not debatable, that abruptly stops debate and if successful puts the motion onto that much overloaded and very metaphorical table, from which it probably-certainly in this case-will never return.

Thousands of dollars are spent every year and years of time lost in going and sending from the Offices to the Capitol and vice versa. " The number of lawyers in the House, then as now, was large, and the number of congressmen who would make a lifelong career in public office, then as now, was also large, but the difference was this: they usually did not make that career in Congress or in Washington. In the late twentieth century there is much hand-wringing about the power of incumbency in the House: a congressman gets elected, and re­ elected, and reelected, and gains seniority on the mohair-allotment sub­ committee, and receives campaign funds from the Mohair Political Action Committee, and buys a house in Chevy Chase or Fairfax County and stays Immediate Representatives 45 on forever.

In the short sessions which ended in the odd-numbered years, they adjourned on March 3, before spring plant­ ing began, and in inaugural years before the new presidential term began, as it then did, on March 4. The long session, the first regular session of each Congress, like the one that started off with Fairfield's petition, would begin in December of an odd-numbered year and last into the early sum­ mer of the following even-numbered year. The congressmen would "winter" together, as one might somewhat anachronistically and eu­ phemistically put it, in muddy, tobacco-tinctured Washington.

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