The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
BACKSTAGE IN WASHINGTON
When Weld moved to the Belleville farm he planned to devote about three or four hours a day to farm work. The remainder of the time he would write. But the farm was in such pressing need of attention that before long he was laboring eleven and twelve hours a day, ploughing, hoeing, felling trees, splitting rails, boring post holes, digging and hauling rocks. He had little incentive to write, for with the debacle in the American Antislavery Society, who would publish his work? Weld was soon a full-time farmer.
Then, almost as though it were a miracle, his voice returned. On June 30, 1841, he wrote to Gerrit Smith that he had ventured to agree to speak at an antislavery rally at Newark on July 4. It was a perilous experiment, but his throat was so much better that he felt it a duty to try. He would talk only a few minutes, perhaps not more than five, but, if he had no trouble, he would speak, "God helping me, as often as I can treasure vocal power enough to last me for a ten minute testimony against the climax of human villainy." Weld credited his recovery to hard muscular work to which the force of circumstance had put him. It was the will of Providence. For if he had followed his intended routine of a mere three hours of work a day, his voice would never have come back.
It was five years to the day since Weld had talked in public when he stepped before the audience at Newark. Joseph Sturge, who came over from New York to hear him, reported that he spoke without serious difficulty for half an hour. Lewis Tappan sent congratulations. "Thank you," replied Weld with heartfelt fervor. "I have 'got Well' again through the mercy of our Father."
"And so your mouth is open again in the cause of Humanity," exulted Beriah Green. "Blessed be God! May he enable you to plead for the Dumb, long, earnestly and effectively!" Then, remembering Weld's reckless disregard of self, he added: "Your past experience in this matter should teach you prudence. I hope that you will not pour yourself out at a single gush. That is a protracted struggle to which you are Heaven-called. May God help you to spend your strength, economically!" Rejoicing in his restored powers, Weld spoke again at Newark and in other nearby communities. He was active in the Essex County Antislavery Society.
On January 3, 1841, the Welds had a second son. They named him Theodore Grimké Weld. They were overjoyed to have another baby to keep Charles Stuart company, but the child was destined to give them many hours of heartache.
Just as Weld was getting back into the swing of antislavery work, he received an important letter from Joshua Leavitt, who was in Washington covering the congressional session for the Enmncipator. The abolitionists' third-party aspirations had been premature, but Birney's political spadework as secretary of the American Antislavery Society had yielded fruit. The strategy of questioning candidates and throwing abolition ballots to congressional aspirants of abolition sympathies had resulted in the election of a little group of Whig congressmen who were ready to do battle in the national legislature. Already they had proved their faith by staunch support of John Quincy Adams in the petition fight. But this was merely in the nature of a harassing operation, condoned if not approved by the Whig leaders as a means of embarrassing the Democrats.
In 1841, however, the House of Representatives passed the notorious "forty-second rule," which made the "gag" on antislavery petitions a standing rule, rather than a special rule applying only for the duration of a session as heretofore. With the adoption of this measure the little band of zealots resolved on a frontal attack. They would go beyond the right of petition and agitate the slavery question itself at every opportunity. They knew they must expect a galling counterfire and that they must fight alone, for to attack slavery itself was to defy party discipline by giving battle on what the Whig leaders had always avoided as untenable ground. But they were a stubborn band, even without the constant prodding they received from Leavitt.
Leading them was Joshua Reed Giddings, representative from Ohio's Western Reserve, a reckless, truculent fighter who had been baptized in antislavery by Weld himself. Of stern and frugal Yankee antecedents, he was reared on a farm, and by hard study in the little time his father spared him from the chores he had equipped himself to teach school and then to practice law. Of a dogged rather than a brilliant intellect, and without the finesse of the successful party leader, he combined the farmer's hardbitten independence with the didacticism of the schoolmaster and the lawyer's love of argument. He was six feet two, broadshouldered and compact, with flowing white locks and features seamed with heavy lines. His excellent physique belied his uncertain health, however, for he was bothered with dyspepsia and an irregular heart. He was not a remarkable speaker and he sometimes groped for a word, at which time he would close his eyes as if to envision it, and wait until it came.
He was serving his second congressional term, and was John Quincy Adams' closest friend in Congress. Like Adams, he dwelt chiefly on the moral wrong of slavery, but he went further than Adams in holding slavery to be illegal, inasmuch as no act of man's could make one human being the property of another. Even as a freshman legislator Giddings had noted how overbearing Southerners could sometimes be, and had resolved that he would brook no insolence. Already his aggressiveness had brought a warning from a Southern congressman that if he ever set foot in the South he would be hanged, and few of his Southern colleagues deigned to speak to him.
Second of the group was Seth M. Gates of New York, whose antislavery ardor was born of evangelical piety. Although Gates had edited a paper and practiced law, he was so timid about speaking in public as to be almost inarticulate. But he labored in other ways, and so effectively that a Southern planter offered five hundred dollars for his delivery in Savannah "dead or alive."
William Slade of Vermont, who was serving his sixth congressional term, was the third member of the band. No orator, he could summon a prickly vituperation and a brackish wit that made even the most proficient speakers reluctant to tangle with him. Trained for the law, he had edited a vigorous political newspaper whose failure had bogged him in debt. He scorned bankruptcy and was still paying the debt off with what money he could spare from support of his wife and nine children. Since he was dependent upon political office for his livelihood, discretion must have warned him to play safe, but Giddings regarded him as the staunchest abolitionist in the House. And while his recreancy displeased the national Whig leaders, the faithful Vermonters later made him governor of the state.
Slade's colleague from Vermont was John Mattocks, a highly successful lawyer, a veteran state legislator and former Chief Justice of the state's Supreme Court, who had just been elected to Congress after having served previously fourteen years before. Robust and good-humored, he was a witty conversationalist, although he claimed never to have made a formal speech in his life. His antislavery convictions were as unwavering as his devout Congregationalism, and he assured his embattled colleagues that no abolition doctrine was too ultra for him. He too would later serve as governor of Vermont.
Sherlock J. Andrews of Ohio, a man of ability and some eloquence, whose latter talent was circumscribed by a throat ailment which the Washington climate aggravated until his voice was reduced to a whisper, Nathaniel Briggs Borden of Massachusetts, and Francis James of Pennsylvania were others who could generally be relied on for support. Giddings wrote to his wife that the group constituted a "select committee," not so much thought of at present, but destined to a larger place in history.
They became disheartened at times. Gates was so disgusted with the "hollow heartedness" of most of his Whig colleagues that he contemplated joining the Liberty Party. "I cannot, however, get along with all their views and positions," he explained to Birney, "and so I hold on where I am, receiving all the curses of the South for my ultra abolitionism, and the cuffs of the third party men of the North, for my Whigism.'' Everything they did drew criticism, too often from those who owed them gratitude. "Mr. Leavitt has once more done some of us a gross injustice in his remarks about the election of Speaker," Gates protested to Birney in another letter. He, Giddings, and Slade had labored manfully to obtain the nomination of a free-state man, and when the Whig caucus chose a slaveholder they had bolted and prevailed upon John Quincy Adams, as well as others of their group, to buck the party choice. Yet Leavitt was accusing them of apathy. "We get curses enough here for obstinacy, and bolting party," Gates complained, "without getting it from him."
But Leavitt did not mean to let them down, and he had hit upon a plan to make their opposition effectual. They were pressed with a multitude of minor congressional duties that left them little time to search out and assimilate the factual materials with which to implement their antislavery attack. Theodore Weld, however, was skilled in antislavery research. Why not bring him to Washington and put him in charge of a sort of antislavery reference bureau. The Whig insurgents took to the plan at once. If Weld would come, they would pay his traveling expenses, see that he had access to the shelves of the Library of Congress, where investigators must be introduced by a congressman, and provide room, stationery, and all other facilities.
Weld saw the possibilities as soon as Leavitt broached the proposition. "That those men are in a position to do for the A.S. cause by a single speech more than our best lecturers can do in a year, we all know," he wrote to Lewis Tappan. "The fact that these speeches, prepared for the press by the speakers themselves after delivery, will be . . . scattered all over the south as well as the north settles that point." And besides, Gates and Andrews, as well as Giddings, were Weld's own converts to abolitionism.
Yet the job presented problems. Three weeks of carpentry work were imperatively demanded at Weld's farm, besides the routine labor. He had planned to do all this himself; if he left, he must hire it done. To hire, he must borrow. Weld took his problem to Lewis Tappan, and as usual Tappan helped him with money. "Dear Theda . . . has concluded to go & see how far in earnest these men are," wrote Sarah to Jane Smith, "--if they are determined to do their duty he will most joyously devote himself to the service & labor behind the curtain--thou knowest this is just what he prefers, but if he finds no true hearted man among them he will return immediately."
On December 30, 1841, Weld arrived in Washington, where he was ensconced in an alcove in the Library of Congress, his desk piled high with materials he had brought along and with books and newspapers selected from the Library's accumulation.
He lodged at Mrs. Spriggs' boarding house, where, a few years later, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois would be a boarder. Leavitt was with Weld, and Gates and Giddings also had lodgings there, along with a dozen or more other congressmen. "Mrs. Spriggs is directly in front of the Capitol," wrote Weld to his wife." . . . The iron railing around the Capitol Park comes within fifty feet of our door. Our dining room overlooks the whole Capitol Park which is one mile around and filled with shade trees and shrubbery." The park was adorned with summer houses, "jet d'eaus," basins filled with gold and silver fish, and was criss-crossed with gravel paths. A better place for exercise could not be had, and every morning before breakfast Weld went over to the park and ran and hopped and jumped for an hour or more. "I have a pleasant room on the second floor," he informed Angelina, "with a good bed, plenty of covering, a bureau, table, chairs, closets, and cloathes press, a good fire place, and plenty of dry wood to burn in it."
Indulging Weld's dietary peculiarities, Mrs. Spriggs set a deep bowl of milk before him at every meal, and into this he crumbled the Graham bread she always provided. Mush, apples, vegetables, almonds, figs, and raisins completed his fare, and if his messmates accounted him strange when he scorned the juicy roasts, the rich butter, and the aromatic tea and coffee that they relished, at least Weld noted no sneers.
Mrs. Spriggs was a Virginian. Five of her servants were free colored persons, the other three were hired slaves. Weld marveled at the uninhibited manner in which the boarders talked about slavery, abolition, and runaway slaves in the presence of these Negroes, and wondered that the slaves were not incited to run off.
On New Year's Day, Weld, Leavitt, and Giddings attended President Tyler's levee. None of them cared to touch the "presidential digits," so they avoided the reception line. Indeed, the "palace" was so thronged that they stayed only fifteen minutes, then went to pay their respects to the Adamses. Weld was pleased to note that the Adams house was modestly furnished and that Adams and his wife were plainly dressed, in contrast to the "pomp and tinsel" at the White House. Adams was glad to meet Weld. "I know you well, sir, by your writings," he remarked. On a later occasion Weld dined with the Adamses. "It was a genuine abolition gathering," he wrote to Angelina, "and the old patriarch talked with as much energy and zeal as a Methodist at a camp meeting."
Weld loathed the very atmosphere of Washington. "The Worlds splendor which blazes around me," he lamented, "the pride and fashion, prodigality, ostentatious display and vanity, and desperate strugglings and vaultings of ambition, the envyings and fierce encounters of rivals for office and popular sway, are lessons to my soul that are to be learned here. May God help me to reap from them all those peaceable fruits of humility, faith, love, zeal, and patience of hope which those who are wise in the wisdom of the Lord may gather from them."
He was homesick from the first. "When the press of business pauses as it does at intervals (as at meals, and before breakfast, and after I retire at night, and at brief little snatches during the day) how my heart beats home," he wrote to Angelina. He assured her he had heeded her admonitions to keep spruced up. His socks were whole. His clothes were in good state. He shaved every morning, he reported.
Angelina feared he might be in peril of arrest or even assassination. His room was filled with abolition literature, and hadn't Amos Dresser been publicly whipped merely because abolition pamphlets were discovered in his luggage?
Weld reassured her. There was really no danger at all. And what if there were? "We are not the agents God has chosen for the deliverance of the slaves if fear of anything swerves us from duty." As an abolition lecturer he had often been in hourly danger of death, but he never let it cost him an hour's sleep. "Now I am free of all apprehension," he declared. "Not but that I think it not utterly improbable that I may be called before the legal authorities to account for the abolition books, etc., in my possession and if so shall certainly not be specially grieved at an opportunity to say something about inalienable rights. But of this, even, I think there is not any probability."
According to his custom, Weld sought a colored church. He found two colored Methodist meetinghouses, and, while both pastors were "full of noise and shouting," still the congressional chaplains were scarcely better. Indeed, what passed for religion in Washington, Weld reckoned a pompous sham, "having the form of Godliness but denying the power thereof," and sustained merely for appearance and reputation. "Oh what mockery of God!" he groaned. And yet there were some sanguine signs. Gates came in one day to report that he had attended a meeting in a Capitol committee room to organize a congressional teetotal temperance society, and that Wise of Virginia--who, only a few days before, had been so enraged at Gates by reason of an abolition speech that he countered with a furious diatribe in the course of which he shook his fist under Gates' nose--this same Wise had been so drawn to Gates in common loathing of the Demon Rum that he had taken a seat beside him and talked quite civilly for some time.
Weld himself attended a later meeting of the society, and shortly thereafter he visited a Methodist church where John Hawkins, the celebrated reformed drunkard, was lecturing. So plaintive was Hawkins' appeal that many eyes were wet with tears, including Weld's own. During his discourse Hawkins made an oral side-swipe at tobacco chewers, and at the close of his speech, while many of his auditors were signing the temperance pledge, a gentleman hastily wrote out a pledge against tobacco and handed it to Hawkins, who held it aloft while he voiced a lusty plea for addicts of the weed to renounce their vice and sign. Several came forward, and Weld noted that his neighbor squirmed uneasily. At length he turned to Weld, and with shamefaced look announced, "I can't go that." Whereupon Weld reasoned with him, and with such effect that he finally started from his seat. marched boldly up the aisle, and, emptying the tobacco from his pockets, turned it over to Hawkins, who held it up as a trophy before the audience. With that the aisle was crowded with repentant chewers. smokers, and snuffers, who, in a few minutes, had not only signed the pledge, but piled two quarts of burley on the altar.
Weld worked in the Library of Congress as long as the doors were open--from nine until three--sometimes taking off an hour to visit the House or Senate for relaxation. After supper he worked in his room until bedtime, examining law books, treaties, iudicial decisions, the Journals of Congress. He and Leavitt held frequent consultations. Much of Weld's time was devoted to the case of the Creole, a ship which sailed from Hampton Roads bound for New Orleans in October, 1841, with 130 slaves aboard. In the course of the voyage the slaves revolted, took possession of the ship, and sailed her into the port of Nassau, where, according to British law, the bondsmen were entitled to freedom. A slaveowner on the vessel was killed in the melee, however, and the Bahaman authorities held the Negroes in custody pending instructions from London.
The owners of ship and cargo demanded the interposition of the American government and the State Department proceeded to urge their claims. The South regarded the case as a test--indeed, Southern firebrands wished to push the matter to the threat of war--inasmuch as the British had made it a practice to liberate Negroes whenever American coasting vessels that carried slaves had come within British jurisdiction because of weather or other unavoidable circumstance.
The case was expected to come before the House at any moment; Southern representatives had delayed this long only through fear of giving the abolitionists a chance to fulminate. It would come up in due time, Weld informed Angelina. "Meanwhile we are getting ready for them." The recommendations of the Secretaries of War and of the Navy for an increase in the military forces in the South were also destined for criticism. They would open up the question of taxation of the North to protect the South's "peculiar institution," and Weld was building up a mass of data to bolster the abolitionists' complaint. The antislavery phalanx was also preparing petitions to be signed by free colored seamen who had been imprisoned while their ships remained in certain Southern ports, a precautionary measure designed to prevent their inciting slaves to run off.
Altogether, Weld was very busy, and before he had been many weeks in Washington the blustery sectional cross-winds reached crescendo in the House. On Friday, January 21, 1842, John Quincy Adams presented a petition from Habersham County, Georgia, praying his own removal from the chairmanship of the committee on foreign affairs because of his antislavery prejudice. He was "possessed with a species of monomania on all subjects connected with people as dark as a Mexican," the petitioners complained, and was therefore not to be trusted regarding our relations with Mexico. This was just the sort of thing in which Adams delighted; it gave him a chance to evade the gag rule. Foreseeing this possibility, Southern members moved to lay the petition on the table, but Adams demanded the right to be heard in his own defense. Upheld by the Speaker of the House, he launched into a tirade until it seemed to Weld, who was watching from the gallery, that "slaveholding, slave trading, and slave breeding absolutely quailed and howled under his dissecting knife." Time and again Southern members tried to stop him by raising points of order or by screaming: "That is false," "I demand Mr. Speaker that you put him down," "What! are we to sit here and endure such insults?" I demand that you shut the mouth of that old harlequin."
But Adams swung his cleaver without mercy as Weld rejoiced to hear it thud to the very bones. At least half the Southern members left their seats and gathered about Adams to threaten or glare, but the old man, his venerable dignity forgotten, drew himself up to his full five feet eight inches, and with bald head gleaming and eyes aflame beneath his lowering brows, he gave them glower for glower. Weld marveled at Adams' audacity as he replied to interruptions with "I see where the shoe pinches, Mr. Speaker, it will pinch more yet." "I'll deal out to the gentlemen a diet that they'll find it hard to digest." "If before I get through every slaveholder, slavetrader and slave breeder on this floor does not get materials for reflection it shall be no fault of mine," and so on until a vote for adjournment silenced him.
The next day Adams continued, but at every opportunity some Southern member would interrupt, so that Adams was never able to speak more than five minutes at a time.
On Monday Adams was prepared to carry on, and, when the House refused to hear him, he resorted to his accustomed practice of presenting antislavery petitions, bringing them up one after another and proceeding as far as he could, until, in each case, as soon as the nature of the petition was made evident, the Speaker applied the gag. In due course, Adams drew from his file a petition from a group of citizens of Haverhill, Massachusetts, who asked Congress to take measures for the immediate dissolution of the Union, inasmuch as it no longer brought reciprocal benefits but drained off the resources of the North to support an institution detestable in the sight of that section, and because inevitable destruction was foreshadowed by the nation's proslavery course. During the ensuing uproar Adams moved the appointment of a select committee with instructions to answer the petitioners by showing the reasons why their plea could not be granted.
An expert in parliamentary procedure, the crafty Adams had placed himself in an invulnerable position. Southerners had repeatedly threatened to dissolve the Union by force, and it ill befitted them to take offense at a proposal asking for a peaceable dissolution. As the observant New York merchant and diarist Philip Hone saw it, the Haverhill petition advanced the same disunion argument that the South Carolina nullifiers had put forward, but now that "the brat is born of Northern parents, these patriotic hotspurs are horrified beyond all example."
Adams had acted solely as the agent of his constituents, being careful to make it evident that he did not favor their plea. But such was the rage of certain Southerners that they walked right into the trap. George W. Hopkins of Virginia asked the Speaker if it would be in order to burn the petition in the presence of the House. Henry A. Wise and Thomas W. Gilmer, a fellow Virginian, demanded that Adams be censured, and Gilmer introduced a resolution to that effect. Slaveholding members rejoiced that at last they had Adams in their grasp, and a Southern caucus was called to meet that evening to plan future strategy. Giddings tried to organize the Northern Whigs in Adams' behalf, but most of them refused to foment "a sectional quarrel." A few stalwarts did meet in Giddings' room, and Leavitt and Weld were asked to join them. Appointed a committee of two to give Adams what help they could, Leavitt and Weld called at his residence late that night. Adams was deeply moved, for he had expected to fight alone; and he asked them to check certain points and have the books and documents supporting their conclusions placed on his desk when the House convened the next day.
Following a meeting of the committee on foreign affairs on Tuesday morning, Caleb Cushing, Adams' colleague from Massachusetts, warned the old gentleman that Southern members of the committee were plotting to displace Adams as chairman.
In order to avoid the appearance of partisanship, the Southern caucus had selected Thomas F. Marshall, a Kentucky Whig, to lead the attack in the House. A nephew of the late Chief Justice John Marshall, he was an ambitious, aggressive, and bibulous young man whose oratorical efforts had once been described by Adams as "alcohol evaporating in elegant language." After the transaction of some minor business on Tuesday morning, Marshall opened upon Adams by proposing substitute resolutions, more specific than Gilmer's in that they accused Adams of insulting the American people and disgracing his country in the eyes of the world by permitting himself to be made the instrumentality of a contemptuous and treasonable clique. Such conduct merited expulsion from the House, the resolutions declared, and Adams' colleagues would act with grace and mercy if they merely censured him and turned him over, for the rest, to the chidings of his own conscience and the contempt of all true Americans.
The galleries were filled with spectators and many senators had crowded into the lobbies when Adams rose to reply. Weld noted that he was unusually calm, and used none of the personal invective to which he so often resorted when dealing with the slave power. Instead he quoted the Declaration of Independence respecting the right of a people to change their government, and held forth on the question of personal liberty. "I said I thought it impossible the House should entertain the resolution," he recorded in his diary, "and after a few remarks postponing my address till it should be ascertained I stood accused, I finished."
As Adams sat down, Wise rose to attack. Tall and lean, with a dangerous glitter in his eye, he was able, rash, and headstrong. Kind to his own slaves, he could tolerate no taunts at slavery. A Virginia aristocrat, he subscribed to the Southern code of honor, had wounded an opponent in a duel and served as second to W. J. Graves when he killed a fellow-congressman, Jonathan Cilley, in an affair of honor. He was excitable and high-strung, and later, when serving as governor of Virginia, would refuse to save John Brown from the gallows even when presented with evidence of his insanity. He chewed tobacco and swore lustily, and, if his oratory was in the current grandiloquent style, his invective could sear and scorch. The perspicacious Philip Hone thought he tried to ape John Randolph of Roanoke, and while he fell short of the eccentric Randolph in ability, he could "vomit fire" like a dragon.
Almost quivering as he spoke, Wise denounced Adams as a "white-haired hypocrite" who had forsworn the teachings of his fathers and "preyed upon the dead." Adams' treason ranked with that of Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr, and he should consider himself fortunate to be let off with a reprimand. Wise spoke for two hours, not only against Adams but also against abolitionists and abolitionism, and the next day he held forth for two hours and a half, speaking, so it seemed to Weld in the gallery, "with the ferocity of a fiend." Adams sneered that he would not interrupt until Wise "had disgorged his whole cargo of filthy invective"; and when he finished at last, Adams contended that if subornation of perjury and treason were to be the charges against him, only a regularly constituted court and jury could try him.
Marshall retorted that Adams was guilty of contempt, and the wrangle continued until it was shut off by a vote to adjourn. It was not an edifying debate on either side, and it seemed to Philip Hone that the House had become a counterpart of the French National Assembly on the eve of the Reign of Terror. He thought Adams' deliberate provocation of the Southerners disgusting, and that Wise's language would bring blushes in a grogshop.
Not all the Southern members agreed as to the wisdom of an aggressive course, and on Thursday Joseph R. Underwood of Kentucky, Thomas D. Arnold of Tennessee, and John Minor Bolts of Virginia spoke against a vote of censure. Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts made such an able defense of Adams that Richard W. Thompson of Indiana moved to table the whole subject. Marshall and Gilmer begged Thompson to withdraw his motion. He refused. Whereupon the fire-eaters resorted to obstructive tactics to prevent a vote until it came time to adjourn.
On Friday Weld was once more in the gallery as Adams and Marshall had at each other again, with Wise and Gilmer breaking in. Adams accused the slaveholders of attempting to destroy the right of habeas corpus, trial by jury, freedom of the mails, of the press, of petition, and free speech. Adverting to South Carolina's practice of incarcerating free Negro seamen while their ships were in her ports, he accused her of enslaving citizens of Northern states in violation of their constitutional rights. He contrasted the educational system, the internal improvements, the industry and thrift of New York State with the wretched highways, the tumble-down dwellings, the cultural stagnation, and the general poverty of Virginia, blaming the South's backwardness on slavery.
During this whole time Weld kept himself at Adams' service, searching out documents, marking passages in books, keeping the old warrior's ammunition coming up in bountiful supply each morning. Several times he called at Adams' residence in the evening to learn what Adams might need the next day.
Having dealt with the outrages of the slave power, Adams passed to personalities. His reply to Hopkins' suggestion of burning the Haverhill petition was a mere reference to the "combustible gentleman from Virginia." In answer to Wise, he brought up the matter of his serving as second in the Graves-Cilley affray, pronouncing him as much a criminal as the man who pulled the fatal trigger, and denouncing one who, entering the halls of Congress smeared with human gore, would dare pass judgment on a fellow member. As for Marshall, Adams suggested that he return to Kentucky and commence the study of law, and also offered a few comments on his personal habits. Giddings overheard Isaac E. Holmes of South Carolina speak to Gilmer and Underwood in terms of grudging admiration of Adams, and Weld reported the slaveholders as utterly confounded. Threats, questions of order, motions to lay on the table, refusals to adjourn as a means of tiring Adams out, interruptions, accusations, explanations, all were ineffectual to silence the old man. "The Old Nestor has cast all their counsels headlong," gloated Weld, "turned all their guns against themselves, and smitten the whole host with dismay and discomfiture."
The old man's stamina amazed him. "Last Friday," Weld wrote to Angelina, "after he had been sitting in the house from 12 o'clock till 6, and for nearly half that time engaged in speaking with great energy against his ferocious assailants, I called at his house in the evening, and he came to meet me as fresh and elastic as a boy. I told him I was afraid he had tired himself out. 'No, not at all,' said he, 'I am all ready for another heat.' He then began and went through with the main points which he designed to push in his speech the next day, and with as much rapidity and energy of utterance and gesture as though he had been addressing the house. I tried to stop him, telling him he would need all his strength for the next day, but it was all in vain. He went on for an hour, or very, nearly that, in a voice loud enough to be heard by a large audience. Wonderful man!"
Saturday brought further skirmishing. Then Sunday gave Adams a brief rest. "The pressure upon my mind in the preparation of my defence is so great that for several successive nights I have had little sleep," he recorded in his diary on Monday, January 31. "Last night brought me some respite and relief, and I slept this morning almost until sunrise." It was a late hour for him.
On Monday the House took up other business, and Adams had a further chance to rest, though he was active in several matters that came up. Adjournment came early due to the death of Senator Nathan Fellows Dixon of Rhode Island. On Tuesday the House transacted no business because of Dixon's funeral, but Adams' committee on foreign affairs held a meeting at 10 A.M. Here Gilmer sprang the scheme to depose Adams as chairman, but the net result was merely to provide Adams with a new weapon to use in the House. For the remainder of the week the old man sparred and slugged by turns, at one time producing an anonymous letter from Jackson, North Carolina, which threatened him with assassination, at another exhibiting a portrait of himself with the mark of a rifle bullet in the middle of his forehead and the legend, "to stop the music of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, "Who in the space of one revolving moon, Is statesman, poet, babbler and buffoon."
Adams contrasted his cordial relations with Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe with the "base conspiracy" of the three Virginians who now assailed him. He denounced the plot to remove him from his chairmanship. When Marshall launched another attack, Adams produced some published letters of Marshall's in which that gentleman himself had loosed "an exquisite blast" at slavery. "I saw my cause was gained," recorded Adams, "and Marshall was sprawling in his own compost. I came home scarcely able to crawl up to my chamber, but with the sound of 'Io Triumphe' ringing in my ear."
On Monday, February 7, Weld called on Adams early to congratulate him on his defense of the past week. When the House met, Adams was prepared to carry on. But Botts moved to table the whole matter forever, and his motion carried, 106 to 93. The House then declined to receive the Haverhill petition, whereupon Adams proceeded to present a variety of others, bringing up nearly two hundred before the House adjourned. The old man truly had "provoking pertinacity."
Weld saw Adams' triumph as the first victory over the organized slaveocracy since the foundation of the government, and predicted that slavery's downfall would date from that hour. Giddings, too, marked it as the beginning of a new political era. "Well we have triumphed," he wrote to his daughter, "the north has for once triumphed .... I entertain not the least doubt that a moral revolution in this nation will take its date from this session of Congress," he concluded. "I am confident that the charm of the slavepower is now broken. I may be too sanguine--quite likely I am,--but such are my candid sentiments."
Weld was not so optimistic as Giddings. The tide was turning, to be sure, but he still foresaw an exhausting fight. "Every day reveals more new symptoms of alarm and shift of position among the slaveholders here," he informed Angelina, "but though they feel their foundation shaking they will strive to sustain it with perfect desperation. Satan never retreats without a death struggle, and even when cast out by power omnipotent, it is not without the prostration of his victims. Like those of Old they wallow foaming, and though cast into the fire and into the water he hardly departeth from them even then. That slavery has begun its fall is plain, but that its fall will be resisted by those who cling to it, with energy and desperation and fury such as only fiends can summon when they know their hour has come, the end will be slow. Woe to abolitionists, if they dream that their work is well nigh done."
Weld reported that five slaveholders had resigned from Adams' committee to show their spite. The Speaker appointed five other Southerners to fill their places, and three of these also resigned. Congress had quieted down, but Weld expected a battle to flare up at any moment over the proposed annexation of Texas. The question of the rights of colored seamen also hung fire, with the abolition members waiting to make it the excuse for opening a discussion of the whole question of the constitutional rights of free Negroes.
With Adams vindicated, the antislavery congressmen continued their needling tactics, while the slaveocracy, smarting, waited for some victim of lesser ken to venture within their clutch. On February 27, Giddings challenged them by presenting another petition for the dissolution of the Union. "It made some stir," Weld reported, "but the slaveholders had been so horribly burned by the fire before, they took special care not to move a vote of censure." But a few days later Giddings dared them again, and now they believed they had caught him.
While diplomatic negotiations relative to the Creole case were in progress with Great Britain, Giddings presented a series of resolutions derogatory to the American position, and declaring that to reenslave the black men would be contrary to international as well as to American law, and incompatible with our national honor. Unquestionably he used materials prepared by Weld, and he probably had Weld's coaching before he spoke.
The starting-point of Giddings' argument was basically the same as that of John C. Calhoun--namely, that slavery was exclusively a state affair, and that the states had delegated no authority over slavery to the Federal Government. From this it followed that the Federal Government had no more right to support slavery than it had to abolish it. If the people of slaveholding states could claim exemption from federal interference with slavery, conversely the people of the free states should be spared the guilt and expense of sustaining slavery through federal agency.
Giddings' second proposition was that slavery, being an abridgment of the natural rights of man, could exist only by force of positive municipal legislation, "and is necessarily confined to the territorial jurisdiction of the power creating it." From this he reasoned that the laws of Virginia, where the Creole Negroes were owned, were inoperative on the high seas, and that the authority of the Federal Government was also inoperative inasmuch as the states had given it no power to deal with slavery. Therefore the Negroes on the Creole were not only outside the jurisdiction of both Virginia and the Federal Government, but also ceased to be slaves as soon as they were shipped on the high seas. Consequently they had violated no law of any kind in using force to make good their natural right to freedom.
It was a shrewd and cogent argument, and bears the mark of Weld's logic. It had broad implications, for, if the Federal Government had no power over slavery, how could it maintain slavery in the District of Columbia? And since the authority of Territorial governments was delegated by the Federal Government, from whence could come their power to pass regulations permitting the introduction of slavery? In the hands of an antislavery president, Congress, or Supreme Court, such reasoning could have far-reaching consequences.
Perhaps the fire-eaters did not recognize these potentialities. It was enough for them that they had a chance to chastise Giddings, and they pounced immediately. "We are truly in the very pinch," wrote Gates to Birney. "The old hag has longed for a victim ever since Mr. Adams slipped out of her grasp, and she has at last got one." A number of Northern Whigs wished to support Giddings, and for a time it appeared that the Whig party might divide along sectional lines. But Gates had witnessed similar situations before, and predicted correctly that most Northerners would yield to the pull of party ties. After long and bitter debate a vote of censure against Giddings carfled, 125 to 69.
With the announcement of the result of the ballot, Giddings rose, took formal leave of the Speaker and the members of the House, shook hands with Adams, who had counseled him to take the course he did, bade farewell to a few personal friends, and walked out of the chamber. Soon afterward he sent in his resignation and returned to Ohio, where he presented himself for reelection. The issue before the voters was party-regularity--which meant silence on the slavery issue--versus the right to speak out on that question. Gates tried to rally support for Giddings in Washington, but was thwarted by the party whips. Anti-Giddings editorials appeared in the Cleveland Whig. Federal officeholders were warned not to support him. The heavy weight of party was used to crush him. But the abolition seed that Weld and his coworkers had sown in the Western Reserve had made rank growth, and Giddings won a signal victory.
As Weld foresaw, the triumphs of Adams and Giddings were the beginning of slavery's end, for slavery could not stand against free speech. Heretofore both major parties had made silence on the slavery issue a test of party regularity. The Whigs could no longer do so. And as the Whig party lost cohesion it would grow increasingly weaker until it died. Eventually the Democratic party, also unable to muzzle its antislavery dissenters, would split. The second session of the Twenty-Seventh Congress marked a turning point in the battle for freedom. And insofar as Weld was instrumental in implementing the insurgent assault, he helped to bring slavery's demise.
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