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Congressmen, Heroic and Otherwise

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 25, Number 2, June 1997
pp. 243-247 | 10.1353/rah.1997.0037

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Reviews in American History 25.2 (1997) 243-247

William Lee Miller. Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. x + 577 pp. Appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00.

"What was John Quincy Adams doing when he was fifteen years old? He was not practicing his jump shot every afternoon in the junior high school gym, or hanging around the drive-in hamburger joint every evening. . . . he was not reading college catalogs, wondering which he wanted to attend, or which he could get into; he was not attending his first proms. Lives differ" (p. 166). Time and again, William Lee Miller does what most academic historians would disdain. His point of reference is suburbanized American life in the late twentieth century, with its addiction to television, sports, and the self, and its cynicism and ignorance regarding politics and public affairs.

Miller asks his readers to imagine a very different time, a century and a half ago. Then there were "no telephones, cars, television sets, or radios, and you were not drowned in stimuli. You did not have the variety of distractions and entertainments that a commercial popular culture, just beginning in that decade with the penny press, would come one day munificently to provide" (p. 304). Then -- and this gets directly to the subject of his book -- speeches made in Congress would be widely circulated, read, and discussed.

What made possible such a strange variation from modern practice? Miller patiently recapitulates what many readers of this journal have doubtless tried to explain to bewildered undergraduates. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Americans found politics exciting, and they sent their most talented gladiators to Congress. Reading their speeches became a premier form of entertainment, a kind of spectator sport. "Perhaps," Miller suggests, "you would be tempted to say, as popular prejudice surely would say, that nothing could be duller than the written record of congressional debates" (p. 4). Quite the contrary, he insists. For almost a decade, between 1835 and 1844, the U.S. House of Representatives imposed the so-called gag rule. It refused to receive antislavery petitions, hoping thereby to stifle criticism of slavery. The resultant struggle produced a "rich and very lively" (p. 4) paper trail.

In a way that would never pass muster with modern academic committees that supervise doctoral dissertations, Miller focuses narrowly on the House debates. His technique includes extensive quotation from the original documents. He is conversant with some of the monographic literature that impinges on his topic, but he has not written a monograph. Instead, his purpose is to narrate a largely forgotten story that "insisted on being told" (p. 3).

Miller, who has written several books about American politics and political thought, announces that he is not "a professional historian" (p. 555). Nonetheless, he promises to tell the story that the historians have not got around to telling, and to do so in a way that ordinary readers can understand. You've forgotten that there once was a Whig party? You can't remember the name of a single president between Jackson and Lincoln? No problem! Miller parcels out tidbits of historical context in a reassuring manner. His readers probably regard him as a kind teacher, not one who might ask specific questions in class.

By implication, at least, his book suggests that the professors do not know how to reach a wider audience. Perhaps they make would-be readers uncomfortable by assuming too much prior knowledge. Perhaps they write too much for each other and not enough for outsiders. He commends the work of Daniel Walker Howe and Michael Holt, but he laments that academic specialists have neglected the topic that engages him.

Miller's approach to history is starkly dualistic. His protagonists are sharply juxtaposed. "Militant slaveholders" (p. 29) and their representatives, men accustomed to commanding and to receiving obedience, played the role of bullies. They spurned petitions, attempted to choke off congressional debate over slavery, and demanded that criticism cease. They intended, as John C. Calhoun explained, to "show these fanatics, by a decided refusal, by shutting the door in their face, that they have nothing to...

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