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ANTISLAVERY CONGRESSMEN, 184&-1856: THEIR CONTRIBUTION TO THE DEBATE BETWEEN THE SECTIONS Larry Gara In August 1849, antislavery editor Gamaliel Bailey reprinted in the National Era an article from a Boston paper that identified eighteen members of the Thirty-first Congress who had been elected with free-soil support. "They are all pledged to our principles," wrote the New England journalist, "nearly all to our organization, and are bound to us by interest and gratitude. Of their ability, honesty, and unswerving devotion to principles, we entertain the utmost confidence."1 Although eighteen proved too high an estimate, there were about a dozen members of the new Congress who functioned as an antislavery faction . As such, they made a unique and important contribution to the growing debate between North and South. Recent studies ofantislavery politics have paid scant attention to their contribution to developments which culminated in the abolition of slavery through civil war. Their presence in Congress added an element of respectability to a cause which had been long associated with the radical agitation and extremist doctrine of the followers ofWilliam Lloyd Garrison. Their speeches spread free-soil ideas in places where formerly they had been dismissed. Their legislative proposals , acceptance of petitions, and fight to elect a free-soil Speaker of the House helped persuade many Northerners of the sinister nature of the slave power and prompted threats and strong criticism from Southern representatives. They made a major contribution to the formulation of a distinctly Northern political stance, a position which included free-soil principles. Antislavery congressmen built on the tradition established by such predecessors as James Tallmadge, Charles Miner, Thomas Morris, John Quincy Adams, and Joshua Giddings, whose numerous challenges to Southern policy led them down a long and lonely path. The election of more than a dozen outspoken Free-Soilers introduced a new element. The fact that antislavery advocates could be sent to Congress was in itselfsigni1 Washington, D.C, National Era, Aug. 30, 1849. Civil War History, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, ©1986 by The Kent State University Press 198CIVIL WAR HISTORY ficant. Their very presence made antislavery more respectable. Just being in Congress gave them new status and prestige. Horace Mann's contributions to education were overshadowed by his newly acquired reputation as a congressman. Mann noted that one of his congressional speeches had produced a greater effect than any of his educational writings, though he thought it inferior to some of them. The effect, he said, was due not to its power, "but solely to the fact that it was said in Congress, and by a member ofCongress, whom I find to be a very different man, even though he be the same, from a mere Secretary of the Board of Education."2 Free-soil newspapers commented on each congressional victory as a major achievement. Such victories boosted the morale of those already convinced and attracted the attention of many soon to be involved. When the Ohio legislature sent Benjamin F. Wade to the Senate in 1851, one paper pointed out that "if there is one man in the State of Ohio who has denounced the Fugitive Law, in stronger terms than another, that man is Judge Wade." In 1852 another Ohio paper labeled Gerrit Smith's election "glory enough for one day," and noted that it would "send a thrill of joy through the heart of every true friend offreedom and humanity."3 The presence of antislavery sympathizers in the national legislature seemed to many Northerners to signal the beginning of the end for the slave power, which they distinguished from the institution upon which it was based. It was the slave power which tried to stifle free speech, even in Congress, which demanded die imprisonment of free black sailors in Southern ports, the opening of all territories and states to slavery and its aristocratic oligarchy, the passage of federal legislation in the interest of the slaveholding ruling group, and the return offugitive slaves regardless of the legality of slavery where they may have been captured. It was the slave power, through the three-fifths clause in the Constitution, which enabled Southern "lords of the lash" to exercise political influence in Congress and in the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 197-207
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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