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Arguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress

4.41  ·  Rating details ·  189 ratings  ·  38 reviews
A blow-by-blow re-creation of the battle royal that raged in Congress in the 1830s, when a small band of representatives, led by President John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, employed intricate stratagems to outwit the Southern (and Southern-sympathizing) sponsors of the successive "gag" rules that had long blocked debate on the subject of slavery.
Hardcover, 577 pages
Published January 16th 1996 by Knopf
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Aug 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
Every student in America should be required to read this book, along with C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Miller has provided a lesson in the true meaning of democratic values.
Sep 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The best measure of my opinion about this book is that I own two copies: one that I've marked up with my comments in the margins and one that I use for lending purposes. It is what all history books should be. It covers a little known aspect of U.S. history -- the self-imposed gag order that Congress put on itself in the 1840s and the heroic efforts of John Quincy Adams in bringing the gag order down. The author, William Lee Miller, is a history professor at the University of Virginia, who is a ...more
May 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Most well-written history EVER
Jul 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This is a favorite. I recommended it to the Adams County Library and they bought two! Mr. Miller almost makes the steam rising above Congress also rise from the pages of this book. I've read it several times.
In order to establish a union, the nation’s founders had to craft documents acceptable to both northern and southern states. Therefore, the U.S. Constitution both allowed for the practice of slavery and provided the means of abolishing it. The words slave and slavery are never mentioned in the document, and the founders edited out specific references to white men. The United States were founded upon principles of equality and civil liberties and as a representative government, which afforded ope ...more
Jun 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
From a 21st century perspective the issues are so clear, the attitudes of the Congressional players so clearly "good guys" vs. "bad guys." I found it fascinating to watch John Quincy Adams, perhaps America's finest diplomat and one of our least successful Presidents (the failure of strong principles and the presumption that being right makes might!), as he staked his claim on the right of all Americans to petition the Congress to state our grievances and to have those petitions acknowledged. The ...more
Mary Ann
Jan 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
This book was a life changing experience for me. I had no idea John Quincey Adams was in the House of Representatives after he was President, or that he played such a crucile role in keeping debate in the House an issue and a value. Also, the Author's research was meticulous and I felt confident in every detail of the debates he presented. Made me proud of our New England ancestors and founding fathers........
Apr 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: All readers of history
A fascinating story told with supreme skill by William Lee Miller. John C. Calhoun will enrage you with his Orwellian justifications for slavery. John Quincy Adams' audacious exploits will leave you in awe of his chutzpah. The quaint idiosyncracies of old-time Congress will have you chuckling. And you'll come away learning a whole lot. This book is awesome!
Mar 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
I generally don't read many history books and even less that are this in depth about the goings on in congress. But I've heard this book recommended by several people. Frequently I've heard and wondered myself why it took the civil war to end slavery. Why didn't the people just vote to end it? Was the whole nation racist? Why did it cost over 600,000 lives to pay for the sin of slavery? I think everyone should read this book to understand the political climate of the nation at the time as well a ...more
Porter Broyles
Apr 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was written back in 1995. In 1995, the country was emeshed in an effort to rid itself of tobacco. At the time tobacco was big business and ever present. People smoked in schools, at work, in libraries, everywhere. Tobacco lobbyist were some of the biggest and most powerful groups in the country (think 4-6 organizations like the NRA today, but stronger and more unified.)

Miller uses that image to discuss how big, powerful, and everpresent slavery was in the early 19th century---only slav
Michael Dickson
Jul 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Explores the arguments on the floor of Congress in the 1830s and 1840s on the road to the Civil War. The few anti-slavery reps insistently and bravely creating space to speak while reps from the south violently fight to silence literally all debate or *mention* of slavery in the halls of Congress.

Shockingly moving for a 500 page book about Congressional debate. I've never been so excited about parliamentary procedure. 😅

It's a powerful answer to questions about how we pass moral judgment on peopl
Geoff Sebesta
Nov 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
It took me five months to slog through this book, but I made it and I don't regret it. The tone of the book begins as annoyingly superior, but the author reins it in and focuses on one of the most important and difficult to describe events of the run-up to the Civil War; John Quincy Adams's multi-year fight to remove the gag rule on abolitionist petitions from the House of Representatives.

I know, I know, it's as interesting as it sounds. And the author does not manage to make it fascinating. But
Sep 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A delve into the politics and government of the 19th century, and the nine year debate in the U.S. Congress of eradicating the peculiar institution of slavery from the fabric of America. "Shame on a nation that fosters and sustains an institution which dares assail and would destroy the sacred right of petition."
Mar 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-for-school
This book is beautiful. It's gripping and fascinating. There's a reason people say something is as interesting as parliamentary procedure: they haven't read this book yet.
Dec 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Long before Sen. Charles Sumner spoke about Bleeding Kansas and was soon thereafter caned on the floor of the Senate by Congressman Preston Brooks, the Congressional waters had ben moving to an ever-higher boil on the slavery issue.

One of the leaders in the battle against slavery was Massachusetts Congressman and former President John Quincy Adams. Earning the sobriquet "Old Man Eloquent" on this issue, in this ever-heating contest, Adams finally got a House gag rule overturned that had prohibit
Jun 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
John Quincy Adams was one bad mofo (and by bad I mean good, and by mofo, I mean mofo). This is a phenomenal book about JQ Adams spending ~10 years arguing in front of congress to defend the right of citizen's to petition (even though the right to petition is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution).

What makes this story fascinating is that JQ Adams' fight revolved around congress refusing to have petitions presented to them that sought to abolish slavery in Washington, DC. So JQ A
Jan 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sometimes you need to take small steps to solve large issues.

The gag rule in the U.S. House of Representatives, which forbade even the DISCUSSION of the slavery issue, is the subject of William Lee Miller's excellent book. As the title indicates, former President John Quincy Adams was at the forefront of the battle to rescind the gag resolution, laying the groundwork for a build-up of anti-slavery sentiment in the 1840s and 1850s. That Adams served in Congress after having been a United States p
Feb 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Very dense, and convoluted writing style. However, well researched and fascinating depiction of John Quincy Adams' long-suffering dedication and contributions to the fight to end slavery. Outrageous tactics, behaviors and speeches given by House of Representatives members.I learned a lot.
Slim Khezri
Dec 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
On this day in 1865, The U.S. Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery. And here's an excellent book about John Quincy Adams's fight against the "gag rule", not only (importantly) as an important battle for freedom of speech (to exercise it in CONGRESS, no less!), as well as in the efforts to outlaw slavery (the substance of the petitions Adams was presenting whose very existence Southern Congressmen didn't even wish to have acknowledge).

An absolutely brill
Mar 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: advocacy
This book offers an account of the fight in the US House of Representatives from 1835 - 1844 over efforts by Southern legislators to block reception of petitions asking for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. The central figure is John Quincy Adams, who had served as President for one term in the 1820s but was back in the House by the 1830s. The fight set the stage for the political battles of the 1840s and 1850s that in turn led up to the Civil War. Beyond the drama of the sto ...more
The Angry Lawn Gnome
Jun 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
A very in depth survey of a a little known but nonetheless very important period of American history. I am giving this work four stars based upon the impressive amount of research Miller did in writing this book, but he also has an unfortunate tendency to editorialize and it is beyond question that in his view the North had the white hats and the South the black. He also tends to focus on politicians on the Northern side of the aisle, describing their lives in between congressional sessions with ...more
Dec 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating history of some of the early congressional debates about slavery. For the most part these were debates about whether it would even be permissible to discuss the "peculiar institution" of the South in the U.S. House of Representatives. Miller makes excellent use of the original records of these debates and does a good job portraying the debates in terms of the concerns of the participants, people who had no foreknowledge that this issue would ultimately lead to the American Civil Wa ...more
May 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Congressional debates from the 1830s? Not that exciting, right? That's what I thought when I was assigned this book in high school; I was very, very wrong. Miller's research is some of the most detailed I've seen, and his writing style conveys the real drama and personalities involved in early American politics. His book reveals how explosive and contentious the topic of slavery was in the decades leading up to the Civil War, of the infamous "gag rule" (where one of the formal rules of the House ...more
Francis Gallo
Feb 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
If you are at all interested in the history of this country or are looking for a deeper understanding of how our history has made us who we are today, Arguing About Slavery is a good place to start. It begins with the first session of the twenty fourth Congress back in the early 1830's, long before the Civil War and emancipation. Miller details the deconstruction of our constitutional right to petition in the glaring light of the abolitionist movement and the restoration of that right by J Q Ada ...more
Dec 31, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A long-winded, overly verbose treatment of the fight over the gag rule in the US Congress in the 1830s & 1840s (yes, the irony of this sentence is intentional). Still, with all of Miller's many digressions, this book is more than *just* a history of the gag rule; it provides a near-exhaustive look at the rise of political anti-slavery in the US during the Jacksonian Era, before sectionalism became a defining aspect of national politics. That alone makes this worth a read, even if it's 25% longer ...more
Mary Ann
Jan 05, 2009 rated it it was amazing
My book club read this book several years ago. The author's research was impressive and I learned more about pre civil war US than I'd ever known. John Quincy Adams was a bull dog! He was not officially associated with the abolitionists, but did us all a great service by keeping open discussion from withering away in the US congress.
Paul Von hippel
Jan 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Richly detailed, beautifully written narrative about a little known episode in the long run-up to Civil War. Former President John Quincy Adams becomes a Member of Congress and champions the right to present abolitionist petitions on the floor of the House of Representatives, runs into a buzzsaw of opposition from the South Carolina delegation.
I love history, and even I thought a book on the 9-year-long gag order against discussing slavery in Congress couldn't possibly be that compelling. I was wrong. I don't know how Miller does it, but this is one of the most interesting books I've ever read. Be warned: it will also make you want to become president of your local John Quincy Adams fan club.
Dec 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
My mouth is full right now, but I have so many things I want to say. First, I'll comment on the crackers I'm eating. Not cracked pepper, which I prefer. But dill or something. Weird tasting. Now I'll comment on this book. Good book. I liked it.
Nov 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
My favorite historical exposition, ever. Surprising twists and turns that kept me on the edge of my seat. Great Book.
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William Lee Miller is Scholar in Ethics and Institutions at the Miller Center. From 1992 until his retirement in 1999, Mr. Miller was Thomas C. Sorensen Professor of Political and Social Thought and Director of the Program in Political and Social Thought at the University of Virginia. He was professor of religious studies from 1982 to 1999, and chaired the Department of Rhetoric and Communication ...more

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