History Podcasts

Is it true that slavery was banned from discussion on the Senate and/or House floor before the American Civil War?

Is it true that slavery was banned from discussion on the Senate and/or House floor before the American Civil War?

In one of the latter years of my undergraduate program I read/heard from one of my classes that discussing the slave trade/slavery on either the Senate and/or House floor (I forget which) was banned. Is this true and if so, how could I confirm it?


I believe this is referring to the gag rule (aka: Pickney Resolution 3) of the US House, adopted in 1836. It read:

Resolved, That all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers, relating in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery, or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid upon the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.

As background, realize that an important but often-overlooked part of the First Ammendment is the right to petition the government.

Congress had been receiving a lot of petitions from US citizens requesting slavery be somehow curtailed or abolished. This made Southern Congressmen rather irate, so they passed the above rule. In plain English, any slavery petition from any constituent would be automatically ignored.

While this might have done wonders to re-elect the Southern reps that put it forward, it incensed northerners (even ones that didn't care much about slavery). The way they saw it, there was no longer any real right to petition Congress on this particular matter, regardless of what the First Ammendment said. The number of such petitions just increased, and the southern-based Democratic party lost the next major election (1840).

If this kind of folly; the mass destruction of a party's image by its own politicians for individual short-term political gain; looks familiar, it should. Rather than take 1840 as a wake-up call, Southern Democrats only escalated this kind of behavior, culminating in Bleeding Kansas, the barbaric beating of Senator Sumner on the Senate floor, and ultimately The Civil War.


I'm familiar with the story, but it is a highly suspect claim. It is part of the Myth of the Lost Cause. The idea here is that compromise was impossible so war was the only option. For this reason, many sources may be unreliable and it would be best to use only primary sources to prove or disprove its veracity.

James Henry Hammond made his famous speech "On the Admission of Kansas" to the Senate in 1858. From this speech, we get the phrase "Cotton is King." He says, for instance:

The Senator from New York said yesterday that the whole world had abolished slavery.

The Corwin Amendment was proposed in 1861 by the House Republicans. This amendment would have made slavery legal permanently in the US, so the House had to have been discussing slavery.

According to Wikipedia

In the Congressional session that began in December 1860, more than 200 resolutions with respect to slavery,[7] including 57 resolutions proposing constitutional amendments,[8] were introduced in Congress. Most represented compromises designed to avert military conflict. Mississippi Democratic Senator Jefferson Davis proposed one that explicitly protected property rights in slaves.[8]

You could query the Senate Historical Office to find out if any procedural rule ever existed if you wanted to confirm it.


There is a book on the gag rule and John Quincy Adams' multiyear struggle to overturn it (I read the book and it's a good read… ): Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress (auth. William Miller, 1995).


Let's Get Our Filibuster History Right

Sinema&rsquos statement is not historically accurate.

New York magazine&rsquos Jonathan Chait, a filibuster critic, charged Sinema with pushing &ldquoa version of this fake history&rdquo as part of an &ldquoextraordinarily effective propaganda campaign&rdquo by filibuster proponents. He countered, &ldquoThe filibuster emerged in the 19th century not by any design, but &hellip due to an interpretation of Senate rules which held that they omitted any process for ending debate. The first filibuster did not happen until 1837, and it was the result of exploiting this confusing rules glitch.&rdquo

Chait&rsquos statement is not historically accurate.

In his anti-filibuster book, &ldquo Kill Switch ,&rdquo former Senate aide Adam Jentleson declared that &ldquoSouthern senators&rdquo&mdash both antebellum pro-slavery and post-Reconstruction segregationist senators &mdash &ldquoinvented the filibuster,&rdquo and stated that &ldquo[i]n the eighty-seven years between the end of Reconstruction and 1964, the only bills that were stopped by filibusters were civil rights bills.&rdquo

Jentleson&rsquos statement is not historically accurate either.

Getting our filibuster story straight is difficult because the history is murky and everyone trying to tell the story has an angle. This includes me, but I shall do my best.

Let&rsquos start at the beginning. The filibuster wasn&rsquot invented by Southern senators. It wasn&rsquot even invented in America. The credit should go to the senators of the Roman republic. Actually, one in particular.

The Romans had all sorts of obstructionist tactics, as historian Adam Lebovitz has detailed. One was obnuntiatio, breaking up a legislative session because of a bad omen, which could be done disingenuously. Plutarch wrote of an episode in which &ldquoPompey lyingly declared that he heard thunder, and most shamefully dissolved the assembly, since it was customary to regard such things as inauspicious, and not to ratify anything after a sign from heaven had been given.&rdquo

Another was talking until nightfall when meetings ended, which was not called &ldquofilibuster&rdquo but diem consumere, to consume the day. Cato the Younger was the most famous practitioner of diem consumere. His biographers Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni go as far as to state, &ldquoThe history of the filibuster &hellip essentially starts with Cato.&rdquo

Cato&rsquos stemwinders &mdash he could &ldquospeak at the top of his lungs for hours&rdquo &mdash were wielded for populist ends. He waged a successful six-month campaign to prevent Rome&rsquos private tax collectors from jacking up their rates. He prevented Pompey, a general, from steering precious land to his troops. And spotting a threat to the Republic itself, with just a one-day talkathon, Cato denied Julius Caesar the ability to have a military parade in his honor while also running for political office.

Caesar would soon seize autocratic power, and Cato would commit suicide rather than live under Caesar&rsquos rule. Goodman and Soni argue Cato&rsquos obstructionism &mdash however high-minded &mdash was a contributing factor to the Roman Republic&rsquos collapse. America&rsquos Founding Fathers, however, idolized Cato. George Washington&rsquos soldiers staged a play about Cato at Valley Forge. Patrick Henry&rsquos famous quote, &ldquoGive me liberty or give me death,&rdquo is derived from a line in that play.

Filibuster critics correctly note that the tactic was not established in the Constitution nor was it codified in the initial congressional rules. But if the Founders feared the emergence of a Cato in their republican experiment, they could have explicitly banned diem consumere. They didn&rsquot.

Granted, Thomas Jefferson wrote a rules manual that informally guided the early Senate, and he instructed, &ldquoNo one is to speak impertinently or beside the question, superfluously or tediously.&rdquo However, legal scholars Catherine Fisk and Erwin Chemerinsky inform us that &ldquosuch debate occurred&rdquo anyway. They also note, &ldquoIt is not clear &hellip whether extended debate with dilatory intent was considered an established practice at this point, or &hellip the bad habit of a few persons.&rdquo Still, if the first congressional majorities believed that dilatory tactics were meant to be banned, they would have tightened up the rules at the first sign of violation.

Chait, citing work by filibuster historian Sarah Binder, placed the first American filibuster in 1837 &mdash when the Whigs tried to stop the expunging of Andrew Jackson&rsquos censure from the congressional record. But Fisk and Chemerinsky determined that &ldquothe strategic use of delay in debate is as old as the Senate itself,&rdquo and they found the &ldquofirst recorded episode of dilatory debate&rdquo occurred in 1790 &ldquowhen senators from Virginia and South Carolina filibustered to prevent the location of the first Congress in Philadelphia.&rdquo One senator who favored the Philadelphia bill recounted, &ldquoThe design of the Virginians and the Carolina gentleman was to talk away the time, so that we could not get the bill passed.&rdquo

Chait&rsquos mention of filibusterers &ldquoexploiting this confusing rules glitch&rdquo is a reference to Binder&rsquos argument that, in 1805, Vice President Aaron Burr inadvertently opened the door to filibustering when he recommended cleaning up the Senate rulebook and removing unnecessary provisions including the &ldquoprevious question motion.&rdquo In Binder&rsquos telling, &ldquotoday, we know that a simple majority in the House can use the [previous question] rule to cut off debate. But in 1805, neither chamber used the rule that way.&rdquo So the Senate got rid of it, not realizing its absence would allow senators to filibuster in the future.

But another filibuster historian, Gregory Koger, recently debunked the Burr origin story. He noted that in much of the 19 th century the House had filibusters &mdash more than the Senate in fact &mdash even though it kept the &ldquoprevious question motion&rdquo on the books.

What&rsquos confusing is that the &ldquoprevious question motion&rdquo was interpreted differently by the House at different times. It wasn&rsquot initially used to cut off debate. Then in 1811 it was, but in subsequent years it wasn&rsquot routinely used in that fashion. Not until the late 19 th century were House procedures broadly and comprehensively reformed to greatly empower the majority and quash dilatory tactics.

The House history of the &ldquoprevious question motion&rdquo speaks to Koger&rsquos main point: &ldquothe meaning of rules is determined by legislative majorities, even if this means completely reversing the traditional interpretation of a term.&rdquo In other words, any majority can interpret the rules however they want, whenever they want.

Chait looks to the Burr story to argue the filibuster &ldquoemerged accidentally&rdquo because &ldquonobody ever would create a system like this on purpose.&rdquo But Koger counters that &ldquoSenators have always had the power to determine what their rules mean, so they have always been able to limit or eliminate filibustering if a majority of the Senate is ready to vote for reform.&rdquo

Remember, in the past decade, narrow Senate majorities have limited the filibuster, deploying the so-called &ldquonuclear option&rdquo to eliminate the filibuster for judicial and executive branch appointments. Koger concludes, &ldquo[I]f a bare majority can end the filibuster now, then this has always been true, and there is no proof that their path to success would be easier if they had a [previous question] motion. For advocates of Senate reform, this poses an awkward truth: the Senate filibuster has persisted to this point because lots of senators have supported it.&rdquo

Case in point: When senators grew tired of the 20 th century talking filibusters, they didn&rsquot abandon the parliamentary tool, they reformed it.

Filibusters gummed up the floor, preventing any other work from getting done. So, as Binder explained this year in The Washington Post , &ldquoMajority leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) in 1970 suggested that the Senate invent a second &lsquoshift&rsquo or &lsquotrack&rsquo of legislation. When a filibuster blocked the first track, Mansfield simply asked unanimous consent of all 100 senators to set aside the filibustered measure and move onto a new bill on a different &lsquotrack.&rsquo Mansfield&rsquos change did not require the Senate to make a formal change in its rules. All he really did was ask for consent to start tracking. Party leaders on both sides of the aisle thought tracking would help them make the floor schedule more predictable.&rdquo

The two-track system is the current system. It is a system that allows for easily executed &ldquosilent&rdquo filibusters. It is a system created on purpose.

In Jentleson&rsquos story, the senators who supported the filibuster were racists. Of course, there&rsquos no disputing that for decades Southern segregationists weaponized the filibuster to protect racist Jim Crow laws. But Jentleson overstates the case when he claims that &ldquobetween the end of Reconstruction and 1964, the only bills that were stopped by filibusters were civil rights bills.&rdquo Binder and Steven Smith, in their 1996 book &ldquoPolitics or Principle? Filibustering in the United States Senate,&rdquo identified &ldquotwenty-six measures&rdquo proposed between Reconstruction and 1994 &ldquothat would directly change public law&rdquo that were &ldquoclearly killed because of the ability of a minority of senators to prevent action.&rdquo Only nine of those 26 were related to civil rights. And before 1949, &ldquothe number of non-civil rights measures blocked by filibuster [was] about as large as the number of civil rights measures killed by filibuster.&rdquo

Jentleson and others (including Barack Obama) want to claim that the filibuster is defined by Jim Crow to argue that it has &ldquomainly served to empower a minority of predominantly white conservatives.&rdquo But the filibuster is a tactic with no inherent ideological disposition. Cato used it against the authoritarians and plutocrats of his time. As the Civil War neared its close, the Radical Republicans (aided by Democrats) launched a successful filibuster thwarting President Lincoln&rsquos plan to admit the government of Louisiana back in the Union, because Louisiana had not yet given Blacks the vote. In this century, President George W. Bush began his second term with a major push to partially privatize Social Security, but when the Senate Democratic minority made clear it had the votes for a filibuster, Bush had no choice but to stand down.

Just as supporters should not pretend that the filibuster was created to produce bipartisan harmony, critics should not pretend that the filibuster is both a historical accident and a linchpin of systemic racism. Let&rsquos tell the true story of the filibuster, not a pat story that serves the ideological purpose of one side of the debate, but the messy convoluted story that reminds us democracy has always been difficult to maintain.


The Missouri Compromise Becomes Law

The Missouri Compromise, after much debate, passed the Senate on March 2, 1820, and the House on February 26, 1821.

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Though the compromise measure quelled the immediate divisiveness engendered by the Missouri question, it intensified the larger regional conflict between North and South. It served notice to the North that Southerners not only did not intend for slavery to end, they wanted to expand its presence. In the South, the belief grew that Northerners were using slavery as a smokescreen behind which they could resurrect the Federalist Party and strengthen the central government at the expense of states’ rights.

For nearly 30 years, the compromise worked, with two states being admitted together, one slave, one free. Then, in 1850, California was admitted as a stand-alone free state, upsetting the balance 16&ndash15, in exchange for a Congressional guarantee no restrictions on slavery would be placed on the territories of Utah or New Mexico and passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required citizens of all states to return any runaway slaves to their masters. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Congress had no right to prohibit slavery in territories, as part of the decision in the Dred Scott case. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the 36-30 dividing line for slavery in the Louisiana Purchase area.


About the Author

Toni Morrison, born in Lorain, Ohio, is a prolific author of African-American literature. She published eleven books, notably The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved. Morrison studied at Howard University and Cornell before she began a career as an editor. At Random House, she helped discover and promote many now prominent African-American authors, such as Gayl Jones and Angela Davis. She wrote and published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, while working at Random House. Her work has earned her prestigious awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, and many honorary doctorates. Morrison died in 2019, but left a great legacy of novels behind her.


Forcing States Into Slavery

Clearly, the South had little regard for the rights of other states. That disregard manifested next in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Southern states recognized that, as America expanded westward into the Kentucky and Nebraska Territories, it would be impossible for them to maintain the pro-slavery majorities they held in Congress eventually, all slaves could be freed by federal law. In an attempt to stop emancipation, the South forced House Speaker Henry Clay into a compromise position on federal legislation. This trade made Missouri accept slavery and left open the possibility of slavery expanding west below the 36’30 parallel.

The South’s supposed support for states’ rights did not extend to allowing Missouri residents to follow their own path on slavery. Southern politicians worried that they would lose the popular battle over slavery that federal law had decided in their favor and thus, eventually, lose control of the Senate.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the Supreme Court began addressing these impositions on states’ rights. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), the court struck down a Pennsylvania law preventing the transportation of any “negro or mullato” for the purposes of returning the person to slavery—because federal law superseded state law. But, the court also held, importantly, that northern states did not need to use their own resources to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The South was livid. Its prized scheme of using federal primacy to bend northern states to its will was cracking.

The Wilmont Proviso, introduced in 1846 and killed in 1849, endeavored to use federal law—for once—to aid abolitionists. It attempted to make any territory admitted to the Union after the Mexican War slave-free. The effort passed in the House (because the North was more populous) before failing in the Senate.


Unintended Consequences

The provision in the Kansas-Nebraska Act calling for "popular sovereignty," the idea that residents of the new territories would vote on the issue of enslavement, soon caused major problems.

Forces on both sides of the issue began arriving in Kansas, and outbreaks of violence resulted. The new territory was soon known as Bleeding Kansas, a name bestowed upon it by Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune.

Open violence in Kansas reached a peak in 1856 when pro-slavery forces burned the "free soil" settlement of Lawrence, Kansas. In response, the fanatical abolitionist John Brown and his followers murdered men who supported enslavement.

The bloodshed in Kansas even reached the halls of Congress, when a South Carolina Congressman, Preston Brooks, attacked abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, beating him with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate.


Constitutional Framing

When the subject of an oath arose during the Federal Constitutional Convention, the founders were divided. Should an oath be required in a free country at all? And, should state officials swear allegiance to the federal Constitution or should federal officials swear to uphold state constitutions as well as the U.S. Constitution?

Delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania viewed oaths as “left handed security only” and that “a good government did not need them and a bad one could not or ought not to be supported.” The lexicographer and political writer Noah Webster called oaths “instruments of slavery” and a “badge of folly, borrowed from the dark ages of bigotry.” Both Wilson and Webster argued that people would be naturally inclined to support just governments so oaths were unnecessary. Many others thought such concerns were overwrought. In his 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote that requiring oaths for government officials “would seem to be a proposition too clear to render any reasoning necessary in support of it.”

Federalism also factored into early debates on the nature of oaths of office. Anti-Federalists were concerned about state officials having to swear to uphold the federal constitution while federal officials were not required to respect state constitutions. In Federalist 44, James Madison of Virginia argued that federal officials lacked the power to uphold state constitutions but that state officials played an important role upholding the U.S. Constitution. In particular, Madison said the administration of elections to federal offices, namely the President and Senate, depended on state legislatures.


The Complexities of Slavery in the Nation's Capital

For the first seventy-two years of its existence, the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., harbored one of America’s most difficult historical truths and greatest contradictions: slavery. The city’s placement along the Potomac River, in between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia, ensured that slavery was ingrained into every aspect of life, including the buildings, institutions, and social fabric of Washington, D.C. Enslaved workers contributed to public building projects, were bought and sold within the boundaries of the city, and served many of the men who founded the nation. Slavery was alive and well in the President’s Neighborhood.

In June 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sat down to dinner with Virginia Congressman James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. By the end of the evening, these men had agreed upon a new location for the United States capital. Prior to this dinner, a debate on its location divided members of the fledgling government. Hamilton and his supporters believed the capital should be in New York City, while others preferred Philadelphia or a location along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Southerners like Jefferson and Madison favored a location along the Potomac River, fearing that a northern capital would diminish southern power, undermine slavery, and encourage corruption among bankers, merchants, and creditors. That night, according to Jefferson’s recollections, the three agreed to place the capital along the Potomac in exchange for the federal assumption of states’ war debts from the American Revolution. 1 On July 16, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, moving the capital from New York to Philadelphia for ten years’ time and then permanently to the “river Potomack.” 2 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President Thomas Jefferson. Click here to learn about the enslaved households of President James Madison.

By placing the seat of government firmly in the South, this legislation allowed slavery to flourish in the new capital. After President George Washington signed the Residence Act into law, he took an active role overseeing the construction of the Federal City. Working with French-born engineer Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant, he selected a building site near his Mount Vernon estate at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. 3 To establish this new Federal City, Maryland ceded about seventy square miles, while Virginia contributed around twenty. 4 President Washington also appointed three commissioners in January 1791 to manage city construction: Thomas Johnson, David Stuart, and Daniel Carroll. 5 All three men owned enslaved people.

This 1792 facsimile engraving depicts Andrew Ellicott's rendition of L'Enfant's plan for the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia.

In order to minimize labor costs as much as possible, the commissioners chose to utilize enslaved labor for the Federal City’s construction, resolving in 1792, “to hire good labouring negroes by the year, the masters clothing them well and finding each a blanket, the commissioners finding them provisions and paying twenty-one pounds a year.” 6 This course of action was not a new one, as many local slave owners had been hiring out their enslaved laborers to neighbors and businesses for some time. Owners collected a wage while continuing to provide clothing and some medical care. The commissioners typically provided workers with housing, two meals per day, and basic medical care. This arrangement allowed the nascent capital to reap the benefits of labor without bearing total responsibility for the workers’ general wellbeing. If an enslaved worker did not show up to work, the overseer simply docked the pay given to the owner. 7 These enslaved laborers worked alongside white wage laborers and craftsmen on two of the largest construction projects, the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House.

As the major building projects progressed and the federal government prepared to vacate Philadelphia, the population of the District grew rapidly. Prior to the creation of the Federal City, the area was largely agricultural and rural. By the time President John Adams moved into the White House on November 1, 1800, the District of Columbia population had reached 8,144. Around 25% of those residents were enslaved. 8 Carved out of two slave states, the city quickly became a hub for the domestic slave trade. As the tobacco industry in the Upper South fell into decline, so did the need for large numbers of agricultural laborers. Many slave owners decided to sell their enslaved workers to dealers based in Washington, D.C. These dealers imprisoned enslaved people in crowded pens for weeks or months before selling them to the Deep South, where the cotton industry had expanded exponentially. Some of these slave pens were within view of the U.S. Capitol Building, and the enslaved, shackled together in coffles, frequently trudged past the Capitol. 9 Click here to learn more about the households of President John Adams.

Enslaved people also toiled in the White House. At least eight of the first twelve presidents brought enslaved people with them to the White House. Others may have hired out enslaved people to work in the President’s House. These enslaved workers performed many duties, serving as cooks, valets, footmen, coachmen, maids, stable hands, gardeners, and more. All of the enslaved people at the White House worked for little to no pay. Although some presidents, like Thomas Jefferson, provided their enslaved workers with a small “gratuity,” this did not change the fact that they were legal property, owned by some of the most powerful men in American history. 10

In this drawing from around 1815, the enslaved pass the United States Capitol wearing shackles and chains.

Slavery was also prevalent in the president’s immediate neighborhood. Across from the White House in Lafayette Park, an enslaved woman named Alethia Browning Tanner sold vegetables with her owner’s permission. On July 16, 1810, Tanner received her manumission papers after purchasing her own freedom for $1,400 with money saved from her vegetable stand. 11 She worked hard to free other members of her family as well, joining a growing and thriving free black community. As nearby states increased restrictions on their free black populations, the capital became an attractive destination. The free black community founded its own churches, businesses, and civic societies. Members of the community also bought property Browning Tanner, for example, purchased a home located just two blocks away from the White House. 12 By 1830, more than half of the city’s 9,109 black residents were free. 13

The decline of slavery in Washington, D.C. can be attributed to several factors. First, as Washington developed into an urban center, there was less demand for enslaved labor due to the decline of agriculture in the region. As a result, many owners found it more profitable to sell their enslaved workers rather than continue to clothe, feed, and house them. Second, the increased efforts of abolitionists in Washington publicly challenged the immorality of the institution and condemned those who participated in and profited from it. Enslaved people remained highly visible in the capital, living and working in the city while serving members of Congress and other Washington elites. Abolitionists argued that the capital was built to represent freedom and democracy, foundational values to the American people. In order to generate antislavery sentiment, they produced newspapers, pamphlets, and books that highlighted the hypocrisy of slave coffles marching past the Capitol Building. 14

While some Americans acknowledged that slavery in the nation’s capital was immoral, there was little agreement over how to address the issue of slavery. Some believed that it should be abolished altogether, while others favored gradual or compensated emancipation. Under gradual emancipation, slave owners would slowly emancipate their enslaved people, allowing time to make adjustments and prepare themselves to conduct their business without the aid of enslaved labor. Under compensated emancipation, slave owners would grant freedom to enslaved people in exchange for a payment totaling the value of their slaves.

In addition to freeing the enslaved, a debate arose over the nation’s growing free black population and whether or not African Americans were capable of assimilating into American society. Many citizens believed that African Americans were inferior to whites however, they also feared that free African Americans could agitate race and labor relations, organize massive slave uprisings, and topple society in its entirety. As a result, the American Colonization Society was formed in 1817, advocating for the return of free African Americans to Africa. In 1822, the society established a colony on the West Coast of Africa which later became the independent nation of Liberia in 1847. Several presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, supported the society’s mission. Former President James Madison even served as the society’s president in the early 1830s. 15 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President James Monroe.

This broadside pamphlet was issued during the 1835-1836 petition campaign to have Congress abolish slavery in the capital. The text argues for abolition and details atrocities of the slavery system. At the top are two contrasting scenes: a view of the reading of the Declaration of Independence, captioned “The Land of the Free,” with a scene of enslaved people being led past the Capitol by an overseer, titled “The Home of the Oppressed.” Between them is a plan of Washington with insets of a suppliant and a fleeing enslaved person with the legend “$200 Reward” and implements of slavery. On the next line are view of the jail in Alexandria, the jail in Washington, and an interior of the Washington jail with imprisoned enslaved mother Fanny Jackson and her children. On the bottom level, enslaved people in chains emerge from the slave house of J.W. Neal & Co. (left), a view of the Alexandria waterfront with a ship loading enslaved people (center), and a view of the slave establishment of Franklin & Armfield in Alexandria.

The struggle between slavery and democracy also found its way to the Congress floor soon after the federal government moved to Washington. In January 1805, New Jersey Representative William Sloan introduced a bill to emancipate the District’s enslaved people. Although the bill was soundly defeated, seventy-seven to thirty-one, it helped launch a movement to ban slavery in Washington, D.C. 16 Twenty-three years later, in 1828, a petition appeared in an article of the Freedom’s Journal, the first African American-owned newspaper in the United States, directly challenging Congress to address this issue:

While the laws of the United States denounce the Foreign Slave Trade as piracy, and punish with death, those who are found engaged in its perpetration there exists, in the district, the seal of the National Government, a domestic slave trade scarcely less disgraceful in its character and even more demoralizing in its influence…We behold these scenes continually taking place among us and lament our inability to prevent them. The people of this district have within themselves no means of legislative redress and we, therefore appeal to your honourable body, as the only one invested by the American Constitution, with the power to relieve us. 17

This petition highlighted one of the biggest obstacles to eliminating slavery in the capital—the lack of “legislative redress.” The country was founded on democratic principles, but residents of Washington, D.C., lacked representation in the federal government and could only exercise limited political rights. During the 1820s, voting rights for white men had expanded across the country. However, these rights were not granted to Washington, D.C. citizens and they could not hold their government accountable. Instead, Congress could exert political influence over the city without having to take stock of the city’s residents. Therefore, the 1828 petition, signed by over 1,000 District residents calling on Congress to end slavery in the city through gradual emancipation, fell on deaf ears. Congress was not interested and due to lack of representation, had no reason to be. 18

In 1848, residents of Washington, D.C. witnessed the largest attempted slave escape in American history. In the early morning on April 15, seventy-seven enslaved people climbed aboard the Pearl, a schooner owned by Daniel Drayton, a Philadelphia ship captain. One of the likely conspirators in the escape was none other than Paul Jennings, President James Madison’s former enslaved footman. Due to unfavorable wind conditions, the Pearl failed to gain an adequate head start, sailing down the Potomac River for 100 miles before reaching Maryland’s Point Lookout at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Here, the vessel was intercepted by a posse of thirty men after a local African-American man named Judson Diggs tipped them off. After the vessel was towed back to Washington, the escapees were paraded through the city in chains as onlookers jeered. Most were immediately sold to traders and sent further south. 19

This drawing depicts a satire on enforcement of the "gag-rule" in the House of Representatives, prohibiting discussion of the question of slavery. The print may relate to John Quincy Adams's opposition to passage of the resolution in 1838, or (more likely) to his continued frustration in attempting to force the slavery issue through presentation of northern constituents' petitions in 1839. Here Adams cowers on a pile composed of petitions, a copy of the abolitionist newspaper the "Emancipator," and a resolution to recognize Haiti. He says "I cannot stand Thomson's [sic] frown." South Carolina representative Waddy Thompson, Jr., a Whig defender of slavery, glowers at him from behind a sack and two casks, saying "Sir the South loses caste whenever she suffers this subject to be discussed here it must be indignantly frowned down." Two African Americans crouch behind Thompson, one saying "de dem Bobolishn is down flat!" .

The incident exacerbated the already contentious relationship between the North and the South. Many slave owners feared further mass escapes so they sold their enslaved people, leading to increased sales. Meanwhile, abolitionists used the incident as a rallying cry for their cause. In Congress, tensions over slavery became increasingly volatile. On May 26, 1836, the House of Representatives passed the Pinckney Resolutions, a series of legislative measures infamously known as the “gag rule,” barring discussions of slavery in that chamber. The gag rule went into effect despite emphatic resistance from former president and Massachusetts Representative John Quincy Adams. As the roll call vote was taken to pass the legislation, Adams shouted, “I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States.” Adams continued to resist until the gag rule was repealed on December 3,1844. 20 Representative Joshua Giddings of Ohio failed to introduce a referendum on slavery in the District in 1848. Illinois representative Abraham Lincoln crafted a bill for gradual emancipation in the District the following year, allowing congressmen to keep their enslaved workers while serving in office. Receiving no support from District mayor William Seaton, Lincoln dropped the issue and never introduced the bill. 21 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President John Quincy Adams. Click here to learn more about the household of President Abraham Lincoln.

The Compromise of 1850 temporarily resolved the issue of slavery in the District. In an effort to avoid sectional warfare, the compromise admitted California into the Union as a free state and banned the slave trade in Washington, D.C. In exchange, a strengthened Fugitive Slave Law went into effect. According to the law, any individual found harboring an enslaved person faced criminal prosecution, and slave owners were given the authority to forcibly apprehend and return runaways. 22 Abolishing the slave trade allowed Congress to use Washington, D.C. as a testing ground for national policy. Legislators were able to assess the impact and response within the nation’s capital firsthand. 23

This drawing by A. Lumley, published on December 28, 1861 in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, depicts the Washington, D.C. jail which imprisoned enslaved individuals given fugitive status.

Unfortunately, the slave trade persisted. Traders simply crossed the Potomac River and continued to sell enslaved people in Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria was originally part of the District of Columbia but had been ceded back to Virginia in 1846. 24 Furthermore, the law only prohibited the importation of enslaved individuals into the city. As a result, the residents of the city could continue to purchase and sell individuals enslaved locally. While the practice of selling enslaved individuals continued in Virginia, Maryland, and locally, the number of enslaved people in the District declined dramatically. 25 According to the 1850 census, of the city’s 13,746 black residents, just 3,185 were identified as enslaved. 26

The onset of the Civil War offered President Lincoln a new opportunity to abolish slavery. Initially, he focused on preserving the Union. As the war progressed, the president and his political allies sought to weaken slavery as a necessary wartime measure, recognizing that the Confederacy depended on enslaved labor to survive. On August 6, 1861, Congress passed the Emancipation Act, authorizing the Union army to seize any enslaved persons employed by the Confederate army. However, this law did not apply to those held in slave states loyal to the Union, like Maryland, or the District of Columbia. However, because of Washington’s established free black community and its role as the nation’s capital, many enslaved people entered Washington in droves anyway, seeking sanctuary and legal protection. Some found refuge in the homes of free black residents, while others were captured and crowded into the Blue Jug, the city’s jail. The conditions in the Blue Jug were publicized by abolitionists, further fueling efforts to eliminate slavery in the capital. 27

This drawing by F. Dielman depicts a large crowd of African Americans celebrating the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C. on May 12, 1866.

Slavery ended for good in the District on April 16, 1862, when President Lincoln signed “An Act for the Release of Certain Persons Held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia.” Without so much as using the words “slave,” “slavery,” or “emancipation,” the bill emancipated the District’s enslaved people and allowed slave owners to receive compensation for their formerly enslaved. 28 A huge victory for the enslaved persons of the nation’s capital, the act served as another test policy for the federal government to gauge reaction on a national scale. It would be another nine months until President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring “that all persons held as slaves…are, and henceforward shall be free.” 29 Residents of the District still celebrate Emancipation Day on April 16, marking the day when the formerly enslaved residents of the nation’s capital experienced freedom for the first time in a nation which had long claimed to support the charge that “all men are created equal.”


Three-fifths compromise

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Three-fifths compromise, compromise agreement between delegates from the Northern and the Southern states at the United States Constitutional Convention (1787) that three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for determining direct taxation and representation in the House of Representatives.

Many of the Founding Fathers acknowledged that slavery violated the ideal of liberty that was so central to the American Revolution, but, because they were committed to the sanctity of private property rights, the principles of limited government, and the pursuit of intersectional harmony, they were unable to take bold action against slavery. Moreover, the Southern Founders’ thoroughgoing embrace of slave-based agriculture and their deeply ingrained racial prejudice solidified the barriers against emancipation. That the Continental Congress removed Thomas Jefferson’s statement regarding the injustice of the slave trade (and, by implication, slavery) from the final version of the Declaration of Independence is emblematic of the Founders’ resolve to subordinate the controversial issue of slavery to the larger goal of securing the unity and independence of the United States.

Notwithstanding the initial disagreements over slavery at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the framers of the Constitution continued to privilege the maintenance of unity of the new United States over the eradication of slavery by resolving to again diffuse sectional tensions over the matter. As they went about creating a new scheme of government, the delegates from the small and large states were divided on the issue of the apportionment of legislative representation. The Virginia, or large state, plan provided for a bicameral legislature with representation of each state based on its population or wealth the New Jersey, or small state, plan proposed equal representation for each state in Congress. Neither the large nor the small states would yield, but the deadlock was resolved by the Connecticut, or Great, Compromise, which resulted in the establishment of a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house and equal representation of the states in the upper house.

The matter of how to determine population was anything but trivial. Having failed to secure the abolishment of slavery, some delegates from the Northern states sought to make representation dependent on the size of a state’s free population. Southern delegates, on the other hand, threatened to abandon the convention if enslaved individuals were not counted. Eventually, the framers agreed on a compromise that called for representation in the House of Representatives to be apportioned on the basis of a state’s free population plus three-fifths of its enslaved population. This agreement came to be known as the three-fifths compromise:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons

It should be noted that neither the word slave nor the word slavery appears in this clause or anywhere in the unamended Constitution.

Granting slaveholding states the right to count three-fifths of their population of enslaved individuals when it came to apportioning representatives to Congress meant that those states would thus be perpetually overrepresented in national politics. However, this same ratio was to be used to determine the federal tax contribution required of each state, thus increasing the direct federal tax burden of slaveholding states. Provision was also added to the Constitution for a law permitting the recapture of fugitive slaves, along with a moratorium until 1808 on any congressional ban against the importation of slaves, though in the meantime individual states remained free to prohibit slave imports if they so wished.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.


GOP Rep Introduced Bill to Ban Democratic Party for Past Support of Slavery

On Thursday, Republican Texas Representative Louie Gohmert introduced a House resolution that would ban the Democratic Party and any other groups that have historically supported the Confederacy or slavery in the United States.

Gohmert introduced the bill a day after a 305-113 House vote to remove 11 statues of Confederate soldiers and slavery-defenders from the Capitol building and donate them to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Statuary Hall Collection or the southern states that donated them.

While 72 Republicans supported the statues' removal, all 113 votes against the measure came from Republican representatives, The Hill reported.

"Since people are demanding we rid ourselves of the entities, symbols, and reminders of the repugnant aspects of our past, then the time has come for Democrats to acknowledge their party's loathsome and bigoted past, and consider changing their party name to something that isn't so blatantly and offensively tied to slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, and the Ku Klux Klan," Gohmert said in a statement.

The cosponsors of the bill include Republican Representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona, Jody Hice of Georgia, Andy Harris of Maryland and Randy Weber of Texas.

Gohmert is just the latest conservative to highlight the Democratic Party's historical ties to institutional racism.

On June 18, Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy said the Democratic Party should change its name to leave behind its historical ties to the Confederacy and segregation laws. Conservative political commentators Dinesh D'Souza and Tomi Lahren have also mentioned this part of Democratic Party history in order to slam Democrats as hypocritical for depicting Republicans as bigoted.

It's true that early in its history, the Democratic Party supported slavery and the Confederacy and largely opposed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Democratic voters in the south also founded the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan terrorist group in 1865.

But citing the party's positions from over 60 to 160 years ago while ignoring its transformation since the Civil Rights Era is historically reductive, according to Michael Austin, a former professor and author of the book We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America's Civic Tradition.

"Today's Republicans and Democrats have very little in common with Democrats and Republicans in 1860, or even in 1936," Austin wrote in an article about the Democrats' transformation throughout U.S. history.

While Republicans largely supported abolishing slavery before, during and after the U.S. Civil War, both parties underwent a major shift during the 60s-era administration of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Although Johnson used the n-word during his lifetime, he also supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed racial discrimination in voting, schools, employment and public accommodations. His opponent in the 1964 presidential election, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, opposed the Civil Rights Act as a federal overreach into American business.

Goldwater's position helped him win formerly Democratic southern states that felt betrayed by Republicans and Northern Democrats who voted for the bill. Johnson's support of it attracted Black voters who began aligning with the Democratic party in greater numbers after he won the 1964 election.

Though demographics continue to shift, Black voters largely continue to support the Democratic party while Southern states largely continue to vote Republican to this day.

It's an oversimplification to say that one party is more racist than the other&mdashboth have supported members and policies that harm Black communities.

But Republican President Donald Trump and his administration remain opposed the removal of confederate monuments, calling it a form of violence meant "to control our streets, rewrite our history or harm the American way of life."

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