tv 1790 Congressional Debate on Slavery and Race CSPAN July 8, 2017 9:00pm-10:01pm EDT
of 1790, the first congress meeting in their second session engaged in a debate about slavery and race while considering a number of anti-slavery petitions they had received. up next on american history tv, paul talksfessor about slavery and race and argues that this discussion, which focused on congress's ability to interfere with slavery and on the definition of a citizen set the tone for the race in america for the next seven decades. the historical society hosted this event and it is about an hour. >> today we will start with paul polgar who is a longtime colleague of mine, he started interning with the first federal congress project a long time ago. he is not sensitive about his age. he is too young to be that it seems like it was a long time
ago and we were able to see him take some of the things and -- things he worked within our , develop that and work it into his phd dissertation, which is the basis for his first book. a well grounded hope, abolishing and racial inequality in america. he teaches at the university of reallyippi, now we are fortunate to have him come all the way up here to -- from d.c. i want to thank the other people who made this a truly national event with a scope that goes beyond this area code. we have a visitor from the west coast, from california , a good friend of ours. and another wonderful friend from new york city. for some reason i am forgetting your name. i am sorry john. who represents the harvard conservancy.
who is developing the federal hall site of where the first federal congress met into a going thing. destination in lower manhattan for studies of the early congresses. welcome to everybody, whether you came from near or far. let's welcome paul polgar. [applause] professor polgar: thank you for that introduction. i would like to thank the u.s. capital historical society for inviting me here today for my talk today entitled congress' first debate on slavery and race is going to attempt to demonstrate the central ways this first national congressional debate set the tone for these larger issues of slavery and race as they would play out over seven decades, stretching all the way to the outbreak of the civil war. the subject focused on the debate as it unfolded in 1790. in the early months of 1790, the
house of representatives was consumed by the issue of slavery. triggered by a set of petitions asking the first federal congress to take anti-slavery measures, this debate grips the lower house of the legislator for days. historians have interpreted this early episode in a long history of congressional grappling with the institution of slavery. some have appointed to the gag -- pointed to the role of these debates as establishing the infamous gag rule, which would silence future additions to slavery to congress. others have highlighted the congressional resolutions resulting from the debates, arguing they would close substantive action on the sector -- federal level and represent a lost opportunity for legislating against slavery in early america. still others have downplayed the supposedly victories of slavery's defenders, insisting instead that debates concluded with an anti-slavery victory, namely the assertion that
congress could regulate the slave trade. yet what all of these interpretations share is an implicit assumption that a hold -- holy on congressional jurisdiction over slavery in the slave trade. when i will argue today is at the heart of this debate is a struggle or not just by merely over constitutional, but rather one over -- that constitutional or congressional provisions, rather one over fundamental principles. on one side those who highlighted human over property rights and imagine american revolutionary ideals of natural and equal liberty as applicable to those with black skin. in a series of petitions that generated this heated debate, antislavery activist, and especially the pennsylvania abolition society put forth a vision of a new nation that imagined a racially inclusive republic where the basic rights of enslaved africans were respected.
opposite the petitioners, a congressman from the lower south, here, i'm referring to georgia and south carolina, these men answered the anti-slavery rhetoric of the petitioners by underlining the sanctity of property rights and depicting slaves as inferior to their white counterparts, unfit for the liberty the petitioners argued was a natural right of all. thus, congress' first debate over slavery exposed a wrist of -- wrist over the meaning of race and a place of human bondage in the american nation. a rift over principles that would shape the contours of the nation's growing division regarding the peculiar institution for generations to come. after a hard-fought battle to ratify the constitution, the first federal congress convened in new york of april of 1779. -- 1789. if the constitution gave a
blueprint for federal governance, the first congress was left to interpret it design and set precedents in national lawmaking. i have here an illustration of federal hall, where the first congress met during its first two sessions before moving in december of 1790 to philadelphia where it would stay for a decade. in federal hall -- that would eventually come to what would be washington dc. federal hall is located in lower manhattan in what is now the financial district. such issues as creating a financial system, funding the revolutionary war debt and locating a permanent seat of government were some of the most important subject tackled by the nation's first congress. one topic, however, the congress did not expect to address was slavery. the federal convention of 1787 resulted in a constitution that gave no indisputable victory to pro-or anti-slavery interest.
as with many divisive subjects standing in the way of creating a stronger union, the federal constitution retained enough ambiguity to allow states opposed to and in favor of slavery to ratify the document. so it would fall to congress to flesh out these ambiguities, either embracing or rejecting principles hostile to slavery. on february 11, 7090, 1 month into the second session of the first congress, representative thomas fitzsimmons and john lawrence presented anti-slave trade petitions from their quaker yearly meetings. quakers were the leading religious group opposed to slavery during this time. these petitions argued the slave trade violated the sanctity of the social contract and the
beast and dehumanized all those who took part in it. trafficking of our fellow men, one of our petitioners read was in human tear any, and destructive to the virtues and happiness of the people. in asking the first congress to turn their attention to a case so interesting to the rights of men, the petitioners wanted the house to exert full extent of their power in discouraging the abominable commerce that was the slave trade. if the petitions of february 11 sent tremors through the house, when a third antislavery petition, this time from the pennsylvania abolition society, reached the floor the following day, it would register as a massive earthquake. whereas the previous petitions called for congress to examine its powers regarding the slave trade, the pennsylvania abolition societies position -- petition address the house in much broader and much more
threatening abolitionist terms. i have here an image of the petition as it was submitted to congress. now, it is worth quoting from this petition at length to capture the scope of this attack on human bondage, so i will quote at length from the petition. "from the regard of the happiness of mankind, and association was formed several years ago in the state." the petitioners are referring to the pennsylvania abolition society. "a just and accurate consumption of the two principles of the -- -- principles of liberty as they spread through the land produces many friends in the legislative cooperation of their views, which was successfully directed to the removing their bondage a number of fellow black humans. they were referring to the abolition act of 1780.
the petitioners have the satisfaction to observe that in consequence of that spirit of philanthropy and genuine liberty which is generally diffusing. similar institutions are gradually forming, both at home and abroad. that mankind are all formed by the same almighty being, the object of his care and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness, the christian religion teaches us to believe and the political creed of america fully fortifies this -- coincides this position. you are memorial list -- memorialist has observed with great satisfaction that many hours are vested in you. quoting the constitution, securing the blessings of liberty to the people of the united states. as they concede these ought to be administered without distinction of color to all descriptions of people, so they indulge themselves the pleasing expectation that nothing which
can be done for the relief of the unhappy object of their care would be either omitted or delayed. from a persuasion that equal liberty is the birthright of all men and influenced by the strong tides of humanity and the principles of their institution, your memorial list conceived themselves, bound to use all justifiable endeavors to loosen the bounds of slavery and promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of freedom. you will be pleased to countenance the registration of liberty to those unhappy men, blue, alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage. that you will devise me for removing this inconsistency from the character of the american people. that you will promote mercy and justice toward this distressed race and step to the verge of the powers vested in you for discouraging every species of traffic in the persons of our fellow man."
the petition would have been read out loud just like that. in fact, it was read by the speaker of the house, so you have to imagine other congressman receiving this. we will sort of understand their response. while the petition technically here asked the house to apply jurisdictional powers over the slave trade specifically, it's aims, as you have all heard by now, were much more encompassing. the pennsylvania abolition society led the antislavery movement in its state. pennsylvania passed the gradual emancipation law in 1780 and society was now working to incorporate former slaves into the republic as citizens. calling for the application of its principles to the nation at large, the abolition society rejected confidence that the course of history was on its side. it is referencing the abolition act, referencing there are societies forming at home and
internationally. there's a real sense of confidence in this petition. the petition argued people of african descent were entitled to an equal liberty with their free white counterparts. emphasizing the equal humanity of slaves rather than their status as property, they urged congress to approach the topic of slavery in this light. moreover, the petition linked to the founding principles of the nation, what it called the political creed of america, with the cause of slavery's abolition. to clinch this point, we -- the pennsylvania abolition society had its president and a leading figure of american national identity sign the document. you can see in the bottom right corner, for those of you who don't spend your days reading 18th-century handwriting, take my word for that is indeed benjamin franklin's signature. prince -- benjamin franklin, the president of the society.
the petition at the site, not only to assert immediate powers over regulating the slave trade, but also to ratify a larger vision of the republic as a land of genuine liberty. a nation where the rights and humanity of enslaved blacks were acknowledged. here, i want to show you the seal of the pennsylvania abolition society, which i think neatly encapsulates the ideas of the society. you can see here a slave, having broken his chains, standing up, and this white anti-slavery activist has taken his hand. they are standing side-by-side. as i said, this petition is asking the house not only to assert its immediate powers over regulating the slave trade, but ultimately to endorse its larger vision. whereas lower southern congressmen, who we will hear more from coming up, quickly
denounced the petitions, representatives from new england's states endorsed what they saw as the moral and humanistic foresight of the petitioners. thomas scott of pennsylvania project did a strong voice of support for the antislavery petitioners. in answering a lower southern contention, he pronounced it was not possible that one man would have property in the person of another. god nor devil,er god declared he would oppose the slave trade on principles of humanity in the laws of nature. scott offered that if you were a federal judge and slaves asked him for freedom, and i quote again " "i am sure i would go as far as i could in emancipating them." john lawrence seconded the sentence, and recommended that the petitions be referred to a committee. after two days of debate, the house voted to commit the petitions to a special committee
for consideration. the select committee charged with drafting a report on the antislavery petitions completed their work on march 1 and submitted to the house the product of their deliberation four days later. the first cause of the report reiterated the federal constitutions pledge to refrain from interfering with the slave trade before 1808. the second said that congress -- restrained from participating in the period, mentioned in 1808. this section of the report was interpreted by william lawton smith of south carolina as leaving open the possibility that after 1808, congress could only ban the slave trade but regularly and perhaps end slavery altogether. the third permission granted that only the individual states could make laws relating to the
education, morality, religion and happiness of the slaves, and to promote the happiness of the slave. these provisions recognized the ability to regulate the foreign slave trade. finally the seven clause endorsed the antislavery intentions of the petitioners. informing the petitioners that in all cases where congress could advance humane objects placed on principles of justice, humanity and good policy, they would do so. to the lower southerners who had opposed considering the petition altogether and wanted to table the petitions and silence them, any report was bound to disappoint. especially disturbing was a second clause that could be read to opening the door to federally sectioned emancipation, even though every congressman who spoke in the debates would deny the right of the federal government to abolish slavery on the state level. additionally, the final clause
implied solidarity with the petitioner's perspective and appeared to support the petitioner's code of ethics. the lower southerners succeeded temporarily in tabling the report, but the house agreed to take up the report on march 16. to fully grasp why the lower southerners would offer an elaborate justification for slavery, it is very important that we first acknowledge the defensive position these congressmen found themselves in. -- themselves in during the first congress. in 1790, it was far from certain whether slavery would survive in the new republic. indeed, many of the founding generation believed slavery was doomed to die out. by the time the first congress met, all five of the new england states and pennsylvania had -- states, along with pennsylvania had either ended slavery judicially or put them on the road through extinction on the path to emancipation laws.
their neighbors would also do so with the passage of gradual abolition act of 1799. 1804, respectively. in virginia and maryland, the declining viability of the tobacco economy had led to the spring of slaves voluntarily, and lifted restrictions on the slaveholders' ability to limit -- liberate their chapel. as they took of the antislavery petitions, only south carolina and georgia appeared unequivocally committed to the long-term presence of slavery in independent america. furthermore, there is no what we would call solid south political alignment, completely or -- completely committed, or unabashedly committed to favoring the institution of slavery at this time. revealingly, virginia was often lumped together by national politicians with new york and pennsylvania. a mix of the rhetorical championing of the ideas of liberty and equality by some of virginia's leading political
figures and the states economic self interest, virginia had an excess of slaves, they stood to gain economically from any congressional action taken against the slave trade. all of this meant that lower southerners could not count on their upper southern neighbors for ideological support for slavery. taking into account these factors, lower southern members of the house must've been alarmed by the abolition society petition that was read before the house. it urged congress to apply the society's principles as a guide to dealing with the issue of slavery on the national level. finding themselves boxed in politically, congressmen from south carolina and georgia would feel compelled to combat the principles of the antislavery petitioners with what they viewed as a principal defense of slavery. slavery's proponents relied on a bevy of arguments in defending bondage. repeatedly, lower southerners attacked the quakers as
misguided and subversive. the decision of many quakers to remain neutral during the revolutionary war showed them to be cowardly traitors, posing as conscientious objectors while the patriots fought the british and brought into question the quakers loyalty to the american republic. lower southerners attacked these -- attack the antislavery messengers in attempt to particular eyes -- and an attempt to marginalized religious sect rather than the universal one intimately connected with the meaning of american independence. on its own, sullying the character of the quakers left the content of the petitions on -- unanswered. slavery defenders also turned to history, but revered sources in making their case. both the greek and roman empires, two influential models for the american republic practice slavery. every civilization of consequence in human history permitted bondage, the lower
southerners insisted. historical precedents of this kind carry little weight. in a country already celebrating ,ts self identifying nature endorsement from the past ring hollow. slavery's defenders scoured the good books passages that condoned slavery and recited to their colleagues those excerpts the interpreted as doing just that. but turning to the bible was a mixed blessing for slavery defenders. anti-slavery activists could harness the christian precepts of altruism, benevolence in -- and the single creation in answering slavery's advocates. the inconclusive effect of these strategies in defending slavery left lower southerners to tap economic utility, political compromise, property rights, and race. political compromise, the federal constitution was based on belding state interest and
utility only people of african descent could work in the tropical environment of the south, lacked a rationale and did not counter the petitioner's claims of underlying black equality. this left property rights and race. as we shall see, in defending american slavery, the lower southerners would merge property rights with racial inferiority and allegations of black incapacity for freedom. on march 16, thomas of south carolina initiated the second round of debates on slavery when he offered a motion to substitute the entirety of the report with "that congress could not take said memorial into their consideration, as being unconstitutional and tending to injure some of the states of the union." james jackson of georgia, regarded, by his colleagues as the cantankerous orator,
seconded the motion and spoke for over one hour. here is a portrait of james jackson. attesting to the sanctity of property rights, jackson asked his colleagues at the rights of liberty are not adequate to the rights of person. and if entering into the constitution, the meaning of it was not to secure the citizens in possession of one as well as the other. in other words, property rights were indistinguishable from natural rights. jackson was pushing back against the petitioner's emphasis on the natural rights of slaves to freedom. but in defending slavery, jackson went beyond underscoring the centrality of property rights to the founding of the new nation. to counter the petitioner's portrait of the equal humanity of slaves, jackson laid out his version of the nature of enslaved africans and african americans. the west african countries from which american slaves originated followed a despotic and tyrannical social model, in which 18 exercise absolute
authority over the property, persons of all those in his dominion, according to jackson. perpetuatedns were from their earliest experiences and what jackson considered barbaric africa. even with their mother's milk, this elixir of servitude, making it their -- making it there in nature. hisurther augment justification for slavery, jackson turned to the prospect of emancipation. if the slaves were freed, what next? that thomasted out jefferson in the state of virginia already examined the question from slavery's abolition and concluded that should slaves deliberated within greater american society " deep-rooted prejudice interesting by the whites, long-held animosity held by the blacks, the physical and moral differences between these two groups, and the real distinction nature has made with result in a race war."
jackson concurred with jefferson that unavoidable racial polarization concluded any prospect of an america where white and blacks would remain side-by-side. moreover jackson attic, there was a glee -- great distinction between the subject of liberty. holding up the exam feel -- example of marilyn where slaves had resulted in a growing free black population. those liberated had resorted to stealing rather than working and had become common pockets. they only harm the greater society into which they were freed. i quote again, the sound of liberty, when applied to liberty, jackson warned has this consequence. for jackson, any effort to free the people was natural dispositions predispose them to slavery was not only a waste of time and resources, but also in the face of nature's intended design for african, unconditional bondage.
following jackson's speech, the members of the house voted down the proposed amendment to the report. the report continued to be debated and considered. during the next day debate, william smith and a dennis burke representing south carolina joined jackson in aggressively defending slavery. both speakers echoed jackson's the fiction of slaves as culturally and inherently inferior and naturally fit for bondage. by advocating emancipation, petitioners are doing an active inhumanity to the slaves. during the late revolution, america witnessed how unfit people of african descent were for freedom. at that time, the mender of the british army conferred liberty to thousands of blacks as he swept through the southern countryside. but he erroneously claimed most of these former slaves died, thereby demonstrating how totally in keeping the --
totally incapable he or a slave is in keeping their liberty. the speech with two hours, seeking to filibuster the report, in the process he intended to show that slavery is not that dark being detested by many americans. here is william smith. like jackson before him, he use the hypothetical of slavery's abolition to strengthen his justification for black slavery. he to turn to thomas jefferson. jefferson, a man of enlightened understanding had already proven blacks, by nature and inferior human beings, even to the indians. in jefferson's note on the state of virginia, may the goal of emancipation a fatal enterprise and a direct threat for the well-being of the nation's population -- white population. should the nation and eradicate lavery and admit lack people
into white society, it would permanently alter the country's character for the blood of the white. the potential for a race award manifested, and racial intermixture. the inherent incompatibility of white and black would lead to a bloody battle with the strongest party, presumably the whites left to "murder" the weaker. estimation, externally imposed black freedom could never hold up in the face of nature's plan for those of african descent. africans and african american were invalid people, adverse to labor. when emancipated they would starve or plunder. even if a plan of emancipation were enacted to rub the country, smith said racist would still remain distinct. while the petitioner argued that nature had made all men equal, here i am quoting jackson loading his interpretation of the petitioner.
nature that color should not place negros on quality of whites -- labeling the petitioners as hypocrites "the warmest friends of the blacks kept them at a distance." the inferiority of black slaves was not only an absolute feature of nation, but inescapable social reality that would nullify any attempt to make persons free and equal. two of the anti-slavery petitioners'most vocal opponents of vocal those human bondage, but did so in ways that at first glance seems unthreatening to the institution of slavery. both of them from states with antislavery constituencies adopted a way of speaking against slavery that defined bondage as wholly out of place
within the u.s., even as they conceded that the federal government was powerless to end slavery. and here is an demonstration -- nn illustration of him, a important defender of the petitioners. he declared slavery incompatible. furthermore, he continued that the declaration of independence laid out to the world that liberty and freedom were the universal building blocks of the republic, here he quoted the declaration "we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, like, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." those words, he concluded,
served as the "language of america." he roundly rejected the efforts of jefferson and smith to harmonize slavery with the new nation. at the same time he reassured the lower southerners that he recognized their right people change. -- righg to hold people in chains. for him there was a difference between the slave trade and inkling to property in the form of bonds person. he failed to understand to the lower southerners without justifying slavery, the property claim was not sufficiently pure. number spoke in favor of the petitioners. he offered at once a ringing condemnation of slavery and at the same time confessed that this condemnation was inapplicable to the subject at hand. an excerpt from one of his speeches captured this type of rhetoric at work. viewing the question as it regards general principle, i
hold it to be an immutable truth that all men are created equal and therefore freedom is an inalienable right that a state in which a man exists merely for the use of another is an unnatural state, that an undefined power to be exercised by one human being over another is a dangerous and also unnatural power. principles, general and perhaps neither politically applicable nor immediately pertinent to the discussion, i shall forbear as the least commentary upon the." -- upon them." he seems to be telling southerners, we tolerate your right to property and persons, but do not support the right enslaving these persons. this hardly secured a talk to slavery defenders. if the anti-slavery thrust of revolutionary was unconnected to the house debate to the lower southerners, this same rhetoric was not simply an abstract or
theoretical threat. turned the reference into a tangible specter threatening to tear apart the very fabric of slaveholding southern life. in turn lower southern congressman felt compelled to defend slavery as a normal state for people they rendered an inferior race, incapable of living is free citizens. there emerged one house number who joined philosophical support for the petitioners with willingness to entertain the possibility of broad federal powers over the issue of slavery. punishmently the one -- we will have to imagine. thomas scott of pennsylvania, the most strident promoter of anti-slavery positioned during the february debates, broke a long silence and spoke out on the issue in the first time in over a month. scott listed hypothetical
scenarios to illustrate his view of the implied powers congress had over the slave trade, premised on the general welfare clause of the constitution, which we heard referenced in the petition. scott acknowledged that congress was prohibited from stopping the importation of slaves for at least two years. -- 20 years. what is the persons from the state possessed inadmissible qualities such as the plague? could not congress stop the admission of such people? or what if one of the states attempted to import alien enemies with arms to destroy the union? would not congress be justified and empowered to intervene and stop this calamity from taking place? scott has watched as representatives insisted that the "rich africans or property, not people." could not the federal government under the powers of regulating trade and commerce "declare them
slaves contravened goods -- contraband goods and put an end trade?"lave congress recently passed the naturalization act giving rights of citizenship's to frequent persons only. -- three point persons only. a tool that scott reminded the house that future congresses could "whenever they please, rewrite the law and declare that any person, whether black, blind, blue or red, be free persons, but free citizens." scott's reading of the constitution empowered the federal government to end the slave trade and the clear africans imported into the country citizens, therefore breaking down the barriers between free and white and black and slave at any time congress should choose. this sort of thinking exemplified the stuff of nightmares for lower southern congas meant.
-- southern congressman. as a president of the washington county abolition society of pennsylvania, scott's word captured fully the racially inclusive vision of the republic held by the antislavery petitioners, the vision that had called slavery defenders to claim it is the only proper state for african americans, and thereby slavery is an institution compatible with the new nation. for james jackson, scott's comments confirmed what he had known all along. the anti-slavery petitions represented a complete assault on the institution of slavery. therefore while many house members accuse the lower sufferers of displaying undue trepidation in their fiery action to the report, for jackson it was "the reality, not the bugbear which we have raised." jackson spoke for the southern contingent when he laid the principles embodied in the
petitions and evident in the words like compass minerals like scott -- of congressmen like scott could be to the devastation of the south. "the declarations will make ear thatlaveholders, f their property will not be secured. i contend there is no bound at which they may stop." neither the petitioners nor the lower southerners could claim total victory. following three days of the board on the individual clauses, on march 23, 1790, the house came to an agreement. under james madison's motion the house substituted the word to," keeping"prior verbatim the constitution's construction on the slave trade. iit --d
cannot be prohibited by congress prior to the year 1808. this was a response to lower southern concerns that the report's original language of "until" assumed that the slave trade would be abolished in 1808 , when in fact congress was not obligated to end the slave trade at all. the reference of internal regulation of slavery also favored the lower southerners. on a motion by madison, the second and third clauses were struck. redrafted read "congress has no authority to interfere in the emancipation of slaves or in the treatment of them within any of the states. it remaining with the states alone to provide regulation true policy may
require." of thetestations georgians and south carolinians to the report had forced virginian representatives to clearheer there -- make to protect the rights of slaveholders in the new republic. yet we should also keep in mind that no congressman outside of the lower south had asserted that the power to emancipate slaves lay with the federal government. this revised clause only restated what national politicians believed. additionally, while william smith proposed eliminating the word humanity from the revised resolution, his motion did not pass. smith salt unsuccessfully to rid the report that echoed the petitioner language. in other ways the southerners did not get what they want. they did not want congress to
consider the petition. then they tried and failed to substitute the original report with a statement that congress should once again refused to consider the petition. a majority of georgia's and south carolina's representatives unsuccessfully opposed a step of having a final report recorded in the house journal, believing that doing so would give voice to a topic they want to silence altogether, and act as a president for antislavery -- precedent for anti-slavery agitators. in spite of the lower southerners' monologues, not one congas meant outside of georgia or south carolina acquiesced in pronouncing human bondage a just institution. several representatives expressed shock that any dignified statesman could dare t o argue for the moral legitimacy of human bondage. it is in this way that the petitioners triumph in the
battle of anti-and pro-slavery principles, broadcasting their values on a national level. ideas explain why the vice president of the abolition society could conclude that the whole episode had "served to disseminate our principles and led to a more general ascent to those truths we which to propagate." this signaled that "the time was not very distant" when these principles would be "universally received and established." to conclude, putting aside trying to identify the winners and losers in this first congressional tussle over american slavery, the ultimate legacy of the debate was a pivotal way in which it set the terms for future national battles over the peculiar institution and its place in the american nation. from the missouri crisis of 19
-- 1819 to the dred scott issues, from lincoln to the essential rights of the enslaved, during the same -- during the same lincoln douglas debates, to the idea that the confederate nation was founded on the belief of inherent black inferiority, the elements of a seven decades long divisive battle over slavery and race in america first emerged in the house of representatives at the inaugural meeting of congress. thank you. >> [applause] >> what was at stake? the petition was not a bill that could have accomplished anything. prof. polgar: these were resolutions. these resolutions expressed the feelings of one congress interpreting the constitution at
one given moment in time. having said that, the constitution says that the slave trade cannot be ended before 1808 but does give congress the power to regulate the slave trade. in fact there was a bill passed a few years later regulating the slave trade. taxes could be applied to foreign slaves. there was that tangible reality. my argument here is that this is really about laying out the principles in debate. the constitutional convention in 1787 steered clear of these principled arguments. it gave no clear victory to pro or anti-slavery interests. it gave no absolute guarantee in the absolute sanctity of property rights in sleeves. when the first congress meets, there is this large debate going on based on which principles
would win out, anti or proslavery principles. you are right to say that the resolutions were really a measure of how one congress was interpreting how the constitution could be applied to slavery. -- why did-up congress have to even consider these positions? if someone submits a petition to congress, why couldn't they just ignore it? prof. polgar: they could've. chuck, who introduced me, has written on this fact, showing how the antislavery petitioners played an essential role in establishing the petitions to congress could be about moral issues. petitions during the first congress and up to this point, and the second session of the first congress had been based on individual claims. claims of revolutionary war soldiers trying to collect
pensions and things like that. this was a huge issue, right? the quakers, in getting their petitions heard, in getting a debate in the sense, established that the federal government could take up moral issues. and of course the federal government would do that through the early years of the republic, through all kinds of issues -- temperance, the women's movement, further antislavery, all the way up today with issues like abortion's right -- abortion rights. this was a pivotal moment in this way as well. yeah? >> thank you very much. i am here from my book club, african-american literary guild. we are reading the new book, anti-slavery racist ideas in
america. prof. polgar: i have that on my bookshelf as well. >> is quite a read. you talk about the northern states having abolished slavery in their jurisdictions by a certain date. that assumes that there was slavery in the north. prof. polgar: there absolutely was. >> why did they become truer to the american ideals than the southern states? was it just economics that made them say slavery wasn't quite worth it? prof. polgar: the quick and easy answer is to say that it is all dependent on what the proportion of slaveholders are in any given society. there are many more slaveholders who hold a lot more power politically, economically, and socially in states like georgia and south carolina than in states like pennsylvania and new york. that is the easiest answer. however we also need to remember that just getting emancipation
statutes passed in pennsylvania, especially in new york and new jersey were long heated battles. a lot of this rhetoric and back and forth between those opposed to slavery and those in favor of it played out. slavery was not easy to abolish anywhere in the american republic. it was a very difficult battle wherever one turned. the pennsylvania abolition society is totally locked in to this battle. are taking their principles overey have formed them the course of a number of years in fighting against slavery, and trying to bring those principles and ideas to the national level. but yeah, slavery is difficult to abolish anywhere in the united states.
>> [inaudible] with the pennsylvania petition have been given as much attention if benjamin franklin was not president of that society? prof. polgar: that is a good question. there are these two conditions from quaker meetings that were also presented. these quicker yearly meetings had nothing to do with franklin. he did not sign that petition. on the one hand we can say they were hurt, so his role was for not them to the heard. his signature on that document acts to signal to congress that these principles of the pennsylvania abolition society have greater national currency and relevance. role thatrt of the the signature in his involvement plays. that in fact was a very important one in this attempt to
project larger national congruence with the pennsylvania abolition society's principals. james jackson accused franklin of being senile during the debates, saying the only way franklin could have possibly signed this petition. franklin got his revenge. he wrote a satire in a local newspaper, imagining an algerian politician defending the slavery of christians 100 years before. and of course freckled, the master of satire -- franklin, the master of satire, not only was he countering jackson, but showing that he still had his full faculties about him. this was the last act of benjamin franklin, because he died only weeks after writing this editorial.
>> more globally, what kind of discussions and debates were happening in europe at this time? did they inform the american debate? prof. polgar: when you read the abolition study at length, they are pointing out that there are abolition societies that have emerged throughout the larger atlantic world, what we would call your. the london society emerged in this period. it is closely corresponding with the pennsylvania abolition society. there is a society in paris which has also emerged and is also corresponding. one of its leading advocates makes a trip over to philadelphia and new york to correspond and create more of a joint effort between these abolition societies. it is an important point to remember that this debate in
werelavery activities unfolding on a much broader landscape beyond the united states. again the pennsylvania abolition society pointed to this and sent look, not only is the trajectory of the nation is on our side, but the broader atlantic world. slavery is on the defensive in england at this time, and of course it is on the defensive as the haitian revolution emerges, which is just about to begin in its earliest stages a year after this debate. this was absolutely part of this broader global discussion. yeah? >> thank you so much for the information. i appreciate your research. every time i hear something about slavery, you learn something new.
one of the things that i rarely hear about is, in addition to the moral, physical, mental degradation of the human being of color, was the sexual abuse as well. that seems to get pushed to the back of the story. way, there were -- mber of rapes, ogletree rapes, adultry. children born that were never recognized, shall i say? and counted as members of the society. that is huge to be left at the bottom.
i wish it would come up further. prof. polgar: i certainly don't mean to imply -- >> oh, not you. prof. polgar: but in general, i totally agree with you. this effect was a factor that abolitionists were beginning to point to and would especially .2 by the 1830's -- especially from to by the 1830's white northerners as it promotes sexual abuse of female slaves that were disempowered. those arguments are beginning in their infant stages. by the 1830's, absolutely, this is a key argument abolitionists are making in the way that it degrades and dehumanizes sexuallywhen, -- women, and adds to the slave
population for the master. there is an economic interest in masters sexually violating their slaves. it is an important factor. >> wasn't this one of the end results of the debate that the house said we will not consider any petitions on slavery anymore? prof. polgar: yes. i alluded to this in the beginning. some historians have argued this was a prelude to the gag rule. theg ag rule fully emerges later in the 1830's as abolition in the north has emerged much more strongly and you have a flood of petitions. there is no absolute answer to that. in some ways, yes, it is setting a precedence that antislavery petitions will not be handled in this way. a year later the next congress, these petitioners trying again.
they table the position. they have adopted this strategy. ways, slavery on the national level is not going to burst out in this way continually. however i want to make clear that the slavery issue was not silenced on the national level at all. you can go through congressional records and see debates over slavery, by the regarding petitions or sometimes even urging indirectly with other issues. -- emerging indirectly with other issues. it is not that slavery is silenced at the national level, even though the petitions are gagged in a certain way in the years following this. >> [inaudible] --inspire people to look at this
debate more and in honest dimensions, and there are plenty of dimensions to look at. if you study this episode further, in the context of the water atlantic world, there is -- wider atlantic world, there is a lot going on in congress. nothing in congress happens in a vacuum. for those that have seen "hamilton," and note his report on public credit is being debated at the same time. tensions in congress are already amped up. here you have the quakers and the senile ben franklin throwing this potentially unconstitutional proposal and things start to ignite. they are that in mind. -- bear that in mind. sidesare good and bad to the antislavery debate being dragged out. some say this is a titanic waste
of time. some from pennsylvania saying, let's drag this out a little more because we have colleagues that are not here to weigh in. hamilton says there are all of these other things going on. it makes history exciting. thank you for sharing. >> [applause] >> you are watching american history tv, all weekend every weekend on c-span3. to join the conversation like us on facebook at c-span history. >> sunday on q&a -- >> i am not asking anybody to compromise their values or beliefs, i am just asking them to open their eyes to other people's so that you can figure
out your place in this infinite world. >> brooke gladstone, cohost and managing editor of wnyc's "on the media," on her book "the trouble with reality: a rumination on moral panic in our time" with her look at what constitutes reality today and how that criteria has changed over the years. >> i set up at the beginning of the book our biological wiring. i wanted to show how we had evolved a culture that was designed to validate us and not to challenge us, certainly not to contradict us. it gave us the illusion that our realities were watertight, when really they were riddled with weak spots and places that would crunch in. >> sunday night at 8:00 eastern on c-span's q&a.
>> about 30 years ago on july 7, 1987, former national security council staff member lieutenant colonel oliver norton, a marine in vietnam veteran, appeared before the house and senate committees discussing the iran-contra affair. this is the first of his days of testimony in the secret arms sales to iran and governing of money to the rebels overthrowing the nicaraguan government. the degree of oversight of his actions by his superiors. a the next on -- up next, full day of oliver north's testimony. >> before proceeding of the hearing, the chair wishes to make the following announcement. pursuant to the rules of th