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1856 - US presidential race -
Free expression, slavery and the candidates in Congress

Are some ideas so incendiary they are too dangerous to speak about? As the 19th century progressed and slavery took tenacious hold with the booming of the cotton economy, many people thought so. Below we examine the way in which slavery manifested itself in restraint of public expression among the unenslaved - and the positions 1856's presidential candidates took about it during their earlier service in Congress. Buchanan and Fillmore were old enough they had been called to vote upon the matter; while Fremont, the avowed foe of slavery, had not been.


An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a chronicle of the gathering storm

by Jesse Macy

A persistent attack was also directed against the use of the United States mails for the distribution of anti-slavery literature. Mob violence which involved the post-office began as early as 1830, when printed copies of Miss Grimke's Appeal to the Christian Women of the South were seized and burned in Charleston. In 1835 large quantities of anti-slavery literature were removed from the Charleston office and in the presence of the assembled citizens committed to the flames. Postmasters on their own motion examined the mails and refused to deliver any matter that they deemed incendiary. Amos Kendall, Postmaster-General, was requested to issue an order authorizing such conduct. He replied that he had no legal authority to issue such an order. Yet he would not recommend the delivery of such papers. "We owe," said he, "an obligation to the laws, but a higher one to the communities in which we live, and if the former be perverted to destroy the latter, it is patriotism to disregard them. Entertaining these views, I cannot sanction, and will not condemn, the step you have taken." This is an early instance of the appeal to the "higher law" in the pro-slavery controversy. The higher law was invoked against the freedom of the press...

In December of [1835]... presumably with full knowledge that a member of his Cabinet was encouraging violations of law in the interest of slavery, President Jackson undertook to supply the need of legal authorization. In his annual message he made a savage attack upon the abolitionists and recommended to Congress the "passing of such a law as will prohibit, under severe penalties, the circulation in the Southern States, through the mail, of incendiary publications."

This part of the President's message was referred to a select committee, of which John C. Calhoun was chairman. The chairman's report was against the adoption of the President's recommendation because a subject of such vital interest to the States ought not to be left to Congress... [as] Congress might authorize and enforce the circulation of abolition literature through the mails in all the States. The States should themselves severally decide what in their judgment is incendiary... The bill recommended was in harmony with this view. It was made illegal for any deputy postmaster "to deliver to any person whatsoever, any pamphlet, newspaper, handbill, or other printed paper, or pictorial representation touching the subject of slavery, where by the laws of the said State, territory, or district their circulation is prohibited." The bill was defeated in the Senate by a small margin.

Altogether there was an enlightening debate on the whole subject. The exposure of the abuse of tampering with the mail created a general reaction, which enabled the abolitionists to win a spectacular victory. Instead of a law forbidding the circulation of anti-slavery publications, Congress enacted a law requiring postal officials under heavy penalties to deliver without discrimination all matter committed to their charge. This act was signed by President Jackson, and... Henceforth abolitionists enjoyed their full privileges in the use of the United States mail...

An even more dramatic victory was thrust upon the abolitionists by the inordinate violence of their opponents in their attack upon the right of petition. John Quincy Adams, who became their distinguished champion, was not himself an abolitionist... At the very time when a New England ex-President was thus advising abolitionists to desist from sending petitions to Congress, the Virginia Legislature was engaged in the memorable debate upon a similar petition from Virginia Quakers, in which most radical abolition sentiment was expressed by actual slaveowners. Adams continued to present anti-slavery memorials and at the same time to express his opposition to the demands of the petitioners... [In 1835]... Adams, still in apparent sympathy with the pro-slavery South on the main issue... [said petitions] should be received... and referred to a committee; because the right of petition is sacred... At that time only one voice had been raised in the House in support of the abolition petitioners, that of John Dickson of New York, who had delivered a speech of two hours in length advocating their cause...

In May, 1836, the following resolution passed the House: "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 on the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon." This is commonly known as the "gag resolution." During four successive years it was reenacted in one form or another and was not repealed by direct vote until 1844.

When the name of Mr. Adams was called in the vote upon the passage of the above resolution, instead of answering in the ordinary way, he said: "I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, of the rules of this House, and of the rights of my constituents." This was the beginning of the duel between the "old man eloquent" and a determined majority in the House of Representatives...

From Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

Article: "James Buchanan"

...Up to this time [1853] Buchanan's attitude on the slavery question had been that held by the conservative element among Northern Democrats. He felt that the institution was morally wrong, but held that Congress could not interfere with it in the states in which it existed, and ought not to hinder the natural tendency toward territorial expansion through a fear that the evil would spread. He voted for the bill to exclude anti-slavery literature from the mails, approved of the annexation of Texas, the war with Mexico, and the Compromise of 1850, and disapproved of the Wilmot Proviso...

Article: "Millard Fillmore"

...[After 1843 Fillmore] again represented his district in the House, this time as a member of the Whig party. In Congress he opposed the annexation of Texas as slave territory, was an advocate of internal improvements and a protective tariff, supported J. Q. Adams in maintaining the right of offering anti-slavery petitions, advocated the prohibition by Congress of the slave trade between the states, and favoured the exclusion of slavery from the District of Columbia. His speech and tone, however, were moderate on these exciting subjects, and he claimed the right to stand free of pledges, and to adjust his opinions and his course by the development of circumstances...

Article: "John Charles Fremont"

...From the conclusion of his fourth expedition until March 1855, when he removed to New York city, [Fremont] lived in California, and in December 1849 was elected one of the first two United States senators from the new state. But as he drew the short term, he served only from the l0th of September 1850 to the 3rd of March 1851. Although a candidate for re-election, he was defeated by the pro-slavery party. His opposition to slavery, however, together with his popularity - won by the successes, hardships and dangers of his exploring expeditions, and by his part in the conquest of California - led to his nomination, largely on the ground of "availability," for the presidency in 1856 by the Republicans...