b. speech on referring an antislavery petition, 2-3 january 1800

    [Early in the first session of the Sixth Congress, the House undertook to revise the poorly enforced Slave Trade Act of 1794 in order to isolate the Caribbean’s intensifying slave insurrections by prohibiting American participation in the foreign slave trade. On 2 January 1800, Philadelphia’s Representative Robert Waln presented a petition from Absalom Jones and other free blacks praying for a revision to the Act of 1794 and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, as well as measures leading to a general emancipation of an estimated 700,00 enslaved blacks. Waln’s motion to have the petition referred to the committee on the new Slave Trade Bill ignited arguments ranging from the inexpediency and unconstitutionality of emancipation, to the innate inferiority of blacks and the mischievous tendency of accepting petitions from them.]

    Mr. Thatcher said that gentlemen generally set out wrong on this subject, and leave off about half right; they debated until they were almost tired and then the petition was not to be committed. If Congress had not power to legislate on the African trade then why did they say it was with a committee, if they had power, where was the impropriety of referring, at least that part which could be considered? Would any gentleman say that it was policy not to legislate about 700,000 enemies in the very body of the United States? While they were slaves they were enemies. He declared a greater evil than the very principle could not exist; it was a cancer of immense magnitude that would some time destroy the body politic except a proper legislation should prevent the evil. It must come before the house sooner or later. Then why postpone it? It was true the Eastern States were now suffering from the streams which issued from this great and dangerous fountain, but the evil ought to be stopped, ere it became too strong.

    Upon principles less general, he contended, the petition, which was couched in as decent and respectful terms as was possible, should be referred. Whether the petitioners were black or white, whether they could write or whether not, was entirely immaterial: they stated their sufferings under a law of the United States, and that was argument enough for a respectful reference. Because they could not write, were not their rights to be secured to them? Strange doctrine! A great reason why they could not write was their being brought up in early life in slavery.

    If gentlemen saw so great an evil arise out of the debate on this subject, why did they introduce the evil practice: they might have silently suffered it to have been committed; no evil could have arisen therefrom, because the committee would have reported only consistently with the power of the House to grant.

    [By this point in the debate, the only other member to have rallied behind Thatcher was John Smilie of western Pennsylvania, an outspoken Jeffersonian. John Brown of Rhode Island expressed regret that the petition should be championed “by two such worthy members of the House—both good federalists, (a laugh.)”]

    Mr. Thatcher thought that to make use of the incapacity of these people to read or write as an argument against committing their petition must arise out of prejudice in his colleagues against the general object, or he surely never would have resorted to such pitiful and he might say mean, virulent remarks. {Mr. T. was here called to order.} This was certainly a “new fangled doctrine.”1 But the reason why they could not write was because of the degraded state of their minds for want of education, many of whom perhaps in their youth were in slavery.

    The Gentleman from Georgia [James Jones] had objected to the reference [of the petition to a committee] because the petition contained a system of facts which he said was not true. Who else said they were not true? He (Mr. T.) believed they were true, and thus the dispute was at issue. How was this to be ascertained but by enquiry? If the state of Georgia should prove themselves innocent of that black stain it would be to their honor. But no, said the gentlemen “We will not have it examined into, because it will make us out to be as black as the petitioners themselves!”

    [The day’s debate ended with Waln withdrawing his own motion in order to move the referral only of those parts of the petition that related to the foreign slave trade and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. When the debate resumed the next day, Edwin Gray (Va.)2 moved to amend Waln’s original motion further, by adding “that all those parts of the petition which invited Congress to legislate upon any subject from which it was precluded by the constitution, as it had a tendency to create disquietude and jealousy, ought to receive the pointed disapprobation of this House.”]

    Mr. Thatcher said it was the first time that he had ever known any petition or part of a petition receive the “pointed disapprobation of the House” by a resolution, even though the object of it was not within the power of the House; several petitions had been received upon which the House had no power. He referred to the petition of John Churchman in December 1791, praying the patronage of Government to facilitate his discoveries of the longitude by enabling him to undertake a voyage to Baffin’s Bay. It was reported that great inconvenience operated to prevent the grant prayed for, and no money was allowed, yet no member moved a censure upon the petitioner.3 Was it a desirable object to do away a great evil? It was professed to be the wish of several gentlemen to eradicate it, and every gentleman in the House appeared desirous of embracing it with all his heart. These people only wished the evil destroyed, but did not point out the form. He was willing for the sake of argument to admit that slavery did exist and was sanctioned by the laws and constitution of the United States; he did not believe the fact, but as some gentlemen did, he would admit it for the present. Surely it would be desirable that this great evil should be destroyed, if it could be done without injury, nay with advantage to the possessors. Did the petition go any farther than this? It did not. The second person in the Government of the United States had devised a means to procure this object,4 as also had a certain learned professor.5 If it was therefore the desire, as avowed of those gentlemen, and an equitable means had been devised to acquire it, would the reference of a petition which made that request be improper, or would it be impolitic in gentlemen to examine these plans, and if eligible bring about their execution? Certainly not. Even if a certain sum of money was wanting he did not believe the House would refuse to appropriate it. Who would not withhold a few dollars from his purse to facilitate it?

    Then, while such are the propositions, a petition in behalf of its accomplishment ought to be heard; if it was not, it must fix a national indignity and stigma which ages of good actions could never wipe away.

    Gentlemen supposed the friends of the reference were got to so a high degree of enthusiasm as to destroy the very essence of philanthropy. Mr. Thatcher professed himself to be no friend to some of the doctrines of the French, but there were others he much admired; it was an admirable attempt in them, and well executed, to liberate their slaves.6 So far we ought not to be behindhand with their philanthropic conduct. If slavery is an evil the French have wiped away this evil. He submitted to gentlemen whether it could not be fully procured with very little injury to the owners; he begged them to review the several plans which had been proposed, and act upon them if attainable.

    Mr. T. said, he should be much grieved if any gentleman in the House should advocate the motion of pointed disapprobation towards men who respectfully complained, and petitioned to the House; he should think it a plain contradiction to say that they had professed it their wish to destroy slavery; it would be a plain demonstration that they hugged slavery as slavery, and loved it for its very odiousness.

    He was sorry to hear such harsh reflections insinuated against a very respectable body of men who were declared to be, if not the ostensible, yet the actual authors of these “discontents.” From all his acquaintance with that body he had never perceived any conduct in them to promote anarchy or disturbance; on the contrary, he had often observed that wherever there was a humane or benevolent institution, the Quakers were at the head of it. He thought, therefore, that they little deserved the odium which had been lavished on them.7

    [After further debate, in which both John Rutledge (S.C.) and Jones (Ga.) refuted Thatcher’s proposal for compensated emancipation, Gray (Va.) moved to amend his prior motion by omitting “pointed” from “the disapprobation of this House.” Waln “cheerfully” consented to his initial motion being amended in this way.]

    Mr. Thatcher said, as an abstract proposition, he should have no objection—he tho’t the House ought to give no countenance to any thing that it could not legislate on by the constitution; but as he did not believe the petition contained any such proposition, he must adhere to his former sentiments, and could not consent to the incorporation of the words. As amended, he disliked it much less than before, but he did not like it, as connected with the first motion.

    {Mr. J. Brown [R.I.] asked whether it was in order for a gentleman to speak five or six times!}

    Mr. Thatcher said he had spoken but once on this question. The gentleman from Rhode-Island need not to be afraid, for he was not now going to say much about slavery, which was the nearest to his heart.8 Mr. T. was fully in the opinion that the House had a right to take up the subject and give it a full, free and deliberate discussion, but this did not appear to be the general opinion. As he was opposed to the motion, as amended, he was willing his name should appear against it, even though no other gentleman should think fit to vote with him.

    [Upon Thatcher calling for a roll call vote, Waln withdrew his acquiescence to Gray’s amendment in order to leave the two motions distinct. “The yeas and nays had been several times moved during the embarrassed state of the house, but was only taken once”—on Gray’s amendment that the disputed parts of the petition “ought therefore to receive no encouragement or countenance from this House.” To this the House agreed, 85 to 1. True to his word, Thatcher’s was the only nay vote. The main question on Waln’s motion was then also passed, by an unrecorded vote.]

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    Philadelphia Gazette, 16, 17 Jan. 1800. For full coverage of the days’ debate, see Annals of Congress, 6th Cong., 1st sess., pp. 230-46 passim. Two versions of a revised slave trade bill were reported and debated at length before Congress finally approved, on 10 May 1800, a bill that strengthened the Slave Trade Act of 1794 by criminalizing all participation in the foreign slave trade. For a summary of that debate and the act’s significance, see W.E.B. duBois, The Suppression of the African Slave (1896; reissued, Baton Rouge, La., 1965), pp. 83-84.