March 16, 1836
On March 16, 1836, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun stormed out of the Senate chamber. The Senate had just rejected a proposal that he believed would save the nation unnecessary bloodshed.
In a speech delivered several days earlier, Calhoun had warned Congress against interfering with the South’s system of slave labor. “The relation which now exists between the two races,” he said, “has existed for two centuries. It has grown with our growth and strengthened with our strength. It has entered into and modified all our institutions, civil and political. We will not, cannot permit it to be destroyed.”
A growing number of petitions to Congress demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia had caused Calhoun to speak out. While many believed that slavery could not be abolished in the states where it existed without a constitutional amendment, the senders of those petitions reasoned that since Congress had exclusive jurisdiction over the District, it had the power to outlaw slavery there.
Few members in the Senate of 1836 cared about abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia. Yet, they faced two options. One was to accept the petitions and then bury them in a committee. This procedure preserved the basic right of citizens to petition their government, while protecting the interests of members from the slave states.
John C. Calhoun believed it was time to end this hypocrisy. Under his plan, the Senate would accept no anti-slavery petitions. In his opinion, Congress had no business considering emancipation. If that issue ever reached the floor of the Senate or House, there would be no end to it; it would shake the Union at its foundations.
Most senators wanted this irritating issue to disappear. They feared that Calhoun's proposal to bar the Senate door to these petitions would inadvertently benefit the small and regionally isolated anti-slavery movement. Overnight, the troublesome enemies of slavery could be transformed into noble champions of civil liberties.
After rejecting Calhoun’s plan on March 16, the Senate devised a curious, complex, and obscure delaying procedure. It would vote not on whether to receive the petition itself—this would dignify the petition—but on whether to accept the question of receiving the petition.
This indirect method produced enough confusion to provide political cover for all members regardless of position. It was a classic example—a quarter century before the Civil War—of postponing the inevitable.
Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.