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As a key figure in the anti-slavery movement in America, William Jay (1789-1858) found himself in the middle of one of the most heated political battles of the era, known as the petitioner movement in Congress. In the months leading up to May 1836, Congress was getting flooded with tens of thousands of petitions, letters, and other publications calling for an immediate end to slavery in the United States, many coming from members of the American- Anti Slavery Society (AASS).

The AASS was founded in 1833 under the leadership of brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan, both of whom were close friends of William Jay. The main goal of the organization was the complete abolition of slavery in the US, and it grew quickly to over 1,000 local chapters by 1836. The initial justification for their anti-slavery message was what William Jay referred to often as “moral suasion” or “the anti-slavery agitation.” This involved a large-scale campaign of publications that highlighted the righteousness of the abolition movement, with constant appeals to the public’s Christian morality. Newspapers, pamphlets, and many other anti-slavery communications spread rapidly throughout the country, creating sizable followings in New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. The creation of the AASS and its aggressive advocacy for an immediate abolition to slavery represented a significant shift in philosophy for anti-slavery in the United States. William’s father, John Jay, was considered a progressive anti-slavery advocate when he signed the nation’s first ever gradual abolition law as New York’s governor in 1799. By the time William’s generation reached adulthood, his father’s attitude was seen as unacceptable. Abolitionists such as the Tappans, Theodore D. Weld, Gerrit Smith, and William Lloyd Garrison would use the AASS as a force for an immediate end to the institution of slavery in the US. Garrison summarized the attitude of the new abolition movement, “On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No, no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm!”

As one of the group’s intellectual founders, and a member of its Executive Committee, William Jay was heavily involved in selecting and editing the narratives that were published by the AASS. As an editor of these publications, he wanted the stories of the enslaved that were published to be the strictest truth as possible, with no embellishment or hyperbole. Telling the truth, as he wrote to Gerrit Smith would “remove all doubt from the mind of the reader as to the degree of credibility he is to attach to the book. He must not be deceived.”

In early 1835, after seeing the effectiveness of their publications in the Northeast and Midwest, William and other anti-slavery leaders began a letter writing campaign, sending hundreds of letters directly to Southern citizens, with grand appeals to their religious and moral convictions. This initial campaign only served to agitate as it was seen by Southern politicians as a call for a slave revolution. Many southern postmasters began what was essentially a censorship program on these mailings whereby most were either confiscated or destroyed upon their arrival at the post office. Eventually thousands of people, regardless of whether they supported abolition, began angrily protesting the censorship of mail as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech, and censorship ended.

The public support for their mailing campaign led William and the AASS to an even more bold and aggressive tactic –  sending petitions directly to Congress, demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. They chose D.C. specifically because the Constitution gave Federal Congress the power to legislate on slavery in the nation’s capital, a power it did not have over the states. The issue came to a head at the beginning of the 24th Congress in 1835, as it was customary at the beginning of a session to have states read petitions from their constituents. For many weeks, House members from New England and other regions where anti-slavery was prominent, stood and read petition after petition from their constituents, many calling for the abolition of slavery in general, but also for its abolition in the District of Columbia, per the AASS strategy.

Representatives of slave states looked to at least slow the influx of these petitions, what they called “incendiary” publications, or find a way to have them not heard at all. Traditionally, they had done so by referring what they considered a ‘controversial’ petition to a small committee, print them, and then simply ignore them. However, the tide of public sentiment from the north was growing strong in favor of anti-slavery. Thus, southern pro-slavery leaders sought a more creative method to silence the debate on slavery.

Political tension in the United States during this period ran along regional lines because of the slavery issue. Then Vice President Martin Van Buren saw a gag rule as an opportunity to ease those sectional tensions within the Democratic Party, strengthening their chances to hold the presidency following the next election and as a means to bolster his own profile within the party, and perhaps make a run at winning the 1836 Democratic nomination for himself. He was able to accomplish both by pushing members of the house to come to a compromise on the issue by presenting legislation that would be acceptable to more representatives, but still found a way to keep the slavery issue out of congress, a move which made him more popular in the south.

To settle the issue, house speaker James K. Polk (Kentucky) appointed a special nine-person committee at the behest of Van Buren, headed by Henry Pinckney (South Carolina) to decide if any action should be taken by congress regarding the issues brought to attention by the thousands of abolitionist petitions being received daily by congress. The “Pinckney Committee” made three resolutions on the issue on May 18, 1836 regarding anti-slavery petitions. First, “Federal congress has no power to interfere with slavery in the States”. Secondly, “it would be impolitic to interfere with slavery in the District of Columbia”. Third, and most important, “all petitions, publications, & writings regarding anti-slavery will be tabled & not discussed, & no action taken”. The third resolution officially became the “gag rule” on anti-slavery petitions when the house voted to uphold the Pinckney committee’s resolution on May 26, 1836.

This decision outraged William Jay and his colleagues in the AASS. He wrote to Lewis Tappan about a week later, with a sarcastic preface to his note:

“I enclose to you an incendiary matter I hope it will escape the notice of your Post Master & that it will not alarm either you or the Ex. Committee. Perhaps it may, or perhaps it may not be advisable to publish it officially with all the names of the committee. I have my doubts, it may be thought officious & intrusive.”

His letter then lamented,

“Since I sent you the “address” I have seen with grief & alarm the infamous vote in the Senate. I had no exalted opinion of the virtue of the senate, but this is corruption beyond my anticipations. The vote of the Senate & the conduit of Van Buren show us the corrupted in a strong light. For myself, I begin to be seriously alarmed at the power of tyranny & the corruption of our public men. Nothing in my opinion can now restore the love for constitutional liberty but the anti-slavery agitation, hence the vast importance of harmony & perseverance among abolitionists.”

As a response, well-known reform politician John Quincy Adams attempted to combat the gag rule by challenging the issue from a different perspective. Rather than attack congress for suppressing the slavery issue, Adams put forth the argument that the very tabling of any petition in congress, regardless of the issue addressed, was in fact an infringement on the right of free speech and the first amendment, and should therefore be reversed immediately. After years of pushing to reverse the gag, John Quincy Adams was able to get a resolution rescinding it passed in December of 1844, about 8 years after it was introduced as a rule in congress.

The long period of repression of the slavery issue in congress only served to strengthen the resolve of abolitionists like William Jay and his colleagues. When the gag was finally rescinded in 1844, public opinion had begun to spread rapidly in support of abolition; however, the ability of pro-slavery power in congress to quickly silence the petitions of abolitionists proved to be a major hurdle, one that caused another shift in strategy for William Jay and his associates. In the early 1840s, with the gag rule still in place, abolitionists decided to abandon moral suasion, and achieve abolition through political organizing and action. Thus, the Liberty Party was formed. This foray into politics was a first for abolitionists, and though their candidates struggled in the first decade, the Liberty Party had several founding members that would go on to hold important positions in the Republican Party that formed in 1854, William’s son John Jay II among them with Fellow AASS member, and early Liberty Party leader Salmon P. Chase serving in Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet.

This small episode illustrates the course of the 19th century abolition movement in the United States. The moral suasion and petitioner agitations were necessary to illustrate the might of the pro-slavery power in congress. And a thorough, passionate, organized political platform was necessary to dismantle it.