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Book review: Arguing About Slavery

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John Quincy Adams - Arguing about SlaveryJohn Quincy Adams is (currently) my favorite president – and his 17 years post-presidency in the House of Representatives is one of my favorite things about him. Even so, when I put Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress by William Lee Miller on my book list I didn’t even notice his name in the subtitle! Pleasantly surprised – although once you read the book you’ll wonder how I didn’t assume it was filled with JQA.

Know before you read

To be honest, there’s not really anything in particular I feel like I need to warn you about. Based on my personal preferences, I suspected this book would be interesting but I actually liked it a whole lot more than that.

Arguing about slavery

This is a 500+ page book about a multi-year legislative battle in the House of Representatives.  The main thrust of this legislative argument was really about the right to petition (protected in the first amendment) that was being gagged and rejected by the Southern (slaveholding) representatives. Sounds fascinating, no?

I appreciate that in spite of the incredibly serious subject matter, Miller throws in some jokes and sarcasm every once in awhile. For example on page 47: “The caterpillar that had begun in 1774 grew and changed and gathered strength and sprouted wings (perhaps you had not though of Congress as a butterfly)…” I suppose you could call some of these instances editorializing, and he clearly is siding with Adams and his Northern colleagues over the Southern representatives, but that didn’t bother me so much. I would much rather the book be a good read than ever so slightly more objective.

I really don’t know if this battle in Congress would have been nearly so interesting (or led to the Civil War in the same way) without John Quincy Adams. He had that particular blend of constitutional knowledge, a little bit of slyness, and complete disregard for his party line (if he could even have been said to have a political party) that brought all this on.

Especially as a great lead-up to the Civil War, I recommend reading Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress by William Lee Miller.

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