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´╗┐Title: Speech of Mr. Cushing, of Massachusetts, on the Right of Petition, - as Connected with Petitions for the Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade - in the District of Columbia. In The House Of Representatives, January 25, 1836.
Author: Cushing, Caleb, 1800-1879
Language: English
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*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Speech of Mr. Cushing, of Massachusetts, on the Right of Petition, - as Connected with Petitions for the Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade - in the District of Columbia. In The House Of Representatives, January 25, 1836." ***

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Mr. Cushing said: I hold in my hand several Petitions on the subject
of the slave interest in the District of Columbia. One of them, I
now present to the House. Upon it, I make the preliminary motion,
understood to be necessary in such cases, that it be received; and,
in reference to this question, I have some few remarks to submit to
the consideration of the House.

This Petition prays for the abolition of slavery, and the slave
trade, in this District. It is respectful in its terms, being free
from the offensive expressions and reflections contained in some of
the Petitions on the same subject, heretofore presented; it is
signed by inhabitants of Haverhill, in the State of Massachusetts;
and among the subscribers are the names of citizens of that State
whom I personally know, whom I avouch to be highly respectable, and
who, whether mistaken or not in their views, are assuredly actuated
by conscientious motives of civil and religious principle. They are
constituents of mine; they have transmitted to me the Petition,
desiring me, as their Representative, to present it; and, under
these circumstances, much as I have deprecated such a commission,
and reluctant as I am to be instrumental in the introduction of any
matter of excitement upon this floor, I cannot permit myself to
hesitate in the discharge of this painful duty, believing, as I do,
that it is the constitutional right of every American, be he high or
be he low; be he fanatic or be he philosopher, to come here with his
grievances, and to be heard upon his petition by this House.

These petitioners look to me to obtain them a hearing in this place;
they have a right to require this office of me; they have, in my
judgment a right to be heard; and so long as I have the honor to
hold a seat in this House, no constituent of mine, however humble
his condition or unwelcome his prayer, shall see his petition thrust
back in his face unheard while the gift of reason or speech remains
to me; for if it cannot be received and considered in the usual
forms of legislation, it shall be heard through the lips of his
Representative. Nor will I undertake to scan over-captiously, either
the object of his petition, or the language in which it is couched;
nor will I stop to inquire how far the petitioners and I myself
entertain the same opinions of the general subject-matter. And there
are particular inducements, which impel me to make a stand at the
present moment upon this Petition.

I declare and protest in advance, that I do not intend, at this time
at least; to be drawn or driven into the question of slavery, in
either of its subdivisions or forms. At home, I am known to be of
those, who long ago foresaw and early withstood the coming of this
anti-slavery agitation. Of the many occasions when I have actively
interposed in this behalf, I hope to be pardoned for distinctly
citing one, as vesting in me some title to be candidly heard by the
House. I allude to a published Address upon the slave question, in
which I deliberately asserted the constitutional rights of the South
in this matter. It shall be my aim, on this occasion to do and say
nothing inconsistent with myself, with the letter of the
Constitution, or with the spirit of the various compromises of
interest and opinion incorporated into the union of these States.

The members of this House have been frequently called, during the
present session, to vote upon divisions connected with petitions of
this nature. On those occasions I have been content to pronounce my
vote simply, and without explanation, leaving my reasons and motives
to be construed or misconstrued by others, as chance might order. To
have continued so to do, until the subject of present controversy
were finally disposed of, is the part I should altogether have
chosen, had circumstances permitted to me such a course. But, if I
have been a silent, I have not been an incurious, nor, I trust, an
uninstructed, spectator of events. It is rendered apparent that
those great matters, which occupy the public mind abroad, do now
occupy also this House. If other gentlemen, differing with me in
part or in whole, had voted without discussion, according to the
dictates of their individual judgment, each of us could fairly have
stood upon his personal convictions, and his personal estimation
elsewhere, for his justification in the eyes of his countrymen. But
that, much as it were in my view to be desired, is no longer
possible. What has happened here is enrolled already in the
unchangeable records of time and of eternity. It is become history.
It cannot be recalled; it cannot be blotted from the memory; it
cannot be expunged from the annals of the country. The winged words
uttered in this House have gone forth to the world, on their mission
of good or of evil. Debate we have; debate we must have; we are
goaded into debate; it is forced upon us; and from a quarter of the
Union whence, I am frank to say, I did not look for it to come; and
forced upon us in terms of dictation, which I cannot brook; since
they leave to me no alternative of escape from debate, but in the
passive surrender of some of the dearest of our birthrights, those
of free petition, free speech, and free conscience. I say, of free
speech and free conscience, both which are involved in the
resolutions moved some time since by a gentleman from Maine, (Mr.
JARVIS.) When these resolutions shall be distinctly before the
House, it will become its members to reflect whether they have the
constitutional right to attempt, or attempting, have the power to
enforce, what those resolutions seem to contemplate, a perpetual
prohibition of debate, and even of motions, upon a large and
comprehensive class of subjects. These rights, neither my
constituents nor myself feel disposed to surrender; and upon one of
these great liberties of the land, and for the sake of incidentally
vindicating the others, I shall, in due time, address the House at

My only object at this time, is to come to a fair understanding with
the House as to the cause to be pursued in the debate, and the
disposition it will make of these Petitions.

At a very early period of the session, a gentleman from South
Carolina (Mr. HAMMOND) met such petitions with the motion that they
be not received. All the debates, which ensued thereon, terminated
in evasive and unsatisfactory votes for laying on the table, which
left every question of principle unsettled.

Afterwards, on a similar objection to reception being made by a
gentleman from Georgia, (Mr. GLASCOCK,) my colleague (Mr. ADAMS)
appealed from a ruling of the Speaker on an incidental point of
order; which appeal, and the matters connected with it, have been
put off, day after day, and week after week, and still remain
suspended for some future time of consideration.

Then came a set of resolutions applicable to a part of the prayer of
these petitions, moved by a gentleman from Maine, (Mr. JARVIS,)
under which there is a debate in progress, on an amendment moved by
a gentleman from Virginia, (Mr. WISE,) to the effect that Congress
have no power granted by the constitution to legislate on the
subject of slavery in this District.

Finally, on the last occasion when petitions of this kind were
presented, the question of reception being raised, that question
was, by vote of the House, laid on the table; as happened this
morning in the case of those petitions presented by my colleague
(Mr. ADAMS;) the operation of which is, practically, to refuse to
receive the petitions.

Now, I am wholly dissatisfied with this course of proceeding, and I
cannot submit to it in regard to the Petitions, which I am charged
to present. I hold that the question of reception, as it is in fact
and of necessity the first in order of time, so is it the first in
order of principle. It must not be pushed aside to make place for
the discussion of speculative resolutions, or for debate, on the
merits of the question raised by the prayer of these petitions. I
maintain that the House is bound by the Constitution to receive the
petitions; after which, it will take such method of deciding upon
them as reason and principle shall dictate. It should first lend an
attentive and respectful ear to the prayer of the People. Whether it
can or will grant that prayer, is an after consideration. I have
already kept back for several weeks the petitions committed to me,
in order to shape my course according to the deliberate decision of
the House; but that decision does not come; it is continually
procrastinated for the sake of considering questions, which, in my
view, are secondary in time and in principle to the question of
reception; and I can no longer consent that these my constituents
shall be held waiting, as it were, at the doors of the Capitol for
admission, when, as I read the Constitution, they have a right to
demand immediate entrance, and to be respectfully received by their
assembled representatives.

I tender to the House, therefore, an alternative. I place this
Petition at their disposal. If they choose to fix absolutely on a
time certain for considering and deciding the question of reception,
so that this shall take precedence of the other debate, they will
then have this day, as usual, for its appropriate business of the
general presentation of petitions. But if they decide, as
heretofore, to lay the question of reception on the table, then I
shall feel myself constrained to take the floor upon another of
these Petitions, and to keep it, as under the late decision of the
House I have a right to do, until I have fully debated the whole
subject-matter. If the effect of this shall be to exclude all other
petitions for the day, I cannot help it. Be the responsibility on
their heads who raise this novel and extraordinary question of
reception, going to the unconstitutional abridgment, as I conceive,
of the great right of petition inherent in the People of the United

[The question, Shall this petition be received? was then, at the
motion of a gentleman from South Carolina, (Mr. HAMMOND) laid on the
table; when Mr. CUSHING resumed the floor and said:]

I now present to the House a Petition signed by inhabitants of
Amesbury, in the State of Massachusetts, among the subscribers to
which are persons whom I know and avouch to be citizens of the
United States. They pray for the abolition of slavery and the slave
trade in the District of Columbia, and in the Territories under the
jurisdiction of the United States. I make the preliminary motion
that it be received; and, upon that motion, I proceed to express my
views to the House.

Steering clear of all the inflammable matter intruded into these
debates, gauging myself to the standard of the most absolute
moderation, and resolutely tying down my thoughts to the real point
in issue, what I propose to examine is the single naked question of
the constitutional right of petition, as involved in the disposition
of these petitions.

Looking into the Constitution I find, among the amendments proposed
by the Congress of 1789, and the very first of the number, the
following article:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom
of speech or of the press; or _the right of the People_ peaceably to
assemble and _to petition the Government for a redress of

Long before I had imagined that such a right would ever be called in
question, I remember to have read the remark of a distinguished
jurist and magistrate of the State of Virginia, (Tucker's Notes on
Blackstone,) complaining that the concluding words of the clause I
have cited from the Constitution did not so strongly guard the great
right of petition, as the liberties of the People demanded. On the
other hand, a still more distinguished jurist and magistrate, of my
own State, (Story's Commentaries,) in remarking upon the same
article, expresses the opinion that it is ample in terms; because,
he adds, "It (the right of petition) results from the very nature of
the structure and institutions of a republican government; it is
impossible that it should be practically denied until the spirit of
liberty had wholly disappeared, and the People had become so servile
and debased as to be unfit to exercise any of the privileges of
freemen." These eminent constitutional lawyers agreed in opinion of
the importance of the provision; they differed only in thinking, the
one, that the right of petition could not be too clearly defined;
the other, that whether defectively defined or not in the letter,
the People would take care that it should in spirit be faithfully
observed. While the first entertained a wise jealousy of the
encroachments of the People's representatives, the other looked for
the protection of the public rights to the People themselves, the
masters of the People's representatives. And as the fears of the
former have been verified too speedily, I trust that the hopes of
the latter will be not less truly realized.

There are some things in the context and phraseology of this article
of the Constitution, which may deserve attention. It speaks of
"_grievances_" in the general; not "_their_ grievances," the
_personal_ grievances of the individuals petitioning, but anything,
public or personal, which they deem to be a grievance. It is the
same article, which allows to us the free exercise of our religion,
and the liberty of speech and of the press. With these primary and
fundamental rights of a free people, it associates the right of
petition. But there is this peculiarity in the language of this
clause of the Constitution. The words applicable to our subject are,
"Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the People to
petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The right of
petition, therefore, is not a privilege conferred by the
Constitution. It is recognised as a pre-existing right, already
possessed by the People, which they still reserve to themselves, and
which Congress shall not so much as touch with the weight of a
finger. The People, in their constitution, say to Congress,--We
place in your hands our right and power of collecting a revenue to
provide for the common defence and general welfare of the Union; our
right and power to regulate commerce, to coin money, to declare war,
and to raise and support armies and navies for its prosecution. Upon
these and other subjects you may exercise the discretion, which we
repose in you by virtue of our constitution. But this you shall not
do:--you shall not, until after the expiration of twenty years,
prohibit the migration or importation of such persons as we think
proper to admit; you shall not pass any bill of attainder; you shall
not lay any tax or duty on exports; and you shall make no law
prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom
of speech or of the press; or the right of the People peaceably to
assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.
These our great natural rights we keep to ourselves; we will not
have them tampered with; respecting them we give to you no
commission whatsoever. And rights which Congress itself, the entire
Legislature, consisting of the President, the Senate, and the House,
acting in their combined functions in the enactment of a law, is
forbidden to abridge,--can this House alone undertake, by a mere
resolution or vote, practically to deny, abolish, and destroy? Sir,
if we can successfully do it, I have greatly misconceived the
democratic ancestry, the democratic principles, and the democratic
energy of the People, whom we are appointed to serve in this House.

The right of petition, I have said, was not conferred on the People
by the Constitution, but was a pre-existing right, reserved by the
People out of the grants of power made to Congress. To understand
its nature and extent we must, therefore, look beyond and behind the
Constitution, into the anterior political history of the country.

And, in the first place, I beg of the House, and especially of the
gentlemen who so ably represent Virginia on this floor, to remember
how this article found its way into the Constitution.

You well know, sir, that when the Constitution was submitted to the
People of the respective States for their adoption or rejection, it
awakened the warmest debates of the several State conventions. Some
of them, in accepting the proposed plan of government, coupled their
acceptance with a recommendation of various additions to the
Constitution, which they deemed essential to the preservation of the
rights of the States, or of the People. The Commonwealth of
Massachusetts insisted, among other things, on the adoption of that
memorable amendment, to the effect, "that it be explicitly declared
that all powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid
constitution, are reserved to the several States to be by them
exercised." Having attained this object, and thus clearly
ascertained what powers it was that she parted with to the Federal
Government, she felt less anxious in regard to some things which in
other States, were deemed important. Especially, she did not, for
herself demand the insertion of those general clauses of political
doctrine popularly called, at that time, after the celebrated
English bill of rights, and known in some modern European
constitutions by the name of _guaranties_. She was less tenacious on
this point, inasmuch as her own Constitution was very full in this
respect. It contained two clauses material to the present question,
in the following words:

"All power residing originally in the People, and being derived from
them, the several magistrates and officers of government, vested
with authority, whether legislative, executive, or judicial, are
their substitutes and agents."

"The People have a right, in an orderly and peaceable manner, to
assemble to consult upon the common good; give instructions to their
representatives; and to request of the legislative body, by the way
of address, petition, or remonstrance, redress of the wrongs done
them, and of the grievances they suffer."

These clauses being in her own Constitution, I say, and it being
understood by her that all powers not granted to the United States
were reserved to the States, she felt that she was safe in agreeing
to the fundamental compact of the Union.

The People and the Commonwealth, of Virginia reasoned differently
from this; and I will not stop to argue whether they did or did not
reason more wisely than Massachusetts. They said, We choose to leave
nothing doubtful which language can render certain, in a matter of
so much moment. We are laying the foundations of a government, which
we hope may outlast the Pyramids. We know, from old experience, that
the depositaries of the popular power are ingenious in the finding
of glosses and interpretations to abstract from the popular rights.
Let us see to it that this constitution contain such express
recognitions of the rights of the People as it shall be impossible
to misunderstand. We will write, upon its very front the great
doctrines of liberty in characters of light, which, like the burning
letters in the banqueting-hall of Belshazzar, may blast the
eye-balls of whomever shall meditate treason to the democratic
rights we have conquered with our blood and our fortunes.
Accordingly, the convention of Virginia proposed, to amend the
Constitution by inserting therein the following, among other

"That all power is naturally vested in, and consequently derived
from, the People; that magistrates, therefore, are their trustees
and agents, and at all times amenable to them."

"That the People have a right peaceably to assemble together to
consult for the common good, or to instruct their representatives;
and that every freeman has a right to petition the Legislature for
redress of grievances."

New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island proposed, either
literally or in substance, the same provision; and the consequence
was, the addition to the constitution of the article, which I am now
discussing, on the right of conscience, speech, and petition. And,
such being the history of this clause, I look to the gentlemen from
Virginia especially, constant and honorable as they are in their
attachment to constitutional principles at whatever hazard, to go
with me in maintaining inviolate this great original right of the

But we shall not fully appreciate the force and value of this
provision, if we stop at this point of the investigation. The right
of petition is an old undoubted household right of the blood of
England, which runs in our veins. When we fled from the oppressions
of kings and parliaments in Europe, to found this great Republic in
America, we brought with us the laws and the liberties, which formed
a part of our heritage as Britons. We brought with us the idea and
the form of our legislative assemblies, composed of elected
representatives of the people; we brought with us the right of
petition, as the necessary incident of such institutions. For when,
in the whole history of our father-land, has the right of petition
ever undergone debate and question? Go back to the old parliamentary
rolls, coeval with Magna Charta; peruse the black-letter volumes in
which the early laws and practices of the English monarchy are seen
to be recorded; and so far as you find a government to exist, you
find the right to petition that government existing also as an
undeniable franchise and birthright of the humblest in the land. The
Normans came over, lance in hand, burning and trampling down every
thing before them, and cutting off the Saxon dynasty and the Saxon
nobles at the edge of the sword; but the right of petition remained
untouched. In all succeeding times, from the day when the barons at
Runnymede pledged themselves to deny to no man redress of his
grievances, through every vicissitude of revolution and of war, down
to the day when our forefathers abandoned their native country, the
same right of petition continued without challenge. In the next
reign, it is true, that of the misguided Charles I, the king invaded
the public liberties; and he expiated the wrong, as he merited, by a
felon's death. After the Commonwealth had passed away, came the
petition of right, and with it the statute of the 13 Charles II,
distinctly recognising the old right of petition, and regulating the
mode of its exercise; and again, after the dethronement and exile of
James II, the Bill of Rights and the statute of I William and Mary,
again recognising and regulating the right of petition as it has
been exercised at all times throughout Great Britain.

Now, I ask gentlemen to point me, in all or any of the periods under
review, to the precedents of a refusal by Parliament to receive
petitions. I invite them to turn over the histories of parliamentary
proceeding, and cite me the examples of petitions being thrust out
of the House of Commons or of Lords, at the instant of presentation,
on the ground that the prayer of the petition ought not to be
granted. Will they do it? Can they do it? Is it not perfectly
notorious, on the contrary, that every subject is freely admitted to
be heard in his petition, provided it be respectful in terms, even
although he pray expressly for a downright revolution in the
government, as did the thousands of petitioners who thus carried
through, in our own time, the great measure of parliamentary reform?
And shall the People in republican America, with its written
constitution for the protection of the public rights, and by a body
of strictly limited powers,--shall the People here be forbidden to
do that which they may freely do in the monarchy of England, having
no guaranties for the public liberty except laws and prescriptive
usages, all of them confessedly at the will of an omnipotent
Parliament? Forbid it, reason! Forbid it, justice! Forbid it,
liberty! Forbid it the beatified spirits of the revolutionary sages,
who watch in heaven over the destinies of the Republic!

Aye, but, say gentlemen, if such things are not done by the
representatives of the People in monarchical England, they have been
done by their representatives in democratic America. We are told of
precedents at home. What are those precedents?

To begin, I throw aside, as wholly inapplicable to the question, or
at least as evasive of it, the case of petitions refused on account
of disrespectful language towards the persons or the body
petitioned. Those constitute a standing exception, independent of
the merits of the subject.

The proceedings of this House in 1790, in reference to petitions on
the matter of the slave trade, and of slavery in the States, have
been cited. It has been said that those petitions were not received.
That is a mistake, as any gentleman may satisfy himself by
recurrence to the journals of the House. The petitions were
received, committed, and debated on report, as I shall have occasion
hereafter to state at length.

One other case is cited, that of the petition of Vicente Pazos,
agent of New Granada, which, in the year 1818, the House refused to
receive. But the printed debates of that day show clearly the ground
of rejection. Mr. Forsyth moved that it be not received. "He stated
that, as the petitioner was the agent of a foreign power, and
applied to Congress as an appellate power over the Executive, he
thought it improper that he should be thus heard." And the question
was decided upon this single point. I heartily approve the remarks
then made by a distinguished statesman, now no more, who at that
time represented Massachusetts on this floor.

Mr. Mills, of Massachusetts, said that "the right of petition was a
sacred one, and belonged equally to the meanest and the greatest
citizen in the nation; and if such a petition as this, implicating
the conduct of the Executive, had been presented from the meanest
citizen, he would receive it; and if it complained of grievances
without pointing out redress, it would be the duty of the House to
give the proper redness; but it was to our own citizens only he
would turn this listening ear. What right had a foreign subject to
petition this House?"

Sir, I have incidentally touched upon the argument of precedents,
and shown how untenable it is; but I care not if there were a
thousand precedents of refusal to receive petitions. Such a fact, if
it existed, would not abate my zeal on this point, or shift, in the
minutest degree, my position. Upon the Constitution, upon the
pre-existing legal rights of the People, as understood in this
country and in England, I have argued that this House is bound to
revive the Petition under debate. It is impossible, in my mind, to
distinguish between the refusal to receive a petition, or its
summary rejection by some general order, and the denial of the right
of petition. I have no such microscopic eye as to enable me to
discern the point of difference between the two things. This
procedure may be keeping the word to the ear, but it is breaking it
to the sense: and I go upon general, abstract, original, fundamental
principle, the great principle of democratic liberty, which is the
foundation stone of this Republic. It is for the sacred and
inalienable rights of the People that I here contend. I should
regard the exclusion of petitions from the consideration of the
House as a highhanded invasion of the imprescriptible rights of the
Constituency of the country, of whom we are the representatives, not
the dictators; and it is for that reason I take my stand against it
on the very threshold.

Sir, I am a republican; and I desire to see this House observe the
principles of that democracy which is ever on the lips of its
members, and which, I hope, is in their hearts, as I know and feel
it is in mine, and mean it shall be in my conduct. This Republic was
called into being, organized, and is upheld, by a great political
doctrine. That doctrine is, that the People alone are supreme; that
they are the fountains of power; that all magistrates are the
delegated agents of the People, for the purposes limited and
prescribed in their letters of appointment, and the general laws of
the land; that the constituents of a member of this House have the
right to give instructions to him individually; and that every
individual one of the People has a right to be heard by petition on
the floor of this House. These are among the things which I
understand to constitute the principles of democracy: those general
principles, which I learned in my boyhood with my catechism, in the
bill of rights prefixed to the constitution of my own State; which,
on maturer study, I have seen to be avowed more or less distinctly,
in all the constitutions of this Republic, and of each of its
constituent Republics; which I perceive to be defended and applauded
in the writings of the great text authors of political science in
modern times; and which after being for the first time practically
exemplified in our own institutions, have gone forth over the
universe, toppling down thrones, and raising up freemen, through all
the nations of Christendom.

And whilst I feel impelled by such convictions to resist the summary
rejection of this Petition upon principle, I am irresistibly led to
the same conclusion by considerations of policy and expediency. I
deny that such considerations should decide the question; but seeing
they have been urged into it, I shall concede to them all due

We have been told that the prayer of the Petition is for a thing
which the Constitution does not permit to Congress, and so the
petition itself should not be received. I ask of the House how it
appears that we have no right by the Constitution to legislate upon
the subject matter of the Petition? It may be so; and it may not.
One member of the House has earnestly averred that it is; another
that it is not. Which of them is right? I confess, for myself, that
I cannot think it becomes the House to decide either way, upon the
mere _ipse dixit_ of individual members. Besides, the Petition calls
in question not only slavery, but also the _commerce in slaves_. And
will any gentleman affirm that the slave trade of the District is
among those holy things which Congress may not constitutionally
handle? Is this District set apart by the Constitution, under
whatever changes of opinion or fact the progress of civilization may
introduce, to be unchangeably and forever a general slave market for
the rest of the Union? I confess that I, again, am disappointed in
that, among all the confident things said in denial of the
constitutional powers of Congress in this matter, there has not
been, so far as I remember, any systematic argument on the perfectly
distinct branches of the double constitutional question involved in
it, namely, the slave property, and the slave traffic, of this
District. And what shall be said of our constitutional power in the
purchased Territories, under the jurisdiction of the United States,
to which some of these petitions apply? And what clause of the
Constitution restricts the right of Petition to constitutional
things? This House cannot grant beyond its powers; these are limited
by the Constitution; but the People may petition for any thing; for
the right of petition is, by the constitution, secured forever
against any and every limitation or restriction.

But then it is said that the subject-matter of the Petition does not
admit of debate; that the deliberate consideration of it, and the
decision of it in the ordinary course of business, would be fraught
with disastrous consequences to the peace of the South, and the
general tranquillity of the Union. Deeming this argument of more
weight than the other, I will give to it more careful attention;
especially as, on this point, gentlemen have appealed with great
force of language to the patriotic consideration of the North.

In the first place, I aver that I, and those with whom I have acted
or voted, did not seek debate on this subject. We felt anxious,
almost universally, to avoid it. The members from Massachusetts, at
least, have not invited, and, until it had been under discussion
among other gentlemen for a whole month, they scarcely participated
in, the agitation of the subject in this House. We sat here week
after Week, submitting, for the sake of public peace, to hear in
silence the harshest reflections upon our constituents; and
listening, with surprised curiosity, to the strangest legal and
political heresies, uttered as confidently as if they were gospel
truths communicated by divine inspiration. One of my colleagues (Mr.
ADAMS) did, indeed, beseech gentlemen not to provoke him to a
discussion of the subject; and thus it went on, untouched by us,
until another of my colleagues (Mr. HOAR) could no longer abstain
from the temperate defence of the Constitution and of his

In the second place, I do devoutly believe that gentlemen misjudge,
if they suppose that agitation out of doors is to be arrested by the
quashing of these petitions on their very introduction to this
House. With my whole heart I accord in the view of the subject taken
some time since by an honorable gentleman from New York, (Mr. HUNT,)
and which I know is taken by one of the wisest and most trusted of
the statesmen of Virginia, now a member of the other branch of
Congress. If there be any plausible reason for supposing that we
have the right to legislate on the slave interests of the District,
you cannot put down the investigation of the subject out of doors,
by refusing to receive petitions. On the contrary, you give the
petitioners new force and efficiency, by giving them a new cause of
complaint and of excitement. Nor do you attain any thing, so far as
this House is concerned; for, by shutting out petitions, you do not
shut out debate; any member of the House can bring on debate any
day, by moving some general resolution applicable to the subject. On
the other hand, if it be so certain that Congress have no power in
this matter, or having power, ought not to exercise it, then let the
House establish those points in the usual way, by a deliberate
report, elaborated in the closet, by a committee of the ablest men
upon this floor, and considerately adopted by the House. The
argument by which this course is withstood, goes upon a false
assumption. It assumes for granted, that the People of the United
States are not to be reasoned with; that their opinions can be put
down by bold and broad assertions at this or the other end of the
Capitol; and that they are not to be trusted with the facts and law
of the case. Here, again, as I conceive, gentlemen forget that this
government is a republican one, resting exclusively in the
intelligence and virtue of the People. I, for one, am willing they
should look into any of the clauses of the Constitution, and be
fully informed of the merits of every question arising under it,
never doubting that, in the end, their decision upon it will be
just, true, and patriotic. Or is it that gentlemen are afraid to
meet a proper scrutiny of the subject? Do they shrink from a fair
and full examination of its merits or demerits?

Sir, allusion has been made, in an early stage of this debate, to
the history of the excitement which once pervaded a considerable
part of the country, in reference to the transportation of the mails
on the Lord's day. It is undoubtedly a pregnant case, directly in
point. But I have another case, yet more cogent and pertinent.

Within less than one year after the adoption of the Constitution,
there came to Congress petitions, chiefly from New York,
Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, and especially from the
Society of Friends, praying Congress to suppress the slave trade,
and to interpose, in various ways, within the limits of the several
States, in the melioration of the condition of the colored
population of the South. I have examined the journals giving the
record of the proceedings in this House; I have looked into the
history of the times, to understand the grounds of the disposition
then made of those petitions. In the outset, I will observe, that
the debates on the subject present a remarkable parallel with what
has taken place under my own eyes in this House. Messrs. Jackson,
Baldwin, Tucker, Smith, and some other gentlemen from the South,
insisted, as we now hear it insisted, that the petitions should be
summarily rejected, without commitment. They alleged the same
reasons; such as unconstitutional object, and pernicious effects of
the discussion upon the interests of the slaveholding States. One
gentleman did, I believe, what I suppose would hardly be done at
this day, entering into an elaborate vindication of the
trans-Atlantic slave trade. But there was one most eminent and most
patriotic member of that House, a man as calm in judging as he was
deliberate in acting; who had himself been instrumental among the
first in laying the foundation of this Union; who since then has
successively filled the highest stations which the laws of his
country acknowledge; and who yet lives, in a venerable old age, to
receive the admiration of his countrymen, and to enjoy the rare
felicity of surviving, as it were, a witness of the honors bestowed
upon him by posterity. _Sero redeat in coelum._ Long may it be ere
he depart from among us, to take his place among the great and
glorious of other times. Sir, the House well anticipate that I have
in my eye JAMES MADISON the younger, who stood forth to pour upon
the troubled waves of that day the oil of peace and gladness. God
grant there may yet be found among his patriotic countryman, some
good and great man--a better and a greater there cannot be--now to
perform the self-same office for the Republic.

At that crisis, in the very greenness of the immature youth of the
Constitution, when it was least able to bear the shock of sectional
collision, Mr. Madison, Southerner as he was, steadily opposed his
friends from the South and successfully advocated the commitment of
the petitions. I submit to the House his speech, as I find it very
briefly reported in the newspapers of that day.

"Mr. Madison observed, that it was his opinion yesterday that the
best way to proceed in this business was to commit the memorial
without any debate on the subject. From what has taken place, he was
more convinced of the propriety of the idea. But, as the business
has engaged the attention of many members, he would offer a few
observations for the consideration of the House. He then entered
into a critical review of the circumstances respecting the adoption
of the constitution, the ideas upon the limitation of the power of
Congress to interfere in the regulation of the commerce in slaves,
and showing that they undoubted were not precluded from interposing
in their importation, and generally to regulate the mode in which
every species of business shall be transacted. He adverted to the
Western country, and the cession of Georgia, in which Congress have
certainly the power to regulate the subject of slavery, which shows
that gentlemen are mistaken in supposing that Congress cannot
constitutionally interfere in the business in any degree whatever.
He was in favor of committing the petitions, and justified the
measure by repeated precedents in the proceedings of the House."

I produce this speech, not for the purpose of adopting all its
views, for some of them I confess are new to me, and such as I have
not had time or means to investigate, but in order to show
conclusively what Mr. Madison deemed wise and proper to be done in a
contingency so precisely like the present. Accordingly, all the
petitions were committed to a select committee; that committee made
a report; the report was referred to a committee of the whole House,
and discussed on four successive days; it was then reported to the
House with amendments, and by the House ordered to be inscribed in
its journals, and then laid on the table.

That report, as amended in committee, is in the following words:
"The committee to whom were referred sundry memorials from the
people called Quakers; and also a memorial from the Pennsylvania
society for promoting the Abolition of slavery, submit the following
report, (as amended in committee of the whole.)

"First, That the migration or importation of such persons as any of
the States now existing shall think proper to admit, cannot be
prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808."

"Secondly, That Congress have no power to interfere in the
emancipation of slaves, or in the treatment of them, within any of
the States: it remaining with the several States alone to provide
any regulation therein which humanity and true policy may require."

"Thirdly, That Congress have authority to restrain the citizens of
the United States from carrying on the African slave trade, for the
purpose of supplying foreigners with slaves, and of providing, by
proper regulations for the humane treatment, during their passage,
of slaves imported by the said citizens into the States admitting
such importations."

"Fourthly, That Congress have also authority to prohibit foreigners
from fitting out vessels in any part of the United States for
transporting persons from Africa to any foreign port."

Now, I entreat the House to call to mind the effect of these
proceedings. There was no insurrection, no servile war, no agitation
in the South. Congress calmly and considerately examined the whole
broad question, not of the slave trade only, but also of the slave
interest. It decided how far it could go, and how far it would go.
Its decision went forth to the world, and settled the questions
involved in it, as it were, forever. Nearly fifty years have since
elapsed, and I am not aware that the points then adjudged have at
any time since been drawn into debate or controversy. And I do
declare my solemn conviction, that if the House would now pursue the
same course, and dispassionately determine what it can or cannot do,
and make that determination known to the country in a respectful
way, the result would be precisely the same in this vexed question
of the District of Columbia.

Entertaining these opinions of the course to be pursued, I beg of
gentlemen to look at the question, as I have done, in a calm review
of facts and of principles. They deprecate all agitation unfriendly
to the peace and reciprocal good-will of the different sections of
the country. So do I, most heartily; and in my own humble sphere I
have earnestly exerted myself to this end. And I do, unwillingly but
decidedly, avow my conviction, derived from abundant personal
observation, that it is not by the summary suppression of petitions,
it is not by _Lynching_ this or any other petition, that
tranquillity is to be restored, and harmony assured, either in the
South or the North. And whilst I entreat of individual members of
the House to regard this question in calmness, and conclude it in
judgment, as they would any lesser question, I warn and adjure the
House itself, as a constituent branch of this government, to beware
lest, in deciding this general question of the right of petition, it
overleap the bounds prescribed to it by the Constitution.

Men of Virginia, countrymen of Washington, of Patrick Henry, of
Jefferson, and of Madison, will ye be true to your constitutional
faith? Men of New York, will ye ride over the principles of the
democracy ye profess? Men of the West, can ye prove recreant to the
spirit of sturdy independence, which carried you beyond the
mountains? Men of New England, I hold you to the doctrines of
liberty which ye inherit from your Puritan forefathers. And if this
House is to be scared, by whatever influences, from its duty, to
receive and hear the petitions of the People, then I shall send my
voice beyond the walls of this Capitol for redress. To the People I
say, Your liberties are in danger; they, whom you have chosen to be
your representatives, are untrue to their trust; come ye to the
rescue; for the vindication of your right of petition, to you I
appeal; to you, the People who sent us here, whose agents we are, to
whom we shall return to render a reckoning of our stewardship, and
who are the true and only sovereigns in this Republic.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Speech of Mr. Cushing, of Massachusetts, on the Right of Petition, - as Connected with Petitions for the Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade - in the District of Columbia. In The House Of Representatives, January 25, 1836." ***

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