previous next

The right of petition.

At the Quarterly Meeting of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, held in Lynn, March 28, 1837, the following resolution was offered by Wendell Phillips, Esq., of Boston:--

Resolved, That the exertions of the Hon. John Quincy Adams, and the rest of the Massachusetts Delegation who sustained him, in his defence of the right of petition, deserve the cordial approbation and the gratitude of every American citizen.

This was the first speech of Mr. Phillips, and marked his entrance upon the Antislavery movement. Another speech delivered by him on the same day and occasion will be found in a later volume.

Mr. President: One of the previous resolutions of this meeting refers to the success of the cause of abolition within the last few months, and the bright hopes with which we may enter on another year of labor. The petitions which have loaded the tables of our State and National Legislatures may certainly be considered as one great cause of that success, and the pursuing of the same course, the best ground of hope for the future. Such circumstances naturally fix every eye on that distinguished citizen to whom the resolution refers. His course during the last session deserves the gratitude of every American; for in that contest, he was not the representative of any State or any party, [2] but the champion of the fundamental principles of the Constitution. The right of petition we had thought as firmly fixed in the soil of America as the Saxon race which brought it here. It was the breath of life during our colonial history, and is recognized on every page of our history since as the bulwark of civil liberty. Antiquity and the historical associations of our mother country had rendered it so sacred that we looked confidently to that for protection and redress, when all other means should fail.

Upon the friends of abolition, of free discussion, of equal rights, throughout the land, insult had been heaped on insult, and outrage added to outrage, till we thought that malice had done its worst. All the outworks that guard the citadel of liberty had been in turn overthrown. The dearest rights of freemen had been, one by one, torn from us. We had heard, at a time of profound peace, in the midst of our most crowded cities, the voice of the multitude once and again overwhelm the voice of the laws, almost without the shadow of an attempt at resistance on the part of the civil magistrate. We had seen a price set by a Southern legislature on the head of a citizen of Massachusetts, for presuming to think as he pleased, and to speak what he thought, within the borders of the old Commonwealth; and this insult had been answered only by a recommendation on the part of our own Executive that whoever dared to move the question of slavery should be proceeded against at common law. We had long known that we held our lives and property at the will of the mob; but now, as if by common consent, the North seems ready to yield to Southern threats the right to speak and to think. “The time had come when eloquence was to be gagged, and reason to be hoodwinked,” We had heard in old Faneuil, and from the [3] lips of those whose very names should have been a guaranty of their attachment to freedom, principles which would have blotted out every page of our past history.

Borne down, but not dismayed,--confident that the hearts of the people, could the truth but reach them, were sound at the core,--we sought out the weapon which our fathers wielded; we besieged the doors of our State legislatures with petitions and remonstrances. I need not tell the county of Essex how that appeal was answered. Of that answer they have already taken note. There was one refuge left,--the government which our fathers established, “to promote justice, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity.” There, at least, we might hope to find men able to look behind circumstances to principles.

Who does not recollect the astonishment — for the first feeling was rather astonishment than indignation -with which we heard that the door of the capitol was closed to the voice of the people? It seemed as if the nation had been pressing on blindfold, and we opened our eyes only to behold the precipice over which we were rushing; as if the time-honored rights which had been fought for on British ground, and which our fathers had inherited, not won, were again to be struggled for. The car of Liberty had rolled back four centuries, and the contest whose history is written on the battlefields and scaffolds of England had been all in vain. Well might hope sicken, and the bravest despair.

And who does not recollect the thrill of enthusiastic feeling with which we heard that Adams had thrown himself into the gap, and was contending, at first single-handed, for the right of the citizen to petition, no matter what his creed, his color, or his party? The effort was the nobler in that he was not a member of the body of [4] men in whose persons this right had been invaded. No interest of his or of his friends had been touched. Against our efforts he had all along protested; but, statesman-like, he saw the end from the beginning. When rights were invaded, he was willing to side with any who rallied to protect them. How much truer to the name he bore than many others who stood higher in our esteem, and were dearer to us, than himself! We hail him as the champion of free principles. We accord to him the high merit of a pure attachment to civil liberty which would not permit her to be attacked, even when she appeared in the garb of a party which it was his interest, and he felt it to be his duty, to oppose; of a clear-sighted, far-reaching wisdom, which discovered the first approach of corruption and snuffed oppression in the tainted breeze; of a noble disregard to party lines, when to have adhered to them would have compromised the fundamental principles of our government.

The supineness of the North under the act of Southern aggression, and still more, the indifference with which Calhoun's bill was generally received, are the strongest arguments we can offer to our fellow-citizens to induce them to look at this subject. Why, such a proposition on any other occasion would have set the whole country in a blaze! It would have sent an electric shock through the land, and called forth from its slumbering retreats all the spirit of olden time. What is it that thus palsies our strength and blinds our foresight? We have become so familiar with slavery that we are no longer aware of its deadening influence on the body politic. Pinkney's words have become true: “The stream of general liberty cannot flow on unpolluted through the mire of partial bondage.” And this is the reason we render to those who ask us why we are contending [5] against Southern slavery,--that it may not result in Northern slavery; because time has shown that it sends out its poisonous branches over all our fair land, and corrupts the very air we breathe. Our fate is bound up with that of the South, so that they cannot be corrupt and we sound; they cannot fall, and we stand. Disunion is coming, unless we discuss this subject; for the spirit of freedom and the spirit of slavery are contending here for the mastery. They cannot live together: as well, like the robber of classic fable, chain the living and the dead together, as bind up such discordant materials, and think it will last. We must prosper, and a sound public opinion root out slavery from the land, or there must grow up a mighty slaveholding State to overshadow and mildew our free institutions.

I have said, Mr. President, that we owe gratitude to Mr. Adams for his defence of the right of petition. A little while ago it would have been absurd to talk of gratitude being due to any man for such a service. It would have been said, “Why, he only did his duty, what every other man would have done; it was too simple and plain a case to need a thought.” But it is true that, now, even for this we ought to be grateful. And this fact is another, a melancholy proof of the stride which the influence of slavery has made within a few years. It throws such dimness over the minds of freemen that what would once have been thought the alphabet of civil right, they hail as a discovery.

But I will not wander from my subject to slavery; it is our own rights which are at issue; and the first cry that awakened the nation to the importance of that issue, was the voice of the Ex-President. On that “gray discrowned head” were fixed, in awful suspense, the eyes of the nation. Others came at length to his aid. I wish this resolution may pass, that, as far as in us lies, [6] he may feel that Massachusetts echoes back his cry to arms, is ready to sustain him and his colleagues in their noble course, is girding herself for the contest,--and, come what may, will see to it that, however the lights of other States may flicker with the breeze, her torch shall burn bright and unchanging on the eminence which she has never deserted or betrayed.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
John Quincy Adams (3)
Wendell Phillips (2)
Pinkney (1)
Faneuil (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
March 28th, 1837 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: