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So it came to pass, December 13, 1848, John G. Palfrey of Massachusetts, the preacher and author, asked the House, according to previous notice, for leave to introduce a bill to repeal all legislation by Congress establishing or maintaining slavery or the slave-trade in the district.1 Permission was refused by a vote of 69 to 82; but on December 18 Giddings of Ohio was allowed to introduce a bill authorizing the people of the district to vote on the question as to whether they desired the continuance of slavery.2 On being questioned as to the purport of the bill, he explained it as providing that negroes, bond as well as free, should take part in the vote. The bill was laid on the table by 106 yeas to 79 nays. Three days later Gott of New York offered a resolution instructing the committee for the District of Columbia to bring in a bill prohibiting the slave-trade in the district, which was adopted by a vote of 98 to 88 ;3 but on January 10, 1849, it was reconsidered, and disappeared in the list on the calendar. In the course of the struggle over its reconsideration, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois offered an amendment, which did not come to a vote, defining a plan for the suppression of the slave-trade and the gradual extinction of slavery in the district, if the majority of the white votes thereof should decide in favor of the plan at an election to be held for the purpose. Finally, on January 31, Edwards, of the committee for the District of Columbia, reported a bill to prevent the importation of slaves into the district for sale or hire, which caused a sharp debate, but which also seems to have died on the calendar.
1 Cong. Globe, 30 Cong., 2 Sess., 38. *Ibid.,SS. 'Jbid.,&i. 1 Cong. Globe, 30 Cong., 2 Sess., 216.
In the course of this movement the agitation concerning slavery revealed itself in still another issue, which was soon to become its most irritating and dangerous aspect. This was the fugitive-slave law. When Gott's resolution was reconsidered, January 10, and was again before the House, Meade of Virginia offered an amendment to instruct the committee for the district to report a bill "more effectually to enable owners to recover their slaves escaping from one state into another." l Though the amendment was promptly ruled out of order, the object of the introducer was accomplished in presenting an additional grievance of the South.
The sectionalizing effect of the agitation soon became apparent. On the evening of the day after the passage of Gott's resolution a meeting of about seventy southern members of Congress belonging to both political parties was held for the purpose of deciding on some common policy for the South.2 Two subsequent meetings were held on January 15 and January 22, at which about eighty members were present. Calhoun was the dominant spirit, and the final result was the adoption of an address of the southern members of Congress to their constituents, reported from a committee of fifteen, of which Stephens was chairman, and prepared by a subcommittee of five, of which Calhoun was chairman. Stephens tried to prevent action by the caucus, and Polk also opposed the movement, but in vain.1 The address dwelt upon the gradual alienation between the sections that had begun with the dispute over the admission of Missouri into the Union; charged the North with a breach of the Constitution in refusing to give up fugitive slaves, and with want of respect for the Missouri Compromise line; complained of the disposition to refuse the South its share of the Mexican cession, which it had done more than the North to win, and of the attacks on slavery by Congress, forecasting complete abolition if no remedy were found; and finally recommended unity of action on the part of the South.2
•Polk, MS. Diary, December 22, 23, 1848; Niles' Register, LXXIV., 401.
The resentful complaint of injustice made in the address soon rang through the entire South. It was repeated in resolutions by the legislatures of Virginia and Missouri and in various other forms; a mass-meeting in Trimble County, Kentucky, called on Clay to resign his senatorship because he had written a letter favoring gradual emancipation; and the toasts at a dinner to Senator Butler in South Carolina boldly proclaimed disunion.1 The North was hardly less excited; the legislatures of all the states of that section except Iowa passed resolutions favoring congressional prohibition of slavery in the territories, and a number took action looking towards the abolition of slavery and the slave-trade in the District of Columbia.2
lPolk, MS. Diary, January 17, 1849. 1 NUes' Register, LXXV., 84-88.
Thus, amid energy-consuming sectional quarrels that prevented the discharge of urgent national duties, the strenuous Polk administration drew to a close. Though it had accomplished large results, it left much unfinished work involving an exceedingly complex and difficult group of problems. Should slavery be excluded from California and New Mexico by congressional action? Should it be excluded from a part of both by extending the line between slavery and free soil to the Pacific? Or should they be left free to exclude it or not, as they might choose, on the principle of squatter sovereignty? Should that part of New Mexico east of the Rio Grande follow the fortunes of the part west of the river? Or should it be made a slave-holding district by conceding the boundary claimed by Texas? The struggle for solutions to these pressing problems necessarily brought under review the whole subject of sectional differences concerning slavery, and suggested a compromise that should endeavor to adjust them all. Thus were added to the group of troublesome issues those relating to the return of fugitive slaves, and to slavery and the slave-trade in the District of Columbia. The series of problems which had been raised by the expansion movement originally included the question as to whether slavery should be unconditionally excluded from Oregon; but through the earnest endeavors of President Polk the territory was organized, and this question settled separately before a general bargain could be reached. Action, however, in providing for the organization of Oregon did relatively little to simplify the puzzling issue that was absorbing the situation of the president and Congress; and the triumph of the Whigs in 1848 brought them an inheritance of trouble and responsibility which they were illprepared to face.
1 Rhodes, United States, I., 105-107. * Ibid., 107.