Archival Follies, Our Glorious National Heritage, Power At Play

Josh Giddings Lays the Smack Down

Or, Shut it, Calhoun

Joshua R. Giddings

Sometimes, studying nineteenth-century America can get damned depressing. It’s a slaughter-bench, and for most of the century, the guys that win (and they’re all guys) seem to be the worst possible: slaveholders, imperialists, filibusters.

There’s an antidote to this, though, and that’s reading Congressional debates.

Well, some of them.

I recommend the speeches of Ohio antislavery politician Joshua Reed Giddings. Not always the most systemic of thinkers, Giddings more than made up for any personal flaws and logical contradictions by standing up for his convictions in the most robust, insulting, and entertaining ways possible. He made his career on it, in fact, getting kicked out of Congress for challenging the gag rule, only to ride back in on a tide of electoral victory no one could deny. To put it another way: in an era where we better remember the literal and electoral beatings handed out by the Slave Power against its enemies, black and white, Giddings was ever ready to play the dozens in Congress, and win handily, against any fire-eater stupid enough to wander within his withering gaze.

To give you some sense of what I mean, here are a few excerpts from one of his famously harsh speeches – though by no means the most outrageous of them – delivered on the eve of Texas’s annexation by joint resolution (Giddings, needless to say, was no fan).1

One note up front: Giddings, throughout, calls the slaveholders of the to-be admitted republic “Texians.” That extra letter leaves room for a lot more verbal disdain, and I imagine he packed it all in by enunciating as much of an arch “heeyaa” sound as he could manage. So, a win right off the bat.

Second, he begins his speech by calling out one of his Northern colleagues a coward, and rolls from there into his favorite activity, baiting slaveholders.

His first feint is to a previous speaker in the debate, Belser of Alabama, who argued that the slavery found a guaranty in the Constitution:

You, Mr. Chairman, will recollect, that when the gentleman from Alabama put forth his doctrine, I respectfully inquired of him where he found it? He at first answered that he found it in common sense; he next said it was found in common justice; and lastly he asserted that it was found in the constitution. I then inquired in what part of the constitution I would find it? To this he replied that he had not then time to inform me. … as I see the gentlemen now in his seat, I give him notice, that I will surrender to him the necessary time out of my own hour, if he will but inform me of the article and section of the constitution in which such doctrine is to be found.

I will now pause, that he may inform this committee as to the section and article in which it exists.
{Mr. GIDDINGS made a pause; but Mr. BELSER sat silent, and Mr. G proceeded.}

Having humiliated a member of the chamber then present personally, Giddings went on for another while attacking the annexation of Texas as an evil, slavery as an evil, and slaveholders as evil, all in no uncertain terms. As the speech nears its end, Giddings was rewarded with several outbursts – including one accusation of wagon and slave stealing – which he all uses to good effect. But an even better exchange came a few minutes later:

Mr. BURT, of South Carolina, wished to interrupt the gentleman from Ohio.
Mr. GIDDINGS. I have but a minute or two left, and I want to say many things.
Mr. BURT. I want to know if the member from Ohio meant to say that the Secretary of State has done, or is capable of doing, anything base?
Mr. GIDDINGS. I am a little surprised at that question.
Mr. BURT, (much excited). That was your language.
Mr. GIDDINGS. Mr Chairman, I hardly know how to understand this southern dialect.
Mr. BURT, (amid cries of order, and the rapping of the chairman’s mallet.) Do you understand your own language?
Mr. GIDDINGS. If gentleman will keep cool I shall soon be through my hour, and I will then answer all the questions they please to put to me. …

And of course he closes by ripping into John C. Calhoun (the aforementioned Secretary of State) for writing a “weak and loosely penned lecture in favor of slaveholding” in an official communique to the British minister, in which he used a flawed census of the population of “insane” African-American people in the North as his main evidence for the necessity of slavery. Giddings argues that the survey was already shown to be deeply flawed by one scholar – Dr. James McCune Smith, of New York, whose “color is said to resemble that of Touissant much more than it does of the honorable Secretary” – and, in his last minute of time, recommends that Calhoun read the essay, so that “his own mind” could be improved “and the character of the country far better sustained.”

Now that, my friends, is legislative debate.

For more, I recommend the very readable biography of Giddings by James Stewart: James Brewer Stewart, Joshua R. Giddings and the Tactics of Radical Politics (Cleveland, OH: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1970).


Almost as soon as he arrived in Washington, Giddings became good friends with the leader of opposition to the Slave Power, former president and then-congressman John Quincy Adams. As Gidding’s biographer notes, Adams was “an aloof personality” – which has to make the running for understatement of the century – but nonetheless the old man did write a poem (a poem!) explaining his feelings for his political colleague and protégé:2

Intent, with anxious aim to learn,
Each-other’s character we scan,
And soon the differences discern,
Between the fair and faithless man
And here with scrutinizing eye
A kindred soul with mine to see,
A longing bosom to descry
I sough, and found, at last in thee.

Not great, but let’s just say it’s better than anything Calhoun could have done.

h/t to Rachel Herrmann for prompting this post.

1) “Speech of Mr. Giddings, of Ohio, In the House of Representatives, May 21, 1844 – Upon the annexation of Texas,” Cong. Globe XIII, 28th Cong., 1st Sess, App. 704-708
2) As quoted in Stewart, 57 ftnt 9

Image Source: “Hon. Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio, photograph taken between 1855-1864 by Matthew Brady’s studio. Library of Congress.”

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