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From Ben Franklin to the Civil War: Antislavery Petitions in Congress

Today’s post comes from Natalie Rocchio, an archives specialist in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

One of the most contentious issues facing our nation in the early years was slavery. Unsurprisingly, the First Congress received a series of antislavery petitions as part of the first unified campaign to the new Federal Government. These petitions came from three organizations: the Philadelphia and New York Yearly Meetings of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery to Vice President John Adams, February 3, 1790. (National Archives Identifier 306388)

Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, February 3, 1790. (National Archives Identifier 306388)

Benjamin Franklin served as President of the Pennsylvania Society, which was believed to be the most influential of the three organizations.

On February 3, 1790, Franklin signed a petition which he sent to Congress on February 9, 1790, calling for Congress to “devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People” and to “promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race.” While Franklin’s petition was considered the most radical, all three petitions sparked intense debate in the House and the Senate.

After a day of debate, the Senate decided to take no action on the petitions. The House referred them to a select committee for further consideration. The committee reported on March 5, 1790, stating that the Constitution restrained Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves until 1808 and interfering with the emancipation of slaves. The House then tabled the petitions, effectively ending the debate on the issue of slavery in the First Congress.

Perhaps the most significant call for the abolition of slavery came over 80 years later. This round originated from the Women’s Loyal National League, an organization whose sole mission was to campaign for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. With Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the league’s president and Susan B. Anthony as the secretary, the women organized one of the largest petition drives the nation and Congress had ever seen.

"To the Women of the Republic," Address of the Women's Loyal National League Supporting the Abolition of Slavery, January 25, 1864. (National Archives Identifier 306400)

“To the Women of the Republic,” Address of the Women’s Loyal National League Supporting the Abolition of Slavery, January 25, 1864. (National Archives Identifier 306400)

 

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts introduced the first 100,000 signatures to Congress on February 9, 1864. And although in April the Senate passed the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, Sumner continued to introduce petitions from this drive at least twice a month throughout the summer. The House passed the 13th Amendment in January 1865, and it was sent to the states for ratification. The amendment was ratified by the states in December of that year.

Sumner credited the league as the principal force behind the drive for the 13th Amendment.

While these two petitions are nearly 80 years apart, each share a special piece of history in the monumental movement to abolish slavery in the United States.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

Go here for more information on Franklin’s petition.


On Exhibit: Unbroken

Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC. 

Certificate (copy) awarding the Purple Heart medal to Louis Zamperini, 10/12/1944. (National Civilian Personnel Records Center, National Archives)

Certificate (copy) awarding the Purple Heart medal to Louis Zamperini, 10/12/1944. (National Archives at St. Louis, National Archives)

On May 28, 1943, Army Air Force bombardier Louis Zamperini’s B-24 airplane went down over the Pacific Ocean. Given the size of the Pacific and the distances covered by U.S. bombers, recovering downed aviators in the Pacific Theatre during World War II was difficult, at best.

While some submarines on lifeguard patrols were able to rescue downed aviators, including George H.W. Bush, Zamperini and his crew were not among them.

Zamperini and his crewmates, pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips and Francis “Mac” McNamara, survived the crash only to endure starvation, dehydration, Japanese fighter bombings, and shark attacks. After 33 days at sea, McNamara passed away.

During the 46 days at sea, the men drifted more than 2,000 miles into Japanese-controlled waters. On the 47th day, in sight of land, the Japanese captured Zamperini and Phillips. The two men were eventually separated, but both endured over two years of captivity and torture as prisoners of war before being released at the end of the war in 1945.

Having received no word of Zamperini for a year following the crash, the U.S. Government declared him dead and awarded him the Purple Heart for “wounds resulting in death.” After his release, Zamperini returned to the United States to the surprise and relief of his family.

Letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family thanking them for Louis Zamperini's service to his country, 5/28/1944. (National Civilian Personnel Records Center, National Archives)

Letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family, 5/28/1944. (National Archives at St. Louis, National Archives)

In honor of the nomination of the film detailing Zamperini’s life, Unbroken, for an Academy Award, Louie’s Purple Heart medal (on loan courtesy of Laura Hillenbrand, author of Unbroken), copies of the certificate awarding Zamperini the Purple Heart, and a condolence letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from February 5 through March 4, 2015.

Since Zamperini received his Purple Heart award in 1944, more than 350,000 American service men and women have become members of the order.

For more information on the history of the Purple Heart, read  “A Heart of Purple: The Story of America’s Oldest Military Decoration and some of its Recipients” from the 2012 Winter issue of Prologue magazine.

Special free screening of UNBROKEN

Tuesday, February 10, at 7 p.m. in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC

Join us for a free screening of the film Unbroken (2014; 137 minutes; trailer), based on the 2010 book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival Resilience and Redemption. The film, a World War II action drama, was produced and directed by Angelina Jolie and stars Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, and Domhnall Gleeson. Presented in partnership with NBCUniversal and in conjunction with the UNBROKEN Featured Document display, February 5 through March 4, 2015.

Register online or call 202-357-6814. Theater doors will open 45 minutes prior to start time. Walk-ins without reservations will be admitted 15 minutes prior to start time, depending on available seats. Attendees should use the Special Events entrance on Constitution Avenue and 7th Street, NW.


Changing the Boundaries: Women at Work in the Government

Today’s post comes from Samantha Payne, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives. in Washington, DC. 

On January 29, 1790, Mary Katherine Goddard sent the Senate a singular request: to be reinstated as postmistress of Baltimore. After running the post office for 14 years, and paying post-riders with her own savings during the American Revolution, she was infuriated to lose her position—especially when the stated reason was that “more traveling might be necessary” for the job “than a woman would undertake.” In her petition, Goddard accused the Postmaster General of dismissing her so he could give the lucrative title to his friend.

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Goddard’s rise and fall as one of America’s first female public servants began in a printing shop. In 1774, she helped her brother William establish Baltimore’s first weekly newspaper. Within a year, she became the sole proprietor of the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser. Her excellent reputation prompted Benjamin Franklin to appoint her as postmistress of Baltimore, making her the first woman to run a national government office. In 1777, the Continental Congress requested that she publish the first copy of the Declaration of Independence, complete with its signatories.

Goddard was proud of her work in the Post Office. When she lost her job in 1789, she protested to the newly formed Federal Government. On December 23, 1789, she wrote to President George Washington, explaining that it was a matter “of peculiar distress to her” that the government would reward a man with “all that she had to rely on, for her future dependence and subsistence.” Washington sent only a curt response. Historians speculate that he refused to help Goddard because she associated with his opponents, the Anti-Federalists.

More than 230 Baltimore citizens, including Maryland’s Governor, signed Goddard’s petition to the Senate. Still, she never regained her office. For the remainder of her life,Goddard supported herself by running a bookshop. She passed away in 1816. Her final act was to free her slave, Belinda Starling, and leave the young woman everything she owned.

Nearly 150 years after Goddard sent her petition to Congress and President Washington, President Franklin Roosevelt received an indignant letter about a similarly sensitive subject. On December 28, 1936, Walter Glass began his note, “Pardon me for being presumptuous.” Glass objected—rather strongly—to the President’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. He felt that “a man should head this important department,” and thoughtfully signed off his critique of the executive by counting himself among “many admirers that respect and love you. I mean just that.”

President Franklin Roosevelt's nomination of Frances Perkins to be Secretary of Labor, March 4, 1933. (National Archives Identifier 595434)

President Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination of Frances Perkins to be Secretary of Labor, March 4, 1933. (National Archives Identifier 595434)

Despite the protests of men (and women!) like Walter Glass, Perkins had a long and distinguished career as the first female cabinet member. She served as Secretary of Labor for 12 years and helped create the New Deal. Determined to serve the “millions of forgotten, plain common” working people, she campaigned for national unemployment and old-age insurance. Her efforts culminated in the Social Security Act of 1935.

As postmistress and Labor Secretary, Goddard and Perkins pushed the boundaries of what seemed possible for women of their time. The documents they left behind serve as reminders of the important role women played in the Federal Government, and the challenges they faced along the way.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Mary Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790, page 2. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Mary Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790, page 3. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)


Currently on Exhibit: George Washington’s First Annual Message

Continuing our celebration of the 225th Anniversary of the First Congress, the National Archives is displaying George Washington’s first annual address from January 6 to February 4, 2015, in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC.

This version, from the first Journal of the House of Representatives, shows the final page of George Washington’s annual address (what we now call the State of the Union speech). With this message, delivered on January 8, 1790, Washington established the precedent of delivering a formal address to Congress, thus fulfilling the Constitution’s mandate for the President to  “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

In the message, Washington praised the accomplishments of the First Congress and gave a brief overview of his administration’s agenda. He emphasized the need to provide for the common defense; establish uniform systems of currency, weights, and measures; and promote education.

House Journal of the First Congress, Second Session, showing the final page of President George Washington’s first annual message to Congress, January 8, 1790 (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

House Journal of the First Congress, Second Session, showing the final page of President George Washington’s first annual message to Congress, January 8, 1790 (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)


Annual Message on the State of the Union: The President Speaks

Today’s post comes from Christine Blackerby, an Outreach Specialist at the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

On January 8, 1790, President George Washington delivered a speech at Federal Hall in New York City. This speech, called his first annual message to Congress (which we now refer to as the State of the Union), was short—in fact, it remains the shortest one ever.

President George Washington’s first Annual Message to Congress, January 8, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate. National Archives)

President George Washington’s first Annual Message to Congress, January 8, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives) Transcript

In it, Washington touched on several subjects to which he recommended that Congress give its attention, including national defense, naturalization, uniform weights and measures, promotion of education, and support of the public credit.

Fully aware of the enormity of the task in front of them, Washington’s last sentence speaks to the heart of their endeavor:

The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed.—And I shall derive great satisfaction from a co-operation with you, in the pleasing though arduous task of ensuring to our fellow citizens the blessings, which they have a right to expect, from a free, efficient and equal Government.

Washington gave this speech to fulfill the President’s obligation outlined in Article II, Section 3, Clause 1, of the Constitution:

The President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”

The Constitution does not specify how frequently the President should share this information. As he did on so many other issues, Washington set the precedent that this message would be delivered to Congress once a year.

But Washington’s actions in another respect were not precedent setting. Washington appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver his annual messages in a speech. Second President John Adams followed suit. But the Third President, Thomas Jefferson, set a new tradition when he sent his messages in writing and did not appear before Congress.

That precedent stuck until 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress.

Now Why Didn't I Think of That! by Clifford K. Berryman, 4/8/1913. (National Archives Identifier 6011009)

“Now Why Didn’t I Think of That!” by Clifford K. Berryman, 4/8/1913. (National Archives Identifier 6011009)

 

Before Wilson, the annual messages were mostly a report to Congress of the activities of the Executive branch. But after Wilson, and the increased attention the speech received, it became a launching pad for Presidential initiatives and was used to raise support for the President’s legislative agenda.

During Harry Truman’s Presidency, the speech came to be widely known as the State of the Union address instead of the annual message.

President Andrew Jackson's Annual Message to Congress "On Indian Removal," December 6, 1830. (National Archives Identifier 5682743)

President Andrew Jackson’s Annual Message to Congress “On Indian Removal,” December 6, 1830. (National Archives Identifier 5682743) Transcript

Several annual messages stand out:

In 165 handwritten pages, President Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Annual Message covered multiple topics, but it is remembered for his words relating to Native Americans.

In what became known as the “Indian Removal” message, Jackson discussed the policy of moving Native Americans from the southeast portion of the nation to beyond the Mississippi River to what became Oklahoma. He wrote:

It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.

President Abraham Lincoln was known for words that reverberate through the decades. His December 1, 1862, message became known as the “Fiery Trial” message:

President Abraham Lincoln’s “Fiery Trial” Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

President Abraham Lincoln’s “Fiery Trial” Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives) Transcript

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.

This message was delivered exactly one month before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

Lincoln ended the message on the subject of slavery:

In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.

 

 

President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union Address, February 4, 1986. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union Address, February 4, 1986. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives) Transcript

 

President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 State of the Union address was originally scheduled for January 28, 1986. However, that day the Challenger space shuttle exploded. Reagan postponed his speech for a week in response to the accident. On February 4, Reagan began his message by paying tribute to “the brave seven” Challenger crew members.

Later, he said:

So, yes, this nation remains fully committed to America’s space program. We’re going forward with our shuttle flights. We’re going forward to build our space station.

Since Washington’s time, the Constitution’s command that “from time to time” the President shall share information with Congress has meant, and continues to mean, the delivery of the State of the Union message once a year.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

Go here for more information on historical State of the Union Messages.