Joshua Reed Giddings, US Congress

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Joshua Reed Giddings

Birthdate: (69)
Birthplace: Athens, Bradford County, Pennsylvania
Death: 1864 (69)
Place of Burial: Oakdale Cemetery Jefferson Ashtabula County Ohio
Immediate Family:

Son of Pvt. Joshua Giddings, Jr. and Elizabeth Giddings
Husband of Laura Giddings
Father of Comfort Giddings; Joseph Addison Giddings; Lura Maria Giddings and Laura Julian
Half brother of Clarke Giddings

Managed by: Private User
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About Joshua Reed Giddings, US Congress

Joshua Reed Giddings (October 6, 1795 – May 27, 1864) was an American attorney, politician and a prominent opponent of slavery. He represented Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1838-59. He was at first a member of the Whig Party and was later a Republican, helping found the party.

Giddings was censured in 1842 for violating the gag rule against discussing slavery in the House of Representatives when he proposed a number of Resolutions arguing against federal support for the coastwise slave trade, in relation to the Creole case. He quickly resigned, but was overwhelmingly re-elected by his Ohio constituents in a special election to fill the vacant seat. He returned to the House and served a total of nearly twenty more years as representative.

Joshua Reed Giddings was born at Tioga Point, now Athens, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, on 6 October 1795. In 1806 his parents Elizabeth (née Pease) and Joshua Giddings moved the family to Ashtabula County, Ohio, then sparsely settled by European Americans. Here they settled on Ohio's Western Reserve, where Giddings lived for most of the rest of his life. Many settlers from New England went there. As the Reserve was widely famous for its radicalism, Giddings may have been inspired in his first stirrings of passion for antislavery.

Giddings worked on his father's farm and, although he received no systematic education, devoted much time to study and reading. For several years after 1814 he was a schoolteacher. In the custom of the time, he would have "read the law" by working as an intern with an established firm to prepare for the bar. Career

In February 1821 Giddings was admitted to the bar in Ohio. He soon built up a large practice, particularly in criminal cases. From 1831 to 1837 he was in partnership with Benjamin Wade, a future U.S. Senator.[note 1] Political career

Giddings was first elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, serving one term from 1826-1827.[2]

The Panic of 1837, in which Giddings lost a great deal of money, caused him to cease practicing law. He ran for federal office and was elected to Congress. Consistently re-elected to office, from December 1838 until March 1859, he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives, representing first Ohio's 16th district until 1843, and then Ohio's 20th district until 1859. Giddings ran first as a Whig, then as a Free-soiler, next as a candidate of the Opposition Party, and finally as a Republican.

Giddings seized upon every opportunity to develop a public sentiment hostile to slavery. On February 9, 1841, he delivered a speech upon the Seminole War in Florida, insisting that it was waged in the interest of slavery.[3]

In the Creole case of 1841, American slaves had revolted and forced the brig Creole into Nassau, where they gained freedom as Britain had abolished slavery in its territories in 1834. Southern slaveholders argued for the federal government to demand the return of the slaves or compensation.

Giddings emphasized that slavery was a state institution, with which the Federal government had no authority to interfere; he noted that slavery only existed by specific state enactments. For that reason, he contended that slavery in the District of Columbia and in the Territories was unlawful and should be abolished, as these were administered by the federal government. Similarly, he argued that the coastwise slave trade in vessels flying the national flag, like the international slave trade, should be rigidly suppressed as unconstitutional, as the states had no authority to extend slavery to ships on the high seas, and the federal government had no separate interest in it. He also held that Congress had no power to pass any act that in any way could be construed as a recognition of slavery as a national institution. Giddings Law Office in Ohio (1936 Nat'l Park Service photo)

His statements in the Creole Case attracted particular attention, as he had violated the notorious gag rule barring antislavery petitions. Former President John Quincy Adams led a campaign in the House of Representatives to repeal the gag rule.

The United States government attempted to recover the slaves from the Creole. Daniel Webster, then Secretary of State under President Martin Van Buren, asserted that as the slaves were on an American ship, they were under the jurisdiction of the U.S., and by US law they were property. Britain said they were free persons under its law.

On March 21, 1842, before the case was settled, Giddings introduced a series of resolutions in the House of Representatives. He asserted that in resuming their natural rights of personal liberty, the slaves violated no law of the U.S. He contended the US should not try to recover them, as it should not take the part of a state. For offering these resolutions, Giddings was attacked by numerous critics. The House formally censured him for violating the gag rule. He resigned, appealing to his constituents, who immediately reelected him by an overwhelming margin of 7,469 to 383 in the special election to fill his seat.[4] With increasing anti-slavery agitation, the House repealed its "gag rule" three years later.

Giddings' daughter Lura Maria, an active Garrisonian, convinced her father to attend the meetings held by Garrison's followers, which heightened his anti-slavery position. William Lloyd Garrison was a spiritual as well as political leader. In the 1850s Giddings also adopted other progressive ideas, identifying with perfectionism, spiritualism, and religious radicalism. He claimed that his antislavery sentiments were based on a higher natural law, rather than just on the rights of the Constitution. Giddings called the caning of Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate by an opponent a crime "against the most vital principles of the Constitution, against the Government itself, against the sovereignty of Massachusetts, against the people of the United States, against Christianity and civilization." Many of these views were reflected in his noted "American Infidelity" speech of 1854.

Giddings often used violent language, and did not hesitate to encourage bloodshed. He talked about the justice of a slave insurrection and the duty of Northerners to fully support such an insurrection. He opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and advised escaping slaves to shoot at their potential captors.

Giddings led the Congressional opposition by Free State politicians to any further expansion of slavery to the West. Accordingly, he condemned the annexation of Texas (1846), the Mexican War (1846-8), the 1850 Compromises, and the Kansas Nebraska Act(1854), all of which contributed to expansion of slavery in the West. Following the war with Mexico, Giddings cast the only ballot against a resolution of thanks to US General Zachary Taylor.

With increasing political activism related to slavery, Giddings shifted from the Whig party to the Free-Soil party (1848). In 1854-5, he became one of the leading founders of the Republican party. Giddings campaigned for John C. Fremont and Abraham Lincoln, although Giddings and Lincoln disagreed over the uses of extremism in the anti-slavery movement. Before the Civil War, he helped support the Underground Railroad to help fugitive slaves reach freedom. He was widely known (and condemned by some) for his egalitarian racial beliefs and actions.

In 1859 he was not renominated by the Republican Party to Congress. Giddings retired from Congress after a continuous service of more than twenty years. In 1861 he was appointed by Lincoln as U.S. consul general in Canada, and served there until his death at Montreal on the 27th of May 1864.


Joshua Reed Giddings. He was born, October 6th, 1795, at Athens, Bradford County, Pennsylvania. In infancy his parents removed to Canandaigua, New York, where they remained until he was ten years old, when they immigrated to Ashtabula County, Ohio, among the first settlers in that part of the Western Reserve. In 1812, when less than seventeen years old, he enlisted as a soldier for active service being accepted as a substitute for an older brother. He was one of the expedition sent to the peninsula north of Sandusky bay, where, in two battles on one day with a superior force of Indians, it lost nearly one-fifth of its number in killed and wounded. At the close of his short term of service as a soldier, he commenced teaching school. In 1817 he began the study of law with Hon. Elisha Whittlesey, and was admitted to the bar in 1820. In 1826 he was chosen a Representative to the State Legislature, and after serving one term, declined a re-election, and devoted himself to his profession until 1838, when he was elected to Congress as the successor of his instructor, Hon. E. Whittlesey. Having been for some years an active abolitionist, and entering the House at a time of great excitement on the subject of slavery, he not only took his stand by the side of John Quincy Adams as a supporter of the right of petition, but became at once a prominent champion of the abolition of slavery. On March 21st, 1842, Mr. Giddings brought the subject before Congress in a series of resolutions, in which it was declared that, as slavery was an abridgment of natural right, it could have no force beyond the territorial jurisdiction that created it; that when a ship left the waters of any State, the persons on board ceased to be subject to the slave laws of such State, and thenceforth came under the jurisdiction of the United States, which had no constitutional authority to hold slaves; that the persons on board the "Creole," in resuming their natural rights of personal liberty, violated no law of the United States, incurred no legal penalty, and were justly liable to no punishment; and that any attempt to re-enslave them was unauthorized by the constitution, and incompatible with the national honor. These resolutions created so intense an excitement that, yielding to the importunities of some of his party friends, who thought the time unfavorable for their consideration, he withdrew them, declaring his intention to present them on a future occasion. Whereupon John Minor Bolts, of Virginia, introduced a resolution declaring that the conduct of Joshua R. Giddings in offering the resolutions to be " altogether unwarranted and unwarrantable, and deserving the severe condemnation of the people of this country, and of this body in particular." The previous question being moved, he was thus denied the right of self-defense, and the resolution was adopted by 125 yeas to 69 nays. He instantly resigned his seat, and called upon his constituents to pronounce their judgment in the case, which they did by re-electing him by a large majority. He resumed his seat May 5th, after an absence of six weeks, and held the post by successive re-elections until March 3d, 1861, making his whole period of service twenty-two years. In 1849 he made an elaborate speech, in which he maintained that man could not be property, and that to treat him as such is a crime. In the celebrated case of the "Armistad," he maintained the right of the negroes to take their freedom, and zealously opposed the effort to induce Congress to indemnify the Spanish claimants. In 1850 he took a prominent part in opposing the enactment of the " compromise measures," so termed, especially the fugitive slave law. In July 1850, he was distinctly charged with the abstraction of important papers from the general post-office. A committee composed chiefly of his political opponents, after a rigid examination, exonerated him entirely, it being conclusively shown that the charge was the result of a conspiracy against him. On May 8th, 1856, while addressing the House, he suddenly fell to the floor in a state of unconsciousness, from which, however, he soon revived, though in a condition of great weakness. On January l7th, 1858, the same accident occurred, and for some moments he was supposed to be dead. He slowly returned to consciousness, but was compelled for a time to be absent from his post; his disease was an affection of the nervous system acting upon the heart. Having declined a re-nomination by his constituents, he was appointed, by President Lincoln, Consul-General for Canada, the duties of which office he discharged at Montreal until his death. In 1843 he wrote a series of political essays, signed " Pacificus," which attracted considerable attention. A volume of his speeches in Congress was published in Boston in 1853; and an interesting narrative of the oppression exercised by the slaveholders of Florida over the Negroes, Indians, and mixed races of the peninsula, under the title of " The Exiles of Florida," was published in 1858, at Columbus, Ohio. "A History of the Rebellion, its Authors and Causes," which is mainly a history of the anti-slavery struggle of the last twenty-five years - antecedent to the civil war - in Congress, was published just after his death, which occurred at Montreal, Canada East, May 27th, 1864.

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Joshua Reed Giddings, US Congress's Timeline

Athens, Bradford County, Pennsylvania
Age 25
Age 27
Age 30
Age 44
Age 69
Oakdale Cemetery Jefferson Ashtabula County Ohio