Summer Reading: Arguing About Slavery and The Lost Internment

Earlier this week I blogged about the Supreme Court’s recent (and rare) Petition Clause decision, and earlier still I blogged about recommended summer reading.  Combining the two reminds me that one of the best books I’ve ever read on any topic deals with petitions to the government for the redress of grievances in their most classic form. Arguing About Slavery, by William Lee Miller, documents John Quincy Adams’ long and lonely fight in the 1830s and 1840s to introduce citizen petitions calling for Congress to consider the abolition of slavery within the District of Columbia.  His efforts in support of the petitioners triggered proslavery members of Congress to enact a gag rule that essentially prohibited talking about the abolition of slavery on the floor of Congress (notwithstanding the petition, free speech, and speech and debate clauses).  Professor Miller concludes that the proslavery forces’ overreaction to the petitions eventually strengthened the abolitionists’ hand by giving them a particularly high-profile platform for arguing about injustice as both a moral and political matter. (In A Short History of the Right to Petition Government for the Redress of Grievances, 96 Yale L.J. 142 (1986), Stephen Higginson later assigned this particular episode the blame for the Court’s contemporary conflation of free speech and petition clause rights – a development now bemoaned by Justice Scalia in his partial dissent to last month’s petition clause decision). For those who still have room on their summer reading lists, Miller’s book offers a great read by a terrific writer exploring an important yet largely overlooked historical episode.

While I’m thinking about important yet largely overlooked historical episodes, you might also want to check out G. Edward White’s essay in the most recent Green Bag. In The Lost Internment, Professor White narrates “one of the most bizarre and chaotic forcible relocations of indigenous peoples in American history:” the U.S. government’s internment of Aleutian islanders during World War II in response to Japan’s seizure of one of the Aleutian Islands and its anticipated plans to take more.

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