North Carolina ‘Preamble and Resolution on the Subject of Incendiary Publications’
An 1835 legislative resolution from North Carolina on the suppression of antislavery publications.
The 1830s in the United States witnessed the emergence of the abolitionist movement. The movement published an astonishing quantity of antislavery literature, literally millions of pamphlets. These pamphlets caused fierce backlash from slaveholding states. Southern states made legislative, judicial, and vigilante efforts to control the flow of protest literature against slavery, arguing that they incited slave rebellions (Curtis). In March 1836 legislators from the southern states attempted and failed to pass a federal bill to ban antislavery publications from the mails (Benton 580-588). Proslavery sentiment prevented defenders of free speech from responding on the floor of the US House of Representatives (John).
In December 1835, members of the North Carolina legislature constituted themselves as a ‘Committee of 26’ to ratify and disseminate a resolution statement calling on northern states to suppress these pamphlets. The North Carolina statement had broad distribution. It was reprinted in the legislative proceedings of both northern and southern states, and appeared in the press.
The statement calls abolitionism a threat to social peace in North Carolina before anchoring its arguments in the reserved powers clause of the US constitution. It claims that no state can interfere with its social institutions, particularly slavery. Antislavery pamphlets represented interference in North Carolina’s domestic affairs and were intolerable for raising the possibility of slave rebellions. The statement holds that northern states could limit incendiary speech and had a duty to do so.
The North Carolina ‘Preamble and Resolution on the Subject of Incendiary Publications’ framed speech suppression arguments that became common in the antebellum period.
Benton, Thomas Hart (1864). Thirty Years’ View: Or, a History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820-1850. Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton.
Curtis, Michael Kent (1995) “The Curious History of Attempts to Suppress Antislavery Speech, Press and Petition in 1835-37,” 89 Northwestern University Law Review 3:786-870.
John, Richard R. (1997) “Hiland Hall’s ‘Report on Incendiary Publications’: A Forgotten Nineteenth Century Defense of the Constitutional Guarantee of the Freedom of the Press,” American Journal of Legislative History 41 (Winter) 1:94-125.
- Joe Lockard