Lot #20
William Henry Harrison Handwritten Manuscript on Rights and Slavery

"The freedom of speech and of the press are the distinguishing characters of free government"—Harrison outlines his values during the 1840 presidential campaign, including his technical views on slavery and states' rights

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"The freedom of speech and of the press are the distinguishing characters of free government"—Harrison outlines his values during the 1840 presidential campaign, including his technical views on slavery and states' rights

Important unsigned handwritten manuscript by William Henry Harrison, totaling four pages on three sheets, 8 x 10, no date but circa 1840. During his campaign for the presidency, Harrison drafts a careful response to questions posed to him by an abolitionist society, citing the United States Constitution while asserting states' rights. Harrison begins the manuscript, in part: "Having recently received a letter from a personal friend who is a member of an abolition society proposing to me two questions…I willingly embrace the opportunity of answering them." The two questions follow, penned neatly in another hand: "Do you believe the people of the United States possess an unrestricted right to discuss any subject that to them may seem worthy of consideration?…Do you believe the people of the United States have the right to petition their Legislature for the redress of whatever they may deem a grievance, and for the adoption of such measures as the petitioners may think conducive to the welfare of the nation?" Harrison replies below, writing, in part: "I do not hesitate to answer both questions in the affirmative. The Constitution of the United States & that of our own state have secured to the people the enjoyment of the rights referred to in both questions, entirely unrestricted but by their own sense of propriety & the legal rules which protect the rights of others. The freedom of speech and of the press are the distinguishing characters of free government. Without them we might call our country a Republic but it would be so only in name, like that of Rome under the Emperors, it might be a mask to cover the most horrible despotism. [struck through: The Constitution of the U.S. has reserved these rights to the people entirely without restriction…]." Harrison continues: "The authors of our Constitution must have known that it would be subject to abuses, to be used for improper & indeed sometimes for criminal purposes, yet they declared it without restriction. More than half a century has passed away since it came into operation, and altho' upon one memorable occasion it was resorted to for the purpose of giving effect to councils tending to paralyze the efforts of the nation in the midst of a dangerous war, and to encourage the enemy to persevere in supporting their unjust pretensions, still these declarations of rights in relation to writing, speaking & publishing, have been suffered to remain in all their pristine force. I should be the last person who could under any circumstances consent to restrict them by legal enactments. But in which of these characters either as citizens of the Ohio or citizens of the US, could we consistently with the theory and spirit of the Constitution discuss a subject belonging exclusively to any other State? There are many principles to be found in the Constitutions of some of the States, other than the toleration of slavery, which are very much unlike those of Ohio. The property qualification of voters for instance. This is a restriction upon the right of suffrage to which personally I am opposed, I would accord this important privilege to every citizen, I would not proceed to enquire the am't of money he had in his pocket, or what other specie of property he might possess. With these sentiments I might offer for your adoption a resolution declaring that the restricted suffrage in some of the States was an aristocratical feature in their systems of Gov't & should be abolished. Such a proposition could not fail to create much surprise & bring to the mind of every man in the assembly that neither in his capacity as a citizen of Ohio nor of the US, could he interfere with the people of Massachusetts, Virginia & Louisiana in the management of their domestic concerns. Should I be asked if I thought any harm could arrive from such a discussion I answer decidedly in the affirmative. Harm in more ways than one. It would tend more perhaps than anything else to destroy the idea of the perfect individuality & distinctness of the State governments which has been considered as one of the most important features in our system…which in the opinion of our wisest & best statesmen would be the immediate precursor of the downfall of liberty. It could not fail also to produce a state of unfriendly feeling between the people of the respective states which is the only effective bond of our union." Harrison reiterates his unequivocal belief in the right to free speech, yet again qualifying his answer: "The abuse of these rights is no argument for abolishing them. In the forcible language of the late distinguished Chief Justice of the US, 'it is an evil inseparable from the good to which it is allied—a shoot which cannot be stripped from the stalk without vitally wounding the plant from which it is torn.'" In overall fine condition. Harrison addresses several topics of great importance, notably alluding to the House of Representatives' 'gag rule' of 1836, which tabled all discussions relating to the slavery issue. In defending free speech as a core value of the United States and its Constitution, Harrison speaks in opposition to the gag rule itself, but cedes control of slavery matter to the states. A Southern slaveholder by birth, Harrison would echo these ideals in his inaugural address: 'The attempt of those of one state to control the domestic institutions of another can only result in feelings of distrust and jealousy, the certain harbingers of disunion, violence, and civil war, and the ultimate destruction of our free institutions.' With these observations, Harrison thus predicted the Civil War.

Auction Info

  • Auction Title: Fine Autograph and Artifacts Featuring Presidents
  • Dates: #658 - Ended February 08, 2023

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