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I couldn’t think of a more appropriate document for today, given the recent outrage over the execution of Troy Davis. This petition to Congress reads simply, “The Undersigned respectfully request that you . . . abolish Capital punishment and substitute imprisonment for life.” (an ellipsis replaces the unnecessary “will”)

I can’t say for certain, but I think this particular petition was sent in the late 1830s. Definitely before the Civil War, in any case. Its text appears nowhere on the internet… until now.

When I think about all of the antislavery petitions I viewed, one thing really strikes me—their authors were generally respectful of (or at least knowledgeable about) the limits of Congressional power. I don’t think you’ll find a single antebellum antislavery petition asking Congress to abolish the institution outright or eradicate slavery in a particular state. The requests usually involved abolishing slavery in the federal territories, ending slavery and/or the slave trade in the District of Columbia, or refusing to admit a new state whose constitution tolerated domestic slavery. In other words, however politically unlikely such a result might be, most people (at least before Dred Scott) acknowledged that Congress could legitimately effect the petitioners’ desired objectives.

Which is why I find this petition so curious. I’m not a law student yet, but I’m pretty sure Congress can only prohibit “the sentencing to death or execution of any person for any violation of federal law,” as was contemplated by the proposed Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2009. It can’t simply declare that a certain form of punishment may not be imposed anywhere in the United States, thereby preventing states from penalizing violators of their own laws in whatever not unconstitutional manner they might choose.

It’s at least interesting to know that another variety of abolitionism was afoot at this time.

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