Summary of Legislative Debate on a Burlesque Petition, 11 January 18411
Mr. GRIDLEY presented a burlesque petition from fifty citizens of McLean county, containing a long ironical eulogium on the speech heretofore delivered in the House by Mr. Wheeler of Pike, and petitioning for the printing of 10,000 copies of said speech in order to serve as a model for the future Cicero’s and Demosthenes’s of Illinois, &c[etc].2
Mr. PECK rose and protested against the reading of such a document.
Mr. GRIDLEY thought the Petition ought to be read: he did not hold himself as responsible for its contents, but is was signed by fifty of the most respectable citizens of his county: he held it ought to be read and received.
The Speaker said it was proper the petition should be read, but any petition presented by any member, signed by any number of petitioners however respectable, ridiculing any member or proceedings of this House ought not to be received.
Mr. PARSONS was utterly astonished that any gentleman should present a petition of this character: mr. Wheeler alone was responsible for the time consumed by this speech. He would say the principles in that speech were sound and democratic.
Mr. GRIDLEY replied When he presented a petition in which he could discover nothing improper or objectionable he should present it. He had done his duty in presenting that petition and he disclaimed any intention of casting reflections on the gentleman from Pike, (Mr. Wheeler) He expected to receive a number of Abolition petitions and he should present them also.
Mr. GRIDLEY then moved to refer the petition.
Mr. McCLERNAND offered a resolution condemning the proceedings of presenting a petition intended to insult the House, in one of its members, declaring that the petition should not be received, but should be returned to the member who presented it.
Mr. WEBB thought the proper question was “shall the petition be received”
Mr. KITCHELL considered the petition a direct insult to this House: a member was bound not to present a petition of so insulting a character: it was not his duty thus to violate all decorum and propriety: he would resign and go home first before he would have presented such a petition by whomsoever signed. He hoped the resolution would pass.
Mr. CAVARLY read from the constitution that portion which relates to the right of petitioning, which says that it is “for the redress of grievances.” He enquired whether that clause gave a right to come here and insult the House or any member of the House? Did that warrant any member in holding up a member of this House to contempt & ridicule? Petitions were for the redress of grievances, and not for the purpose of trifling with the House or insulting its members. The whole object of that petition was to hold up an honorable member to contempt and ridicule, if this is right, the fate of the gentleman from Pike, might be that of the Speaker, & every other member every morning. It was an abuse and a gross abuse of the right of petitioning. He regretted that petition had been presented, he did not impute bad motives to mr. Gridley, but wished gentlemen for the future, to examine the petitions they present.
Mr. LINCOLN thought as the subject had come up, and seemed likely to be a painful one, the best course would be to dispose of the matter in a manner the least painful. He would be sorry to see a resolution of this kind pass, calculated to wound the feelings of him who had presented the petition. He hoped the resolution would be so modified.
Mr. LINCOLN then moved to strike out that portion of the resolution requiring the petition to be returned to the member presenting it.
Mr. WEBB rose to a question of order: the proper question was, “shall the petition be received?”
Mr. PECK thought no member had a right to insult either the House or any member of the House. the gentleman from m’lean, (mr. gridley) had called for the reading of this petition out of mere wantonness of feeling, with the express intention of insulting the House and the member from Pike. It contained nothing but evidences of it own folly, it was a tissue of bombast, fustian and rhodamontade throughout.
Mr. GRIDLEY rose to reply and was proceeding when the speaker called him to order.
Mr. OLDS moved to amend by adding to the Resolution that the member who presented the petition be properly reprimanded by the Speaker.
Mr. OLDS disclaimed any unkind feelings to the member from m’lean, but he thought the House ought on this and all occasions to watch over and preserve its own dignity and honor, and not degrade itself in the eyes of the world by submitting to so gross an indignity and infringement of its privileges. Without any personal feeling in this matter, he felt much concerned for the preservation of the order and dignity of the House, and of every member thereof, from insult and contempt in his legislative capacity.
Mr. GRIDLEY held himself responsible to his constituents, to the people and this House for any acts of his, in his legislative capacity. He proceeded to prove that the petition was intended as an honor to the gentleman from Pike. The gentleman from Cook had imputed wantonness to him, he hurled back the slander upon him with the contempt it merited.
He had presented the petition as a duty and he should do so again. He disclaimed any intention of offering an insult to the member from Pike.
Mr. HARDIN had regretted the introduction of the petition as it was liable to a different meaning than the words literally imported. As the member from m’lean had disclaimed the intention of offering an insult, he moved to lay the amendment of mr. Olds on the table, which was agreed to. Ayes 60, Noes 22.4
mr. MURPHY of Cook, moved to strike out all after the word that, and insert to the effect that the petitioners had been guilty of a contempt of this House, and that the petition be indignantly returned to the member who presented it.
mr. GRIDLEY briefly replied and maintained there was nothing objectionable in the petition. He contended that such respectable citizens as those who had signed this petition, had a right to petition to the House for printing any public documents.
mr. M’CLERNAND then addressed the House with much animation on the indignity offered to it by the presenting of such a petition. (This speech being of great length is deferred for want of space.) He said he would accept the amendment of mr. murphy of Cook, as a modification of his own resolution.
mr. HARDIN moved to amend by striking out the body of the resolution and inserting “that the petition be not received”
Mr. BISSELL spoke with much energy on the question. He hoped this amendment would not prevail. He was surprised that any individual should have so much assurance as to rise and attempt to prove to the House, that this insulting piece of burlesque and ridicule was seriously intended to do honor to the gentleman from Pike, to that it was unobjectionable. Such conduct was presuming too far on the gullibility of every person of this floor. He continued with some other remarks strongly condemning the course pursued in presenting such a paper.
messrs.[Messieurs] Cavarly and murphy of Perry further addressed the House in a strain of indignation at the alledged insult offered to the House.
mr. murphy of Cook, moved to lay the amendment of mr. Hardin on the table, which was agreed to.5
Mr. DOLLINS called for the previous question which was ordered, and discussion ceased.
The question on the adoption of mr. m’Clernand’s resolution as modified by mr. murphy of Cook, was then taken and decided by ayes and noes as follows:
Ayes—messsrs. Barnett, Bentley, Bissell, Blackman, Bussy, Carpenter, Cavarly, Courtright, Crain, Dodge, Dollins, Dougherty, Drummond, Dunlap, English, Green, Hankins, Hicks, Humphrey, Kelly, Kitchell, Laughlin, Leary, Lester, Logan, m’Clernand, m’Clurken, m’Donald, m’Ginnis, marshall, moore, murphy of Cook, murphy of Perry, Odam, Olds, Oliver, Ormsbee, Parsons, Peck, Prentice, Ross, Scott, Shelpey, Trumbull, Turney, Wilson, Wood.—49.
Nays—messrs. Archer, Beall, Bradford, Brown of Vermillon, Canady, Cox, Cunningham, Darnielle, Denny, Edwards, Emmerson, Francis, Froman, Gillespie, Gridley, Hardin, Henderson, Hull, Lincoln, m’lean, menard, minshall, munsell, Phelps, Phillips, Reynolds, Thornton, Threlkeld, Troy, Waters, Webb, West, Woodson.—33.
The Speaker asked to be excused voting.
When the name of mr. Gridley was called, after that gentleman had voted, mr. murphy of Cook, enquired of the Speaker, if the member from m’lean could vote for himself on such an occasion as this, when he was so deeply interested in the result?
The Speaker decided that the interest was not sufficient to disqualify.
The House then adjourned.
1The Illinois State Register of 22 January 1841 has Gridley introducing the petition and the House members debating its merits on Monday, January 9, but Monday of that week was actually January 11. A cursory look at the page and pages in the previous issue reveals that the Register was mistaken on several days/dates in this fortnight. In fact, the Register contradicted itself, noting in its Friday, 15 January 1841, issue that Gridley had presented his petition the previous Monday. The House Journal confirms January 11 as the date of its introduction and subsequent debate.
Roy P. Basler followed the Register in dating the debate on January 9.
Roy P. Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:226-27; Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 206-8; Illinois State Register (Springfield), 15 January 1841, 3:6.
2Wheeler delivered his speech in the House of Representatives on December 22, 1840. He spoke in defense of a three-clause resolution introduced by him opposing a national bank as “unconstitutional and inexpedient,” endorsing the Independent Treasury as being “constitutional and expedient,” and expressing confidence in the “patriotism and abilities” of President Martin Van Buren, and affirming that the president, denied a second term in the 1840 election, had “faithfully discharged the duties assigned him.” After much discussion and proposed amendment, the House adjourned on December 31 without voting on Wheeler’s resolution.
Text of the “burlesque petition” may be found in the Peoria Register and North Western Gazetteer, 22 January 1841.
Illinois State Register (Springfield), 8 January 1841, 1:3-6; Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 147-48, 151, 170-71, 206-208; Peoria Register and North Western Gazetteer, (IL), 22 January 1841, 1:6, 2:1.
3The House refused by a vote of 33 yeas to 49 nays, with Abraham Lincoln voting nay.
Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 207.
Printed Document, 1 page(s), Illinois State Register (Springfield), 22 January 1841, 1:4-5