When Joshua R. Giddings was twenty-three years old, he decided to study law with Elisha Wittlesey in Canfield, Ohio. In 1821, he was admitted to the bar and opened his office in Jefferson, Ohio. His law practice thrived as he tried case after case, proving crusader against slavery. This partnership lasted until 1838, when Mr. Giddings retired from the law. Financial setbacks, however, forced him to resume his law practice. By the year 1838, he had gained such a reputation that he was elected to the Congress of the United States. Although his election ended his days as a practicing lawyer, his experience as a member of the bar served him well as a congressman devoted to the abolition of slavery by changing the laws which protected it.
After one week in Congress, he concluded that, "our Northern friends are, in fact, afraid of these Southern bullies.... This kind of fear I never experienced; nor shall I submit to it now." And he did not. His first act was to draw up a resolution on slavery in the District of Columbia. He was advised not to do it but he did it anyway. At once Giddings was hated by the members from the south and became a problem for those from the north.
In 1841, a bill was introduced to appropriate money for the Florida war. Mr. Giddings spoke concerning the reason for the war which was slavery. The twenty-first rule was used to call him to order and prevent him from speaking on the issue. In 1841, Mr. Giddings again offered a carefully prepared proposition to the house concerning the slave ship "Creole". He argued that when the "Creole" left the waters of Virginia and was on the high seas, the laws of Virginia no longer controlled the slaves on board, but they then entered the jurisdiction of the United States and were under its laws. For raising the issue of slavery, the house voted to censure Giddings by a vote of 125 for and 69 against. He immediately resigned and returned to Ohio. Within five weeks of his censure, he was reelected by the citizens of his district and returned to Congress. Even though the twenty-first rule would remain in use for two more years, Mr. Giddings had reestablished the right of debate in the house.
Mr. Giddings, during the recess of the Twenty-seventh Congress, wrote a series of papers under the pen name, "Pacificus". They dealt with the relationship of the free states to slavery as it stood under the constitution. His premise was that the free states neither were responsible to uphold slavery or destroy it and because of that position they must be free from any cost connected with it. These papers were widely circulated and served to increase the hatred that southerners had for him.
Many abolitionists were unhappy with Mr. Giddings' support of the constitution. His response was:
The very existence of slavery depends, not upon the Constitution, but upon its violation; not upon the support which our people are bound by the Constitution to lend it, but upon the support which has been extorted from them by violation of the Constitution. When the day shall arrive when Northern men will insist upon their rights, and refuse to contribute the substance acquired by their toil for the maintenance of Southern slavery, that scourge of our land will cease. (Julian, pg. 136)
Many issues would come before the house during the years Mr. Giddings was a member. These included the annexation of Texas, an amendment to pay fifty thousand dollars for the "Amistad" Africans, the fugitive slave bill, the admittance of California to the Union and many others.
Giddings belonged to the Whig Party most of his political life but when it refused to take a strong position on slavery, Giddings joined the Free-Soil Party. By 1856, it was clear that a new party was needed if slavery was ever going to be abolished. Giddings, recognizing this, not only joined the new Republican Party but also wrote the most important resolution in the platform adopted at the 1856 convention.
"Resolved, That, with our republican fathers, we hold it to be a self-evident truth that all men are endowed with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that the primary object and ulterior design of our Federal Government was to secure these rights to all persons within its exclusive jurisdiction; that as our republican fathers, when they had abolished slavery in all our national territory, ordained that no person should be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, it becomes our duty to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it for the purpose of establishing slavery in any Territory of the United States, by positive legislation, prohibiting its existence or extension therein. That we deny the authority of Congress, of a Territorial legislature, of any individual or association of individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any Territory of the United States, while the present Constitution shall be maintained."
The Republican Party lost the election in 1856.
After the Harpers Ferry Raid, Mr. Giddings was suspected by southerners of having knowledge of it and of giving support to John Brown. He was called before the senate investigating committee. It was revealed that the following was true: Giddings had met John Brown in Jefferson, he had spoken in Giddings' church in Jefferson, Brown's son, John Brown, Jr., did live a short distance from Jefferson and a letter from Giddings to Brown had been found at the Maryland farm where Brown had been staying. None of this, however, proved that Giddings had knowledge of the raid or had in anyway supported it. No further action was taken by the senate committee but a price of $10,000 was placed on Giddings' head through an ad in a southern paper.
During the 1860 convention of the Republican Party, Giddings was refused a place on the Committee of Resolutions. When the platform was presented at the convention, those strong principles put forth in Giddings' resolution included in the 1856 platform were missing. In an effort to include them, Giddings offered an amendment to the platform. It was voted down and Giddings left the convention. George Curtis, from New York, reintroduced the amendment a second time reminding the delegates that they would not want it known that they had basically voted down the Declaration of Independence. The amendment passes and Giddings was asked to come back to the convention.
During his years as Consul-General to Canada, Giddings worked on a book titled, "History of the Rebellion: its Author and Causes." The day he died in Montreal, he reviewed the proof-sheets of the book.
Although much of Joshua R. Giddings' life was dedicated to public service in Washington, D.C., his participation in the Underground Railroad movement in Ashtabula County is well documented. When he was being questioned before the Senate Committee looking into the Harpers Ferry raid, Giddings responded by saying that escaping slaves dined at his table, that he gave at least $200 a year to free slaves from bondage, and that if a slave catcher would have tried to enter his home to recover a slave, he would have stricken him down on the threshold door. He also said that he had given arms to slaves who were being pursued and instructed them in their use. (Speech by Mr. Giddings, Ashtabula Sentinel, Nov. 10, 1859, pg. 356.)
It was also known that a room at the rear of the Giddings home was used for runaways (Mysteries of the U. G. R. R., pgs. 290.) and at night his sons escorted slaves to the Hubbard House in Ashtabula. (Mysteries of the U. G. R. R., pgs. 291.) When an escaped slave named Lewis Clark was taken prisoner by slave catchers in Lake County, it was Giddings who gave directions for a warrant to be issued by the attorney of the county under the Habeas Corpus law.