Getting A Life

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After he was trounced by Andrew Jackson in their 1828 electoral rematch, one might have expected Adams to return happily to his diverse interests outside politics. These included fine wines, domesticating wild plants, writing poetry and history, shooting pool, and taking vigorous nude swims in the Potomac. Instead, within two years he got himself elected to the House of Representatives from his old hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts. Relieved of any greater duty than serving his conscience and his constituents, he would again and again establish himself as what Thoreau would call “a majority of one.”

In no area did Adams give more brilliant meaning to this phrase than in his truly tireless campaign against slavery. Moviegoers may be familiar with his successful argument before the Supreme Court in 1841 to win freedom for the slaves who had seized the ship Amistad . Yet still more dramatic in its way—and occasionally hilarious—was his years-long fight against the “gag rule.”

In early 1836, Southerners in Congress, increasingly agitated by constant petitions for the outlawing or at least limitation of slavery, pushed through a House rule that automatically tabled any such appeals. Confronted with this refutation of a basic tenet of our democratic system, Adams responded by reading out as many of the antislavery petitions as his constituents —or anyone else from the North—would send him.

On February 6, 1837, well into another tumultuous debate about the gag rule, Adams announced that he had a petition purporting to be from 22 slaves. Was it within the House rules, he asked the Speaker, to present such a petition? This was too much. One after another, the Southern representatives rose to demand that he be punished. A representative from South Carolina named Waddy Thompson moved to censure him and was immediately supported by the Alabama representative Lewis Dixon, who added, “by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen, [Adams] directly incites the slave population to insurrection. . . .”

Adams patiently let the debate build before rising to make his defense. He easily deflected the charge that he had permitted a petition from slaves to be presented; rather, he had asked if it could be presented. Then he added, “If the House should choose to read the petition… they would find it … the reverse from that which the resolution states it to be. My crime has been for attempting to introduce the petition of slaves that slavery should not be abolished.”

NOT ALL FORMER PRESIDENTS HAVE LIMITED THEIR LATER YEARS TO STAVING OFF THE BAILIFF OR COMPOSING APOLOGIAS. ADAMS MADE HIMSELF “A MAJORITY OF ONE.”

Pandemonium! Now the Southern representatives put together a new motion of censure against Adams, for having “trifled with the House.” Waddy Thompson proclaimed, “Does the gentleman know that there are laws in all the slave states and here, for the punishment of those who incite insurrection? I can tell him that … he may yet be made amen- able to another tribunal, and we may yet see an incendiary brought to condign punishment.”

On February 9, Adams rose to make his reply. “If that, sir, is the law of South Carolina,” he said, “I thank God I am not a citizen of South Carolina!” Then he added, “Let that gentleman, let every member of this House, ask his own heart with what confidence, with what boldness, with what freedom, with what firmness, he would give utterance to his opinions on this floor, if, for every word, for a mere question asked of the Speaker, involving a question belonging to human freedom, to the rights of man, he was liable to be tried as a felon or an incendiary, and sent to the penitentiary!”

He went on: “Did the gentleman think he could frighten me from my purpose by the threat of a Grand Jury? If that was his object, let me tell him he mistook his man. I am not to be frightened from the discharge of a duty by the indignation of the gentleman from South Carolina, nor by all the Grand Juries in the universe.”

All remaining attempts to censure Adams quickly collapsed. His speech was reported throughout the nation, and the Southerners found to their chagrin that the very issues they had been trying to suppress were now being more widely debated than ever. Adams, nearly 70, would continue his campaign against the gag rule until it was finally repealed in 1844, and he himself would go on until February 21, 1848, when he suffered a massive stroke and collapsed over his House desk.

Carried into the Speaker’s room, his right side paralyzed, Adams murmured, “I am composed,” or perhaps “I am content.” Either was perfectly appropriate. Maintaining his composure all his life under the harshest pressures, he could rest content in the service he had done his country. One can only hope that Bill Clinton, or any former President, may ever again find a way to be so effective.