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Mad Old Man From Massachusetts
How gnarled, upright ex-President John Quincy Adams broke the South’s gag rule in Congress and at last won popular applause
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
Ironically enough, the petition campaign was developed by peace-loving Quakers and launched in Essex County, Massachusetts, by the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The abolitionists were tireless collectors. One petition, demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, carried 130,200 names; another to prohibit slave trade between the states, 23,160; a third to prohibit slavery in United States territories, 21,200; and so on down the line. In Massachusetts, petitions circulated in 1843 to free the slave Latimer drew 51,862 signatures. Dr. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch described “the immense roll of paper” as “about the size of an ordinary barrel.” The abolitionist leader Henry B. Stanton estimated that in 1838-39 the American Antislavery Society gathered two million signatures, an impressive percentage of the total population of the United States, even allowing for some inflation of the figures.
In fact, the stacks of petitions were piled so high in the basement of the Capitol that when Albert Bushnell Hart, the Harvard historian, visited there seventy years later he found the janitor still using them to light the fire in his stove.
Adams calmly presented each petition to a fuming House. On one particular day, he introduced fifty separate petitions; not long after, three hundred and fifty. Each interrupted the business of the House, and roused southern representatives to an ever-increasing fury. They had hoped to bury slavery as an issue of debate with the Missouri Compromise. They had even tried to ban abolition literature from the U.S. mails—the bill bad passed the House with Jackson’s backing, only to fail in the Senate. But here were the abolitionists, exploiting the petition device, forcing the slavery issue into national debate, turning the House into a constant bedlam. As the Antislavery Bugle of Salem, Ohio, admitted later, they were determined “to take possession of Congress and turn it into a vast Antislavery Debating Society with the whole country as the audience.”
The dominant slavery bloc, which included not only southern representatives but their northern allies, decided to crush these agitators. On May 18, 1836, a committee headed by Henry Laurens Pinckney of South Carolina presented three resolutions, all quickly passed. The key resolution stated that any petition or memorial to Congress relating to slavery should be automatically laid on the table without discussion. It was a sweeping “gag rule” that would be renewed at every session for the next eight years.
Unwittingly, the southern congressmen had caught themselves in a trap of their own making. For by tying the petition gag to the larger issue of constitutional rights, the abolitionists had not only found a common ground on which moderate antislavery men and the extremists could unite against the South, but a way to involve the House in an almost endless and bitter wrangling from which the South had nothing to gain and almost everything to lose. The weakness of the southern position was not only that it abridged the right of petition, but that the gag rule was obviously aimed solely at antislavery spokesmen. Not once did the House use the gag to stop petitions on any other issue.
Adams immediately protested the gag, crying, “I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, of the rules of this House, and of the rights of my constituents.” But he was howled down. The slave bloc had clamped its gag on the nation. Not one petition, not one word of debate on slavery would henceforth be tolerated by the people’s representatives!
Adams now took on virtually the entire House in one of the wildest struggles in congressional history. Refusing to be gagged, he resorted to every trick and parliamentary device to bring the slavery issue to the floor. One Washington correspondent described him “creeping through this rule and skipping over that” while the Speaker angrily gaveled him down. Week after week, he infuriated his colleagues with “tit-bit speeches, which were so short and so quickly said that, though they were out of order, nobody could cail him to order; and when they did, he would say, ‘My speech is done.’”
He would leap to his feet, his face flushed, “throwing himself into the attitude of the veteran gladiator …immovable as a pillar until he has completed his task,” another correspondent wrote. He had never been an accomplished speaker, admitting in his diary, “I am so little qualified by nature for an extemporaneous orator that I was at this time not a little agitated by the sound of my own voice.” Now his shrill words seemed to explode with new power. His epithets lashed the House unmercifully. One representative, a leading proponent of the gag, was attacked for “emitting a half hour of his rotten breath.” Another was branded “the very thickest skull of all New Hampshire.” A third, cried Adams, kept “butting his head against the air like a he-goat.”
One day Adams presented a petition from 228 women, praying for the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. When Speaker James K. Polk demanded that its contents be stated, Adams provoked the usual pandemonium, described by the National Intelligencer: