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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
ADAMS : I am doing so, Sir.
POLK : Not in the opinion of the Chair.
ADAMS : I was at this point of the petition, “keenly aggrieved by its (slavery’s) existence in a part of our country over which Congress possesses exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatever”—
Cries of “Order! Order!” shook the House.
ADAMS : “Do most earnestly petition your honorable body”—
John Chambers of Kentucky rose to a point of order.
ADAMS : (rushing to complete his sentence before the House drowned him out) “Immediately to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.”
When the Speaker’s gavel or the furious chorus of “Order! Orderl” stopped him, Adams employed other devices—amending the House journal, or presenting a petition that ingeniously skirted the slavery provisions of the gag rule.
Frequently he even refused to tell the Speaker the contents of a petition, crying, “I refuse to answer because I consider all the proceedings of the House as unconstitutional.” Adams in his diary reported that “While speaking these words with loud, distinct and slow articulation, the bawl of ‘Order! Order!’ resounded again from two thirds of the House. The Speaker, with agonizing lungs, screamed, ‘I call upon the House to support me in the execution of my duty.’ I then coolly resumed my seat.”
In February, 1837, Adams presented a petition from nine Negro women of Fredericksburg, Virginia, not knowing himself whether they were slaves or free. The Speaker immediately tabled it. Adams then announced he was presenting another petition, signed with scrawls and marks. An uproar rose through the House, for no petition from slaves had ever before been presented. Southern representatives screamed that Adams was destroying the Union; one demanded that he be indicted by the District grand jury for inciting rebellion. The storm continued for three days, Adams cagily helping to whip it up.
Biding his time until the House let him speak, he blandly announced that the petition had nothing to do with freedom. Just the opposite! The slaves had petitioned the House to protect them from the abolitionists lest their welfare be harmed. “It remains,” wrote one historian a half century later, “the best and most effective practical joke in the history of Congress.”
Since Adams sturdily insisted that his petition battle was based on the freedom of petition, his enemies put him to the test. They sent him a petition, praying Congress that all free Negroes be deported or sold as slaves. Adams methodically presented it. When the citizens of Rocky Mount, Virginia, sent him a petition praying Congress to expel the Honorable John Quincy Adams, he never hesitated to present it.
Such puritanical devotion to principle brought an increasing flood of ferocious letters to his desk.”… Your damned guts will be cut out in the dark,” warned a Georgia correspondent. “On the first day of May next I promise to cut your throat from ear to ear,” threatened an Alabama writer. Nearing his seventy-fourth birthday, still unflinching in his lonely struggle although he complained privately of his “drowsy brain” and “my faculties dropping from me one by one, as the teeth are dropping from my head,” Adams already ranked as the nation’s most vilified ex-President.
When General Sam Houston’s victory over Mexico’s Santa Anna on April 21, 1836, stirred to the point of mania the nation’s dream of annexing Texas, southern leaders grasped hungrily at this vast, new territory from which they hoped to carve an array of slave states.
The Texas mania, however, seriously alarmed the North, including large segments of the population which had no connection with the abolitionist groups. Dr. William Ellery Channing, the dominant voice of the Unitarian sect, published a scathing tract against annexation which reached an immense audience. Anti-Texas petitions began to flood the House conjointly with abolition ones. Anti-Texas resolutions by the state legislatures came from Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and Vermont.
Although Adams, as President, had twice tried but failed to purchase Texas from Mexico, he was now convinced that the Texas revolution was a plot by Jackson, the plantation owners, and their northern allies. “The Texas land and liberty jobbers,” he would soon charge, “had spread the contagion of their landjobbing traffic all over the free states throughout the Union. Land-jobbing, stock-jobbing, slave-jobbing, rights-of-man-jobbing were all hand in hand, sweeping over the land like a hurricane.”