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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
In the closing months of 1837, Adams forced these anti-Texas petitions to the floor, deftly slipping in a number of abolition ones at the same time. Although Speaker Polk struggled to shut him off, Adams got the House floor during the morning hours which were usually consumed in routine business and held it tenaciously each day for three weeks. His one-man campaign and the flood of petitions stalled the Administration; annexation had to be postponed.
Still, the southern bloc kept its gag clamped on the House, although it was slowly losing ground. In 1836, 82 of 117 votes approving the gag rule came from the free states. In 1840, when the gag passed by only 114 to 108, just 28 of the Yeas were from the North.
Even a few southern papers gradually turned against the gag. “It would be establishing a precedent dangerous alike to the liberties of the South or the North,” warned the Natchitoches, Louisiana, Herald on January 12, 1838.
The lack of unified support even from slavery’s op ponents intensified Adams’ solitary struggle. “He [Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker abolitionist] and the abolitionists generally are constantly urging me to indiscreet movements, which would ruin me and weaken and not strengthen their cause,” he wrote on September 2, 1837.”… I walk on the edge of a precipice in every step that I take.” Two years later he was still complaining of the abolitionists’ “senseless and overbearing clamor.”
The abolitionists, unfortunately, were skilled propagandists but reckless politicians. While Adams was still battering at the petition gag, they demanded other immediate challenges—a test vote, for example, on abolition in the District of Columbia. But Adams was too sharp a strategist to be pushed into political suicide. A test vote was “notoriously impracticable,” he wrote on November 10, 1838. “There is in the present House of Representatives (a majority) of nearly two to one opposed to the consideration or discussion of the subject.” A month later he insisted he could not collect five votes on such a test.
When the abolitionists kept bullying him, he complained that they “have already given me repeated warnings that they will desert and oppose me if I do not come over to them in the creed of immediate abolition.”
If Adams fended them off politically, he warmly recognized the justice of their cause. “George Washington was abolitionist; so was Thomas Jefferson,” he wrote the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society in 1838. “But were they alive, and should dare to show their faces and to utter the self-evident truth of the Declaration within the State of South Carolina, they would be hanged.” The election of the first Whig President, William Henry Harrison, in 1840 and Whig control of the House promised to bring the petition struggle to a climax. Opponents of the gag rule were picking up strength.
Organized in the spring of 1834, the Whigs were a hodgepodge of former National Republicans, antiJacksonites, states’ rights men, and above all, the aristocracy of southern plantation owners who had been badly hurt by Jackson’s removal of deposits from the United States Bank. Thus the South, already a dominant influence in the Democratic party, now largely controlled Whig policy as well. The alignment between northern and southern Whigs was dramatically evident in the gag votes, especially in 1837 when, without exception, all northern and southern Whigs supported the gag.
Southern dominance over the Army had prolonged the savage Seminole War in Florida, for troops had spent as much time hunting escaped slaves as they had fighting Indians. Southern influence in Washington had made a mockery of federal control over slaverunning. Bitterly, Adams listed in his diary the key government offices filled by slaveholders in 1842—the President, President of the Senate, Speaker of the House, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, commander in chief of the Army, and three of the six heads of executive departments.
Soon after Harrison’s election, however, an antislavery coalition of insurgent Whig congressmen was formally organized for the first time. The chief spokesmen of this “Select Committee on Slavery,” which established itself at Mrs. Sprigg’s boarding house near the Capitol, were Joshua Giddings and Sherlock J. Andrews of Ohio, William Slade of Vermont, and Seth M. Gates of New York. Theodore Weld, a leading antislavery agitator, was sent to Washington to work with them, marking a new solidarity between abolitionists and moderates.
But it was Adams who dominated the group and kept its energies concentrated on the petition struggle. And it was Adams whom Whig leaders feared most, for his chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs gave him a pivotal role in the dispute over the annexation of Texas.