Mad Old Man From Massachusetts

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The Whig leaders had decided that Adams must be destroyed once and for all. Whenever he rose on the House floor, they would badger him incessantly—as Weld reported to his wife, “screaming at the top of their voices: ‘That is false.’ ‘I demand Mr. Speaker that you put him down .’ ‘I demand that you shut the mouth of that old harlequin.’ ‘What are we to sit here and endure such insults.’ ”

Adams fought back doggedly. “A perfect uproar like Babel would burst forth every two or three minutes as Mr. A. with his bold surgery would smite his cleaver into the very bones,” Weld added.”… Mr. Adams would say, ‘I see where the shoe pinches, Mr. Speaker, it will pinch m ore yet. I’ll deal out to the gentlemen a diet that they’ll find it hard to digest.’”

Adams finally gave the Whigs their long-sought opening—a petition from Haverhill, Massachusetts, probably conceived by John Greenleaf Whittier, though not signed by him, praying for the peaceable dissolution of the Union. No petition so drastic had ever been introduced. Southern members rose in fury, demanding it be burned in the presence of the House. Henry A. Wise of Virginia called for censure, and Thomas F. Marshall of Kentucky, nephew of the Chief Justice, at once drafted the resolution of indictment. The crisis had come; Adams was fighting for his life.

At seventy-five, plagued by a hacking cough, pimples, and boils, Adams plunged eagerly into preparations for his defense. His energy was “astonishing,” wrote Weld, who assisted him. “Last Friday, after he had been sitting in the house from 12 o’clock till 6, and for nearly half that time engaged in speaking with great energy against his ferocious assailants, I called at his house in the evening, and he came to me as fresh and elastic as a boy. I told him I was afraid he would tire himself out. ‘No, no, not at all,’ said he, ‘I am all ready for another heat’… He went on for an hour, or very nearly that, in a voice large enough to be heard by a large audience. Wonderful man!”

Adams had become a one-man symbol of the struggle against slavery. “One hundred members of the House represent slaves; four-fifths of whom would crucify me if their votes could erect the cross,” he wrote in his diary. “Forty members, representatives of the free, in the league of slavery and mock Democracy, would break me on the wheel, if their votes or wishes could turn it round…”

Day after day, seemingly inexhaustible, Adams held the floor, his shrill voice slashing away at his enemies. Although he was literally a man without a party, new allies suddenly flocked to him. The tortuous petition struggle, and now the censure trial, at last captured the imagination of the North. News of the trial filled the headlines, most New England papers backing Adams. Petitions against censuring him poured into the House. His support reached far beyond the abolitionist groups now. At a mass meeting in Faneuil Hall on January 28, 1842, the leading men of Boston cheered his name and voted a resolution in his honor. At the most desperate moment in his life, Adams had actually reached the zenith of his power.

After two weeks of tumult on the House floor, the Whigs were tiring; even their leaders despaired of putting down Adams. Then, on February 7, he announced he would need a week more for his defense. The opposition completely crumbled. A motion to table the resolution of censure was quickly passed, 106 to 93. Still, Adams was not yet finished! He held the floor for the rest of the day, happily presenting two hundred petitions. Finally he went home, “scarcely able to crawl up to my chamber,” he wrote, “but with the sound of Io triumphe ringing in my ear.”

The South recognized the significance of its defeat. Marshall, one of the prime movers of censure, went home to Kentucky, never to return to Congress. “The triumph of Mr. A. is complete,” Weld wrote his wife. “This is the first victory over the slave holders in a body ever yet achieved since the foundation of the government and from this time their downfall takes its date .”

Adams was welcomed as a hero in Boston and Quincy. When he set out with his wife the next summer for a vacation through western New York, the trip unexpectedly became a festival of homage. In Buffalo there was a torchlight parade and an address by Millard Fillmore, who would himself ascend to the Presidency. In Syracuse and Utica, Adams was the guest of the city. When his train stopped for wood and water in Batavia, the whole town turned out. In Rochester he was greeted with booming cannon and ringing church bells.

Invited to Cincinnati to lay the cornerstone of the Astronomical Society, he was besieged by welcoming crowds as he passed through Ohio. At a reception in Akron, he was greeted with a kiss by the prettiest girl and noted happily, “I returned the salute on the lips, and kissed every woman that followed.…” At Covington, Kentucky, he recorded, “a very pretty woman … whispered, ‘the first kiss in Kentucky'—which I did not refuse.”