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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
One slight setback marred an otherwise glorious year. Frustrated by Adams, the Whigs now took a small measure of revenge on his associate, Joshua Giddings. After a group of Virginia slaves on the ship Creole mutinied and escaped to Nassau,∗ Giddings introduced a resolution declaring they were not subject to Virginia law and thus had attained their natural freedom. For what the Whigs called a fiendish resolution, the House censured Giddings. He resigned his seat, went back to Ohio, and was promptly re-elected by a stunning majority.
∗ When a group of Negro mutineers seized the slave ship Amistad in 1839, they were successfully defended by Adams before the Supreme Court (see “The Slave Ship Rebellion,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, February, 1957).
Nothing, however, could halt Adams in the final stages of his triumph. The Democrats swept the nation in the fall of 1843, taking control of the House. The gag rule could muster only a slim majority of three votes. “The truth is that the slaveholders got so smitten with consternation at the bolts of father Adams hurled through the ranks at their last session,” Weld proclaimed, “that they have never been able to rally.”
At the opening of the new session in December, 1844 Adams was convinced he had enough votes for a final showdown. After eight years under the restraining bonds of the gag rule, he confidently submitted a motion to rescind it. The motion was passed that very day, 105 to 80.
It was the most spectacular battle any congressman had ever waged, and for most of the eight years Adams had stood alone. He had opened the halls of Congress to the slavery debate, taken it from the narrow arena of the abolitionists and forced it into the very fulcrum of national politics. Younger men like Giddings would continue to press the attack in Congress, and on a state and local level, the Liberty party had already made slavery the crucial political issue. “Blessed, ever blessed be the name of God,” Adams wrote in his diary that night.
Although shrewd realism kept him from complete alignment with the abolitionists, he had made himself the dominant figure of the antislavery movement. As early as 1839, he had submitted three radical resolutions to the House. The first set July 4, 1842, as the date after which any child born to slave parents would be declared free. The second prohibited any future slave states except Florida. The third declared slavery and the slave trade illegal in the District of Columbia after July 4, 1845. It was an eminently practical plan of gradual abolition, but the House ignored it. With its defeat probably disappeared one of the last comprehensive chances for a peaceful settlement of the mounting crisis over slavery.
On the morning of November 20, 1846, after rising as usual before five o’clock and breakfasting with his family, Adams took a brisk walk to the new Harvard Medical College. On the way, he was stricken with what was probably a light cerebral hemorrhage. Yet his recovery was remarkably quick. In a few months he was riding around Boston in his carriage. When he returned to his seat in Congress, sectional differences were momentarily forgotten. The whole House, North and South alike, stood as one man. “Old Man Eloquent,” the nation’s last great link with its Revolutionary heritage, was back.
On Monday, February si, 1848, Adams, now eighty-one, reached the House early. President Polk had just received the treaty of peace with Mexico. A roll call was going on, and the House was filled with clatter. Suddenly a member seated nearby Adams saw the old man’s face redden, while his right hand clutched at the corner of his desk. Then he slumped over.
Someone cried out and caught Adams in his arms. They carried him to the cleared area in front of the Speaker’s table, where he was placed on a sofa and moved to the Speaker’s room. Henry Clay stood by, weeping. For a few minutes Adams revived. Leaning close, John Palfrey, the former Unitarian clergyman and Harvard professor, now a staunch antislavery congressman, heard him say, “This is the end of earth, but I am composed.”
His wife, Louisa, arrived, but Adams, half paralyzed, had lapsed into a coma and gave no sign of recognition. He lingered through Washington’s Birthday and at 7:20 on the evening of February 23 passed away.
The service three days later was probably the greatest public tribute since Franklin had been buried in Philadelphia. Thousands of people had filed by his coffin while he lay in state in the House; southern leaders joined the North in homage. “Where could death have found him but at the post of duty,” proclaimed Senator Thomas Hart Benton. That morning, a cannon salute started at sunrise and continued during the funeral procession. Then the body was taken to Faneuil Hall in Boston, where thousands more paid homage, and over the entrance they placed the inscription: “Born a citizen of Massachusetts. Died a citizen of the United States.”