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John Quincy Adams and the Gag Rule Debate

Updated on February 3, 2011
The House of Representative debates ending the Gag Rule, 1836
The House of Representative debates ending the Gag Rule, 1836 | Source
Former President (1825-29) and Congressman (1831-48) John Quincy Adams
Former President (1825-29) and Congressman (1831-48) John Quincy Adams | Source
Photograph of the head of the "Gag Rule Cane" presented to John Quincy Adams on the eve of his victory
Photograph of the head of the "Gag Rule Cane" presented to John Quincy Adams on the eve of his victory | Source

Slavery and the Freedom of Petition

The cornerstone of liberty for U.S. citizens is and has always been the First Amendment, with its five enumerated freedoms--speech, religion, the press, assembly, and petition. Of these, the least understood freedom is probably that of petition, which is the right to complain to or seek the assistance of government without fear of punishment (from Wikipedia). The exercise of this right can take various forms; historically, one of the most important methods (which is little noted today) was to send petitions to Congress. This was an especially popular means for the people to address appeals on all sorts of issues to their representatives, and to members of the House of Representative in particular. In the mid-19th Century, many of these appeals addressed the issue of slavery, at a time when it was beginning to receive increasing attention and controversy. An indicator of how seriously the power of petition was taken is the extreme reaction of the Southern states and their representatives to the onrush of anti-slavery petitions; in the process of attempting to cut off debate on slavery, they took steps that effectively endangered the right of petition. Opposing their efforts was an ex-President and Congressman from Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams, who practically one-man battle to restore a fundamental constitutional freedom proved to be one of his shining moments, and marked a major turning point in the fight to end slavery.

Most of Adams' life was spent in relative isolation from slavery, from his youth (much of it spent in the courts of Europe) to his professional life as a statesman and diplomat; the few times he was faced with the issue, such as during the vote over approving the Louisiana Purchase when he was in the U.S. Senate, it didn't play that big a part in his thoughts by all accounts. Even as Secretary of State in the Monroe Administration, when he dealt with British interdiction of American shipping as part of that nation's enforcement of the international ban on the slave trade, the main issue for him was the defense of American maritime rights; when he finally agreed to a compromise position, his concession to Britain was to link the slave trade to piracy, tacitly ignoring the human rights issue. As President, Adams rarely dealt with slavery. He might have gone the rest of his life following his defeat by Andrew Jackson, free from having to address the issue, but in 1830, he found himself elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Perhaps in honor of his position as a former President, he was chosen as chairman of the Manufactures Committee, a position he held for the next 10 years; he became quite comfortable here because it was a low-profile assignmentin a still-agricultural nation, and because it gave him the leisure to pursue what was to become a crusade lasting nearly the rest of his life: Securing the people's right to petition, a fight, as I stated before, that would finally force him to take a stand on slavery.

I do not know how many petitions regarding slavery were brought before Congress before 1830, though it is certain that many were; as early as February of 1790, Benjamin Franklin, in one of the last acts of his life, signed a petition to the Senate as head of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery; thanks to intense opposition by pro-slavery members, the Senate took no action, and the House of Representatives demurred, citing the Constitution's ban on Congressional action until 1808. Though it is certain that petitions promoting both sides of the debate were sent to Congress in the next few decades, the general lack of attention to the issue probably limited the volume. All of this changed at the beginning of the 1830s, when the abolitionist movement began to become more active with the founding of several newspapers such as William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator; high-profile incidents like the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831, and the journalist Elijah Lovejoy's lynching in 1837, also caused increased attention to the plight of the slaves. Perhaps coincidentally, the number of petitions to Congress related to slavery also increased, and Congressman Adams seemed to naturally fit in as the conduit to receive them. By 1836, the number of petitions had climbed to the tens of thousands; there were over 100,000 requests to abolish slavery alone in 1837 and 1838.

The slave interests had tried, and failed, to use legal means to stop the publication of abolitionist tracts, and resorted to the extreme of illegally intercepting and destroying such literature. they now looked with alarm at the circulation of petitions in Congress, many if not most of them advocating abolition, and they took their battle to stifle the free exchange of ideas in a new direction. In January 1836, following motions by some Congressmen, including Representative John Henry Hammond of South Carolina, to bar Congress from receiving petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, a package of resolutions were presented, and passed, that effectively prohibited members from discussing, or even mentioning, petitions related to slavery, apparently including even pro-slavery petitions. This was the beginning of the Gag Rule.

John Quincy Adams, who as the de facto leader in presenting these petitions must have reasoned that the resolutions were an attempt to silence him. reacted with defiance, setting the stage for one of the longest and most dramatic political battles on a single topic in American legislative history.  On January 18, he and other members presented several anti-slavery petitions, all of which were either postponed on tabled.  Four months later, a stronger gag resolution, backed by Vice-President Martin Van Buren (hoping for Southern support in that years Presidential election), passed, but Adams persisted in loyally presenting every slavery petition sent to him.  He went as far as to defend pro-slavery petitions sent to Southern Congressmen.   Using his excellent knowledge of parliamentary procedure, Adams employed various tactics, including reading petitions into the record at the beginning of each session, when the rule had to be reinstated--a practice halted when the gag was made a standing (permanent) rule in 1840.  But even then, he found ways to keep on, forcing Southern rivals to debate slavery just to defend their own positions, and forcing them to try to have him censured (reprimanded), then using the time allotted him for his defense to argue against slavery until the censure motion was tabled.

For all of his persistence in this fight (which earned him dozens of death threats from opponents), he was privately torn on whether to come out publicly against slavery itself.  This hesitation led some leading abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, to question his commitment, though others such as Wendell Phillips and a young Charles Sumner, praised him.  Adams himself hated slavery, but he was the consummate politician, choosing to hold his cards close to the vest on this crucial issue in order to ensure success in what was for him, the objective of the moment--one must not forget that he was fighting for the right to petition, which had clear constitutional implications.  (In the middle of this fight, Adams became involved in defending the African captives on board the Amistad before the Supreme Court, the success outcome of which was a major blow to Southern defenders of slavery.)

In December 1841, Adams gained a huge platform to continue his fight against the gag, when he was named chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee.  In January 1842. he presented a petition from Georgia voters for his removal as chairman, at which time the House had to allow him to speak because of his position; he used his time to attack the Southern conspiracy to annex Texas, which he clearly saw as an attempt to expand the reach of slavery.  He added anti-annexation petitions to slavery petitions from here on out, intensifying the fires of debate.

In the winter 1842 session, Adams brought up a petition from 46 Massachusetts residents urging dissolution of the Union, a move which seemed to give his opponents an opening.  Two censure motions were presented, one of which accused Adams of perjury and high treason, charges which could have led to his expulsion from the House.  He won the right to defend himself, and did so with a two-week presentation in which he excoriated his enemies.  Finally, on February 7, sensing the impatience of his colleagues, he allowed a vote to take place on a motion to table the censure "forever," which passed comfortably.

The unsuccessful censure attempt brought the Gag Rule fight to a climax.  Adams went on presenting anti-slavery petitions, even further dissolution resolutions in March; the petitions were all duly tabled, but there were no more efforts to discredit or discipline Adams.  After 1843. the end was in sight, and in January 1844 a House committee voted to rescind the gag.  Adams' moment of triumph came on December 3, 1844, when the full House voted, 108-80, to pass his resolution revoking the standing Gag Rule.  After eight long years, the fight for the right to petition was concluded successfully.

An interesting sidebar is that in April 1844. Adams received an ivory cane from Julius Pratt and Company, Meriden, Conn., as a gift in honour of his soon-to-be-successful fight.  The cane, bearing an eagle on the head holding a motto on which the date "December 3, 1844," was later added, was eventually bequeathed to the Patent Office, and is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Today, this right is generally exercised in the form of lobbying of legislative bodies, or petition drives aimed at promoting favoured issues before lower level bodies such as city councils or school boards.  The petitioning of members of Congress presumably still takes place, though it doesn't receive nearly as much attention now.  The fact that we still have this right, though, owes a great deal to the eight-year, nearly one-man struggle of former President John Quincy Adams.  In leading this fight, he not only redeemed himself following his ignominious defeat by Andrew Jackson, but helped to expose the evils of the institution of slaver against the efforts of Southern Congressmen to subvert the Constitution in its defense. 



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      Regina 6 years ago


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      William R Bowen Jr 7 years ago

      Very interesting and well-written. The issue of petitioning the government did come up during FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life (2007).