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O captain. My captain. Our fearful trip is done; T...

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John Quincy Adams And The Right Of Petition
He rests with the immortals; his journey has been long: ...

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John Quincy Adams And The Right Of Petition






He rests with the immortals; his journey has been long:
For him no wail of sorrow, but a paean full and strong!
So well and bravely has he done the work be found to do,
To justice, freedom, duty, God, and man forever true.
--Whittier.


The lot of ex-Presidents of the United States, as a rule, has been
a life of extreme retirement, but to this rule there is one marked
exception. When John Quincy Adams left the White House in March, 1829,
it must have seemed as if public life could hold nothing more for him.
He had had everything apparently that an American statesman could hope
for. He had been Minister to Holland and Prussia, to Russia and England.
He had been a Senator of the United States, Secretary of State for
eight years, and finally President. Yet, notwithstanding all this, the
greatest part of his career, and his noblest service to his country,
were still before him when he gave up the Presidency.

In the following year (1830) he was told that he might be elected to
the House of Representatives, and the gentleman who made the proposition
ventured to say that he thought an ex-President, by taking such a
position, "instead of degrading the individual would elevate the
representative character." Mr. Adams replied that he had "in that
respect no scruples whatever. No person can be degraded by serving
the people as Representative in Congress, nor, in my opinion, would an
ex-President of the United States be degraded by serving as a selectman
of his town if elected thereto by the people." A few weeks later he was
chosen to the House, and the district continued to send him every two
years from that time until his death. He did much excellent work in the
House, and was conspicuous in more than one memorable scene; but here
it is possible to touch on only a single point, where he came forward
as the champion of a great principle, and fought a battle for the right
which will always be remembered among the great deeds of American public
men.

Soon after Mr. Adams took his seat in Congress, the movement for the
abolition of slavery was begun by a few obscure agitators. It did not at
first attract much attention, but as it went on it gradually exasperated
the overbearing temper of the Southern slaveholders. One fruit of this
agitation was the appearance of petitions for the abolition of slavery
in the House of Representatives. A few were presented by Mr. Adams
without attracting much notice; but as the petitions multiplied, the
Southern representatives became aroused. They assailed Mr. Adams for
presenting them, and finally passed what was known as the gag rule,
which prevented the reception of these petitions by the House. Against
this rule Mr. Adams protested, in the midst of the loud shouts of
the Southerners, as a violation of his constitutional rights. But
the tyranny of slavery at that time was so complete that the rule was
adopted and enforced, and the slaveholders, undertook in this way
to suppress free speech in the House, just as they also undertook to
prevent the transmission through the mails of any writings adverse to
slavery. With the wisdom of a statesman and a man of affairs, Mr. Adams
addressed himself to the one practical point of the contest. He did not
enter upon a discussion of slavery or of its abolition, but turned his
whole force toward the vindication of the right of petition. On every
petition day he would offer, in constantly increasing numbers, petitions
which came to him from all parts of the country for the abolition of
slavery, in this way driving the Southern representatives almost to
madness, despite their rule which prevented the reception of such
documents when offered. Their hatred of Mr. Adams is something difficult
to conceive, and they were burning to break him down, and, if possible,
drive him from the House. On February 6, 1837, after presenting the
usual petitions, Mr. Adams offered one upon which he said he should like
the judgment of the Speaker as to its propriety, inasmuch as it was a
petition from slaves. In a moment the House was in a tumult, and
loud cries of "Expel him!" "Expel him!" rose in all directions. One
resolution after another was offered looking toward his expulsion or
censure, and it was not until February 9, three days later, that he was
able to take the floor in his own defense. His speech was a masterpiece
of argument, invective, and sarcasm. He showed, among other things, that
he had not offered the petition, but had only asked the opinion of the
Speaker upon it, and that the petition itself prayed that slavery should
not be abolished. When he closed his speech, which was quite as savage
as any made against him, and infinitely abler, no one desired to reply,
and the idea of censuring him was dropped.

The greatest struggle, however, came five years later, when, on January
21, 1842, Mr. Adams presented the petition of certain citizens of
Haverhill, Massachusetts, praying for the dissolution of the Union
on account of slavery. His enemies felt that now, at last, he had
delivered himself into their hands. Again arose the cry for his
expulsion, and again vituperation was poured out upon him, and
resolutions to expel him freely introduced. When he got the floor to
speak in his own defense, he faced an excited House, almost unanimously
hostile to him, and possessing, as he well knew, both the will and the
power to drive him from its walls. But there was no wavering in Mr.
Adams. "If they say they will try me," he said, "they must try me. If
they say they will punish me, they must punish me. But if they say that
in peace and mercy they will spare me expulsion, I disdain and cast away
their mercy, and I ask if they will come to such a trial and expel me. I
defy them. I have constituents to go to, and they will have something
to say if this House expels me, nor will it be long before the gentlemen
will see me here again." The fight went on for nearly a fortnight,
and on February 7 the whole subject was finally laid on the table. The
sturdy, dogged fighter, single-handed and alone, had beaten all the
forces of the South and of slavery. No more memorable fight has ever
been made by one man in a parliamentary body, and after this decisive
struggle the tide began to turn. Every year Mr. Adams renewed his motion
to strike out the gag rule, and forced it to a vote. Gradually the
majority against it dwindled, until at last, on December 3, 1844, his
motion prevailed. Freedom of speech had been vindicated in the American
House of Representatives, the right of petition had been won, and the
first great blow against the slave power had been struck.

Four years later Mr. Adams fell, stricken with paralysis, at his place
in the House, and a few hours afterward, with the words, "This is
the last of earth; I am content," upon his lips, he sank into
unconsciousness and died. It was a fit end to a great public career. His
fight for the right of petition is one to be studied and remembered, and
Mr. Adams made it practically alone. The slaveholders of the South and
the representatives of the North were alike against him. Against him,
too, as his biographer, Mr. Morse, says, was the class in Boston to
which he naturally belonged by birth and education. He had to
encounter the bitter resistance in his own set of the "conscienceless
respectability of wealth," but the great body of the New England people
were with him, as were the voters of his own district. He was an old
man, with the physical infirmities of age. His eyes were weak and
streaming; his hands were trembling; his voice cracked in moments of
excitement; yet in that age of oratory, in the days of Webster and Clay,
he was known as the "old man eloquent." It was what he said, more than
the way he said it, which told. His vigorous mind never worked more
surely and clearly than when he stood alone in the midst of an angry
House, the target of their hatred and abuse. His arguments were strong,
and his large knowledge and wide experience supplied him with every
weapon for defense and attack. Beneath the lash of his invective and his
sarcasm the hottest of the slaveholders cowered away. He set his back
against a great principle. He never retreated an inch, he never yielded,
he never conciliated, he was always an assailant, and no man and no
body of men had the power to turn him. He had his dark hours, he felt
bitterly the isolation of his position, but he never swerved. He had
good right to set down in his diary, when the gag rule was repealed,
"Blessed, forever blessed, be the name of God."





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