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.


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


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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