Abolitionist John Quincy Adams: One Man’s Obstruction of Gov’t

  • John Quincy Adams
    6th U.S. President
  • John Quincy Adams was an American statesman who served as the sixth President of the United States from 1825 to 1829. He also served as a diplomat, a United States Senator and a member of the House of Representatives. Wikipedia
Presidential term: March 4, 1825 – March 4, 1829


By Stephen Mihm

When it comes to throwing sand into the gears of the legislative process, the radicals in today’s Congress are rank amateurs. History is replete with senators and representatives who have, against all odds, forced their colleagues to revisit matters that the majority wished to avoid. Like slavery, for example.

For sheer, unrelenting doggedness and one-man obstruction of government, though, John Quincy Adams, an anti-Southern abolitionist, surely deserves the prize.

Adams is perhaps best known as the president from 1825 to 1828. By most historians’ accounts, he was a disaster in that role. After Andrew Jackson swept him from office, he dropped from public view. He resurfaced in 1830, when he ran for a Massachusetts seat in the House and won — the only former president to do so.

Although he belonged to the National Republicans, Adams remained estranged from many in his party, particularly after he clashed with its leadership. He eventually switched to the newly formed Whig Party.

Petition Flood

He joined Congress just as a small but increasingly vocal minority in the North began pressing the abolitionist cause, deluging Congress with antislavery petitions. Under House rules, these needed to be brought to the floor and “considered.” But doing so brought debate over the slavery question to the center of national politics. Southern lawmakers moved quickly to change the rules so that these petitions could be sent to die in a subcommittee without debate or discussion.

Though he was a gradual convert to the antislavery cause, Adams believed silencing debate to be unconstitutional. And he fought back. In the heated discussion over the proposed rule change, Adams at one point screamed at the House speaker, “Am I gagged, or am I not?”

His outburst gave a name to that procedural tactic: the gag procedure, or gag rule.

After the rule was adopted in 1835, Adams began a long, lonely campaign that infuriated his colleagues. As thousands of petitions flowed into Congress, Adams brought them to the floor, disingenuously asking whether they were subject to the gag rule. The sheer volume brought the legislative process to a temporary halt, even if they were immediately removed from consideration. The petitions began piling up in a 600-square-foot room designed to hold them. By 1838, they filled almost the entire room to the height of its 14-foot ceiling.

This was just the beginning of Adams’s fight. On Feb. 6, 1837, he took to the floor to present yet another petition against slavery, one that he said had been submitted by a number of slaves.

This was heresy: Slaves couldn’t petition Congress, much less request the end of slavery.

Read more here: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2013-10-25/ted-cruz-is-an-amateur

(Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)

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