John Quincy Adams and Repeal of The Gag Rule

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In a column he penned on the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, columnist George F. Will wrote, somewhat churlishly (I thought), but quite accurately, that the Kennedy family was not the greatest in the history of its home state, Massachusetts, because that honor belonged to the Adams family, in particular John Adams and his son, John Quincy.

Both were great men, but John Quincy Adams’ greatness lay less in his presidency and more in his service in Congress, where “Old Man Eloquent”  — the only former president to serve in the House of Representatives — led the fight to end the curse of slavery in America.  One of his first attempts to achieve that goal was to repeal the gag rule in Congress.

The gag rule, adopted in the House in 1840, was based on the South’s conviction that the slavery question was to be resolved by southerners alone.  As such, the rule forbade the House from even receiving, let alone considering, petitions from northern abolitionists demanding slavery’s end.   In 1841, however, the Whig Party had the majority in Congress, and Whigs, whose support was strongest in the North, were more sympathetic to abolitionists than were Democrats.  Thus repealing the gag rule suddenly seemed possible, but although the House voted three times to repeal the rule, it reversed itself each time, in part because a number of Whig House members were southern.

In frustration, Adams defied the gag rule by presenting in the House an anti-slavery petition from abolitionists in his congressional district, which so incensed southern Democrats that they demanded Adams be formally censured.  Which he was, but in the ensuing trial in the House Adams defended himself brilliantly, inspiring northern Whigs and, assisted by leading newspapers, embarrassing southern Democrats, who eventually “tabled” the censure motion.

Vindicated, Adams introduced hundreds of additional anti-slavery petitions and began a speaking tour in the North to rally support.  In response, Congress was deluged with anti-slavery petitions, and the signatories were not just rabid abolitionists but also members of the working class and even northern Democrats.

Soon even southern Democrats saw the writing on the wall, and this week (Dec. 3) in 1844, the gag rule was repealed.   Not only was John Quincy Adams’ fight to end slavery upheld, and a giant step in that direction taken, so was his insistence on freedom of expression.

In appreciation, his many admirers presented him with an ivory cane that had an eagle inlaid on the cane’s head bearing a scroll with the motto “Right of Petition Triumphant.”  Adams then added to the motto the date the gag rule was repealed.   Today that cane is housed in America’s national repository of our shared history, the Smithsonian Institution.