Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


“Am I gagged?” –  John Quincy Adams and His Struggle Against Slavery and the Gag Rule

In December 1835, Massachusetts Representative William Jackson presented a petition to end slavery and the domestic slave trade in the District of Columbia where Congress had constitutional authority over slavery. Outraged southern representatives protested any consideration of the provocative petition. They felt that abolitionists had insulted southern institutions by sending hundreds of thousands of anti-slavery pamphlets through the mail to the South. South Carolinian James Henry Hammond complained he would not “sit there and see the rights of the Southern People assaulted day after day, by the ignorant fanatics.” Many southerners defended their “peculiar institution” against the barrage of assaults and developed the idea that slavery was a “positive good” that was beneficial for slaves, masters, and the country because it preserved a natural order rooted in the inequality of the races. They blocked abolitionist literature from reaching southern states and were preparing to block consideration of any abolitionist petitions in Congress.

John Quincy Adams was an unlikely member of the House of Representatives. He was a statesman and a former one-term president who had decided it would hardly be a demotion to represent the people in the Congress. Elected for the first time in 1830, he would eventually serve nine terms in the House and became a firm advocate for justice, constitutional rights, and natural rights.

In February 1836, South Carolinian Henry Laurens Pinckney offered a resolution stating that the House of Representatives would table any petition mentioning slavery and ban any discussion or referral to committees. In effect, the resolution was a “gag rule” that would prevent the reception and consideration of any petition protesting slavery. In May, the House soon passed the resolution by a vote of 117 to 68. Adams immediately rose from his seat to protest the gag rule.  When shouted down by colleagues and not recognized by the Speaker of the House, James Polk, Adams was exasperated and yelled, “Am I gagged?”  He argued that the gag rule was a “direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents.”  He declared the gag rule a threat to free, deliberative government: “The freedom of debate has been stifled in this House to a degree far beyond anything that ever has happened since the existence of the Constitution.”

While he did not embrace radical abolitionism, Adams did think that slavery was a grave moral evil that contradicted the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.  For Adams, the right to petition was essential to republican self-government by the consent of the governed and was a sacred, traditional right.  He asserted, “The right of petition . . . is essential to the very existence of government; it is the right of the people over the Government; it is their right, and they may not be deprived of it.”  Adams would persist in battling the gag rule and defending the just cause of a right to petition for the rights of others.

In January 1837, the House renewed the gag rule, and Adams quickly protested the rule by introducing hundreds of petitions including those from women and even free blacks and slaves.  The southerners in the House were irate and declared their honor insulted.  The House moved to censure (a formal reprimand) Adams for his supposed outrages.  Adams seized the opportunity to attack the gag rule and defend the right of petition.  It belonged not merely to the rich and powerful, but most especially to the powerless.  The right of petition was not the exclusive provenance of the “virtuous, the great, and the mighty,” he averred. “The right of petition belongs to all.” The attempt to censure Adams failed.

In early 1838, when the House voted to renew the gag rule yet again, Adams stood and argued that it violated “my right to freedom of speech as a member of the House.”  He also made the courageous stand to fight for women’s right of petition even though they could not vote.  “Are women to have no opinions or action on subjects relating to the general welfare?” he asked.

Adams continued to present hundreds of petitions with signatures from citizens opposed to slavery, and still his fellow representatives shouted him down.  Later that year, he resorted to a parliamentary trick by avoiding the word “petition” and stated he was introducing a “prayer” that all would enjoy their God-given rights.  “Petition was prayer,” he argued.  “It was the cry of the suffering for relief; of the oppressed for mercy.”  Therefore, to the great shock of Southerners, he asserted that he would therefore “not deny the right of petition to a slave.”

When he stated that summer that slavery was “a sin before the sight of God,” Adams received several death threats.  “I promise to cut your throat from ear to ear,” read one.  Another had a picture of a large Bowie knife, threatening, “Vengeance is mine, say the South!”  Finally, one warned of a “hangman to prepare a halter for John Quincy Adams.”  He confided to his diary that, “I walk on the edge of a precipice in every step that I take.”  Sometimes, he felt overwhelmed by the burden he was assuming for the cause of justice.  “I stand in the House of Representatives . . . alone.”  But he was not deterred from his path and only fought harder against the gag rule and for the right to petition against slavery.

Over the next two years, Adams introduced thousands of petitions. All were tabled without debate.  Pro-slavery representatives even instituted a harsher gag rule in 1840 to shut Adams up.  The House agreed that it would not even receive the petitions, but the new gag rule only passed by a narrow majority of six votes. Adams saw that his perseverance was bearing fruit. Still, in 1842, he saw a “conspiracy in and out of Congress to crush the liberties of a free people of the Union.”

Adams revered the Declaration of Independence (which his father, John Adams, had helped create) because of the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  It also asserted the principle of popular sovereignty, that all authority in a popular government resides in the people.  Consequently, Adams had the clerk of the House read the Declaration.  Adams then stated that, “I rest that petition on the Declaration of Independence.”

On December 3, 1844, Adams’s diligent efforts were finally rewarded when the House voted to abolish the gag rule.  He had fought and won a long struggle for constitutionalism and for the rights of others.  Even his enemies grudgingly admitted his diligence to the cause of justice.  Henry Wise of Virginia called Adams “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”  He had fought the gag rule, pursuing the ideal of justice and fighting to preserve American ideals: the right of petition for all Americans and the natural rights of enslaved Americans.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.


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