Old man eloquent
It was a strange, improbable political afterlife.
President John Quincy Adams’s decisive defeat for re-election in 1828 by Andrew Jackson was the end of an era, as we shall see, but it wasn’t the end of Adams, even politically. In 1830 he was offered the nomination for his local Congressional seat, and won, and was re-elected, and re-elected several times after that. He served in Congress literally for the rest of his life, and in the course of his 17-year post-presidential political career, he became more than John Adams’ son, more than Federalist-turned-Republican, more than repudiated statesman, more than a somewhat chilly intellectual. He became a crusader against slavery, and in that crusade he found a voice.
As early as 1820, in his private journal, Adams said to himself that the slaveholders, “look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee’s manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat negroes like dogs…. [W]hat can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?” But his four years as president (1825-1829) had not been marred by slavery-related controversies. The closest thing to it was the so-called Tariff of Abominations, which he signed in his final full year in office, which indirectly led to the Nullification Crisis in his successor’s term. But Adams, as Congressman, helped defuse the crisis by authoring a compromise alteration to the tariff, which Jackson used, together with the Force Bill, to bring the Southerners up short.
Adams was an active congressman, chairing the committees on Foreign Affairs, on Indian Affairs, and on Commerce and Manufactures. Among his achievements was that of preventing the legacy that set up the Smithsonian Institution from being diverted to other purposes. He opposed Texas annexation, and then the Mexican War, correctly predicting that the end result would be civil war. But as time went on, he focused more and more on the ills and dangers of slavery. Like everything Adams ever did, his post-presidential career proceeded from his principles. An anti-slavery man from an anti-slavery family, he answered the call of duty, and one thing led to another.
All through his political career he had spoken from prepared addresses. Now, in the House, he began to speak extemporaneously, and found to the surprise of himself and others, that he was far more powerful as a speaker than as a reader of prepared thoughts. His passionate arguments supported the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and universal education, and freedom of speech and especially liberty as against slavery. So effective was he as speaker that he became known as “Old Man Eloquent.”
To take things out of order, in February, 1841, he was asked by anti-slavery activists to argue the Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Amistad was a Spanish ship carrying captured Africans to Cuba to be sold as slaves. The Africans seized control, killed the officers, and were trying to bring the ship back to Africa when it was captured by the US Navy. The Van Buren administration wanted to deport them for having mutinied. Adams argued that they should neither be extradited nor deported into slavery in Cuba, because they were not slaves and had only killed in resisting the slave trade, which had been illegal since 1808 in the United States. Adams won the case, and did not charge for his services. His defense of the Amistad rebels, like his father’s defense of the British troops involved in the Boston Massacre of 1770, was pure Adams – action taken on principle that could not conceivably do him any good and could easily do irreparable political harm. Probably the risk combined with the appeal to principle made the action irresistible (in both cases).
But the Amistad case came in the middle of his longest-running fight, against the gag rule. What was called the gag rule was adopted as one of the rules of the House in 1836, and was not overturned until 1844. It immediately and automatically tabled petitions concerning slavery, thus preventing any Congressional discussion of the subject. Adams had been presenting anti-slavery petitions on the floor of the House since he was first elected to the Congress. But as abolitionist tracts and publications were barred from the mails throughout the South, the number of petitions brought to the house floor concerning the matter skyrocketed. A representative from South Carolina – it would be a South Carolinian – persuaded the House to eliminate any discussion of the issue from the House floor. Adams challenged not only the specific rule itself but the principle of the House’s adoption of any rule that would limit debate. He used his formal legal training and his formidable intellect to mount an attack against the gag rule. It was an attack that would continue for eight years.
He argued that the right to petition was a universal right, granted by God, and he questioned why the House would limit its own ability to debate and resolve questions internally. Later, when he led a committee to reform the House rules, he tried to repeal the gag rule, but narrowly lost, due to the opposition of some northerners who worked hand in glove with southerners.
Finally, Adams pushed his opponents far enough that they moved to censure him. That was fine with him – was what he was hoping for, in fact. Since he was threatened by censure, he had the right to defend himself on the floor. And, having the floor, he changed the focus from himself to the actions of the defenders of slavery, and thus was able to attack the slave trade, and slavery itself. When his opponents realized what he was up to, they tried to bury the censure motion, but he didn’t let them. For two weeks, he held the House’s attention on the subject the slavers most wanted kept off the floor, condemning slavery as immoral and citing chapter and verse as to why — and in the end, the censure motion failed anyway. (Had it succeeded, he intended to resign and run for re-election.) His personal victory did not end the gag rule. But his actions, and the actions of others trying to silence him, brought into greater prominence the questions of the right to petition, and the right to legislative debate, and the morality of slavery.
On February 21, 1848, Adams, in the minority as so often, stood up in his place, answered a question put forth by the Speaker of the House, and collapsed of a cerebral hemorrhage. It was a suitably dramatic exit, active and combative to the last. On the day he died, the House, and the country, united for the moment in honoring his lifelong service, and his greatness of intellect and heart.
John Quincy Adams’ last words were, “This is the last of earth. I am content.” One hopes that the Almighty was adequately prepared to defend His actions from Adams’ searching criticisms.