"Old Man Eloquent"

My adopted hometown of Quincy, Illinois was named in 1825 for the new president of the United States John Quincy Adams. The city is located in Adams County and the square at the center of the town was originally called John Square, completing the name of the President. Quincy is best known by many as the site of the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate; the history of her namesake is less well known.

John Quincy Adams was the son of a president, a senator, was himself elected President in 1824 and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830. Of the latter, Adams wrote in his diary “My election as President of the United States was not half so gratifying to my inmost soul. No election or appointment conferred upon me ever gave me so much pleasure.” Other offices that he held included Minister to Russia, Head of the American mission to negotiate peace with England, Minister to England, and Secretary of State. He was personally acquainted with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison.

So when elected to the House of Representatives on Dec. 5, 1831 at age 64 he was far from being an inexperienced freshman Congressman. It wasn’t long before he asserted himself on the subject for which he apparently sought office and for which devoted his energies until his death on February 23, 1848, opposition to slavery.

During his first years in office the slavery debate was reaching a fever pitch and in 1835 the Anti-Slavery Society, based in New York, began flooding the country, and especially the South, with anti-slavery literature and pamphlets. Pro-slavery forces successfully intercepted such shipments and destroyed them, which brought issues pertaining to the First Amendment to the fore, in addition to the already over-heated slavery debate.

Anti-slavery forces began to petition Congress, a right guaranteed in the Constitution, to bring the issue up for debate with the hope of enacting anti-slavery legislation. Petitions began to arrive in the tens of thousands and Adams took to reading these on the floor of the House much to the chagrin of Southern representatives, and even the Jackson administration. Finally, in 1836, a Representative from South Carolina moved that all petitions to the Congress that related to the issue of slavery be peremptorily dismissed without a reading, let alone debate. After several months of heated discussion a committee formed to resolve the issue recommended that any petition even remotely related to the topic of slavery be automatically banned from mention or discussion in the House. This resolution was subsequently passed and was known as the “gag rule.” John Adams, determining that the resolution was a corruption of the rule of law and a violation of the constitutional guarantee of the right of the people to petition Congress for the redress of grievances, set upon a mission that would consume his remaining public life (and perhaps was even instrumental in his death from a stroke while voting in House chambers).

Adams argued frequently and eloquently in House deliberations for the repeal of this onerous rule and for the end of slavery. He used trickery and parliamentary ingenuity to bring the subject up during debate on unrelated issues.

In all House proceedings, Adams was purposely contentious and controversial, using every available means to achieve his objective of stirring up debate on slavery. He intentionally baited irate House members to censure him for his conduct. When they did, he employed the time granted him for defense to expound his views on slavery-related issues. On one such occasion, Adams spoke for two weeks on his defense and threatened to go on for another unless the House tabled the censure resolution against him. The resolution was tabled, and Adams emerged doubly successful, for he had used those two weeks to denounce slaveholders for abusing slaves as well as free abolitionists, whose constitutional rights of petition, speech, and the press had been circumscribed. One House rival, Representative Henry Wise, called Adams ‘the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of southern slavery that ever existed.’

(U.S. Capital Historical Society)

Finally, in December of 1844 Adams enjoyed his greatest success when the “gag rule” was repealed. After nine years of fervently and relentlessly advancing his cause, sometimes single-handedly and enduring the reproach of much of the House of Representatives and, indeed, the nation, Adams had won the battle that represented to him the culmination and the epitome of his public career. Of this triumph, Adams wrote simply in his diary “Blessed, forever blessed be the name of God!”

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