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Mad Old Man From Massachusetts

July 2024
17min read

How gnarled, upright ex-President John Quincy Adams broke the South’s gag rule in Congress and at last won popular applause

After his defeat for re-election to the Presidency in 1828, John Quincy Adams cloistered himself in his Quincy, Massachusetts, home and wrote in anguish, “I have no plausible motive for wishing to live when everything that I foresee and believe of futurity makes death desirable, and when I have the clearest indications that it is near at hand.” Bitterly, Adams resigned himself to the political graveyard, complaining, “My whole life has been a succession of disappointments. I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success to anything that I ever undertook.”

Short, paunchy, and almost completely bald, Adams was old before his time. Infirmities overwhelmed him. His hand shook almost uncontrollably when he wrote. He complained about his “smarting, bloodshot eyes,” so weak and inflamed that rheumy tears often trickled from the corners. His voice, always shrill, tended to crack. He slept little and badly, and his diary was filled with continual laments of “disturbed, unquiet sleep—full of tossings.” His temper was increasingly short: “Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell,” Andrew Johnson described it. And Adams admitted in his diary, “I have need of a perpetual control over passion.”


When a group of devoted friends, National Republicans, convinced him to run for Congress in 1830, Adams felt as if he had been born anew. He was sixtythree, a retired President, son of the second President, and one of the nation’s last firm links with the Revolution, for Adams as a boy had watched the cannonsmoke roll over Bunker Hill. But it was unprecedented, and remains so today, for a former President to return to the brawling forum of the House. Adams won his election and entered Congress; there he would serve for the next eighteen years, until the end of his life. Instead of the bucolic solitude sought by Washington and other ex-Presidents, Adams would carve out a radical new career. Though he had carefully dodged the slavery issue in the White House, he would now plunge into it almost recklessly, drawing a whirlwind of controversy around his head. No other former President would suffer such abuse, newspapers even branding him the “Mad Man from Massachusetts.” And yet, the old Puritan war horse, so aloof as a President, would become the foremost champion of popular liberty, surrounded by a warmth and devotion that had never come to him in the White House.

From birth, John Quincy Adams was steeped in the Puritan’s tortuous devotion to principle, devoured by the preoccupation with good and evil, molded by his father for public service whose ultimate target was the Presidency. At twenty-six he was appointed Minister to the Netherlands, and nine years later elected to the United States Senate. Madison made him Minister to Russia. Monroe made him his Secretary of State, a position he filled brilliantly from 1817 to 1824, when he won the Presidency from Andrew Jackson in a bitterly fought contest that had to be decided in the House of Representatives. Old John Adams lived to see the family destiny completed, his son in the White House. He died on July 4, 1826, the same day as Jefferson, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

It was the end of an epoch. Only one congressional elector had voted against Monroe in 1820, but John Quincy Adams was a minority President, struggling to hold the National Republicans together. Finally, in 1828, a combination of southern planters and northern Republicans behind Jackson and Calhoun crushed the two northern candidates, Adams and Richard Rush. Slavery was already the hidden issue.

No man had condemned slavery in more blistering words than Adams—“the great and foul stain upon the North American Union!” No man had better gauged the tragic consequences of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. “Oh, if but one man could arise … to lay bare in all its nakedness that outrage upon the goodness of God, human slavery,” he wrote that year, “now is the time, and this is the occasion, upon which such a man would perform the duties of an angel upon earth!”

It would be sixteen years before Adams would attempt these duties—and even then, inadvertently. In his maiden speech to Congress in 1831, he presented fifteen petitions from citizens of Pennsylvania, praying for abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the nation’s capital. Although the petitions caused a bedlam of southern protests, few congressmen, and not even Adams, foresaw the consequences.

By 1834, the petition to Congress, a right guaranteed by the Constitution, had become the major weapon in a well-organized campaign by the American Antislavery Society. As petitions poured upon his desk, Adams presented them in increasing numbers to the House. For all his hatred of slavery, he was still far from an abolitionist. But he doggedly defended the right of petition, and each petition from towns and villages all over New England stirred new debate. Adams and his petitions would soon turn the House into an inferno.

Ironically enough, the petition campaign was developed by peace-loving Quakers and launched in Essex County, Massachusetts, by the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The abolitionists were tireless collectors. One petition, demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, carried 130,200 names; another to prohibit slave trade between the states, 23,160; a third to prohibit slavery in United States territories, 21,200; and so on down the line. In Massachusetts, petitions circulated in 1843 to free the slave Latimer drew 51,862 signatures. Dr. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch described “the immense roll of paper” as “about the size of an ordinary barrel.” The abolitionist leader Henry B. Stanton estimated that in 1838-39 the American Antislavery Society gathered two million signatures, an impressive percentage of the total population of the United States, even allowing for some inflation of the figures.


In fact, the stacks of petitions were piled so high in the basement of the Capitol that when Albert Bushnell Hart, the Harvard historian, visited there seventy years later he found the janitor still using them to light the fire in his stove.

Adams calmly presented each petition to a fuming House. On one particular day, he introduced fifty separate petitions; not long after, three hundred and fifty. Each interrupted the business of the House, and roused southern representatives to an ever-increasing fury. They had hoped to bury slavery as an issue of debate with the Missouri Compromise. They had even tried to ban abolition literature from the U.S. mails—the bill bad passed the House with Jackson’s backing, only to fail in the Senate. But here were the abolitionists, exploiting the petition device, forcing the slavery issue into national debate, turning the House into a constant bedlam. As the Antislavery Bugle of Salem, Ohio, admitted later, they were determined “to take possession of Congress and turn it into a vast Antislavery Debating Society with the whole country as the audience.”

The dominant slavery bloc, which included not only southern representatives but their northern allies, decided to crush these agitators. On May 18, 1836, a committee headed by Henry Laurens Pinckney of South Carolina presented three resolutions, all quickly passed. The key resolution stated that any petition or memorial to Congress relating to slavery should be automatically laid on the table without discussion. It was a sweeping “gag rule” that would be renewed at every session for the next eight years.

Unwittingly, the southern congressmen had caught themselves in a trap of their own making. For by tying the petition gag to the larger issue of constitutional rights, the abolitionists had not only found a common ground on which moderate antislavery men and the extremists could unite against the South, but a way to involve the House in an almost endless and bitter wrangling from which the South had nothing to gain and almost everything to lose. The weakness of the southern position was not only that it abridged the right of petition, but that the gag rule was obviously aimed solely at antislavery spokesmen. Not once did the House use the gag to stop petitions on any other issue.

Adams immediately protested the gag, crying, “I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, of the rules of this House, and of the rights of my constituents.” But he was howled down. The slave bloc had clamped its gag on the nation. Not one petition, not one word of debate on slavery would henceforth be tolerated by the people’s representatives!

Adams now took on virtually the entire House in one of the wildest struggles in congressional history. Refusing to be gagged, he resorted to every trick and parliamentary device to bring the slavery issue to the floor. One Washington correspondent described him “creeping through this rule and skipping over that” while the Speaker angrily gaveled him down. Week after week, he infuriated his colleagues with “tit-bit speeches, which were so short and so quickly said that, though they were out of order, nobody could cail him to order; and when they did, he would say, ‘My speech is done.’”

He would leap to his feet, his face flushed, “throwing himself into the attitude of the veteran gladiator …immovable as a pillar until he has completed his task,” another correspondent wrote. He had never been an accomplished speaker, admitting in his diary, “I am so little qualified by nature for an extemporaneous orator that I was at this time not a little agitated by the sound of my own voice.” Now his shrill words seemed to explode with new power. His epithets lashed the House unmercifully. One representative, a leading proponent of the gag, was attacked for “emitting a half hour of his rotten breath.” Another was branded “the very thickest skull of all New Hampshire.” A third, cried Adams, kept “butting his head against the air like a he-goat.”

One day Adams presented a petition from 228 women, praying for the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. When Speaker James K. Polk demanded that its contents be stated, Adams provoked the usual pandemonium, described by the National Intelligencer:

ADAMS : I am doing so, Sir.

POLK : Not in the opinion of the Chair.

ADAMS : I was at this point of the petition, “keenly aggrieved by its (slavery’s) existence in a part of our country over which Congress possesses exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatever”—

Cries of “Order! Order!” shook the House.

ADAMS : “Do most earnestly petition your honorable body”—

John Chambers of Kentucky rose to a point of order.

ADAMS : (rushing to complete his sentence before the House drowned him out) “Immediately to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.”

When the Speaker’s gavel or the furious chorus of “Order! Orderl” stopped him, Adams employed other devices—amending the House journal, or presenting a petition that ingeniously skirted the slavery provisions of the gag rule.

Frequently he even refused to tell the Speaker the contents of a petition, crying, “I refuse to answer because I consider all the proceedings of the House as unconstitutional.” Adams in his diary reported that “While speaking these words with loud, distinct and slow articulation, the bawl of ‘Order! Order!’ resounded again from two thirds of the House. The Speaker, with agonizing lungs, screamed, ‘I call upon the House to support me in the execution of my duty.’ I then coolly resumed my seat.”

In February, 1837, Adams presented a petition from nine Negro women of Fredericksburg, Virginia, not knowing himself whether they were slaves or free. The Speaker immediately tabled it. Adams then announced he was presenting another petition, signed with scrawls and marks. An uproar rose through the House, for no petition from slaves had ever before been presented. Southern representatives screamed that Adams was destroying the Union; one demanded that he be indicted by the District grand jury for inciting rebellion. The storm continued for three days, Adams cagily helping to whip it up.

Biding his time until the House let him speak, he blandly announced that the petition had nothing to do with freedom. Just the opposite! The slaves had petitioned the House to protect them from the abolitionists lest their welfare be harmed. “It remains,” wrote one historian a half century later, “the best and most effective practical joke in the history of Congress.”

Since Adams sturdily insisted that his petition battle was based on the freedom of petition, his enemies put him to the test. They sent him a petition, praying Congress that all free Negroes be deported or sold as slaves. Adams methodically presented it. When the citizens of Rocky Mount, Virginia, sent him a petition praying Congress to expel the Honorable John Quincy Adams, he never hesitated to present it.

Such puritanical devotion to principle brought an increasing flood of ferocious letters to his desk.”… Your damned guts will be cut out in the dark,” warned a Georgia correspondent. “On the first day of May next I promise to cut your throat from ear to ear,” threatened an Alabama writer. Nearing his seventy-fourth birthday, still unflinching in his lonely struggle although he complained privately of his “drowsy brain” and “my faculties dropping from me one by one, as the teeth are dropping from my head,” Adams already ranked as the nation’s most vilified ex-President.

When General Sam Houston’s victory over Mexico’s Santa Anna on April 21, 1836, stirred to the point of mania the nation’s dream of annexing Texas, southern leaders grasped hungrily at this vast, new territory from which they hoped to carve an array of slave states.

The Texas mania, however, seriously alarmed the North, including large segments of the population which had no connection with the abolitionist groups. Dr. William Ellery Channing, the dominant voice of the Unitarian sect, published a scathing tract against annexation which reached an immense audience. Anti-Texas petitions began to flood the House conjointly with abolition ones. Anti-Texas resolutions by the state legislatures came from Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and Vermont.

Although Adams, as President, had twice tried but failed to purchase Texas from Mexico, he was now convinced that the Texas revolution was a plot by Jackson, the plantation owners, and their northern allies. “The Texas land and liberty jobbers,” he would soon charge, “had spread the contagion of their landjobbing traffic all over the free states throughout the Union. Land-jobbing, stock-jobbing, slave-jobbing, rights-of-man-jobbing were all hand in hand, sweeping over the land like a hurricane.”

In the closing months of 1837, Adams forced these anti-Texas petitions to the floor, deftly slipping in a number of abolition ones at the same time. Although Speaker Polk struggled to shut him off, Adams got the House floor during the morning hours which were usually consumed in routine business and held it tenaciously each day for three weeks. His one-man campaign and the flood of petitions stalled the Administration; annexation had to be postponed.

Still, the southern bloc kept its gag clamped on the House, although it was slowly losing ground. In 1836, 82 of 117 votes approving the gag rule came from the free states. In 1840, when the gag passed by only 114 to 108, just 28 of the Yeas were from the North.

Even a few southern papers gradually turned against the gag. “It would be establishing a precedent dangerous alike to the liberties of the South or the North,” warned the Natchitoches, Louisiana, Herald on January 12, 1838.

The lack of unified support even from slavery’s op ponents intensified Adams’ solitary struggle. “He [Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker abolitionist] and the abolitionists generally are constantly urging me to indiscreet movements, which would ruin me and weaken and not strengthen their cause,” he wrote on September 2, 1837.”… I walk on the edge of a precipice in every step that I take.” Two years later he was still complaining of the abolitionists’ “senseless and overbearing clamor.”


The abolitionists, unfortunately, were skilled propagandists but reckless politicians. While Adams was still battering at the petition gag, they demanded other immediate challenges—a test vote, for example, on abolition in the District of Columbia. But Adams was too sharp a strategist to be pushed into political suicide. A test vote was “notoriously impracticable,” he wrote on November 10, 1838. “There is in the present House of Representatives (a majority) of nearly two to one opposed to the consideration or discussion of the subject.” A month later he insisted he could not collect five votes on such a test.

When the abolitionists kept bullying him, he complained that they “have already given me repeated warnings that they will desert and oppose me if I do not come over to them in the creed of immediate abolition.”

If Adams fended them off politically, he warmly recognized the justice of their cause. “George Washington was abolitionist; so was Thomas Jefferson,” he wrote the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society in 1838. “But were they alive, and should dare to show their faces and to utter the self-evident truth of the Declaration within the State of South Carolina, they would be hanged.” The election of the first Whig President, William Henry Harrison, in 1840 and Whig control of the House promised to bring the petition struggle to a climax. Opponents of the gag rule were picking up strength.

Organized in the spring of 1834, the Whigs were a hodgepodge of former National Republicans, antiJacksonites, states’ rights men, and above all, the aristocracy of southern plantation owners who had been badly hurt by Jackson’s removal of deposits from the United States Bank. Thus the South, already a dominant influence in the Democratic party, now largely controlled Whig policy as well. The alignment between northern and southern Whigs was dramatically evident in the gag votes, especially in 1837 when, without exception, all northern and southern Whigs supported the gag.

Southern dominance over the Army had prolonged the savage Seminole War in Florida, for troops had spent as much time hunting escaped slaves as they had fighting Indians. Southern influence in Washington had made a mockery of federal control over slaverunning. Bitterly, Adams listed in his diary the key government offices filled by slaveholders in 1842—the President, President of the Senate, Speaker of the House, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, commander in chief of the Army, and three of the six heads of executive departments.

Soon after Harrison’s election, however, an antislavery coalition of insurgent Whig congressmen was formally organized for the first time. The chief spokesmen of this “Select Committee on Slavery,” which established itself at Mrs. Sprigg’s boarding house near the Capitol, were Joshua Giddings and Sherlock J. Andrews of Ohio, William Slade of Vermont, and Seth M. Gates of New York. Theodore Weld, a leading antislavery agitator, was sent to Washington to work with them, marking a new solidarity between abolitionists and moderates.

But it was Adams who dominated the group and kept its energies concentrated on the petition struggle. And it was Adams whom Whig leaders feared most, for his chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs gave him a pivotal role in the dispute over the annexation of Texas.

The Whig leaders had decided that Adams must be destroyed once and for all. Whenever he rose on the House floor, they would badger him incessantly—as Weld reported to his wife, “screaming at the top of their voices: ‘That is false.’ ‘I demand Mr. Speaker that you put him down .’ ‘I demand that you shut the mouth of that old harlequin.’ ‘What are we to sit here and endure such insults.’ ”

Adams fought back doggedly. “A perfect uproar like Babel would burst forth every two or three minutes as Mr. A. with his bold surgery would smite his cleaver into the very bones,” Weld added.”… Mr. Adams would say, ‘I see where the shoe pinches, Mr. Speaker, it will pinch m ore yet. I’ll deal out to the gentlemen a diet that they’ll find it hard to digest.’”

Adams finally gave the Whigs their long-sought opening—a petition from Haverhill, Massachusetts, probably conceived by John Greenleaf Whittier, though not signed by him, praying for the peaceable dissolution of the Union. No petition so drastic had ever been introduced. Southern members rose in fury, demanding it be burned in the presence of the House. Henry A. Wise of Virginia called for censure, and Thomas F. Marshall of Kentucky, nephew of the Chief Justice, at once drafted the resolution of indictment. The crisis had come; Adams was fighting for his life.

At seventy-five, plagued by a hacking cough, pimples, and boils, Adams plunged eagerly into preparations for his defense. His energy was “astonishing,” wrote Weld, who assisted him. “Last Friday, after he had been sitting in the house from 12 o’clock till 6, and for nearly half that time engaged in speaking with great energy against his ferocious assailants, I called at his house in the evening, and he came to me as fresh and elastic as a boy. I told him I was afraid he would tire himself out. ‘No, no, not at all,’ said he, ‘I am all ready for another heat’… He went on for an hour, or very nearly that, in a voice large enough to be heard by a large audience. Wonderful man!”

Adams had become a one-man symbol of the struggle against slavery. “One hundred members of the House represent slaves; four-fifths of whom would crucify me if their votes could erect the cross,” he wrote in his diary. “Forty members, representatives of the free, in the league of slavery and mock Democracy, would break me on the wheel, if their votes or wishes could turn it round…”

Day after day, seemingly inexhaustible, Adams held the floor, his shrill voice slashing away at his enemies. Although he was literally a man without a party, new allies suddenly flocked to him. The tortuous petition struggle, and now the censure trial, at last captured the imagination of the North. News of the trial filled the headlines, most New England papers backing Adams. Petitions against censuring him poured into the House. His support reached far beyond the abolitionist groups now. At a mass meeting in Faneuil Hall on January 28, 1842, the leading men of Boston cheered his name and voted a resolution in his honor. At the most desperate moment in his life, Adams had actually reached the zenith of his power.

After two weeks of tumult on the House floor, the Whigs were tiring; even their leaders despaired of putting down Adams. Then, on February 7, he announced he would need a week more for his defense. The opposition completely crumbled. A motion to table the resolution of censure was quickly passed, 106 to 93. Still, Adams was not yet finished! He held the floor for the rest of the day, happily presenting two hundred petitions. Finally he went home, “scarcely able to crawl up to my chamber,” he wrote, “but with the sound of Io triumphe ringing in my ear.”

The South recognized the significance of its defeat. Marshall, one of the prime movers of censure, went home to Kentucky, never to return to Congress. “The triumph of Mr. A. is complete,” Weld wrote his wife. “This is the first victory over the slave holders in a body ever yet achieved since the foundation of the government and from this time their downfall takes its date .”

Adams was welcomed as a hero in Boston and Quincy. When he set out with his wife the next summer for a vacation through western New York, the trip unexpectedly became a festival of homage. In Buffalo there was a torchlight parade and an address by Millard Fillmore, who would himself ascend to the Presidency. In Syracuse and Utica, Adams was the guest of the city. When his train stopped for wood and water in Batavia, the whole town turned out. In Rochester he was greeted with booming cannon and ringing church bells.

Invited to Cincinnati to lay the cornerstone of the Astronomical Society, he was besieged by welcoming crowds as he passed through Ohio. At a reception in Akron, he was greeted with a kiss by the prettiest girl and noted happily, “I returned the salute on the lips, and kissed every woman that followed.…” At Covington, Kentucky, he recorded, “a very pretty woman … whispered, ‘the first kiss in Kentucky'—which I did not refuse.”

One slight setback marred an otherwise glorious year. Frustrated by Adams, the Whigs now took a small measure of revenge on his associate, Joshua Giddings. After a group of Virginia slaves on the ship Creole mutinied and escaped to Nassau,∗ Giddings introduced a resolution declaring they were not subject to Virginia law and thus had attained their natural freedom. For what the Whigs called a fiendish resolution, the House censured Giddings. He resigned his seat, went back to Ohio, and was promptly re-elected by a stunning majority.

∗ When a group of Negro mutineers seized the slave ship Amistad in 1839, they were successfully defended by Adams before the Supreme Court (see “The Slave Ship Rebellion,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, February, 1957).

Nothing, however, could halt Adams in the final stages of his triumph. The Democrats swept the nation in the fall of 1843, taking control of the House. The gag rule could muster only a slim majority of three votes. “The truth is that the slaveholders got so smitten with consternation at the bolts of father Adams hurled through the ranks at their last session,” Weld proclaimed, “that they have never been able to rally.”

At the opening of the new session in December, 1844 Adams was convinced he had enough votes for a final showdown. After eight years under the restraining bonds of the gag rule, he confidently submitted a motion to rescind it. The motion was passed that very day, 105 to 80.

It was the most spectacular battle any congressman had ever waged, and for most of the eight years Adams had stood alone. He had opened the halls of Congress to the slavery debate, taken it from the narrow arena of the abolitionists and forced it into the very fulcrum of national politics. Younger men like Giddings would continue to press the attack in Congress, and on a state and local level, the Liberty party had already made slavery the crucial political issue. “Blessed, ever blessed be the name of God,” Adams wrote in his diary that night.


Although shrewd realism kept him from complete alignment with the abolitionists, he had made himself the dominant figure of the antislavery movement. As early as 1839, he had submitted three radical resolutions to the House. The first set July 4, 1842, as the date after which any child born to slave parents would be declared free. The second prohibited any future slave states except Florida. The third declared slavery and the slave trade illegal in the District of Columbia after July 4, 1845. It was an eminently practical plan of gradual abolition, but the House ignored it. With its defeat probably disappeared one of the last comprehensive chances for a peaceful settlement of the mounting crisis over slavery.

On the morning of November 20, 1846, after rising as usual before five o’clock and breakfasting with his family, Adams took a brisk walk to the new Harvard Medical College. On the way, he was stricken with what was probably a light cerebral hemorrhage. Yet his recovery was remarkably quick. In a few months he was riding around Boston in his carriage. When he returned to his seat in Congress, sectional differences were momentarily forgotten. The whole House, North and South alike, stood as one man. “Old Man Eloquent,” the nation’s last great link with its Revolutionary heritage, was back.

On Monday, February si, 1848, Adams, now eighty-one, reached the House early. President Polk had just received the treaty of peace with Mexico. A roll call was going on, and the House was filled with clatter. Suddenly a member seated nearby Adams saw the old man’s face redden, while his right hand clutched at the corner of his desk. Then he slumped over.

Someone cried out and caught Adams in his arms. They carried him to the cleared area in front of the Speaker’s table, where he was placed on a sofa and moved to the Speaker’s room. Henry Clay stood by, weeping. For a few minutes Adams revived. Leaning close, John Palfrey, the former Unitarian clergyman and Harvard professor, now a staunch antislavery congressman, heard him say, “This is the end of earth, but I am composed.”

His wife, Louisa, arrived, but Adams, half paralyzed, had lapsed into a coma and gave no sign of recognition. He lingered through Washington’s Birthday and at 7:20 on the evening of February 23 passed away.

The service three days later was probably the greatest public tribute since Franklin had been buried in Philadelphia. Thousands of people had filed by his coffin while he lay in state in the House; southern leaders joined the North in homage. “Where could death have found him but at the post of duty,” proclaimed Senator Thomas Hart Benton. That morning, a cannon salute started at sunrise and continued during the funeral procession. Then the body was taken to Faneuil Hall in Boston, where thousands more paid homage, and over the entrance they placed the inscription: “Born a citizen of Massachusetts. Died a citizen of the United States.”

He was buried in Quincy in the old family tomb in the churchyard. At the last moment a southern congressman in the funeral party stepped forward and, stooping before the Adams vault, called out, “Good bye, Old Man!”

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