Official Presidential portrait of John Adams (circa 1792-1793)
John Trumbull/Wikimedia Commons
antecedent / power

How John Quincy Adams Made Lincoln Possible

Adams, whose 250th birthday is today, did not end slavery but his battle against the House "Gag Rule" helped pave the way.
Political education is a practical art. That explains Adams’ principal battle of these years—his fight against the “Gag Rule.” The Gag Rule was a rule of the House of Representatives that prohibited consideration of petitions to the House regarding slavery. It was an infamous rule. It is one thing for the people’s representatives to declare they do not agree with a given petition. Better would be for congressmen to state their reasons for doing so. But to refuse even to listen to the people was, Adams realized, to attack the republican principle—that the people are in charge, and public officials are their servants.

These ideas did not come to Adams only in his later years. In 1820 Adams noted that immigrants to America should ensure that “their children will cling to the prejudices of this country, and will partake of that proud spirit, not unmingled with disdain” for the ways of Old Europe. What was the source of that pride? To what must immigrants assimilate? “There is one principle which pervades all the institutions of this country. ... This is a land, not of privileges, but of equal rights. Privileges are granted by European sovereigns to particular classes of individuals.” He continued, “the governments are the servants of the people, and are so considered by the people, who place and displace them at their pleasure. ... The dependence, in affairs of government, is the reverse of the practice in Europe, instead of the people depending upon their rulers, the rulers, as such, are always dependent upon the good will of the people.” The Gag Rule pointed back to Europe. It reversed the polarities of government, suggesting that the ruling class was in charge, and not the people. That was the ground upon which Adams fought.

How to fight the Gag Rule? In class I sometimes compare Adams to Obi Wan Kenobe, “if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Adams repeatedly and with great wit found loopholes, or possible loopholes (“does this petition count?). Each time, the debate turned to the Gag Rule, and, implicitly, to the problem of slavery and republican governance. Ultimately, Southern Congressmen tried to censor Adams. The effort failed spectacularly. Each attack made Adams’ ideas more powerful in the North.
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