John Quincy Adams
In the mid-1830s, northern mobs attacked abolitionists and disrupted their meetings. Over the next decade, however, growing numbers of northerners grew increasingly sympathetic toward the antislavery cause. One key episode contributing to a shift in public opinion was a fight over the receipt of abolitionist petitions in Congress between 1835 and 1844.
Popular petitioning played a crucial role in pressuring Parliament to emancipate
British slaves in 1833. American abolitionists initially assumed that "moral suasion" could shame Southerners into freeing their slaves. The failure of moral suasion lent a growing importance to antislavery political action, especially in petitioning Congress to restrict the interstate slave trade and the admission of new states.
During the early 1830s, the American Anti-Slavery Society began to distribute petitions calling upon Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Upon submission to the House of Representatives, the petitions were referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia. In the Spring of 1836, however, the House (with the support of northern Democrats) adopted the notorious "Gag Rule," which required that all petitions dealing with slavery "be laid on the table and that no further action whatever shall be laid thereon."
Former President John Quincy Adams, who had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1836, led opposition to the gag rule. He denied that he was an abolitionist; rather, he argued that the gag rule violated the constitutional right to petition--a right which extended even to slaves. In February 1837, Adams caused a near riot in the House when he submitted a petition purportedly from 22 slaves.
Adams's opponents unsuccessfully attempted to strip him of his chairmanship of a Congressional committee and twice unsuccessfully tried to censure him. But such efforts had the effect of convincing growing numbers of Northerners that the southern "slave power" threatened civil liberties. Thanks to Adams's efforts, the gag rule was finally suspended in 1844.
I presented twenty petitions, all of which were laid on the table without being read, though in every instance I moved for the reading, which the Speaker [James K. Polk] refused to permit--from his decision I took in every case an appeal, and the appeal was in ever case laid on the table....
[Adams describes a petition from Fredericksburg, Virginia, that] purported to be from twenty-two slaves.... I had suspicions that [it]...came really from the hand of a master, who had prevailed upon his slaves to sign it--that they might have the appearance of imploring the members from the North to cease offering petitions for their emancipation which could have no other tendency than to aggravate the burden of their servitude and of being so impatient under the operation of the petitions in their favour, as to pray that the Northern members who should persist in presenting them should be expelled....
But the petition, avowedly coming from slaves, though praying for my expulsion from the House if I should persevere in presenting abolition petitions, opened to my examination and enquiry a new question, or at least a question which had never occurred to me before, and which I never should have thought of starting upon speculation, namely, Whether the right to petition Congress, could in any case be exercised by slaves? And after giving to the subject all the reflection of which I was capable, I came to the conclusion, that however doubtful it might be whether slaves could petition Congress for anything incompatible with their condition as slaves, and with their subjection to servitude, yet that for all other wants, distresses and grievances incident to their nature as men and to their relations as members, degraded members as they may be, of this community, they do enjoy the right of petition; and that if they enjoyed the right in any case whatsoever, there could be none in which they were more certainly entitled to it, than that of deprecating the attempts of deluded friends to release them from bondage; a case in which they alone could in the nature of things speak for themselves, and their masters could not possibly speak for them....
But after getting these two questions to the satisfaction of my own mind, there remained another. With what temper they would be received in a house, the large majority of which consisted of slave-holders, and of their political Northern associates, whose mouthpieces had already put forth their feelers to familiarize the freeman of the North with the fight of a representative expelled from his seat for the single offence of persisting to present abolition petitions. I foresaw that the very conception of a petition from slaves, would dismount all the slave-holding philosophy of the House, and expected it would produce an explosion, which would spent itself in wind. Without therefore presenting or offering to present the petition, I stated to the Speaker that I had such a paper in my possession, which I had been requested to present, and enquired whether it came within the Resolution of the 18th of January. Now the Speaker decided that under that order, no such paper should be read.... The Speaker...horrified at the idea of receiving and laying on the table a petition from slaves, said that in a case so novel and extraordinary he felt himself incompetent to decide and must take the advice and direction of the House....
If I had stated that I had a petition from sundry persons in Fredericksburg, relating to slavery, without saying that the petitioners were, by their own avowal, slaves, the paper must have gone upon the table; but the discovery would soon have been made, that it came from slaves, and there the tempest of indignation would have burst upon me, with tenfold fury, and I should have been charged with having fraudulently introduced a petition from slaves, without letting the House know the condition of the petitioners.
To avoid the possibility of such a charge, I put the question to the Speaker, giving him notice that the petition purported to come from slaves, and that I had suspicions that it came from another, and a very different source. The Speaker after failing in the attempt to obtain possession of the paper, referred my question to the House for decision, and there ensued a scene of which I propose to give an account, in a subsequent address, entreating you only to remember, if what I have said, or may say to you hereafter on this subject [slavery] should tax your patience, that the stake in the question is your right to petition, your freedom of thought and of action, and the freedom in Congress of your Representative.