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JQA and the Censure Battle on the Floor of the House, 1842

On the 25th Adams was prevented from reading the rest of his letter that was in his possession. Instead, he proceeded with petitions, some of which were not received and others that were laid on the table. Then came the bombshell. He saved the most controversial for last. He presented a petition from Benjamin Emerson (no relation to Ralph Waldo) and forty-five others from Haverhill, Massachusetts to “peaceably dissolve the Union,” because of a lack of “reciprocal benefits” as the “resources of one section of the Union is annually drained to sustain the views of another section without any adequate return,” resulting in “utter destruction.” Slavery was not mentioned. Adams coolly suggested that the petition be referred to a select committee to determine why the prayer ought not to be granted. The House exploded! Henry Wise asked the Speaker whether it was in order to censure Adams. A move was made to adjourn, but Adams would not have it. He wanted the issue settled now. Thomas W. Gilmer of Virginia rose and submitted a resolution of censure. Adams said that he hoped the resolution would be received and debated and that he should have the opportunity to address the House in his own defense. Of course, Adams added invective to an already tense situation in the House, accusing Gilmer of “playing second fiddle to his colleague from Accomac [Wise].” Deafening shouts of “Order!” filled the chamber as Gilmer said he played second fiddle to no man, but “he had been endeavoring to prevent the music of one.”

The next day, the issue was continued. Thomas F. Marshall of Kentucky had written his own resolution. In his diary, Adams characterized it as “a much more violent one, with a flaming preamble charging me in substance with subornation of perjury and high treason, and resolutions that the House might expel me, but would only pass upon me the sentence of their highest indignation, and turn me over, for the rest, to my conscience and the contempt of the world.” Marshall claimed he had “no ill will toward the gentleman” nor did he harbor “sectional feelings” against the region of the United States that Adams represented. But, for Marshall, in the last few days, “scenes had been enacted . . . which had presented the American Congress to the world in a light equally discreditable to the country and themselves.” He could not believe that there were “men wild enough, and mad enough to make a proposition that the Government of the United States should terminate its own existence, and then submit it to the members of the House, inviting them to commit perjury and moral treason.”

After Marshall was finished, it was Adams’s turn. As eyewitness Theodore Weld wrote, the galleries in the House were “crowded excessively, some of the most distinguished members of the senate left their own hall and crowded into the lobbies of the house. When Mr. Adams rose to reply all eyes met in a focus upon him.” Adams’s performance thus far had been stellar. He countered that the “Constitution of the United States says what treason is, and it is not for him, or his puny mind, to define what treason is, and confound it with what I have done.” Adams directed the clerk to read the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. He repeated the phrase after the clerk, “right and duty to abolish it.” Adams emphasized it was the right of the people, and added that if Marshall wanted to move forward, he would ask to defend himself. Adams said he would show one of the biggest complaints of the people is the “suppression of the right of petition, not only in this case, but in many others.” Adams would discuss “a series of oppressions on the people of the North, which they have been suffering not only at the hands of this House but of the other.” He would also show that “the portion of the country from which the gentleman comes are endeavoring to destroy the right of habeus corpus, the right of trial by jury, and all the rights of which the liberty of the country consists.” Adams mentioned that he would discuss the movement of slavery into the free states, and forcing the country into a war with England to protect the African slave trade.

But after all the back and forth, Marshall finally made his thrust on slavery. How would it ever be accomplished, he questioned? “Why, according to my colleague, it is to be done by all the Negroes running away to Ohio, and through Ohio into Canada.” Marshall continued along the same line. “And no hand is to be lifted to prevent or interrupt this grand migration,” exclaimed Marshall, “this modern exodus of two millions of people—a migration equal to that of the Goths and the Vandals upon the Roman Empire? The blacks are to come forth as the Israelites did out of Egypt.” Marshall warned Adams that even with the numerical superiority in the North, any invasion of the South would result in “massacre and conflagration.” Adams had poked the bear again. With all the problems that slavery wrought upon the nation, there was no turning back.

Finally, the stage was set for the confrontation. “The spacious galleries were filled to their utmost capacity, and all approaches to the hall were crowded with anxious men and women, endeavoring to get where they could hear the proceedings,” wrote Joshua Giddings. “Foreign ministers . . . and privileged persons filled the lobbies and the outer space within the hall and outside the bar.” After enduring long and personal attacks by members of the Southern contingent, especially Marshall and Wise, and what Adams termed as a “bitterly rancorous speech” by Gilmer, Adams began his week-long defense. He began by talking about the “conspiracy among the Southern members of the Committee of Foreign Affairs” to displace him as chairman. He produced an anonymous letter from Jackson, North Carolina, dated January 20, 1842, “threatening me with assassination; and the engraved portrait of me, with the mark of a rifle ball on the forehead.” There were no holds barred on this issue. There was too much at stake. Failure to censure Adams and to keep the gag rule in place certainly would be viewed as a setback for Southerners; thus, much hinged on this moment.

Cleverly, he compared his relations with the Virginian presidents, with whom he had crafted UnitedStates policy at home and abroad, with “this base conspiracy of three Virginians, banded here, together with numerous accomplices in and out of the House, for my destruction.” Adams was in a unique position with respect to the Virginia presidents, as all of them had been considered acquaintances or friends, and he had been appointed to key domestic and international positions by them. Now, all he saw from the state of Virginia were those willing to denigrate and sacrifice him for

the sake of a petition.


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