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JQA and the Gag Rule-The Beginnings


As the abolition movement increased its petitions to Congress after the suppression of the mailings, an even stickier problem faced Adams and the Congress. Petitions revolving around slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia began to mount, and Southern congressmen began to take exception to it. They equated the petitions to Congress with the spread of abolitionist propaganda throughout the South, and they now aimed to suppress petitions as well. On December 16, the battle of wills began as John Fairfield of Maine presented a petition for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. John Mason of Virginia moved that the petition be laid on the table. The House, in a vote of 180–31, agreed with Mason’s motion, and all seemed to be normal as the petition was heard and then tabled.

But, two days later, a Massachusetts congressman presented a petition for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and moved that it should be referred to a select committee. A pitched battle began as freshman congressman James Henry Hammond of South Carolina “moved that the petition be rejected.” Hammond dismissed the question that Congress had any constitutional right to abolish slavery in the District. Adams interpreted this move as partisan politics, for Martin Van Buren of New York was expected to succeed Jackson to continue the upward trajectory of the Democratic Party. Adams’s diary speaks to the fact that Speaker of the House James K. Polk was taken off guard by Hammond’s demand, and this “disconcerted him” to the extent that he “blundered in the tangles of the Rules” (mismanaged the administration of House rules) and set off a four–hour debate between the coalition of Southern slaveholders and Van Buren’s New York Democrats. Adams mentioned that the remainder of the House took no part in the debate. As the debate raged, Francis Granger of New York came over to Adams and asked if it this was to be tolerated. Adams responded that it would be tolerated, and “that the Presidential Election was crushing every elementary principle of Freedom, in the free States and that I saw no prospect of useful resistance at this time.” Remarkably, with all this debate swirling around him, Adams told Granger “I should say nothing.” The House adjourned without closing the debate, but it was clear the lines were being drawn.

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