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JQA and the Road to Censure


February 6, 1837 began with Adams presenting two petitions, the first from nine women from Fredericksburg, Virginia, praying not for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, but to stop the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The petition was ordered to lie on the table, under the Pinckney gag. But, Adams was not content with submitting to the gag order, and began to search for the cracks in the resolution. The second petition, Adams said, waving the piece of paper in his hand, came from twenty-two persons “purporting to come from slaves.” Adams said “he had suspicions that it . . . came really from the hand of a master” but signed with “scrawls and marks.” He wished to know from the Speaker whether the petition was within the resolution of the House or not. The Speaker responded that he could not tell until he had the contents of the petition in his possession. Adams replied that if the paper were sent to the Clerk’s table, “it would be in possession of the House, and if sent to the Speaker he would see its contents.”

The Speaker seemed genuinely bewildered by the situation, and decided to bring it before the entire House. He had said this was the first time he could recollect slaves presenting a petition before the House. But, before he could, Charles Eaton Haynes of Georgia rose from his seat, “expressing his astonishment and surprise at my audacity . . . in presenting abolition petitions . . . and thought it might be giving too much importance to the petition.” According to Adams, “he proceeded in a strain of invective against me, till I called him to order; upon which he proceeded to announce his intention to move that the petition should be rejected, subject to the alternative of a permission, that it should be withdrawn.” But Adams had not officially presented the petition, thus it was not in possession of the House, so it could not be rejected nor withdrawn. Adams had drawn his colleagues into a murky no man’s land, and he was going to make the most of it. He wrote that “the impulse of the slave representation was not to answer the question, but to punish, or at least frighten the inquirer.” Adams himself captured the atmosphere in the House. “The torrid zone was in commotion,” he remarked. “Half-subdued calls of expel him, expel him, were heard from various parts of the Hall and the boldest spirits . . . were instigating each other . . . to vindicate the insulted honor of the South.” One congressman contended that “there must be an end to this constant attempt to raise excitement, or the Union could not exist much longer.” Any petition coming from slaves praying for emancipation ought to be “committed to the flames.”

Waddy Thompson from South Carolina rose from his seat. He accused Adams of inciting a slave rebellion, and Dixon Hall Lewis of Alabama demanded accountability. As emotions escalated, Thompson proposed the censure of Adams. He presented the following resolution: “Resolved, That the honorable John Quincy Adams, by the attempt by him to introduce a petition purporting on its face to be from slaves, has been guilty of a gross disrespect to this House, and that he be instantly brought to the bar to receive the severe censure of the Speaker.” To Southern members of Congress merely giving a voice to abolitionists was a grave violation. Thompson felt “an imperious sense of duty” to send the resolution to the Chair because Adams had made an “open and willful violation of what he knew to be the rules of the House, and insulting to a large portion of its members.” Mr. Haynes suggested a slight re-wording, but even one of Adams’s supporters, Francis Granger of New York was surprised that Adams, “holding the right of petition as one of the most sacred rights granted to this people, should ever have cheapened the value of that right by presenting indiscriminately papers enclosed to him, when he was himself ignorant of the names, condition, or characters, of those who forwarded them.” Lewis offered yet a third amendment, again slightly modified, and Thompson accepted the change. John M. Patton of Virginia then stood up and expressed his concern that the House was proceeding too harshly in this matter. He questioned whether Adams had even presented the petition and desired to go no further because it might turn out to be “more farce than a tragedy.”

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