JQA and the Showdown on the House Floor
Adams stood and noted that he would remain silent until the House acted on one of the resolutions. He restated the facts, and then dropped a bombshell. He turned to Lewis of Alabama, and told him he needed to amend his resolution for he was mistaken. It was a petition from slaves that slavery should not be abolished! These slaves, Adams contended, were Lewis’s “auxiliaries, instead of being his opponents.” He reminded the House that it was also his duty to present any petition from any citizen, respectfully worded, even if it was a subject that he was opposed to. Thompson would have none of it. He modified his own resolution by substituting the following three resolutions:
1. Resolved, That the honorable John Q. Adams, by an effort to present a petition from slaves, has committed a gross contempt of the House.
2. Resolved, That the member from Massachusetts, above named, by creating the impression, and showing the House, under that impression, that the said petition was for the abolition of slavery, when he knew it was not, has trifled with the House.
3. Resolved, That the honorable John Q. Adams receive the censure of the House for his conduct referred to in the proceeding resolutions.
Pinckney reminded the House what had happened in the last session: due to abolition papers being laid on the table, abolition meetings had decreased in number, and this was all due to the restriction on petitions. Pinckney said that “slaves are not known to the Federal Government” and that Congress “cannot hear him, cannot act for him, and . . . he cannot have a right to be heard.” He even supposed that Adams “would have offered a memorial from a cow or a horse—for he might as well be the organ of one species of property as another.”
After a long speech by Pinckney and several shorter ones by others, the House adjourned without coming to any decisions. It wasn’t until February 9, 1837 that Adams had his chance to respond. During deliberations leading up to the censure vote, Adams asked if he could be heard in his own defense, and after petitioning the House, the motion to lay the whole subject on the table was defeated 50–144. What followed was an impactful speech by Adams. He dissected each key point made by his adversaries, making for remarkable oratory. His colleagues, friend and foe alike, must have been aghast as he skillfully dismembered (figuratively) not only the arguments made against him, but also some of his colleagues as well. He wasted no time.
If the House decided it didn’t want to receive petitions from slaves, “it will cause the name of the country to be enrolled among the first of barbarous nations,” Adams exclaimed. What would limiting petitions lead to? Where would it stop? Adams was aghast that objections had been raised because the petition was from “colored people!” In his letter to his constituents, Adams claimed it wasn’t necessarily the Constitution that gave the right of petition, but “that God gave to the whole human race, when he made them men—the right of prayer, by asking a favor of another.” Adams argued that “this right belongs to humanity . . . not depending on the condition of the petitioner.” Adams asked, “When you begin to limit the right, where shall it stop?” He added later that “first, it is denied to slaves, then to free persons of color, and then to persons of notoriously bad character.” But, he quickly circled back to the question he put to the Speaker at the beginning of this harangue, “whether the paper I held in my hand came under the rule of the 18th of January.” He was incredulous that the House would propose censure “for having asked a simple question of the Speaker.” He was equally incredulous that Waddy Thompson, in one of his resolutions, threatened Adams “with an indictment before the grand jury of the District of Columbia, as a felon and an incendiary, for words spoken in this House!” But Adams would not be intimidated. “I trust this debate will be read by every portion of the country,” said Adams, “and that, among other astonishing things in this debate, the astonishing threat of the gentleman will not be unnoticed.”
Adams zeroed in on his colleagues, and he subsequently made a mockery of their charges. He finally addressed each of the three resolutions. He objected to the first resolution, offered by Patton of Virginia, because it did not answer his question, the still lingering question whether it was “proper or not to present such petitions.” The second resolution, making Adams an enemy of the Union for presenting such a petition, was attacked by Adams on First Amendment and humanitarian grounds. “This resolution declares that the member who shall . . . make an attempt to present any such petition, shall be held infamous.” Adams considered it “most disgraceful and dishonorable to this House. What sir! Is any member of this House to be pronounced infamous for offering to aid human misery so far as to present its cry for mercy and relief to this House?” As to the third resolution, Adams vehemently denied any guilt in the matter whatsoever. Adams contended that had he violated the rules of the House, “the Speaker should have called me to order, and rebuked me on the instant.” Adams was fully content that “the whole question go before the nation” because he had done nothing wrong. There was no one in the House who ever had cause to believe that he had ever “trifled with the House.”
A motion was made to lay the whole subject on the table, which was rejected, 59–137 as was a motion to adjourn. Adams’s skillful language and bold tactics had made his adversaries squirm. They then decided to vote separately on each of the three resolutions. The first and third resolutions did not muster enough votes to pass, but the second, which would give slaves the right to petition, failed 163–18. Adams had won a small victory. Adams had called their bluff and revealed himself to be a man of principle; all petitions must be allowed.