Adams was about to find out how serious the petition process was to become on the floor of the House. By early February, Henry Pinckney of South Carolina had proposed a resolution that a special committee be established to receive all anti-slavery petitions. Accordingly, petitions against the slave trade were considered constitutional, but all petitions related to slavery in any way were to be laid on the table and no action taken. It was on May 18 that Pinckney presented his report of the select committee, whose findings were unanimous. According to Adams, the report was “immediately attacked with violence, and a fiery debate rose,” and “Waddy Thompson said that he would commit it to the flames or to the hangman.” The report concluded with the following resolutions:
Resolved, That Congress possesses no constitutional authority to interfere in any way with the institution of slavery in any of the States of this confederacy.
Resolved, That Congress ought not to interfere in any way with slavery in the District of Columbia. And whereas it is extremely important and desirable that the agitation of this subject should be finally arrested, for the purpose of restoring tranquility to the public mind, your committee respectfully recommend the adoption of the following additional resolution, viz:
Resolved, That all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers, relating in any way, or to any extent whatsoever, to the subject of slavery, or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid upon the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.
The first two resolutions expressly followed the instructions by the House, for which Adams had voted. But it was the third resolution that was completely unexpected, on either side, and for Adams a deal breaker with no room for compromise. Now he was not willing to support any of the three resolutions. On May 25, Adams wanted to explain his position and it was important that his constituents and the entire country knew exactly why. On the floor of the House, Adams asked to say a few words on the subject of the report and the resolutions. After some parliamentary maneuvering, the House voted 95–82 that neither Adams nor any other member could argue against the resolutions. “Am I gagged or not?” exclaimed Adams. “Order! Order!” came the calls from the majority of the House. Adams wanted the decision of the Chair in writing, who said that Adams had no right to make such a demand. Adams, in turn, appealed the decision, and the House sustained the Chair’s ruling, 109–89. The path was now laid to vote on each resolution separately.
When Adams’s name was called on the first resolution, “That Congress possesses no constitutional authority to interfere in any way with the institution of slavery in any of the States of this confederacy,” Adams rose and said, ”If the House will allow me five minutes’ time, I pledge myself to prove that that resolution false and utterly untrue.” From all parts of the House came the cries of “Order! Order!” and Adams took his seat. What no one knew at the time was that Adams was going to raise the issue that during times of insurrection or civil war, Congress had the ability to interfere with slavery as part of its war powers. The House passed the first resolution, 182–9. Before an opportunity to vote on the second and third resolutions came, Congress returned to its regular order of the day before voting on the second and third resolutions. It was during this interlude that the wily Adams made sure that during a debate on a joint resolution to distribute rations to the inhabitants of Alabama and Georgia to refugees from Indian hostilities, that he got the floor. It was then that he was able to make his statement on the first resolution from the previous debate.