EXCLUSIVE: Americans have a low opinion of Congress – this is nothing new. At just 13 percent, Congressional poll approval is as good as a colonoscopy and only slightly better than thermonuclear war.
But if Americans are frustrated by a legislature that seems unable to act, imagine if Congress had stopped itself from even talking about our country’s most difficult problems.
This is what happened when John Quincy Adams, elected to the House of Representatives after his presidency in 1830, attempted to debate the issue of slavery.
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The House had what was called the “gag rule,” which prohibited members from raising the topic. But when Adams spoke out about it and his colleagues tried to kick him out of the House and silence him, the former president fought back. He refused to be canceled and let a culture of censorship prevent him from saying what he knew to be true.
When John Quincy Adams left the presidency, defeated after one term, he was the least popular commander in chief since his father.
Defeated by Andrew Jackson in 1828, former President Adams thought his political life was over.
At 61, after serving as ambassador, senator, secretary of state and president, the founding son could not reach any heights.
For 18 months, he wallowed at home in Quincy, Massachusetts, reading and dabbling in arboriculture, only to discover he didn’t have a green thumb.
He could have stayed in Quincy for the rest of his life. When a friend suggested to Adams’ wife, Louisa, that her husband consider re-engaging in politics, she responded: “There are some very stupid plans going on here and God only knows what they will end up with.” , but I’m not afraid at all for my taste. “.
In a much lower position, Adams found a much higher calling.
But when the party convention nominated him to represent Plymouth in the 22nd Congress, he won a landslide victory and became Rep. John Quincy Adams, the only former commander in chief to serve in the House.
With victory in hand, he wrote: “The election to the presidency of the United States was not so gratifying to my deepest soul. »
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Adams was not a slave owner and he knew slavery was wrong, but he did not enter Congress as an abolitionist activist.
He didn’t really know what he wanted to do when he arrived at the Capitol. Seeing his old friend again in Washington, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay jokingly asked how Adams “felt being a boy again in the House of Representatives.”
But in a far lower position, Adams found a far higher calling.
Faced with the threat of civil war looming over the capital, Congress had a history of avoiding the issue of slavery altogether—its members were afraid of what would happen if they raised it. But that doesn’t mean the American people, on both sides, haven’t made their voices heard.
Adams’ anti-slavery sympathies were well known, and more than 40,000 people had signed more than 300 petitions on the issue addressed directly to him.
The right to petition is protected by the First Amendment, and Congressman Adams read what the petitioners – many of whom were women’s groups or Christian societies – had to say as he presented their petitions to the House, much to his chagrin. slave owners in Congress. . His colleagues were furious.
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Terrified by Adams’ plea and that it raised the nation’s most explosive issue, slave owners fought back and passed a resolution prohibiting the issue of slavery from being discussed. Shocked, Adams cried out, “Am I gagged or not!?”
With this question, he inadvertently christened the new executive order banning debate on slavery: the gag rule.
The rules didn’t hold Adams back. He would raise the issue as often as he could, in any way possible, protecting the First Amendment right to petition and hardening his abolitionism over time.
At a time of political violence, even dueling in the House of Representatives – and amid threats from a Southern congressman that he would cut Adams “from ear to ear” – the former president challenged his enemies at great risk.
After reading of his exploits, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote admiringly that Adams was “not a literary gentleman, but a murderer…(He) must have sulfuric acid in his tea.”
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Just because the House had adopted the gag rule did not mean Adams was powerless.
He fought back in his own way, calling a pro-slavery attempt to annex Texas a “war of conquest.”
Just because the House adopted the gag rule does not mean Adams was powerless.
He denounced the reintroduction of slavery in a territory where it had been abolished and delayed the admission of another slave state, which would have tipped the balance of power in the Senate.
At Amistad In this case, he represented enslaved men and women who had escaped their captors before the Supreme Court, allowing them to win their freedom.
His argument relied on appeals to the memory of the Founding Fathers and he pointed to a copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging on the chamber wall, imploring the justices: “If these rights are inalienable, they are inconsistent with the rights of the victor to take the life of his enemy in war, or to spare him and make him a slave.
Rep. Adams also left his mark in other ways.
He led a 13-member select committee to investigate the impeachment of President John Tyler – the first such committee in American history.
Adams also helped found the Smithsonian Institution.
By the time Adams had the gag rule repealed in 1844, he had more than made history as the only former speaker elected to the House of Representatives. He had become the leading abolitionist in Congress in the first half of the 19th century.
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He had linked the cause of abolition to the purpose of America’s founding, using his authority as the son of a founding father and his knowledge and experience of government to become an elder statesman, even as as a junior member.
When he died in 1848 at the age of 80 in the halls of the Capitol, he was described as “a living link of (connection) between the present and the past.”
Upon his death, Adams passed the torch of abolition to a young congressman, Abraham Lincoln, with whom he worked for one term and who served on the committee responsible for arranging Adams’ funeral.
Adams did not let his frustrations with the 1828 defeat get the better of him, and he did not let his more powerful colleagues silence or overrule him.
Against odds far more difficult than those Congress faces today, Adams moved the needle toward the principles of America’s founding.
He was respected, but he was not always popular. His frustrated adversaries once called him “the sharpest, the shrewdest, the most bitter enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed…the eloquent old man, John Quincy Adams.”
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Today, members of Congress can make a name for themselves on television or social media, using their positions as platforms and becoming talking heads rather than lawmakers.
Or they can make a difference by defending first principles and reminding Americans of our country’s finest traditions.
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If they do, perhaps they will restore Americans’ confidence in our institutions and follow in the footsteps of the great statesmen who came before them.
Extract of “Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House,” © copyright Jared Cohen (Simon & Schuster, February 2024), by special arrangement. All rights reserved.
Stay tuned for additional excerpts on Fox News Digital from the new book “Life after power”.
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