Tuesday, 05 November 2019 12:37

Lessons from the Life of John Quincy Adams

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Our vision is to reawaken the genuine American spirit of living in a good, great, and growing nation of free-born individuals.

Our mission is to uphold American liberty, prosperity, constitutional law, and humble government.

Lessons from the Life of John Quincy Adams

Editorial — Barry MacDonald

Please read our “vision” and “mission” statements printed above the title. The vision statement is a shared ideal, I believe, between the writers and readers of The St. Croix Review — about building anew the sort of nation we want America to be. The mission statement presents the pillars that we believe must be perpetuated in order to bring about our vision for America.

The vision and mission statements are meant to be provocative. For example, we prompt the question: what is “the genuine American spirit”? We invite Americans who love America to express their opinions on what the genuine American character is or should be. We would like to invite the readers of The St. Croix Review to venture an essay exploring the topic. We have published essays written by our readers, and are eager to do so again.

Historically we are not, and have never been, a nation characterized by an attitude of quietude and submission before governmental authority. We disagree and argue fiercely among ourselves for the advancement of cherished beliefs. Americans are free people. We have an innate desire to see justice done. We want to live with an impersonal and impartial system of laws.

Unfortunately the Left in America is denigrating American history with the intention of undermining the worthiness of our Founding principles and our Constitution. This essay presents an inspiring look at American history, and at an under-appreciated American hero.

Washington, D.C. has become a vortex drawing to itself the nation’s wealth. Its politicians assume God-like authority to regulate and direct every aspect of our complex society. Our freedom of speech and our free exercise of religion are threatened. Not only the politicians but also the media “watch dogs,” educators, artists, and entertainers are all blind to how far from modesty and humility our government is. And too many voters are blind to the house-of-cards our nation has become. What is to be done?

We must hold on to our principles with courage and perseverance. There is no telling how long the battle for dominance will be, or of what events will intervene to change our course. We cannot avoid hard times. Not everyone can take direct action, but we must support those who do effect change. In American history there is no better example of courage and perseverance than John Quincy Adams.

John Quincy Adams was the son of our second President, John Adams. Like his father he had a wealth of experience. When he was ten years old he went with his father on his father’s diplomatic mission to France. For the next eight years he lived in Paris, the Netherlands, Russia, and England. John Quincy Adams became fluent in French and Dutch, and he was familiar with German and other European languages.

He in his turn was appointed minister to the Netherlands, Germany, and Russia. He persuaded Czar Alexander to let American ships trade in Russian ports. He led the U.S. peace commissioners in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812.

As President James Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams wrote the Monroe Doctrine, warning European nations not to interfere in the affairs of the Americas. He negotiated fishing rights off the Canadian coast with England; established a part of the U.S. Canadian border; and negotiated the transfer of Florida from Spanish to U.S. sovereignty.

As our sixth president he promoted education and modernized the American economy. He paid off much of the national debt. But he neglected to build networks of support within Congress, so he was stymied by a Congress controlled by his opponents, and by members who were indifferent to him. He lost his re-election bid to Andrew Jackson in 1828.

Then he did something singular and extraordinary: He got elected to the House as a Representative from Massachusetts; and he served for seventeen years — nine consecutive terms, until his death in 1848.

He felt revulsion for slavery at a time when such sentiment was not ascendant among the powerful in Congress. He wrote:

“Slavery is a great and foul stain upon the North American Union, and it is a contemplation worthy of the most exalted soul whether its total abolition is or is not practicable.”

He spoke of “slave-drivers” and the “flagrant image of human inconsistency” of men who had “the Declaration of Independence on their lips and the merciless scourge of slavery in their hands.”

The following quote appears in John T. Morse’s biography, John Quincy Adams, published in 1882. It reflects a time unshackled by the conformity enforced by today’s political correctness:

“He was by nature a hard fighter, and by the circumstances of his course in Congress this quality was stimulated to such a degree that parliamentary history does not show his equal as a gladiator. His power of invective was extraordinary, and he was untiring and merciless in his use of it. . . . Men winced and cowered before his milder attacks, became sometimes dumb, sometimes furious with mad rage before his fiercer assaults. Such struggles evidently gave him pleasure, and there was scarce a back in Congress that did not at one time or another feel the score of his cutting lash; though it was the Southerners and the Northern allies of Southerners whom chiefly he singled out for torture. He was irritable and quick to wrath. . . . Of alliances he was careless, and friendships he had almost none. But in the creation of enmities he was terribly successful. . . . From the time when he fairly entered upon the long struggle against slavery, he enjoyed few peaceful days in the House. . . . When the air of the House was thick with crimination and abuse he seemed to suck in fresh vigor and spirit from the hate-laden atmosphere. When invective fell around him in showers, he screamed back his retaliation with untiring rapidity and marvelous dexterity of aim. No odds could appall him. With his back set firm against a solid moral principle, it was his joy to strike out at a multitude of foes. They lost their heads as well as their tempers, but in the extremest moments of excitement and anger Mr. Adams’s brain seemed to work with machine-like coolness and accuracy. With flushed face, streaming eyes, animated gesticulation, and cracking voice, he always retained perfect mastery of all his intellectual faculties. He thus became a terrible antagonist, whom all feared, yet fearing could not refrain from attacking, so bitterly and incessantly did he choose to exert his wonderful power of exasperation. Few men could throw an opponent into wild blind fury with such speed and certainty as he could; and he does not conceal the malicious gratification which such feats brought to him. A leader of such fighting capacity, so courageous, with such a magazine of experience and information, and with a character so irreproachable, could have won brilliant victories in public life at the head of even a small band of devoted followers. But Mr. Adams never had and apparently never wanted followers. Other prominent public men were brought not only into collision but into comparison with their contemporaries. But Mr. Adams’s individuality was so strong that he can be compared with no one.”

He was not fitted to cross the countryside rousing gatherings of people. There were writers and agitators who did raise the consciousness of the American people towards the injustice of slavery. There were wild abolitionists, such as John Brown, who took extreme measures and went to war with slavery.

By the way, slavery was an evil of ancient origin not exclusive to Western civilization, a fact not recognized by today’s anti-America critics.

But Adams had to walk a fine line in a House overwhelmingly controlled by his opponents. He said:

“The most insignificant error of conduct in me at this time would be my irredeemable ruin in this world; and both the ruling political parties are watching with intense anxiety for some overt act by me to set the whole pack of their hireling presses upon me.”

At any moment his opponents could combine to slander, disgrace, censure and expel him from Congress. He had to be careful not to give them the pretext. Through strength of will and a bold posture he intimidated a throng of antagonists.

Among fellow lawmakers he could count on the support of no one, but he did enjoy the steadfast enthusiasm of the voters in his district, and, as the years went by, he became the champion against slavery in Congress, and he gained many admirers nationwide. No one else had his prestige, experience, knowledge, ability, courage, and passion.

His method of attack was to present petitions from citizens for the abolition of slavery, and very often for the prohibition of the buying and selling of slaves within the District of Columbia. His stream of petitions forced the slavers to adopt a countermeasure which seemingly stymied Adams for years, yet the measure was unconstitutional and at odds with the conduct of a free government. In February 1836, the slavery interest in the House resolved that:

“1. That Congress had no power to interfere with slavery in any State;

2. That Congress ought not to interfere with slavery in the District of Columbia;

3. That whereas the agitation of the subject was disquieting and objectionable, ‘all petitions, memorials, resolutions 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.’”

This was the infamous “gag rule” that forbade any discussion of slavery. It was a mistake made by the slave-holding party: they had assumed an untenable position. Adams became the persistent advocate of the “right of petition,” and thus he gained much more leverage with the public than he could have acquired on the issue of slavery by itself.

Year after year when the House established its rules at the beginning of a new term he would stand and say:

“I hold the resolution to be a violation of the Constitution, of the right of petition of my constituents, and of the people of the United States, and of my right to freedom of speech as a member of this House.”

And each time he was confronted with a chorus of “Order! Order!” and voted down.

The public recognized him as an heroic advocate; and a torrent of petitions descended on him, all having to be read, sorted, and presented. He presented thousands of petitions, dozens or hundreds at a time, each time encountering shouts of “Order! Order!”

Some of the petitions were sent by his opponents, praying that Mr. Adams be brought to the bar of the House, censured, and expelled — he read out these petitions, welcoming such a debate, but his opponents avoided the contest.

A great game of antagonism was played out. Some of the petitions were not what they purported to be. Once he hesitated to present a petition, saying he questioned its authenticity: it claimed to be from slaves.

Before he presented it he asked the Speaker for his opinion, whereupon a great clamor arose.

Much vituperation was directed at him. There were cries of “Expel him! Expel him!” There were exclamations that the petition should “be taken from the House and burned.” He was accused of a “gross and willful violation of the rules of the House and an insult to its members.” He was threatened with criminal proceedings before a grand jury so that the people might “see an incendiary brought to condign punishment.”

It was proclaimed:

“. . . he has committed an outrage on the feelings of the people of a large portion of this Union; a flagrant contempt on the dignity of this House, and, by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen, directly incites the slave population to insurrection; and that [he] be forthwith called to the bar of the House and be censured by the speaker.”

Unperturbed Adams waited for the hubbub to subside. When the occasion arose he pointed out he had not presented the petition. He said beforehand he doubted its authenticity, and he merely asked the Speaker for his opinion of its worthiness. And furthermore the petition of the slaves requested slavery not be abolished! He suspected that the petition had not been written by the slaves themselves but by their owner — thus the air went out of the balloon, the furor dissipated, and his opponents were brought to condign humiliation.

Eventually the tide of public opinion turned against the slavery interest and John Quincy Adam’s “invincible perseverance” was rewarded. At the beginning of each term the rules of the House were established, and year after year the majority favoring the gag rule dwindled. In 1842 the majority was four; in 1843, three. In 1844 the struggle lasted for weeks. On December 3 a vote abolishing the gag rule won by one hundred eight to eighty.

“Blessed, forever blessed, be the name of God!” Adams wrote in his diary. The gag rule had stood for eight years.

On February 21, 1848, at 1:30 p.m. the Speaker was conducting business in the House when he was interrupted by cries of “Stop! Stop! — Mr. Adams!” It was thought that John Quincy Adams rose to address the speaker, but he fell over unconscious. He was surrounded by his colleagues; carried to a sofa in the hall of the rotunda; and then to the Speaker’s room.

Late in the afternoon he was heard to say, “Thank the officers of the House.” Soon afterwards he said, “This is the last of earth! I am content!” He lingered until the evening of the 23rd when he died — in the capitol building where he had fought his bitterest battles.


Presently the Left is advancing the cause of a maternal government, massive and powerful, able to succor multitudes. The American people have been incrementally lured into ever deepening dependence by political promises that cannot be kept. Intellectuals, news people, artists, poets, novelists, actors, and entertainers — most are proponents of big government. To oppose them is to be maligned as a nationalist, a fascist, or a racist. The political and bureaucratic establishment of Washington, D.C. seems solid and permanent — just as the forces supporting slavery once seemed unshakable. But it is not so.

The deceitful practices of the media, and disregard for the rule of law and impartial justice on the part of political insiders are bringing America to a crisis. But the foolish and arrogant delusions of Left will not stand.

America is unique in its Founding, in its Constitution, Bill of Rights, and in its history. We need not fall into some ugly kind of dictatorship. We have the heritage of a free people. We have the experience and memories of freedom. A revival of respect for the Constitution is possible.

What we need is the ability, courage, and most of all, the perseverance of John Quincy Adams. He at times doubted whether slavery could be overthrown, and did not live to see its passing. But he fought for its abolition nevertheless. What we need are fearless advocates for liberty; for a free economy; for justice; for the Constitution; and for the free exercise of religion.     *

Editor’s note: Since December of 2010 the covers of The St. Croix Review have been graced with the exceptional artwork of my daughter, Jocelyn MacDonald. Unfortunately, because she is striving to obtain a master’s degree in fine arts, she will no longer be able do the artwork for us. But we have been very lucky to call upon the artistic talent of a nationally acclaimed painter, William Ersland. His interests include horses, the Old West, equine sports, and the natural beauty of the wildlife and landscapes of America.

Thank you so much, Jocelyn, for the gorgeous inspiration you have given us for year after year! And welcome, William, to our community. We look forward to experiencing your visions of America!

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Barry MacDonald

Editor & Publisher of the St. Croix Review.

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