Beginning in 1836, and for nearly a decade, Adams relentlessly fought the gag rule, struggling to make white citizens see that the South's determination to protect slavery at all costs represented an assault upon their own treasured rights. It was a lonely and humiliating battle, almost without allies. Although a vigorous septuagenarian, Adams was openly scorned as a dotard by his enemies. He was at least twice threatened with assassination. At one point, the ex-President was nearly censured for daring to attempt to submit what his colleagues believed was a petition from a group of Maryland slaves. "Had anyone, before today, ever dreamed that the appellation of 'the people' embraced slaves?" demanded Aaron Vanderpoel, an influential New York Democrat and frequent apologist for slavery.
Adams' enemies desisted only when they realized that censuring him would simply serve to draw more attention to his argument. On another occasion, his enemies threatened to call him before a grand jury for allegedly inciting the slaves of the District of Columbia to rebellion.
Unbowed, Adams responded: "Let every gentleman, let every member of this House, ask his own heart with what confidence, with what boldness, with what freedom, with what firmness, he would give utterance to his opinions on this floor, if, for every word, for a mere question asked of the Speaker, involving a question belonging to human freedom, to the rights of man, he was liable to be tried as a felon or an incendiary, and sent to the penitentiary."
The gag rule was not overturned until 1844, when the alliance of Northern and Southern Democrats at last began to fissure. But it would take a civil war before the questions raised by Adams were finally answered. Yet, in those debates of the 1830s, tectonic plates had shifted. Adams had shaken the "immense, rooted institution" of slavery as no one had before. The effort to silence Adams and his handful of allies had only intensified popular concern over the moral and political cost of protecting slavery.
As a result, abolition had moved from the margins to the center of public debate. In areas where abolitionists had been treated as fanatics and misfits, said one Pennsylvania Democrat, "they now called meetings to discuss the right of petition and talked about slavery for hours on end." The majority of Northerners, at least, had begun to make the crucial connection that the rights of enslaved African-Americans were indissolubly linked to the freedom of all Americans. From that recognition there would be no going back.
This is not only fine and provocative history. In it lies a message for modern Americans as well: that politics matters, and that even if they fail in their immediate aim (Adams was never permitted to submit a single abolitionist petition), free argument and debate have the capacity to shift our minds for the better.
Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century.