Due to a special event taking place in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, September 18, there will be no tours of the U.S. Capitol that day until approximately noon. The Capitol Visitor Center will remain open during this time, and guided tours in the Capitol Visitor Center will be available.

Old Man Eloquent

John Quincy Adams was President of the United States. After that came the high point of his life: 17 years in the House of Representatives.

Adams thrived on congressional combat. When Southern members imposed a rule that automatically prohibited debate on antislavery petitions, Adams was outraged. To "gag" citizens who petition their government, he thundered, was a "direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, of the rules of this House, and of the rights of my constituents."

Adams matched words with deeds. For eight years (1836–1844), he gleefully baffled opponents by exploiting every loophole and parliamentary trick to bring up antislavery petitions. His efforts won him wide popularity in the North, encouraging even more antislavery petitions. In 1844, on Adams’s motion, the House rescinded the "gag rule."

"Mr. Adams belongs to no local district, to no political party, but to the Nation and to the people...."
— Diary of Representative Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio

 

 

  • John Quincy Adams Seized with a Fit in the House of Representatives, Kelloggs and Comstock lithography, ca. 1848-1850

    Adams collapsed on the floor of the House and was taken to a small room off the chamber, where he died two days later on February 23, 1848.

    NPG.81.41 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

  • Petition from Women of Brookline, Massachusetts, 1836

    The gag rule kept antislavery petitions such as this one from being presented on the floor of the House of Representatives.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

  • Gag Rule, 1837

    At the start of each Congress, the House of Representatives adopts rules of operation. One such rule prohibited representatives from introducing petitions opposing slavery. The rule, protested by John Quincy Adams, stood from 1836 to 1844.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

  • John Quincy Adams’s Intent to Vote against the Gag Rule, 1836

    In this note to the Presiding Officer, Representative Adams of Massachusetts denounced the first “gag rule” and stated his intent to vote against it. His fight continued until the gag rule’s repeal in 1844.

    Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

  • John Quincy Adams’s Ivory Cane, 1844

    Adams loved the cane he was given in thanks for his defeat of the "gag rule" in 1844. He confessed, "I crave pardon for the vanity of this memorial."

    Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Behring Center