EXCLUSIVE: Americans have a low opinion of Congress — that’s not news. At just 13%, approval of Congress polls about as well as a colonoscopy and only slightly better than thermonuclear war.
But if Americans are frustrated by a legislature that seems incapable of action, imagine if Congress had forbidden itself from even talking about our nation’s hardest problems.
That’s what happened when John Quincy Adams, who was elected to the House of Representatives after his presidency in 1830, tried to debate the issue of slavery.
Adams wasn’t a slaveholder, and he knew slavery was evil, but he didn’t enter Congress as a crusading abolitionist.
He didn’t actually know what he wanted to do when he arrived on Capitol Hill. Upon seeing his old friend back in Washington, Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay jokingly asked how Adams “felt upon turning boy again in the House of Representatives.”
But in a much lower position, Adams found a much higher calling.
With the threat of civil war hanging over the capital, Congress had a tradition of avoiding the issue of slavery altogether — members were afraid of what would happen if they brought it up. But that didn’t mean the American people, on both sides, weren’t vocal.
Adams’ anti-slavery sympathies were well known, and more than 40,000 people had signed over 300 petitions on the issue addressed directly to him.
The right to petition is protected by the First Amendment, and Congressman Adams would read what the petitioners — many of them women’s groups or Christian societies — had to say, presenting their petitions on the House floor, much to the chagrin of the slaveholders in Congress. His colleagues were furious.
Terrified by Adams’ advocacy and that he was bringing up the most explosive issue in the country, the slaveholders fought back and passed a resolution to forbid the issue of slavery from being discussed at all. Shocked, Adams cried out, “Am I gagged or am I not!?”
With that question, he inadvertently christened the new edict forbidding debates about slavery: the Gag Rule.
The rules didn’t hold Adams back. He would bring up the issue as often as he could in whatever way he could, protecting the First Amendment right to petition and hardening in his abolitionism over time.
In an era of political violence, even duels on the House floor — and amid threats from one Southern congressman that he would cut Adams “from ear to ear” — the former president defied his foes at great risk.
Upon reading about his exploits, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote admiringly that Adams was “no literary gentleman, but a bruiser … [H]e must have sulfuric acid in his tea.”
Just because the House had passed the Gag Rule didn’t mean Adams was powerless.
He pushed back in his own ways, calling a pro-slavery attempt to annex Texas “a war of conquest.”
Just because the House passed the Gag Rule didn’t mean Adams was powerless.
He denounced the reintroduction of slavery to a territory where it had been previously abolished and delayed the admission of another slave state, which would have tipped the balance of power in the Senate.
Today, members of Congress can make a name for themselves on television or on social media, using their positions as platforms and becoming talking heads rather than legislators.
Or they can make a difference by standing for first principles and reminding Americans of our nation’s finest traditions.
If they do that, maybe they’ll restore Americans’ faith in our institutions, and they’ll follow in the footsteps of the great statesmen who came before them.
Excerpted from “Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House,” © copyright Jared Cohen (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 2024), by special arrangement. All rights reserved.
Stay tuned for additional excerpts at Fox News Digital from the new book “Life After Power.”
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