In 1842, John Quincy Adams presented to the House of Representatives a petition from 42 residents of Haverhill, Massachusetts, requesting that the Union be dissolved. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 610. Henry Wise, Congressman from Virginia, “demanded the former president be censured.” Id.
At 74 years old, Adams embraced the fight, being unintimidated by his potential censure. See id. He spoke for a week, defending himself, and embarrassing his prosecutors, including the chief prosecutor, Thomas Marshall of Kentucky, whose political career would be ruined afterward. See id. Ultimately, his adversaries would table the censure motion, and Adams was victorious. He toured the North, “feeling somewhat awkward in his unaccustomed role of popular hero.” Id.
Ultimately, a short time later, the gag rule, which prohibited discussion of petitions relating to abolition, would be voted out from the House of Representatives. See id.; see also The Master of Parliamentary Procedure. Adams’ arguments, while defending himself against censure, would reinforce him being one of the most adept politicians as well as his ability to shape public opinion.
There are two points to unpack from Adams’ potential censure. First, by the early 1840s, some of the brightest intellectuals were beginning to make advances in dealing with slavery. That momentum was only going to continue leading up to the Civil War. Second, however, and perhaps just as significant, Adams was showing just how powerful of a politicians he was. Not only was he a former president, he was a strong legislator in the House of Representatives. But, during his censure motion, he was showing perhaps one of the best features of a politician: he was shaping public opinion through his actions.
Only the most effective politicians have such a capability. Adams deserves a place on that list, as his shaping of public opinion would create the momentum for abolition to not be discussed in the shadows but be openly and freely debated.