ADAMS, John Quincy (1767-1848), President. Autograph manuscript signed ("John Quincy Adams"), as Massachusetts Representative, comprising Adams's detailed account of the "Debate on the Bill for admitting the State of Arkansas into the Union," [Washington, D.C., June 1836]. 13 pages, 4to (10 x 8 in.), bound [circa 1840] in marbled paper boards, black morocco spine, upper cover with gilt-lettered red morocco label "J.Q. Adams", slight browning, some pages with small marginal tears, sixth leaf detached affecting a few letters text .
ADAMS VIGOROUSLY UPHOLDS THE RIGHT TO PETITION CONGRESS AGAINST SLAVERY AND ASSAILS THE GAG RULE; "I HOLD THE RESOLUTION TO BE A DIRECT VIOLATION OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES, OF THE RULES OF THE HOUSE, AND OF THE RIGHTS OF MY CONSTITUENTS"
A highly important and historically significant manuscript which documents a critical phase of Adams' impassioned crusade against slavery, the focal point of the former president's late political career. After leaving the White House in 1825, Adams had won election to the House (the only former President to have done so). Reflecting the increasing militancy of the abolitionist movement, anti-slavery petitions had begun to flood Congress; many originated in New England and were sent directly to Adams, who became the movement's veritable lightning rod. The powerful slave-holding bloc in Congress rallied vigorously in defense of what they saw as an essential right guaranteed by the Constitution. Adams, entrenched upon his own Constitutional and moral high ground, argued vociferously for what he believed was the First Amendment right of his constituents and all Americans to petition their elected representatives in Congress. In May 1836, the southern bloc in the House voted to table any petition with references to slavery without being printed, debated or referred to committee. Adams's eight-year campaign against this Gag Rule "made him the most famous--or notorious--combatant on the floor of Congress during the next decade" (Nagel, p. 354). To circumvent the prohibition, Adams chose to read anti-slavery petitions on the floor of the House, in spite of vituperative abuse from southern delegates.
In the present detailed account of the House debate on the admission of Arkansas, Adams seeks to correct what he believed were unfair omissions and alterations of his words in the Congressional record. Covering the period from May 25 to June 15, 1836, Adams's notes include full transcriptions of his addresses on the floor during debate. The manuscript records Adams's vote against the Gag Rule and includes his famous condemnation of it: "I hold the Resolutions to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, of the Rules of the House, and of the Rights of my Constituents." He observes that in the Congressional journal "this answer of Mr. Adams was not only unnoticed, but his name was entirely omitted, as if he had not been called to answer upon the yeas and nays at all."
A significant portion of the lengthy text comprises two addresses by Adams. On June 10, Adams responded to the rejection of a proposed amendment to Arkansas's draft Constitution, an amendment urged by twenty-two petitions which opposed "the admission of Arkansas into the Union as a Slave State." But Adams takes pains to specify that, under the Constitution, "I cannot object to the admission of Arkansas into the Union as a slave state...As Congress have not power in time of peace to abolish slavery in the original states of the Union." For better or worse, "slavery is in this Union the subject of internal legislation in the States, and in Peace is recognizable by Congress only, as it is tacitly tolerated and protected where it exists, by the Constitution of the United States." Reminding his fellow congressmen of the divisive debates over the admission of Missouri in 1819-1820, he boldly states his personal opinion: "I disapproved, as I now disapprove of Slavery as a civil institution. As a citizen, and as a man therefore, I disapproved of that Article in the Constitution of Arkansas, the object of which is to perpetuate Slavery." He maintains that the draft Constitution "withholds from its legislature the power of giving freedom to the Slave," therefore, he had proposed an amendment which "will at least secure to me the consciousness of having discharged my duty to them, to my Country, and to that Reverance for the rights of mankind, which rejects without reserve the principle, that by the Law of nature or of God, Man can be the property of Man."
In a second speech, Adams replies to Virginia Representative Henry Alexander Wise, terming the Gag Rule, "a point of concession to the Slave holding interests of the South." Adams highights the dangers to the Republic if the slaveholders continue to dominate the legislature: "Slavery [the pro-slavery block]...had struck at the right of petition and the Freedom of Speech in this House. She had struck at Freedom of the Press and at the Freedom of the Post Office, both in this and the other branch of the Legislature, and by the express recommendation of the Chief Magistrate of the Union." Adams is outraged that the petitions he presented had been tabled "by a general stigmatising interdict, more insulting than would have been an absolute refusal to receive them," as if Congress "were afraid to hear them read." In fact, he argues, his amendment to the Arkansas Constitution was "in the form the least offensive possible to the Slave holding portions of the community." His intent, he contends, was to "plant the Standard of Freedom at the very lowest point of its elevation; and by conceding to slavery every thing required by the common compact, yet adhering to those self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, to utter the minimum of the Sentiments which I believed my Constituents would never resign, but with the last drop of their blood."
Comparing his amendment favorably to the harsher restrictions of the Missouri Compromise, Adams marshalls Constitutional evidence in its defense: "this reservation is entirely conformable to the Spirit of the Constitution...That instrument, containing in four different places, arrangements in reference to slavery, does not in any one of them, recognize the existence of Slavery or of Slaves. Neither of the words is to be found throughout the Constitution. The founders were unwilling that the frame of Government, ordained expressly by the People, to secure to themselves and to their posterity the blessings of liberty, should be polluted even by the name of Slavery." Specifying those clauses in the Constitution applicable to slavery, Adams points out slaves are not, in any "recognized as property," but are "expressly designated as persons." This "studious uniformity of language throughout the whole Constitution could only arise from the determination to exclude from it any acknowledgement of Slavery, as forming a component part of the Supreme Law of the Land." He concludes with an appeal to unity: "It was in this Spirit of mutual concession and conciliation that the Constitution of the United States was formed and adopted and it is in this Spirit that I offer the amendment now before the Committee."