I Am Gagged: a lesson we can learn from America’s sixth president

By Angelina Shi

In 1824, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams ran for president. At the start, it seemed Adams was the likely winner; he was the son of a previous president and a former secretary of state with a brilliant international relations background. He was Harvard-educated, while Jackson could barely spell. It didn’t seem like a competition.


Though Jackson won 43 percent of the popular vote and more electoral votes than Adams (99 to 84), he failed to get a deciding majority. Since none of the candidates reached the required majority of electoral votes, by constitutional mandate, the House of Representatives had the deciding vote. They awarded Adams the majority. And, of course, the presidency.

Believing that some sort of corrupt bargain had taken place and that Adams had stolen the presidency, Jackson began to campaign across the country, telling all how the system had been rigged and how Adams was the root of all evil. Within months, the rhetoric between the two opposing sides turned into vicious personal attacks. In the next election, Jackson’s relentless shit-talking proved effective. He beat Adams with ease. And during his own presidency, Jackson continued to spread rumors that Adams was a pimp, mentally ill, senile, and morally deficient.

It is not hard to draw comparisons to our current situation. A former secretary of state with an image problem faces off against a seemingly unqualified opponent: a populist, outsider, non-politician. Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump even galvanized support from the same demographics and used similar language to appeal to voters. CNN ran an episode of their 2016 series “Race for the White House” about these very similarities, focusing on how the character of Jackson can be seen in Trump today. Though it was an interesting story, I cannot help but feel they missed out on a more relevant one.

Like President Trump, John Quincy Adams was elected without a majority vote, and therefore did not have the mandate or support of the people. He was cold and stilted, unable to make small talk or conversation. He was arrogant, obnoxious, and dislikable. Sure, as a man, Adams was strange—while he was president, he was known to keep a pet alligator in a White House bathroom. He woke up early every day to skinny dip in the Potomac River to laughable ends. He had such a bad habit of walking through White House guest rooms in the middle of the night that they had to build an entire hallway to keep him out. He believed that mole people were real, that the Earth was hollow, and he had an odd obsession with the metric system.

But what sets him apart from Trump is that as a politician, Adams was genius.

Every fault he had in personality was more than made up for in intelligence. He was a political savant, one of the last stalwarts carrying the spirit of the American Revolution, and one of the finest politicians the White House has ever seen. At the time of his election, he was already a relic of an era past. But somehow, his spirit lives on today.

John Quincy Adams’s father, John Adams, had been president too, from 1797 to 1801. John Quincy admittedly got his start serving as a secretary to his father during the Treaty of Paris, but his deeds soon outpaced anything that his father’s connections could have done for him. He navigated through the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812. He negotiated the Rush-Bagot Pact of 1817, easing rising relations between British Canada and America. He was the main author of the Monroe Doctrine. As secretary of state, his deft actions and diplomacy with Spain culminated in the acquisition of Florida. George Washington appointed him U.S. Minister to the Netherlands; James Madison sent him to Russia.

It seemed his capacity for diplomacy and career growth had no bounds. But then he was elected president, and it was all over.

It should have been the capstone of an illustrious career. Having spent his whole life in international policy and internal affairs, it seemed he would take to the presidency like a fish to water, using it to effect real change and put important policies into place. Unfortunately, that was not the case: the years he spent in the White House would become the least productive years of his life. The campaigning and rhetoric from the Jackson camp had ruined his reputation. Most of the population saw him as Jackson painted him: a degenerate, corrupt old man. Unable to wrest support from the populace or Congress, his presidency was characterized by stagnancy and internal improvements proposals that were soundly rejected. He ran for the presidency again in 1828, but it was too late. He was resolutely defeated and forced to retire to Boston in hopes of living a quiet life.

Thankfully, the quiet life did not suit him.

Not even a full year later, the next chapter of his life began: a renaissance of his political motivations and a reawakening of the fire that had burned in him in his early career.

By 1831, he was back in public office, this time in the House of Representatives. Adams had been previously nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” by his constituents for his brilliant and articulate manner of discussing policy. But in his last years, he came to be known as the “Madman of Massachusetts.”

Art by Olivia Bono

He began to champion the antislavery movement, proposing piece after piece of legislation. One slaveholder called him the “acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.” When the Southern members of Congress passed a rule explicitly forbidding the discussion of slavery (a “Gag Rule”), it was he who stepped up and spent the better part of a decade trying to repeal it. Just twenty years off from Civil War, others rightly feared that the issue of slavery would lead to an irreparable rift in the country. They sought to keep it hidden, but John Quincy Adams would not stand by. “What can be more false and heartless than [slavery] which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?” he said in a controversial speech on the Senate floor, “Are not fraud and hypocrisy the religion of the man who calls himself a democrat, and hold his fellow-man in bondage?”

In 1841, African prisoners aboard the slave ship La Amistad rebelled against the slave traders that had captured them. Though they had set out to return from Cuba to Africa, the ship was captured off of the coast of Long Island. Current president Martin Van Buren was content to send the rebels to Cuba and take away their just-won freedom. His former vice president John C. Calhoun made it clear that he sided with the slave traders. But John Quincy Adams saw the injustice and would not be silenced. In one of the first human rights victories in American history, he represented all 35 of the prisoners in the Supreme Court and won their freedom. The men and women were returned to Africa, but Adams refused to grow complacent.

Galvanized by his victories and persistent against his fierce opposition, most of his last 17 years on the House floor were spent waging a one-man war for his ideals. He believed that the Constitution spoke of universal emancipation, and he would not rest until it was freely given. He stirred up dissent and disunion, losing lifelong friends in the process, but he ceaselessly fought against “slave power” and advocated for free speech.

Even at the end, he never stopped fighting. When the vote came to declare support for or against the Spanish-American War, he yelled “no” so vigorously he collapsed with a fatal stroke on the Congress floor.

In February of 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren tried reading a letter by Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor to protest the known-racist Jeff Sessions’ nomination as Attorney General. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell silenced her, stating plainly: “she had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

A century and a half earlier, Adams did the same. When fighting against the gag rule, John Quincy Adams was warned of the dangers. He knew the cost. Other representatives told him to leave things alone, that he would only aggravate problems that were being laid to rest. But still, he persisted. And because of that, his voice and his protest were some of many things that helped lead to emancipation.

He once said to “always vote for principle, [for] though you may vote alone, […] you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

What Adams teaches us is this: in times of insurmountable odds or opposition, if you stick to your principles, you cannot be silenced. If you persist, your voice can be heard. In this world of polarized opinions and criticism, the most important thing is to be an advocate for what you believe in. And one person, one vote, really does make all the difference.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s