Historical Highlights

A Motion to Censure Representative John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts

February 07, 1842
A Motion to Censure Representative John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This early print features Massachusetts Representative John Quincy Adams addressing the House of Representatives in the Hall of the House.
On this date, the House voted 106 to 93 to table a motion censuring Representative John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts for antislavery agitation. Weeks earlier Adams had masterfully manipulated the public debate over slavery by baiting proslavery Representatives into a prolonged dialogue. Because the House had instituted the “Gag Rule” in 1836—preventing floor discussion of abolition petitions—Adams manufactured a debate by submitting a petition, allegedly drafted by a group of Georgians, to have Adams removed as Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman. (Historians doubt the authenticity of the petition—some implying that Adams or one of his allies authored it). Through this sleight of hand, Adams used the defense of his chairmanship to hold the floor for days delivering a far ranging harangue against “slave mongers,” as one observer recalled, “till slaveholding [and] slave trading…absolutely quailed and howled under his dissecting knife.” Adams then raised the stakes, presenting a petition from 46 citizens of Haverhill, Massachusetts, calling for disunion because “a vast proportion of their resources” supported institutions that benefited southern slaveholders. Adams suggested the petition be considered in committee. Southerners rose to the bait, howling their indignation and quickly introducing resolutions calling for Adams to be censured for “perjury” and “high treason.” Adams recast the censure debate into a forum attacking slavery and slaveholders with venom. The Massachusetts Whig dared his enemies to expel him and force a special election to fill his vacant seat, taunting them with the promise, “I have constituents to go to that will have something to say if this House expels me. Nor will it be long before gentlemen will see me again!” Finally, after two weeks, Adams consented to cut his defense short, if the resolution would be tabled “never to be taken up again.”

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