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As president, John Quincy Adams sought to modernize the American economy, promote education and pay down the national debt. To preserve the separation of church and state he took the oath of office on a book of laws instead of the more traditional Bible. Returning to Congress for 17 years after his presidency, he continued to be an active force of anti-slavery in the Congress until his death in 1848.
Adams barraged the House with anti-slavery petitions, irritating the Speaker James Polk who ruled in 1835 that the petitions had to be received, but could then be rejected – a compromise that pleased no one. Polk’s inability to control the House permitted Adams to link abolitionism to the Constitutional right to petition and keep the debate alive, delighting in being “obnoxious to the slave faction.” He said that he must “bring about a day prophesied when slavery and war shall be banished from the face of the earth.”
John Q, a bridge in many ways, personally knew the Founding Fathers as well as Abraham Lincoln. He knew the aversion to the slave trade issue resulted in “the great silence” from 1789-1809, and he was present when the Pickney Resolutions were passed May 26, 1836, resulting in another “great silence” through 1844. The first resolution stated that Congress had no constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the states, the second that it “ought not” do so in the District of Columbia. Known as the “gag rule” the third automatically “tabled” all antislavery petitions, preventing them from being read or discussed.
Throughout this period, Adams’ “superior talent in using and abusing parliamentary rules” and skill in baiting his enemies into making mistakes enabled him to evade the rule.
1838: Pro-slaver ministers are “prevaricating with their own consciences, and taxing their learning and ingenuity to prove that the Bible sanctions slavery….These preachers of the Gospel might just as well call our extermination of the Indians an obedience to Divine commands because Jehovah commanded the children of Israel to exterminate the Canaanitish nations.”
In 1842 Adams attempted to present a petition from Northern abolitionists calling for dissolution of the Union. Southern congressmen branded the idea treason and attempted to have him censured by the House. Censure was dropped when his defense went on so long and became popular with the nation.
Adams predicted presidential use of war powers to free slaves. He believed Southern independence would result in bloody slave revolts based on his understanding that a southern country could not be sustained if isolated.
For the years 2012-2013, Our Story, Inc. will be be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Project and its legacy in Nevada. This article is part of a series to be published during that time. The first part of the series covers the presidencies leading up to Lincoln in order to review national policy and experience leading to emancipation. Please feel free to circulate and share (credited), comment or submit your own articles.
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