Hero of the First Amendment: John Quincy Adams

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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John Quincy Adams is the sort of fellow who winds up as a Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit question:  Who was the sixth president of the United States?  Who was the first son of a president to become president himself?  Who was the first president to serve in the House of Representatives after leaving the White House?  He was also a hero of the First Amendment, specifically, the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

“In 1836, Adams focused his long-standing anti-slavery sentiment on defeating a gag-rule instituted by Southerners to stifle debate.”

“In 1836 southern Congressmen passed a “gag rule” providing that the House automatically table petitions against slavery. Adams tirelessly fought the rule for eight years until finally he obtained its repeal.”

John Quincy Adams was an adamant abolitionist, and is remembered for representing the slaves aboard the Amistad in court.  He is also remembered for arguing for the right of all Americans to petition the government, as provided for in the First Amendment.  Southern congressmen managed to get a rule based banning all petitions and resolutions on slavery.  John Quincy Adams considered this unconstitutional, and wasted no time saying so.

“I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States.”

It took eight years of rhetoric and effort before Adams was able to achieve a partial victory.  Congress agreed to drop the gag rule, but declared the right to petition the government belonged only to free, white Americans.  Black slaves — who needed the right to petition more than their white brethren — were denied that right.

John Quincy Adams was one of the most brilliant diplomats who ever served the United States of America.  He was at his best when he was Secretary of State to President Monroe:

  1. He negotiated with Britain to peacefully determine our northern border with Canada.
  2. He negotiated with Spain, allowing the USA to acquire Florida.
  3. He was the principal architect of the Monroe Doctrine.

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[1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams, by Philip Haas]

John Quincy Adams was born July 11, 1767 in the Massachusetts colony, to John and Abigail Adams.  He went overseas with his father on John Adams’ diplomatic missions, learning his trade before he finished his schooling.  He was educated at Leiden University in the Netherlands and at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  After beginning his law career, he served overseas as minister to the Netherlands, Portugal, and Prussia.  He married Louisa Johnson in 1797 in London.  He returned to the US, where he served briefly in the Massachusetts State Senate and then was elected to the United States Senate.  He taught logic at Brown University and rhetoric and oratory at Harvard. He left education when he was appointed ambassador to Russia.  He left the tsar’s court to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the War of 1812, and then took the position his father had once had, as US ambassador to England.

From 1817 to 1825 he served as Secretary of State.  In 1824 he was elected president in a close and contentious election, and served in the White House from 1825 to 1829.  After finishing his presidency, he attempted to retire from public life, but failed.  By 1830 he was elected to the House of Representatives, although some felt it was beneath the dignity of a former president to take a lower ranked position in the government.  He spent the next seventeen years in the House of Representatives, speaking for the rights of all Americans and the importance of the Constitution.  He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and collapsed on the floor of the House in 1848.  He died two days later, on February 23, 1848.  A first term congressman, Representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, was assigned to the committee in charge of funeral arrangements.  Lincoln, like Adams, opposed both slavery and the Mexican-American War.

John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa had four children, three of whom predeceased them.

Read the Constitution.  Read American history.  Know your rights as an American citizen.

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