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Civil War Beckons in John Quincy Adams' Wake

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Good morning. It’s February 21. On this day in 1972, President Nixon landed in Beijing, the first visit by a U.S. president to the most populous nation in the world. Also on this date, in 1848, former president John Quincy Adams suffered a stroke on the floor of the House of Representatives. He would die two days later, having served 17 years during his post-presidency in Congress, where he emerged as a leader in the fight against slavery.

John Quincy Adams hardly can be credited with starting the abolitionist movement in Congress. Quaker-sponsored petitions to end slavery - signed by Benjamin Franklin, among others – were regularly sent to Congress beginning in 1790.

House Democrats from the Southern states grew so tired of them, and so powerful, that in 1836, they succeeded in passing a rule automatically tabling such petitions. It was this infamous “gag rule” that Adams, representing his home congressional district in Massachusetts, devoted his career to fighting.

The Senate had rejected a similar gag rule, but the response of powerful South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun, revealed just what Adams and his fellow abolitionists were up against.

On March 16, 1836, after losing a gag rule vote, Calhoun angrily stomped out of the chamber. In a fiery speech delivered days earlier, Calhoun had warned his colleagues against interfering with the South’s complex system of slave labor.

“The relation which now exists between the two races has existed for two centuries,” Calhoun said. “It has grown with our growth and strengthened with our strength. It has entered into and modified all our institutions, civil and political. We will not – cannot - permit it to be destroyed.”

Adams, who considered slavery a “foul stain” on the still-new nation, was mystified by such intransigence. In private entreaties to Calhoun, Adams invoked the preambles to both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and asked the senator how he could possibly find such language compatible with slavery.

Calhoun’s response, as recorded in Adams’ diary, was chilling in its circular simplicity:

“Calhoun…said that the principles which I had avowed were just and noble: but that in the Southern country, whenever they were mentioned, they were always understood as applying only to white men.”

Plantation owner John Randolph, who represented Virginia in the House and later in the Senate, put it this way: “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty. I hate equality.”

George Mason, a wiser Virginian, had seen this coming. He had warned his fellow Founders that slavery would produce in the South a society of “petty tyrants” in which “generous” or “liberal” sentiments on race would be extinguished.

To listen to John C. Calhoun or any prominent Southern politician was to realize that George Mason’s fears had come true. And four years after John Quincy Adams’ death, Frederick Douglass delivered a famous speech excoriating the sons of the Founders for not standing up to it – for not completing their task started by their fathers.

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed,” Douglass vowed. “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.

“The feeling of the nation must be quickened, the conscience of the nation must be roused,” he added, “the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed - and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

Douglass was prescient, for all this would happen - and more. The storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake were coming, along with greater suffering than most Americans could imagine. This profound reckoning was heralded by the sound of cannon fire directed at Fort Sumter, in John C. Calhoun’s South Carolina.

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