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Petition from Women of Brookline, Massachusetts, 1836

The gag rule kept antislavery petitions such as this one from being presented on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

Petition from Women of Brookline, Massachusetts, 1836

Old Man Eloquent

John Quincy Adams was President of the United States. After that came the high point of his life: 17 years in the House of Representatives.

Adams thrived on congressional combat. When Southern members imposed a rule that automatically prohibited debate on antislavery petitions, Adams was outraged. To "gag" citizens who petition their government, he thundered, was a "direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, of the rules of this House, and of the rights of my constituents."

Adams matched words with deeds. For eight years (1836–1844), he gleefully baffled opponents by exploiting every loophole and parliamentary trick to bring up antislavery petitions. His efforts won him wide popularity in the North, encouraging even more antislavery petitions. In 1844, on Adams’s motion, the House rescinded the "gag rule."

"Mr. Adams belongs to no local district, to no political party, but to the Nation and to the people...."
— Diary of Representative Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio