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Column: John Quincy Adams Could Have Taught Ted Cruz a Trick or Two

Much to the consternation of moderates in both parties, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and his Tea Party band are gearing up for another showdown over President Barack Obama’s health-care law, guaranteeing that Congress will remain captive to their agenda.

But when it comes to throwing sand into the gears of the legislative process, the radicals in today’s Congress are rank amateurs. History is replete with senators and representatives who have, against all odds, forced their colleagues to revisit matters that the majority wished to avoid. Like slavery, for example.

For sheer, unrelenting doggedness and one-man obstruction of government, though, John Quincy Adams, an anti-Southern abolitionist, surely deserves the prize.

Adams is perhaps best known as the president from 1825 to 1828. By most historians’ accounts, he was a disaster in that role. After Andrew Jackson swept him from office, he dropped from public view. He resurfaced in 1830, when he ran for a Massachusetts seat in the House and won — the only former president to do so.

Although he belonged to the National Republicans, Adams remained estranged from many in his party, particularly after he clashed with its leadership. He eventually switched to the newly formed Whig Party.

He joined Congress just as a small but increasingly vocal minority in the North began pressing the abolitionist cause, deluging Congress with antislavery petitions. Under House rules, these needed to be brought to the floor and “considered.” But doing so brought debate over the slavery question to the center of national politics. Southern lawmakers moved quickly to change the rules so that these petitions could be sent to die in a subcommittee without debate or discussion.

Though he was a gradual convert to the antislavery cause, Adams believed silencing debate to be unconstitutional. And he fought back. In the heated discussion over the proposed rule change, Adams at one point screamed at the House speaker, “Am I gagged, or am I not?”

His outburst gave a name to that procedural tactic: the gag procedure, or gag rule.

After the rule was adopted in 1835, Adams began a long, lonely campaign that infuriated his colleagues. As thousands of petitions flowed into Congress, Adams brought them to the floor, disingenuously asking whether they were subject to the gag rule. The sheer volume brought the legislative process to a temporary halt, even if they were immediately removed from consideration. The petitions began piling up in a 600-square-foot room designed to hold them. By 1838, they filled almost the entire room to the height of its 14-foot ceiling.

This was just the beginning of Adams’ fight. On Feb. 6, 1837, he took to the floor to present yet another petition against slavery, one that he said had been submitted by a number of slaves.

This was heresy: Slaves couldn’t petition Congress, much less request the end of slavery. This was a poke in the eye for Southerners, who reacted with rage, urging that the petition be “taken from the House and burnt.”

As the House erupted, South Carolina’s Waddy Thompson and his allies moved to censure Adams. But Adams turned the tables. His accusers, he announced, had wrongly assumed that this was an antislavery petition. This petition, he claimed (probably dishonestly), begged Congress to maintain slavery, not abolish it.

The chamber exploded again, and Adams used the occasion to point out the absurdities of the gag rule. Were the Southerners, Adams inquired, deaf to a pro-slavery petition from their own slaves? What was so dangerous about talking about slavery?

The argument over the censure motion raged for days, as Adams assailed his opponents and defended the right to petition. Legislative business ground to a halt.

Adams soon became the most reviled man in the House. Hate mail poured into his office. One Southerner warned Adams to cease, or “you will when least expected, be shot down in the street, or your damned guts will be cut out in the dark.” An Alabaman promised to cut his throat “from ear to ear.”

Adams redoubled his efforts. Every time he chipped away at support for the gag rule, a bipartisan consensus re-emerged to keep slavery off the table. But in 1842, Adams delivered a death blow with a new petition: a request by a number of citizens of Massachusetts to secure “measures peacefully to dissolve the Union.” This was akin to bringing a bomb onto the floor of the House, and Adams’ opponents immediately assailed him. A move to censure him seemed too mild, and the Southerners forwarded a motion that accused Adams of treason.

Adams’ foes had fallen into another trap. Treason was a high crime punishable by death, and Adams immediately demanded an opportunity to defend himself. Again, the House laid aside its normal legislative activity, allowing him to answer the charges. He used the occasion to rail against pro-slavery forces in the House, the gag rule and the hypocrisy of not discussing slavery — even as he discussed it great length. Indeed, he warned that he might take 90 days to lay out his case against the “dark conclave of conspirators” who had accused him.

The Southerners declared Adams insane; Adams, in turn, singled out individual colleagues as “slave mongers” and “beef-witted blunderheads.” The insurgent kept talking, always circling back to slavery and petitions, circumventing the restrictions that had been placed on him.

The chief clerk of the House observed that Adams “spares no one. ... He has exhibited more temper, more obstinacy, & more desire to attack everybody, friend & foe indiscriminately, than I ever saw either him or any other mortal exhibit before.” After weeks of harangues, Adams finally rested, allowing the vote to bring him to trial to come to the floor. On Feb. 4, 1842, it failed by a vote of 105 to 80.

Adams’ ability to bring the business of government to a halt made the more moderate members of the House reconsider their support of the gag rule. It was finally ditched in 1844.

After nine years of relentless, often solitary struggle — and near-daily hijackings of the legislative process — Adams went from a voice crying in the wilderness to the conscience of the House. It was a monumental achievement, arguably more important than anything he did as president.

Stephen Mihm is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia.