Chapter 23



On the famous 17th of June, in the year 1775, a prim and precocious small boy of eight stood beside his mother on the top of Penns Hill, in the north parish of Braintree. Across the intervening stretch of blue water he watched the flaming ruins of burning Charlestown, and listened to the sounds of conflict borne down from the battle of Bunker Hill.

A cairn and tablet mark this historic spot, while below, at the foot of the hill, still stands the old farmhouse, preserved by patriotic hands, in which in that time of stress lived this little boy of eight.

He was the son of a remarkable father and a no less remarkable mother. He had early imbibed the belief of his far-seeing father that "all England will be unable to subdue us," and when but nine years old this small patriot galloped, as the family post rider, for news of the evacuation of Boston, eleven miles distant from the Braintree farm.

That precocious small spectator of the battle of Bunker Hill, the victory of Dorchester Heights, and the evacuation of Boston grew to be quite as remarkable as his father and mother. The republic that had made his father President of the United States in time made the




son President also; and on the long roll of American worthies the great nation writes high and boldly, where all the world may read, the name of that noble son of Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, son of John Adams and of Abigail his wife.

The memory of those boyish experiences in "the heart of revolution" amid the first struggles for liberty in America never left him. John Quincy Adams was always a liberty-lover, the champion of free speech, the advocate of human rights. He lived to be eighty-one years old, dying actually in the service of the republic, stricken by death on the floor of the Capitol, even as he rose in his place to catch the Speaker’s eye.

For it is a singular fact in the life of this untiring and wonderful man that, after filling the highest office in the gift of the people,—that of President of the United States,—he accepted after the close of his Presidency, and in his sixty—fourth year, a nomination to Congress, and for seventeen years served his native State as representative from Massachusetts.

There he made so remarkable a record for ability, zeal, and loyalty to principle that people called him the "Old Man Eloquent." Aflame with the desire for justice and right, he withstood to the bitterest end what he believed to be the unholy aggressions of an unpatriotic section, fighting valiantly and unceasingly for individual liberty and for the privilege of the citizen,— both of which he held to have been the mainspring of that independence for which America had battled when he was but a boy.



As President of the United States John Quincy Adams saw the drift of things. He was wonderfully clear-headed and far-sighted, and he was really the. first leader in that long crusade against slavery that only terminated in the smoke and roar of the Civil War, forty years later.

It is well indeed for the boys and girls of Massachusetts to remember—in fact, for all Americans to remember—that the mighty act of Abraham Lincoln that was the turning point of the Civil War and gave the death. blow to slavery the Emancipation Proclamation—was based upon a declaration made in Congress, in 1836, by. John Quincy Adams, to the effect that, in the event of a war between the States, the President of the United States had power to order the universal emancipation of the slaves. For young Abraham Lincoln, the silent but watchful congressman from Illinois, stored in his memory the words of power and wisdom spoken in those stormy days by old John Quincy Adams, the aggressive and eloquent congressman from Massachusetts.

That they were stormy days all who follow the stirring story of John Quincy Adams in his fight for the right of petition soon discover.

"Right of petition" means the right of any American man or woman to present to Congress, through a member of that Congress, a petition for justice, relief, or redress. The petition thus presented is handed to the proper committee for consideration and action.

This right the Constitution of the United States expressly allows. It is one that Massachusetts, from the days of patentees and kings, had strenuously asserted,




and one which such a man as John Quincy Adams would not see invaded. Congress, indeed, had never before questioned the right, but when the people of Massachusetts began to send in through their representative, Mr. Adams, petitions to limit or abolish negro slavery in the United States, at once there was trouble.

In those days, the majority in Congress favored slavery; the timid or fearful members dared not oppose it; and these all combined to suppress Mr. Adams or crush him by weight of numbers. Rut they did not know their man. John Quincy Adams would not be suppressed. He would not stay crushed. Again and again he presented his petitions, only to be refused a hearing; at last he claimed his right to be heard under the law.

Then Congress set to work to make a law that should shut him off. This was called the" gag law," or" speech-smothering resolution," because it sought to stop all reference to slavery in Congress by a law the last clause of which declared that "all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers relating in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery, or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid upon the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon."

This law, you see, would "gag," or choke off, any petition that might be offered, and clearly invaded the right granted by the Constitution.



But if Congress thought this law would "gag" or silence John Quincy Adams, they speedily discovered :heir mistake. It was the gauntlet thrown down for fight, as in the old days of the knights; and John Quincy Adams, leaping into the lists, picked it up as he champion of civil rights.

"I hold the resolution to he a violation of the Constitution," he shouted to the hostile Congress, "of the Sight of petition of my constituents and of the people of the United States, and of my right to free speech as a member of this house."

Then the fight began in earnest. The opponents of slavery in all parts of the Union recognized that this Massachusetts congressman, once President of the United States, was the leader of the opposition, and :hey flooded him with petitions against slavery, every me of which he duly presented, only to be shut off by the gag law, even before he could finish reading the title of the petition. 

For months the unequal struggle went on. Nothing could turn the purpose or break the will of this stubborn old man. Alone, unsupported, indifferent to abuse, threat, or censure, he held his own until, by sheer pluck and indomitable courage, he won first the respect and hen the admiration of men.

"If the gentleman," he said, one day, when the threat of arrest and punishment was flung at him, "thinks to frighten me from my purpose, he has mistaken his man. am not to be intimidated by him, nor by all the grand juries in the universe."

There are battles more bitter than Lexington, more



stubborn than Bunker Hill, fought with the weapons of principle, justice, and right, upon whose issue the progress of the world depends. Such a battle did John Quincy Adams fight alone in the halls of Congress.

His unyielding position challenged the admiration even of his foes. It won anew the honor and respect of the people of Massachusetts, who saw their champion waging for them a seemingly hopeless battle. They welcomed him home with speech and song, and showed their appreciation of his heroic stand by reelecting him to Congress again and again, that he might continue the fight.

He did continue it. Again and again did he present the obnoxious petitions, only to see them cast aside; again and again did he move the rescinding of the un-American gag law, only to be voted down.

But while holding his adversaries at bay he was creating public sentiment. Men began to see that it was something more than stubbornness, something higher than the mere love of a contest, that was holding him to a set purpose. As they grew to believe him right, the majorities in support of the gag law grew less and less, until at last, in 1844, after fully eight years of his struggle for principle, Congress supported his motion to rescind the gag law, and the law was defeated by a vote of one hundred and eight to eighty. John Quincy Adams had won his fight. The right of petition was established, the freedom of speech was maintained, and the weary old victor wrote in his famous diary: Blessed, forever blessed, be the name of God."

Four years after, the Old Man Eloquent died in

harness, in the very place where so much of his busy life had been spent. To-day, on the floor of the Capitol at Washington, visitors are shown a metallic circle set in the marble floor, to mark the spot where John Quincy Adams was stricken with death; and Massachusetts enshrines forever the memory of the " two Adamses,"— honored father and honored son.