HOW THE "OLD MAN ELOQUENT"
WON THE FIGHT.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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