John Quincy Adams to the Inhabitants of the 12th Congressional District

A letter written by John Quincy Adams to the 12th Congressional District.
John Quincy Adams
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept(s) 3, 8, 9,10

I presented twenty petitions, all of which were laid on the table without being read, though in every instance I moved for the reading, which the Speaker [James K. Polk] refused to permit--from his decision I took in every case an appeal, and the appeal was in ever case laid on the table....

[Adams describes a petition from Fredericksburg, Virginia, that] purported to be from twenty-two slaves.... I had suspicions that [it]...came really from the hand of a master, who had prevailed upon his slaves to sign it--that they might have the appearance of imploring the members from the North to cease offering petitions for their emancipation which could have no other tendency than to aggravate the burden of their servitude and of being so impatient under the operation of the petitions in their favour, as to pray that the Northern members who should persist in presenting them should be expelled....

But the petition, avowedly coming from slaves, though praying for my expulsion from the House if I should persevere in presenting abolition petitions, opened to my examination and enquiry a new question, or at least a question which had never occurred to me before, and which I never should have thought of starting upon speculation, namely, Whether the right to petition Congress, could in any case be exercised by slaves? And after giving to the subject all the reflection of which I was capable, I came to the conclusion, that however doubtful it might be whether slaves could petition Congress for anything incompatible with their condition as slaves, and with their subjection to servitude, yet that for all other wants, distresses and grievances incident to their nature as men and to their relations as members, degraded members as they may be, of this community, they do enjoy the right of petition; and that if they enjoyed the right in any case whatsoever, there could be none in which they were more certainly entitled to it, than that of deprecating the attempts of deluded friends to release them from bondage; a case in which they alone could in the nature of things speak for themselves, and their masters could not possibly speak for them....

But after getting these two questions to the satisfaction of my own mind, there remained another. With what temper they would be received in a house, the large majority of which consisted of slave-holders, and of their political Northern associates, whose mouthpieces had already put forth their feelers to familiarize the freeman of the North with the fight of a representative expelled from his seat for the single offence of persisting to present abolition petitions. I foresaw that the very conception of a petition from slaves, would dismount all the slave-holding philosophy of the House, and expected it would produce an explosion, which would spent itself in wind. Without therefore presenting or offering to present the petition, I stated to the Speaker that I had such a paper in my possession, which I had been requested to present, and enquired whether it came within the Resolution of the 18th of January. Now the Speaker decided that under that order, no such paper should be read.... The Speaker...horrified at the idea of receiving and laying on the table a petition from slaves, said that in a case so novel and extraordinary he felt himself incompetent to decide and must take the advice and direction of the House....

If I had stated that I had a petition from sundry persons in Fredericksburg, relating to slavery, without saying that the petitioners were, by their own avowal, slaves, the paper must have gone upon the table; but the discovery would soon have been made, that it came from slaves, and there the tempest of indignation would have burst upon me, with tenfold fury, and I should have been charged with having fraudulently introduced a petition from slaves, without letting the House know the condition of the petitioners.

To avoid the possibility of such a charge, I put the question to the Speaker, giving him notice that the petition purported to come from slaves, and that I had suspicions that it came from another, and a very different source. The Speaker after failing in the attempt to obtain possession of the paper, referred my question to the House for decision, and there ensued a scene of which I propose to give an account, in a subsequent address, entreating you only to remember, if what I have said, or may say to you hereafter on this subject [slavery] should tax your patience, that the stake in the question is your right to petition, your freedom of thought and of action, and the freedom in Congress of your Representative.

Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    According to Adams, why would anyone support the Gag Rule?
    Answers will vary; To suppress the political power of abolitionists and prevent dissenting opinion from affecting the society of enslavers, even if such suppression violates the Constitution.
  2. Question
    What did Adams say would happen to the rights of Americans if laws like the Gag Rule were allowed?
    He suggests that the freedom to petition and other political freedoms of Americans would be at risk of being altered or revoked entirely.
  3. Question
    What did Adams suspect was the origin of the petition by enslaved people? What inferences support these suspicions?
    Adams suspected that the petition was actually written by an enslaver. Answers supporting this suspicion will vary. An argument against abolition would be against the best interests of enslaved people. Enslaved people were rarely allowed to learn how to read or write. They were not free to refuse to sign an anti-abolition petition.
  4. Question
    What was the "Gag Rule," and where does it come into play in this document?
    Background info on the Gag Rule would be necessary to answer this question. The 1836 House Gag Rule forbade the house from reviewing anti-slavery petitions. The twenty petitions Adams submitted regarding slavery were ignored, and his appeals to bypass the Gag Rule were subsequently ignored.
  5. Question
    What was the message in the petition?
    Supposedly, the author(s) wanted have Adams expelled from the House of Representatives if he continued to present abolition petitions. They also asked that others petitioning for abolition be expelled from the House.
  6. Question
    According to Adams, how did most members of the House feel about slavery? What might this reveal about their attitudes towards the Gag Rule?
    Adams suggests that much of the House consisted of enslavers and their Northern associates. Answers about attitudes will vary; The Gag Rule restricted political movement towards public grievances regarding slavery and its abolishment.
  7. Question
    What is Adams' conclusion regarding the rights of enslaved people to petition?
    Adams concludes that enslaved people do have the right to petition.
Reveal Answers
Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More