EXCLUSIVE: Americans have a low opinion of Congress; That’s nothing new. At just 13%, congressional poll approval is as good as a colonoscopy and only slightly better than thermonuclear war.

But if Americans are frustrated by a legislature that seems unable to act, imagine if Congress had banned itself from even talking about our nation’s most difficult problems.

That’s what happened when John Quincy Adams, elected to the House of Representatives after his presidency in 1830, attempted to debate the issue of slavery.


The House had what was known as the “Gag Rule,” which prohibited members from even raising the issue. But when Adams brought up the issue and his colleagues tried to throw him out of the House and silence him, the former president defended himself. He refused to be canceled and let a culture of censorship stop him from saying what he knew to be true.

When John Quincy Adams left the presidency, defeated after one term, he was the least popular commander in chief since his father.

Defeated by Andrew Jackson in 1828, former President Adams thought his political life was over.

Jared Cohen and Life After Power book cover

This article is a special excerpt from “Life After Power” by Jared Cohen (shown here), who reveals how others tried to cancel John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth commander in chief, who served in the House of Representatives after of losing. his candidacy for reelection to the presidency. (Fox News Digital; Jared Cohen/Simon & Schuster)

At 61 years old, after having been ambassador, senator, secretary of state and president, there were no greater heights to which the founding son could reach.

For 18 months, he wallowed in his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, reading and trying his hand at growing trees, only to discover that he didn’t have good green thumbs.

He could have stayed in Quincy for the rest of his days. When a friend suggested to Adams’ wife Louisa that her husband consider re-entering politics, she responded: “There are some very foolish plans here and God only knows what they will end up in, but I’m afraid they won’t be to my taste.” “. “.

In a much lower position, Adams found a much higher calling.

But when the party convention nominated him to represent Plymouth in the 22nd Congress, he won in a landslide and Speaker John Quincy Adams became Representative John Quincy Adams, the only former commander in chief to serve in the House.

With victory in hand, he wrote: “Election as President of the United States was not half so gratifying to the inmost depths of my soul.”


Adams was not a slave owner and knew that slavery was wrong, but he did not enter Congress as an abolitionist crusader.

He didn’t really know what he wanted to do when he arrived at the Capitol. Seeing his old friend in Washington, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay jokingly asked him how Adams “felt to be a kid in the House of Representatives again.”

But in a much lower position, Adams found a much higher calling.

Jared Cohen and John Quincy Adams

Bestselling author Cohen (left) writes that with a single question from Adams (right) during the latter’s post-presidential terms as a member of the House of Representatives: “Am I gagged or not!?” — Adams “inadvertently christened the new edict prohibiting discussions of slavery: the Gag Rule.” But Adams responded forcefully. (Fox News Digital; DeAgostini/Getty Images)

With the threat of civil war looming over the capital, Congress had a tradition of avoiding the issue of slavery altogether; members were afraid of what would happen if they raised it. But that didn’t mean the American people, on both sides, didn’t speak out.

Adams’s anti-slavery sympathies were well known and more than 40,000 people had signed more than 300 petitions on the issue addressed directly to him.

The right to petition is protected by the First Amendment, and Congressman Adams read what petitioners (many of them women’s groups or Christian societies) had to say, presenting their petitions on the House floor, much to the chagrin of slave owners in The congress. . His colleagues were furious.


Terrified by Adams’ defense and that he was bringing up the most explosive issue in the country, slaveholders fought back and passed a resolution to prohibit the issue of slavery from being discussed at all. Surprised, Adams shouted, “Am I gagged or not!?”

With that question, without realizing it, he baptized the new edict that prohibits debates about slavery: the Gag Law.

The rules didn’t stop Adams. He would raise the issue as often as he could and in whatever way he could, protecting the First Amendment right to petition and hardening his abolitionism over time.

The dome of the United States Capitol is seen before the sun rises in Washington DC.

John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, served nine terms in the House of Representatives, from 1831 until his death in 1848. He is the only president elected to Congress after leaving the presidency. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In an era of political violence, including dueling in the House of Representatives (and amid threats from a Southern congressman that he would cut Adams “from ear to ear”), the former president defied his enemies at great risk.

Reading about his exploits, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote admiringly that Adams “was not a literary gentleman, but a bully… He must have sulfuric acid in his tea.”


Just because the House had passed the Gag Rule did not mean Adams was powerless.

He responded in his own way, calling a pro-slavery attempt to annex Texas “a war of conquest.”

Just because the House passed the Gag Rule did not mean Adams was powerless.

He denounced the reintroduction of slavery in a territory where it had previously been abolished and delayed the admission of another slave state, which would have tipped the balance of power in the Senate.

in the friendship In this case, he represented enslaved men and women who had escaped their captors before the Supreme Court, thus achieving their freedom.

His argument relied on appeals to the memory of the court’s Founding Fathers, and he pointed to a copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging on the chamber’s wall, pleading with the justices: “If these rights are inalienable, they are incompatible with the rights of the victor to take the life of his enemy in war, or to spare his life and make him a slave.

President Monroe and his cabinet

Illustration depicting the birth of the Monroe Doctrine. James Monroe appears standing next to a globe; John Quincy Adams is seen seated at left. From a painting by Clyde O. DeLand. (Getty Images)

Rep. Adams made his mark in other ways, too.

He headed a 13-member select committee to investigate whether President John Tyler should be impeached (the first such committee in American history).

Adams also helped establish the Smithsonian Institution.

By the time Adams got the Gag Rule repealed in 1844, he had done more than make history as the only former president elected to the House of Representatives. He had become the leading abolitionist in Congress in the first half of the 19th century.

Today’s elected representatives can make a difference by reminding Americans of our nation’s best traditions.

He had linked the cause of abolition to the purpose of the founding of the United States, using his authority as the son of a Founding Father and his knowledge and experience in government to become an elder statesman, even as a junior member.

When he died in 1848 at age 80 in the halls of the Capitol, he was described as “a living link of (connection) between the present and the past.”

After his death, Adams passed the torch of abolition to a young member of Congress, Abraham Lincoln, with whom he met for one term and who served on the committee to organize Adams’ funeral.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, while still a young congressman before his election to the presidency, served on the committee to organize the funeral of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States and later a long-time member of Congress. (Painting by JLG Ferris)

Adams did not let his frustrations over the 1828 defeat get the best of him, and he did not allow his more powerful colleagues to silence or cancel him.

Against obstacles far more difficult than those facing today’s Congress, Adams advanced the principles of the American founding.

He was respected, but he was not always popular. His frustrated opponents once said of him that he was “the sharpest, most cunning, and most bitter enemy of Southern slavery that ever lived… Eloquent Old Man, John Quincy Adams.”


Today, members of Congress can make a name for themselves on television or social media, using their positions as platforms and becoming talking heads rather than legislators.

Or they can make a difference by standing up for first principles and reminding Americans of our nation’s best traditions.


If they do, they may restore Americans’ faith in our institutions and follow in the footsteps of the great statesmen who came before them.

Taken from “Life after power: Seven presidents and their search for purpose beyond the White House.” © copyright Jared Cohen (Simon & Schuster, February 2024), by special arrangement. All rights reserved.

Stay tuned for additional excerpts on Fox News Digital from the new book. “Life after power.”

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By Sam