American Portraits

John Quincy Adams and His Struggle Against Slavery and the Gag Rule

By completing this lesson, students will understand how John Quincy Adams fought against the injustice of the gag rule in the House of Representatives and how they can fight for justice in their own lives.

Founding Principles

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Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

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Freedom of Speech

The freedom to express one's opinions without interference from the the government is critical to the maintenance of liberty within a free society.

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Majority Rule / Minority Rights

Laws may be made with the consent of the majority but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.


In February 1836, Henry Laurens Pinckney of South Carolina offered a resolution stating that the House of Representatives would table any petition mentioning slavery and ban any discussion or referral to committees. In May, the House soon passed the resolution by a vote of 117 to 68 in favor of this “gag rule.” Former president and now representative John Quincy Adams immediately rose from his seat to protest the gag rule. When he was shouted down by colleagues and not recognized by the Speaker of the House, James Polk, Adams yelled, “Am I gagged?” He argued that the gag rule was a “direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents.” He declared the gag rule a threat to free, deliberative government, stating, “The freedom of debate has been stifled in this House to a degree far beyond anything that ever has happened since the existence of the Constitution.”…

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you make protecting justice for yourself and others a priority in your life?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

By completing this lesson, students will understand how John Quincy Adams fought against the injustice of the gag rule in the House of Representatives and how they can fight for justice in their own lives.


  • Students will examine John Quincy Adams’ fight against the gag rule
  • Students will analyze how John Quincy Adams’ actions were just
  • Students will apply their understanding to how they can act justly in their own lives


The 1830s and 1840s saw a deepening polarization between North and South over the issue of slavery. Although the Missouri Compromise—which established a line dividing free and slave states in the territory acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase—kept the peace for more than a decade, the sectional rivalries resurfaced. The continuing expansion in the West stirred up sectionalism when Texas declared its independence and applied for statehood in the Union.

Many northerners and southerners developed intense feelings about the institution of slavery. Inspired by the American ideals in the Declaration of Independence, abolitionists formed anti-slavery societies and launched a massive campaign against slavery through newspapers, speeches, pamphlets, and petitions to Congress. Many southerners defended their “peculiar institution” against the barrage of assaults. They developed the idea that slavery was a “positive good” that was beneficial for slaves, masters, and the country because it preserved a natural order rooted in the inequality of the races. Southerners began blocking abolitionist literature from reaching southern states and sought to prevent abolitionists from flooding Congress with petitions seeking the end of slavery.

In 1830, former Senator, Secretary of State, and President John Quincy Adams was elected to the House of Representatives. Although he did not embrace radical abolitionism, he believed that slavery was a moral evil that contradicted the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. He opposed the idea that “color operates as a forfeiture of the rights of human nature.” He decided to fight the “gag rule” that was preventing petitions from being considered.


  • Sectionalism
  • Abolitionists
  • Referral
  • Resolution
  • Gag Rule
  • Deliberative
  • Censure
  • Irate
  • Provenance
  • Manifested
  • Oppressed
  • Vengeance
  • Deterred
  • Grudgingly
  • Acute
  • Astute

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the “Walk-In-The-Shoes” question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was John Quincy Adams’ identity in relation to the fight against the House’s gag rule?
  • What was John Quincy Adams’ purpose in fighting against the gag rule?
  • How did Adams fight against the injustice of the gag rule?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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