EXCLUSIVE: Americans have a negative opinion of Congress – this is 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 incapable of acting, imagine if Congress had forbidden itself from even talking about our nation's most difficult problems.

This is what happened when John Quincy Adams, elected to the House of Representatives after his presidency in 1830, tried to debate the issue of slavery.


The House had what became known as the “Gag Rule,” which prohibited members from even raising the issue. But when Adams brought up the subject and his colleagues tried to expel him from the Chamber and silence him, the former president reacted. He refused to be canceled and allowed a culture of censorship to 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.

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

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

At 61 years old, after having served as ambassador, senator, secretary of state and president, there were no more heights for the founding son to climb.

For 18 months, he stayed at home in Quincy, Massachusetts, reading and experimenting with tree growing, only to discover he didn't have a green thumb.

He could have stayed in Quincy for the rest of his days. When a friend suggested to Adams's wife, Louisa, that her husband consider reentering politics, she responded: “There are some very silly plans going on here and God only knows how they will end, but I'm afraid it 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 President 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: “The election as President of the United States was not so gratifying to the depths of my soul.”


Adams was not a slave owner and knew that slavery was evil, but he did not enter Congress as a crusading abolitionist.

In fact, he didn't know what he wanted to do when he arrived at the Capitol. Upon seeing his old friend in Washington, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay jokingly asked how Adams “felt about becoming a boy again in the House of Representatives.”

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

Jared Cohen and John Quincy Adams

Best-selling author Cohen (left) writes this 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 named the new edict prohibiting debates on slavery: the Gag Rule.” But Adams pushed back hard. (Fox News Digital; DeAgostini/Getty Images)

With the threat of civil war hanging over the capital, Congress had a tradition of avoiding the issue of slavery altogether – members were afraid of what would happen if they brought up the subject. But that doesn't mean the American people, on both sides, haven't spoken out.

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

The right to petition is protected by the First Amendment, and Congressman Adams would read what the 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 Congress . . His colleagues were furious.


Terrified by Adams' defense and that he was raising the country's most explosive issue, slave owners responded and passed a resolution to ban discussion of the issue of slavery. Shocked, Adams shouted, “Am I gagged or not!?”

With that question, he inadvertently named the new edict prohibiting debates on slavery: the Gag Rule.

The rules didn't stop Adams. He would raise the issue whenever he could, however he could, protecting the First Amendment right to petition and hardening his abolitionism over time.

The US Capitol dome is seen before sunrise in Washington DC.

John Quincy Adams, America's 6th president, 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, even duels on the House floor – 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 brawler… [H]He must have sulfuric acid in his tea.”


Just because the House passed the Gag Rule didn't mean Adams was powerless.

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

Just because the House passed the Gag Rule didn't 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.

At Amistad In that case, he represented enslaved men and women who escaped their captors before the Supreme Court, winning them their freedom.

His argument was based 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, imploring the justices: “If these rights are inalienable, they are incompatible with the rights of the victor to take your enemy's life in war, or spare his life and make him a slave.”

President Monroe and Cabinet

Illustration that depicts the birth of the Monroe Doctrine. James Monroe is shown next to a globe; John Quincy Adams is shown sitting on the left. From a painting by Clyde O. DeLand. (Getty Images)

Rep. Adams also left his mark in other ways.

He headed a 13-member select committee to investigate whether President John Tyler should be impeached – the first committee of its kind in American history.

Adams also helped establish the Smithsonian Institution.

When Adams succeeded in repealing the gag rule in 1844, he had already done more than make history as the only former president elected to the House of Representatives. He became the leading abolitionist in Congress in the first half of the 19th century.

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

He tied the cause of abolition to the purpose of the American founding, 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, aged 80, in the halls of the Capitol, he was described as “a living bond 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 coincided 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 a longtime member of Congress thereafter. (Painting by JLG Ferris)

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

Against odds far tougher than those facing Congress today, Adams advanced toward the principles of the American founding.

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


Today, members of Congress can become known on television or social media, using their positions as platforms and becoming speakers rather than legislators.

Or they can make a difference by defending first principles and reminding Americans of our nation's best traditions.


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

Extracted 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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