In light of the Republican losses during this election, many are calling for the party to abandon its principles. It should give up, we hear, on constitutionally limited government to preserve individual freedom, protection of property rights from ever higher taxes and the dignity of each human life.
But our history shows that one man of courage no matter which party can make more difference than thousands who follow the crowd.
In his captivating new book, "John Quincy Adams," historian Harlow Giles Unger paints the portrait of the first son of Founding Father John Adams. John Quincy Adams was educated at Harvard, starred as a diplomat, excelled as secretary of state and became an ineffective and unpopular one-term president.
But John Quincy Adams had patriotism bred in his bones. When I lived in Boston, I wrote for the Patriot Ledger in nearby Quincy, where I could envision 7-year-old John Quincy and his mother, on a hill behind their Quincy farm, watching the Battle of Bunker Hill, an experience that haunted John Quincy Adams the rest of his life.
No sooner did he leave the White House than his constituents in Massachusetts asked him to represent them in Congress. On his first day in Congress in 1832, with many of his fellow congressmen representing slave states, he "hurled his first thunderbolt on the floor of the house, shocking both sides of the aisle with not one but fifteen petitions from Pennsylvania Quakers 'praying for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia,' " Unger writes.
Under rules adopted by the First Congress in 1790, the House had agreed to remain silent on the question of abolition, to appease some southern states. Although "most of the House rose as one to roar its disapproval," Unger states, Adams "had burst open the doors of Congress to abolitionist voices for the first time in decades voices that other congressmen had routinely ignored for years and would never be able to ignore again."
To thwart Adams, in 1836 the House introduced a resolution banning all petitions on slavery, which passed, 95-82, cutting off all further debate.
"Am I gagged or am I not," John Quincy Adams shouted in disbelief inadvertently giving the new rule its historic name, the gag rule.
Then, with his penetrating eyes and arched eyebrows, he roared above the din of the crowd, "I hold the resolution to be in direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, of the rules of this House, and of the rights of my constituents."
The enmity he encountered in the House grew vicious, but the gag rule infuriated many who argued that if the House could gag the reading of petitions against slavery, it could stop petitions on any subject.
Increasingly stifled by the gag rule, Adams resorted to "rhetorical trickery to confuse and emasculate his political enemies," as Unger puts it, earning him the name "Old Man Eloquent" from the press. He read petitions for abolition by terming them "prayers." When an opponent introduced a resolution to accept an apology from John Quincy Adams for his conduct that he had never offered, Adams insisted he had never apologized and resented the accusation of having done so, prompting ripples of laughter.
Though death threats arrived at his door, Adams persisted, and in 1840 he successfully represented before the U.S. Supreme Court 36 Africans who had been captured on the slave ship Amistad after killing the captain and three crewmen.
Adams concluded his defense by recalling the names of legendary court justices like John Marshall and trusting that "they have gone to receive the reward of blessedness on high." It was understood that he was asking them to abide by standards higher than man's law. The court set the Africans free.
In 1844, the House abolished the gag rule, ending the great battle John Quincy Adams had fought for "freedom of debate in Congress, freedom of speech generally, and the right of citizens to petition their government," Unger writes.
In 1848, John Quincy Adams, at age 80, collapsed at his seat in the House and died two days later. The nation mourned as it had not since the deaths of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Adams' eloquence still resounded in the silent chamber as he lay in his coffin: "My cause is the cause of my country and human liberty."
A little more than 12 years later, the Civil War began.
Forebears of this caliber show us that if a cause is great, it should never be abandoned due to momentary election losses or the winds of contemporary opposition.