Old Man eloquent
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If the older generation were the Founding Fathers, perhaps JQA was the Founding Son
Life After the White House for John Quincy Adams
Paperback. 309 pp.
On March 4, 1829, John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States, skipped the inauguration of his successor and prepared for what he imagined would be a quiet and private retirement. For nearly 50 years, Adams had served his country, beginning as a secretary to his father and other American diplomats overseas as a teenager during the American Revolution before becoming perhaps the best diplomat in the history of the United States. Adams -- the son of the 2nd President -- occupied diplomatic posts in the Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, and Sweden by the time he was 30 years old. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1803-1808, returned to Europe as the U.S. Minister to Russia under President Madison, declined a seat on the Supreme Court when he was just 44 years old, negotiated the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812, served as the U.S. Minister to Great Britain immediately after the war, and spent 8 years as President Monroe's Secretary of State -- a role in which Adams excelled and where he helped formulate the Monroe Doctrine, a cornerstone of American foreign policy for nearly two centuries.
In 1824, Adams sought the Presidency and lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson in a four-way race that also included Henry Clay and William H. Crawford. Despite Jackson's popular vote victory, no candidate obtained a majority of Electoral Votes, so the election was thrown into the House of Representatives for a decision on who would become the 6th President. When Henry Clay swung his support behind Adams, the brilliant but dour man from Massachusetts clinched enough votes to win the Presidency. When Adams then named Clay as his Secretary of State, Adams's opponents claimed that there was a "Corrupt Bargain" between the new President and Clay. Andrew Jackson was the politician most angered by the results of the 1824 election and he practically began campaigning against Adams before JQA even took the oath of office. Adams and Jackson became vicious rivals while Jackson and his supporters made life in the White House miserable for John Quincy Adams. By the time the 1828 election rolled around, there was little doubt that Jackson would gain his revenge and oust Adams from the White House. While Adams was cordial to Jackson in the transition prior to Jackson's inauguration, JQA refused to attend Jackson's inauguration, just as his father had refused to attend the inauguration of his successor in 1801, Thomas Jefferson.
"After the third of March I shall consider my public career closed," President Adams wrote prior to leaving the White House. All five Presidents who had preceded Adams had quietly retired at the end of their respective Administrations. The 61-year-old Adams was the youngest former President up to that point in American History and in good health. For a man who had been in nearly constant public service since he was a teenager, retirement was an unfamiliar place for John Quincy Adams. Adams had been miserable as President -- partly due to the opposition that Jackson and his supporters maintained throughout his entire four-year team, and partly due to the fact that his political temperament and intense personality was not conducive to the Executive Branch.
Leaving the White House was not an unpleasant experience for Adams. "No one knows, and few conceive, the agony of mind that I have suffered from the time that I was made by circumstances, and not by my volition, a candidate for the Presidency till I was dismissed from that station by the failure of my re-election," Adams wrote. Yet, a man as prideful and sensitive as John Quincy Adams couldn't help but feel a lack of validation due to his defeat in 1828. With retirement on the horizon, Adams had a foreboding sense that history would not remember him fondly -- or worse, would not remember him at all.
That quickly changed, however. As Joseph Wheelan chronicles in Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress (2008, PublicAffairs), the people of the Massachusetts still understood the value of former President John Quincy Adams and some of his biggest accomplishments took place after he left the White House. In 1830, Adams was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives -- the first of just two Presidents to serve in Congress following their Presidencies (Andrew Johnson was elected to the Senate after leaving the White House).
In the House, Adams became a leading opposition voice to the Jackson, Van Buren, Tyler, and Polk Administrations, and a champion of abolitionism. Upon taking his seat in Congress, Adams found a renewed vigor for the political battles that had frustrated him so much as President. In the House of Representatives, Adams mastered the parliamentary system and used his extraordinary intelligence to become a brilliant debater, mesmerizing orator, and tireless anti-slavery advocate.
Wheelan's book examines how the former President spent eight terms in Congress using his rhetorical skills and passion for the issues to rise above partisan politics and sectional squabbles in order to fight for the causes he believed in. Mr. Adams's Last Crusade is actually this nation's first crusade -- the ideal that our country was founded upon, the belief that all men are created equal. As the United States grew and the evils of slavery continued to poison the roots of liberty, Adams constantly fought to defend the rights brought forth in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution.
Mr. Adams's Last Crusade portrays John Quincy Adams as perhaps the last living link to the Founders. Adams had a unique connection to the Founding Fathers, and not simply because he was the son of John Adams. JQA was appointed to his first diplomatic posts by George Washington and served each of the first five Presidents in some manner. Adams is one of the few Americans who knew George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln served one term in Congress with JQA shortly before Adams's death). While JQA was not of the same generation as Washington, his father, Jefferson, and Madison, his role in the early years of the American republic cannot be ignored. If the older generation were the Founding Fathers, perhaps JQA was a Founding Son; as a teenager and young adult Adams was already representing the United States in European courts such as Amsterdam and St. Petersburg.
When Southern members of Congress attempted to silence debate on slavery by imposing a Gag Rule on the petitions of citizens to the House, Adams launched his longest and most tireless battle of his post-Presidential career. To avoid any stirring of sectional troubles, many House leaders attempted to ban petitions from citizens, and for several years, Adams continued bringing petitions to the House floor. "The right of petition...is essential to the very existence of government; it is the right of the people over the Government; it is their right, and they may not be deprived of it," Adams thundered. One of the major components to Adams's Congressional career is his continuous battle to protect the right-to-petition (whether Adams agreed with the petitions submitted to the Congress or not), and Wheelan expertly explains Adams's deep-seated belief in that right, his indefatigable effort in fighting for it, and the satisfaction that Adams experienced when he was finally victorious.
Mr. Adams's Last Crusade includes much more, as well. There is, of course, Adams's defense of the slaves who mutinied on the Amistad while en route to bondage in Cuba. Adams took on the case of the Amistad mutineers and fought for their freedom before the Supreme Court as President Van Buren attempted to placate Southern interests by secretly handing the Amistad and its occupants back to Spain. Most fascinating is the transformation of Adams from the somewhat dour, cold personality that he had been as President into the passionate, energetic "Old Man Eloquent", as he was nicknamed during his post-Presidential Congressional career.
Finally, Wheelan gives us insight into the former President's focus on his work in Congress, despite physical ailments and the encroachment of old age. Mr. Adams's Last Crusade gives us an account of John Quincy Adams's last days as, fittingly, the 80-year-old Congressman and one of the last links to the Revolution collapses at his desk in the House of Representatives and dies two days later in the Speaker's Room of the United States Capitol. After a lifetime of service, John Quincy Adams died at his post, and there was an outpouring of grief nationwide for a once unpopular President who had redeemed his career, validated his own self-worth, and built an entirely different legacy with a remarkable post-Presidential life.
Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress by Joseph Wheelan is available now from PublicAffairs. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Mr. Wheelan's website is www.joewheelan.com.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.