I think it really comes down to the fact that, like his father, John Quincy Adams wasn’t temperamentally suited to the Presidency. JQA had all of the tools, he was the most qualified and experienced American who had ever lived up to that point, he likely remains one of the most intelligent men to ever hold the office, and yet he quickly found that the when he tried the Presidency on for size, it simply didn’t fit.
For the most part, being an effective President requires certain, unique qualities that go beyond intellect, understanding the issues, and decisive thinking. The Presidency requires a political touch that the Adamses didn’t have. What John Adams and John Quincy Adams lacked was the ability to hold back, observe, maybe even deflect or deceive, and let situations unfold. They were both candid, outspoken, impulsive, and pushy. Those attributes can be advantageous in legislative politics, debate, and international diplomacy, but the Presidency requires a type of political maneuvering that neither of the Adams Presidents were skilled in.
In John Quincy Adams’s case, it’s also important to recognize that he was elected in 1824 with the weakest mandate (and that’s not even the word I should use) of any President up to that point. Four candidates — Adams, Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay — split the Electoral College votes, no candidate gained enough Electoral votes to clinch the Presidency, and the election was thrown into the House of Representatives for a decision. When former supporters of Clay broke towards Adams and gave JQA the victory despite Jackson’s popular vote victory, the already-vociferous Jackson supporters cried foul and then screamed “Corrupt Bargain” when President Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State. At that point in our history, the State Department was practically a guaranteed stepping stone to the Presidency — four of the first six Presidents had been Secretary of State and the last three Presidents (Madison, Monroe, and JQA) stepped directly into the Presidency from the State Department.
That handicapped John Quincy Adams’s Presidency almost immediately; not so much because of the alleged “Corrupt Bargain”, but because it was apparent from the moment the House of Representatives awarded the 1824 election to JQA, Andrew Jackson and his supporters instantly began to work to defeat Adams for reelection. As soon as Adams was sworn in as President in March 1825, the 1828 campaign kicked into gear and Andrew Jackson ran against John Quincy Adams all four years of the Adams Administration. It would have been impossible for any President to ignore, but was especially difficult for JQA because he had notoriously thin-skin and, like his father, was hypersensitive and deeply embittered by criticism. Although he ran for another term in 1828, Adams was pretty much relieved when he was defeated and could leave the White House. When Adams returned to Washington in 1831 and spent the rest of his life in Congress, he proved that his four years in the White House were an aberration and that he was still one of the country’s most effective and influential public servants.
Some Presidents simply aren’t good matches for the job, no matter what. There are bad Presidents — the guys who are constantly ranked near the bottom by historians — who still fit into the job and were able to be effective. I’ve said it many times: effective doesn’t necessarily mean “good”; it means that person was able to accomplish things, for better or worse.
The flip side of that is that some of our most qualified leaders end up being ineffective Presidents because, like John Quincy Adams, they possess tremendous political skills that are ill-suited for being the Chief Executive of the Executive Branch. Similar to John Quincy Adams in this way, I would include John Adams, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan (who also happened to just be a downright bad President), William Howard Taft, and Herbert Hoover (incredibly qualified for the job, never quite knew how to use the Presidency, and finally stained by the Great Depression).
To sum up the subject and for a more detailed history on the very different results of John Quincy Adams as President and then as a Congressman in the twilight of his life, I highly recommend Joseph Wheelan’s recent book, Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life In Congress (BOOK•KINDLE).
February 21st was a Monday in 1848, and the United States House of Representatives was at work, which meant that John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts was at his desk.
For the past 17 years, Adams had been a strident opponent of slavery in Congress, fighting tirelessly to abolish the institution and becoming one of the nation’s foremost anti-slavery advocates although he never considered himself an abolitionist. When Southerners in the House instituted a gag rule to silence petitions against slavery, John Quincy Adams ignored it, pushed back against it, openly challenged his rivals to censure him, and eventually ended the practice and re-established the ability of Americans to petition their representatives.
Now, at 80 years old, Adams was stooped and shuffled when he walked. For nearly 70 years, he had served the United States of America — in fact, he had been in the country’s service since before it actually had been a country, when he was still just a teenager. In the nation’s early years, he was arguably its greatest diplomat. By his 50th birthday, he had served at posts throughout Europe, spent time in the Massachusetts State Senate, the United States Senate, negotiated the treaty which ended the War of 1812, and had just been appointed Secretary of State by President Monroe. Adams spent eight years as Secretary of State and, nearly two hundred years later, many historians still list him as the best to ever hold the job.
In 1824, he was elected President and, like his father, the 2nd President, John Quincy Adams served just one term. It was the unhappiest time of his life; the Presidency was perhaps the one job in American government least-suitable to JQA’s abilities and temperament. The controversial way that he won the Presidency in 1824 led to his main rival, Andrew Jackson, basically spending the next four years running a constant campaign against him. In 1828, Jackson trounced Adams, and JQA retired to Massachusetts.
But two years later, Massachusetts decided that John Quincy Adams didn’t belong on his farm outside of Boston. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1830 and took his seat in 1831. As unsuitable as the Presidency might have been, the House of Representatives was ideal for the argumentative, brilliant, indefatigable Adams. On Monday, February 21, 1848, the 80-year-old might have been slowed by age, but he had spent the past 17 years fighting, and his eyes still blazed with the fires of liberty that drove him to drive his opponents crazy.
Yet, this icon — the last living link to the Revolution — was about to fight his final battle. In September 1845, Adams had suffered a mild stroke, and a much more serious one in November 1846. For several weeks, it appeared as if it might be the end for the former President, but he gradually rehabilitated himself. He returned to the House on February 13, 1847 and was given his old desk back — it had been occupied since December by a young Congressman from Tennessee named Andrew Johnson. Adams was back, but noticeably quieter in this session of Congress, giving just one speech before the 29th Congress adjourned.
In November 1847, Adams, who had turned 80 and celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife Louisa in July, headed back to Washington for the 30th Congress. His physical condition continued to decline. After nearly 70 years of almost constant, voluminous entries in his journal — one of the premiere primary sources of American history from the Revolution to the Mexican-American War — his aching, disabled hand wrote one last entry on January 4, 1848. Still, the former President was in Washington for his ninth post-Presidential term in Congress, and keeping up a steady public schedule, including a busy weekend leading up to February 21, 1848.
On the other side of that Capitol on that Monday, the U.S. Senate had received a peace treaty to end the Mexican War, with a request from President Polk for ratification. In the House, the representatives prepared to vote on a bill paying tribute to the generals who had prosecuted the war by officially extending the gratitude of the nation. Adams had been vehemently opposed to the war and to President Polk, and after a round of “Ayes!” echoed through the House Chamber, John Quincy Adams stood and shouted, “No!”.
As the word rang through the House, Adams’s face flushed and he gripped the side of his desk with his right hand before becoming pale and collapsing. David Fisher, a 53-year-old Whig Congressman from Ohio who was sitting at the next desk, caught Adams as the former President fell. “Mr. Adams is dying!” screamed another Whig Congressman, Washington Hunt, of New York. Adams was unconscious and carried to a nearby couch as all government business halted. JQA had suffered another stroke, this time a massive one that left him in a coma.
Congressmen carried Adams first into the Capitol Rotunda to allow for the dying former President to get more air. Then he was moved to the Speaker’s Room in the Capitol, occupied usually by a fellow member of “Old Man Eloquent’s” Massachusetts delegation, Speaker of the House Robert Winthrop. The way that John Quincy Adams worked didn’t necessarily make him the most popular politician in America and he was never beloved by the people like his lifelong rival, Andrew Jackson, but he was respected, and the country came to a stop from the moment Adams collapsed. Normal celebrations for George Washington’s birthday — February 22nd — were canceled.
For the next two days, Adams lingered in the Speaker’s Room, regaining consciousness at one point and asking for Henry Clay, who was speechless as he held Adams’s hand and wept openly. At 7:20 PM on February 23, 1848, John Quincy Adams died in the United States Capitol building. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton said, “Where could death have found him but at the post of duty?”
On February 25th, after two days of American citizens silently filing past his silver casket, Adams’s funeral was held in the Chamber of the House of Representatives where he had spent the last 17 years of his life. It was attended by President Polk, Vice President Dallas, the Supreme Court, and members of both the Senate and the House. Never really a “popular” politician, the outpouring of grief following Adams’s death was similar to that which followed the deaths of George Washington nearly 50 years earlier and Abraham Lincoln nearly 20 years later. Lincoln, a young Congressman from Illinois in the midst of his only term in the House, was one of Adams’s pallbearers several days later when, after being temporarily placed in a holding vault at Congressional Cemetery, Adams’s coffin was escorted by an honor guard consisting of one Congressman from each state on a funeral train back to Massachusetts. There, he was buried first in Hancock Cemetery, before being moved into the crypt of United First Parish Church in Quincy next to his parents after the death of his wife Louisa in 1852.
The death of John Quincy Adams was the end of an era. In many ways, JQA was a bridge between two almost-mythical eras. He was one of the only people in American history who personally knew George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In fact, not only did he know those two American icons, but Adams worked alongside both of the men. The son of a President and the foremost diplomat of the young nation’s early decades, John Quincy Adams was an eloquent voice for freedom and liberty, an ardent abolitionist (even if he didn’t call himself such), a candid, outspoken, no-nonsense man, who witnessed the Revolution, the birth of the nation, and the unsteady first half-century of America’s story, and predicted with uncanny accuracy how the sectional crisis would result in civil war and how a President in the midst of such a war could use executive powers to bring an end to slavery.
John Quincy Adams was not one of our greatest Presidents. He wasn’t built for the Presidency and his personality didn’t suit that of a chief executive. Adams was not quick to compromise and had no patience for people who weren’t as smart or hard-working or patriotic as he viewed himself.
What John Quincy Adams was, however, was a great American. He was too young to be a Founding Father, but he was a Founding Son. Born in 1767 and already at work for his country as a teenager during the Revolution as a private secretary to diplomats, no one his age was ever more experienced or more important in politics and diplomacy. JQA was born into service, raised alongside the nation he helped build, and, until he took his final vote on February 21, 1848 and his final breath on February 23, 1848, John Quincy Adams served his country without pause, without fail, and with great pride.
Awesome job working the plug in there for Tributes and Trash Talk!
I’ve always found the JQA/Jefferson relationship fascinating. Obviously, the John Adams/Thomas Jefferson relationship is one of the most historic and interesting dynamics ever, especially since a lot of it is recorded through their letter to each other or about each other to others.
With JQA, though, what is interesting is that there was a great respect between them and must have been some sort of affection because John Adams, in one of his last letters to Jefferson, half-jokingly referred to JQA, who was President at that point, as “our John” and said that “I call him our John, because, when you were at the Cul de sac at Paris, he appeared to me to be almost as much your boy as mine.”
Like you said, there must have been some animosity on JQA’s part because Jefferson defeated his father. George W. Bush openly admitted to feeling the same way after Bill Clinton beat HIS father for the Presidency. Yet, there were many things that JQA and Jefferson agreed on politically and Jefferson’s protege, James Monroe, was half-mentor, half-partner to John Quincy Adams when Monroe was President and JQA was Secretary of State. Most interesting to me is that, in his personal diary shortly after Jefferson died, JQA eviscerated Jefferson while savagely critiquing Jefferson’s autobiography. It’s a strange relationship - more of a rollercoaster ride, in my opinion, than the off-and-on relationship between JQA’s father and Jefferson.
TR was an especially brutal critic of Jefferson. It’s kind of ironic that the incredibly wealthy Roosevelt saw Jefferson as something of an elitist. I think Roosevelt’s biggest issue was he despised hypocrites and he saw Jefferson as one of the most glaring hypocrites of them all because of slavery. There’s also the fact that Roosevelt looked down on men who didn’t fight when there was a battle to be joined. As Governor of Virginia, Jefferson fled when it appeared the British were on their way to capture him, and Roosevelt saw that as cowardice — even though Jefferson probably couldn’t have lasted 60 seconds in a battle in which he would have been vastly outnumbered by the British and likely would have been summarily executed for treason if he had been captured. Jefferson, as head of government in Virginia, made the right move by fleeing, but Roosevelt couldn’t forgive that or see it as anything but weakness.
John Quincy Adams
Harlow Giles Unger
Hardcover. 364 pp.
September 2012. Da Capo Press.
In 1781, as the United States battled for its independence, a handful of Americans traveled to European capitals and royal courts to battle for diplomatic recognition and financial support from the established powers of the world. The Continental Congress dispatched Francis Dana of Massachusetts, who had been serving as secretary to the American delegation in France, to the court of Russian Empress Catherine the Great in Saint Petersburg, well over 4,000 miles from Dana’s comfortable law office in Boston. As if his mission wasn’t difficult enough, Dana faced a major obstacle: the lingua franca of international diplomacy — and the Russian court — was French, a language that Dana did not speak. Before leaving for Saint Petersburg, Dana found himself a secretary who was fluent in French — John Quincy Adams, who had accompanied his father, John Adams, when the Continental Congress sent the elder Adams to France. After some words of advice from his father, John Quincy Adams embarked upon the long trip to Russia and one of the most remarkable careers of any American public servant.
He was fourteen years old.
John Quincy Adams was, of course, the eldest son of John and Abigail Adams, America’s original power couple. After decades and decades of being relatively overlooked in comparison to his contemporaries such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and other Founding Fathers, John Adams has finally been getting his due for the role he played in our nation’s independence and early survival. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the elder Adams led to the “Atlas of Independence” being immortalized in a critically-acclaimed HBO miniseries and the 2nd President has taken his rightful place amongst the giants of the American history.
His son, born in 1767 and raised with the Revolution, is a peripheral character in the HBO miniseries, but in his 80 years, John Quincy Adams operated everywhere but the periphery. At the age of 10, JQA traveled to Europe with his father as the elder Adams worked to gain military support, earn diplomatic recognition, and establish credit for the fledgling United States. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in a time of war, the ship carrying John Quincy and his father engaged in a brief battle with a British ship and were fortunate to emerge victorious. Had the British won the battle, 10-year-old John Quincy Adams likely would have been captured and pressed into involuntary service with the Royal Navy while his father, considered a traitor to King George III’s rule, almost certainly would have been summarily executed and hanged from the ship’s yardarm.
With only a brief return home to Massachusetts in 1779, John Quincy Adams spent the ages 10-17 in Europe, and his service as secretary to Francis Dana kicked off service to his country that lasted until the moment he died over 65 years later. Yet, few solid biographies have been written about John Quincy Adams’s incredible life. With his new book, John Quincy Adams (Da Capo Press, September 2012), Harlow Giles Unger tells the story of this great American who devoted his entire life to serving his country, never hesitated to risk his political standing in order to fight for what was right, and whose towering intellect is astonishing even from a distance of 245 years since his birth. And as Mr. Unger artfully writes, John Quincy Adams also had perhaps the best resume of any man ever elected President yet found his four years in the White House to be the nadir of his life personally and professionally. Then, almost to prove his resilience and his devotion to the nation that he grew up with and helped build, Adams spent the years after his Presidency as a tireless advocate for justice. Retirement for John Quincy Adams meant an unprecedented post-Presidential career in the U.S. House of Representatives and never rested, dedicating the last 17 years of his life to stubbornly fighting for what he felt was right, giving a voice to the voiceless, and building a body of work that was far more of a monument to his greatness than any statue or painting, sculptures or accolades.
John Quincy Adams is Harlow Giles Unger’s twentieth book and sixth biography of a major Founding Father (or, in JQA’s case, Founding Son). There are few historians of the United States from the Revolution up to the Jacksonian era who have the knowledge and ability to make familiar faces seem brand-new and shine the spotlight on some of the more obscure figures or those who are often overshadowed by the most famous of the Founders. I doubt there is a more prolific historian over the past decade of this nation’s early history. It seems that every time I finish reading a new book from Mr. Unger I immediately see an even newer title coming soon. In not quite two years, I have enjoyed FIVE new releases from the Mr. Unger: John Quincy Adams (BOOK•KINDLE); Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution (BOOK•KINDLE); American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked the American Revolution (BOOK•KINDLE); Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call To a New Nation (BOOK•KINDLE); and The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call To Greatness (BOOK•KINDLE). As a writer, I’m jealous at how quickly Mr. Unger is able to churn out such quality works of top-notch history. As a reader, I’m grateful and ecstatic for every Unger book that I’m able to snatch up, devour, and proudly place on my bookshelf.
As is his style, Unger’s John Quincy Adams is first-class history from cover-to-cover and what is most remarkable is that the life of JQA was not only one of the busiest and most accomplished of any figure that Unger’s written about but also one of the longest since Adams’s public career began as a teenager and lasted until the moment he died. However, this book is fast-paced and supremely readable while not missing any aspect of JQA’s life. To posterity, Adams left one of the greatest gifts of any historical figure — a detailed diary that he rarely missed a daily entry for 70 years. Unger seamlessly weaves the words of Adams into his narrative and Unger’s always-solid research augments a story that it seems like JQA helps tell.
If I tried to encapsulate the life and career of John Quincy Adams, my book review would be 15,000 words long, and since Harlow Giles Unger can do it far better than I could, I’ll just urge you to pick up the book. What I can say is that judging John Quincy Adams on his disappointing Presidency is like judging the career of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps on his two bronze medals rather than his 18 gold medals. When we look at Adams, we must attempt to comprehend the depth and breadth of his impact on the first 70 years of the United States. Adams was one of the few (if not the only) Americans to have known George Washington, who appointed him to his first ambassadorial post, and Abraham Lincoln, who he briefly served with in the House of Representatives. He represented the United States as minister in six different European countries and served on various diplomatic delegations, including the team that negotiated the Treaty of Ghent and ended the War of 1812. JQA was a lawyer, a historian, a political philosopher, and a poet. As President Monroe’s Secretary of State, he helped shape the Monroe Doctrine, negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty which transferred Spanish Florida to the United States, and worked with the British to establish the present-day U.S./Canadian border from the Great Lakes to the Rockies.
His one-term as President was born out of controversy, yet no evidence ever proved that Adams and Henry Clay truly worked out a “Corrupt Bargain” to award JQA the 1824 election and deny it to Andrew Jackson. Jackson spent the entire four years of the Adams Administration running against President Adams and defeated him in 1828, but spending the rest of his life in Congress after voters in Massachusetts elected him to the House in 1830 was his proudest accomplishment personally and his most important legacy historically. From defending the slaves from the Amistad to ensuring the right of Americans to petition their government, Adams became one of the loudest voices for the anti-slavery movement. And when John Quincy Adams died in February 1848, it was at his post, in the cathedral of democracy itself, the United States Capitol building. Over a century later, when John F. Kennedy wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about courageous American political leaders, Profiles In Courage, the first of the eight principled patriots that Kennedy profiled was “Old Man Eloquent” — John Quincy Adams.
John Quincy Adams is one of the most fascinating, inspiring, and brilliant figures in all of American history. Harlow Giles Unger is one of the preeminent historians and chroniclers of our nation’s first 75 years. Nobody is better-equipped to write this biography, and we’re lucky that Unger has told the story of this underrated American icon, legendary diplomat, and tireless advocate of everything that is just and righteous in our country.
John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger is available now from Da Capo Press. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and one of the preeminent historians of the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary era. This is his 20th book and you can find more information about this book and his other work on his website: www.harlowgilesunger.com. For those of you lucky enough to be in the Washington, D.C. area, Mr. Unger will be speaking and signing copies of John Quincy Adams on September 30th at 2:00 PM in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.
On November 8, 1833 former President John Quincy Adams narrowly avoided harm in the world’s first recorded railway accident with passenger fatalities.
Adams was three years into his “retirement” — an 18-year stint in the House of Representatives — and heading to Washington, D.C. from New York by way of Philadelphia. The former President caught the southbound train of the Camden and Amboy Railroad, which had just started operating on September 9, from South Amboy, New Jersey en route to Bordentown, New Jersey in order to catch a steamboat to Philadelphia.
The train was traveling at a steady speed of 20 MPH — lightning fast for people of the early-19th Century who had never moved faster than they could walk or their horses could gallop — and was about three miles outside of Hightstown, New Jersey when an axle broke on the forward coach. The broken axle caused the second coach to derail and overturn, injuring all 24 passengers inside, including Cornelius Vanderbilt whose broken leg didn’t keep him from later becoming one of the wealthiest people in American History. Two passengers were killed — one who died on the scene and another who later succumbed to his injuries. They are believed to be the first railroad passenger fatalities in history.
John Quincy Adams somehow escaped the derailment unharmed, but the 66-year-old former President was shaken. After eventually arriving in Philadelphia that night, Adams turned to his diary and recorded the harrowing details of the world’s first deadly railway accident:
Blessed, ever blessed be the name of God, that I am alive and have escaped unhurt from the most dreadful catastrophe that ever my eyes beheld! We arrived at New York at half past six this morning. I took leave of Mr. Harrod, his daughter, my niece Elizabeth, took a hack with Mr. Potter, and crossed from the East to the North River, put my baggage into the steamboat Independence, Captain Douglas, and walked to the City Hotel. I found that my wife and family proceeded thence last Monday on their way to Washington. There was a card of invitation to attend a public dinner to be given to Commodore Chauncey to-morrow; to which I wrote a declining answer. I then returned to the steamboat, which left the wharf at eight, and landed the passengers at Amboy about twenty minutes past ten. The boat was crowded almost to suffocation, and people of every land and language seemed congregated in it — among the rest, a whole tribe of wild Irish, whose language I now for the first time heard spoken. The only persons of the passengers whom I knew were David B. Ogden, of New York, and Dr. McDowell, whom Dr. Condict introduced to me last winter at Washington, and who was then a Professor at Princeton College, but has since left it and has removed to Philadelphia. There were upwards of two hundred passengers in the railroad cars. There were two locomotive engines, A and B, each drawing an accommodation car, a sort of moving stage, in a square, with open railing, a platform, and a row of benches holding forty or fifty persons; then four or five cars in the form of large stage coaches, each in three compartments, with doors of entrance on both sides, and two opposite benches, on each of which sat four passengers. Each train was closed with a high, quadrangular, open-railed baggage-wagon, in which the baggage of all the passengers in the train was heaped up, the whole covered with an oil-cloth. I was in car B, No. 1, and of course in the second train. Of the first ten miles, two were run in four minutes, marked by a watch of a Mr. De Yong, in the same car and division with me. They stopped, oiled the wheels, and proceeded. We had gone about five miles further, and had traversed one mile in one minute and thirty-six seconds, when the front left wheel of the car in which I was, having taken fire and burned for several minutes, slipped off the rail. The pressure on the right side of the car, then meeting resistance, raised it with both wheels from the rail, and it was oversetting on the left side, but the same pressure on the car immediately behind raised its left side from the rail till it actually overset to the right, and, in oversetting, brought back the car in which I was, to stand on the four wheels, and saved from injury all the passengers in it. The train was stopped, I suppose within five seconds of the time when our wheel slipped off the rail, but it was then going at the rate of sixty feet in a second, and was dragged nearly two hundred feet before it could stop. Of the sixteen persons in two of the three compartments of the car that overset, one only escaped unhurt — a Dr. Cuyler. One side of the car was stove in, and almost demolished. One man, John C. Stedman, of Raleigh, North Carolina, was so dreadfully mangled that he died within ten minutes; another, named, I believe, Welles, of Pennsylvania, can probably not survive the day. Captain Vanderbilt had his leg broken, as had Mr. West, minister of the Episcopal Church at Newport, Rhode Island; Mrs. Bartlett, wife of Lieutenant Bartlett, of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and her sister, dangerously hurt; her child, about three years old, is not expected to live; Mr. and Mrs. Charles, of St. Louis, Missouri, severely cut and bruised; a Mr. Dreyfuss, of Philadelphia, cut in the head and sprained in the back; and six other persons, among whom are Dr. McDowell and a young lady with him, gashed in the head and otherwise wounded. The scene of sufferance was excruciating. Men, women, and a child scattered along the road, bleeding, mangled, moaning, writhing in torture, and dying, as a trial of feeling to which I had never before been called; and when the thought came over me that a few yards more of pressure on the car in which I was would have laid me a prostrate corpse like him who was before my eyes, or a cripple for life; and, more insupportable still, what if my wife and grandchild had been in the car behind me! Merciful God! how can the infirmity of my nature express or feel the gratitude that should swell in my bosom that this torture, a thousand-fold worse than death, has been spared me? At my request, a coroner’s inquest was called upon the deceased. The other dying man was left at Hightstown, three miles beyond where the disaster happened; and, after a detention of nearly three hours, the train was resumed, and, leaving the two broken cars behind, the rest proceeded to Bordentown, thirty-five miles from Amboy. The coroner’s inquest, held by a magistrate of the court, had been sworn, and I had given my testimony before we left the fatal spot. Several of the wounded were left at Hightstown. The rest were transported on cushions from the cars over the railway to Bordentown, and thence with us, in the steamboat New Philadelphia, to Philadelphia. On reaching the wharf, the Rev. Mr. Brackenridge came on board, and told me he had heard I had been seriously injured by the accident on the railway. Apprehensive that such rumors might circulate and reach my family, I wrote on board the steamboat to my wife, at Washington, and to my son Charles, at Boston, and dispatched the letters to the post-office at Philadelphia. We landed at Chestnut Street wharf between six and seven in the evening, and I took lodgings with Mr. Potter, at the United States Hotel.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS
6th President of the United States (1825-1829)
Full Name: John Quincy Adams
Born: July 11, 1767, Braintree (present-day Quincy), Massachusetts
Term: March 4, 1825-March 4, 1829
Political Party: Democratic-Republican
Vice President: John C. Calhoun
Died: February 23, 1848, Speaker’s Room, U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.
Buried: United First Parish Church, Quincy, Massachusetts
John Quincy Adams, like James Buchanan, was one of the most qualified men to ever serve as President. What hindered Adams in the Presidency, however, wasn’t the same things that made Buchanan the worst President; it was the same things that made his father, John Adams, the only one-term President of the first five. The Adams men didn’t have the temperament for executive leadership and, in an office like the Presidency, it hurt them politically. Where both of them excelled was in diplomacy and legislative thinking, which is where JQA spent the last 18 years of his life and happily erased the memory of his Presidency.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 11 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 13 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 19 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 16 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 18 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 19 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 15 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 25 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 19 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 19 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 20 of 40
One of the very best historians of the American Revolution and Founding Fathers is Harlow Giles Unger, author of many books, including several that I have listed on my Essential Books pages. Two of my favorites from Mr. Unger are American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution (BOOK•KINDLE) and The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness (BOOK•KINDLE). The Monroe book was so insightful that it gave me a deeper appreciation of the 5th President, who I’ve always felt was underrated, and helps to put Monroe on the same level of his four predecessors, Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.
Fans of David McCullough will enjoy Harlow Unger because I feel they have similar styles which make their books immensely readable. For years, I’ve hoped that an author like Unger or McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin would write a biography of John Quincy Adams, one of the most complex personalities to ever serve as President and a person who served his country as diplomat, Cabinet secretary, President, or Congressman for over 60 years. With the arrival of my mail today, I’ve found out that Unger has done just that. I received galleys for Unger’s John Quincy Adams and it’s classic Unger so far. Books about JQA are difficult to put down, so I’ll be sure to write a full review when I’m finished, but I would say it’s a safe bet for you to make a note about picking up this book when Harlow Giles Unger’s John Quincy Adams is released on September 15th. Check out Mr. Unger’s other books at his website.
Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress
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 aganst 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.
The Lip and the Heart.
One day between the Lip and the Heart
A wordless strife arose,
Which was expertest in the art
His purpose to disclose.
The Lip called forth the vassal Tongue,
And made him vouch—a lie!
The slave his servile anthem sung,
And brav’d the listening sky.
The Heart to speak in vain essay’d,
Nor could his purpose reach—
His will nor voice nor tongue obeyed,
His silence was his speech.
Mark thou their difference, child of earth!
While each performs his part,
Not all the lip can speak is worth
The silence of the heart.
— John Quincy Adams, poet and 6th President of the United States
The story about a female reporter sitting on the clothes of a skinny-dipping John Quincy Adams until JQA granted her an interview is a pretty famous story that you’ll find in a lot of those easy-to-read books full of Presidential trivia and anecdotes.
The full story is this: Anne Royall was a journalist in Washington who had a tough time getting interview time with Washington politicians because she was a female and our country wasn’t exactly and equal opportunity anything until the 20th Century. Knowing of JQA’s habitual nude swims in the Potomac River, Royall followed the President there one day and sat on his clothes while demanding her interview.
According to Paul F. Boller’s Presidential Anecdotes, the rest of story went like this:
Surprised, Adams swam back to shore and asked, “What do you want?”. “I’m Anne Royall,” she snapped. “I’ve been trying to see you to get an interview out of you for months on the State Bank question. I have hammered at the White House and they wouldn’t let me in, so I watched your movements, and this morning I stalked you from the Mansion down here. I’m sitting on your clothes and you don’t get them till I get the interview. Will you give it to me or do you want to stay in there the rest of your life?” “Let me get out and dress,” pleaded Adams, “and I’ll promise to give you the interview. Please, go behind those bushes while I make my toilet.” “No, you don’t,” replied Royall. “You are President of the United States and there are a good many millions of people who want to know and ought to know your opinion on this Bank question. I’m going to get it. If you try to get out and get your clothes I’ll scream and I just saw three fishermen around the bend. You don’t get out ahead of that interview!” She got her interview while Adams was chin-deep in the water.
Now, Boller’s account of the incident is suspiciously well-detailed and I’m more than a little skeptical about Royall’s supposed quotes. I’m sure Anne Royall was a very ambitious and determined reporter, but I highly doubt that she would have been that disrespectful or abrasive to the President of the United States, no matter how anxious she might have been to interview JQA. We’ll probably never know the full extent of what happened that day on the Potomac, but it is certainly a cute and enduring story.