There are four whose “retirements” stand out heads-and-shoulders above the rest:
•John Quincy Adams: Defeated for re-election in 1828, but elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1830 and spent the last 17 years of his life in Congress as a passionate opponent of slavery. He was also a major advocate of what became the Smithsonian Institution and continued his fight for internal improvements throughout our growing country while also opposing Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian-era Democratic Party.
•William Howard Taft: After losing his bid for re-election in 1912’s three-way race against Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, Taft spent the entire Wilson Administration as a law professor at Yale. More importantly, just a few months into President Harding’s term, Taft finally got his dream job — Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft’s term as Chief Justice was undoubtedly the happiest and most fulfilling time of his professional life and he stayed on the Court until just a few weeks before he died.
•Jimmy Carter: Carter forged an entirely new role for an ex-President with his humanitarian work around the world through the Carter Center. His efforts at personal diplomacy have not always been welcomed by incumbent Presidents, but much of what Carter has accomplished during his 33+ years of “retirement” (the longest post-Presidential life of any POTUS in history) has been remarkable. It’s also set the tone for the modern post-Presidency.
Bill Clinton: Following Carter’s lead, the work the 42nd President has done (and continues to do) since 2001 via his Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative has helped millions around the world. Because of Clinton’s popularity, domestically and internationally, as well as the fact that he’s the best politician alive and likely married to the next President of the United States, he is in a unique position in comparison to every other former President in American history. There’s really no ceiling for what he can accomplish other than his personal health and the 22nd Amendment.
It will be interesting to see how active George W. Bush and Barack Obama decide to be and what they focus on during their post-Presidential life. Bush 43 obviously is not as interested in being as visible as Clinton, but he has continued the extraordinary work in sib-Saharan Africa that he began as President. I’m not sure what Obama’s focus will be, but I don’t think he’s going to just retire to a beach house in Hawaii. I’d like to see him focus on domestic poverty and income inequality. I think all of our former Presidents from this point forward will follow the Carter model to some extent. I’m sure they’ll still cash in on some paid speeches (which I have no problem with), but Carter set the standard for post-Presidential public service.
Absolutely. Some of the most highly-qualified Presidents — men who seemed far more experienced and ready for the job than others — just weren’t suited to be chief executive. No matter how impressive the resume is, sometimes the job simply doesn’t fit the man (and vice versa).
The best examples of exceptionally well-prepared and extremely qualified politicians who never got the hang of the Presidency would be (along with their resumes prior to becoming President):
•John Quincy Adams: One of the most brilliant and naturally gifted politicians in U.S. history; Served in diplomatic posts in Russia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Prussia by the time he was 40 years old; Massachusetts State Senator; U.S. Senator; head of the delegation which negotiated the Treaty of Ghent and ended the War of 1812; spent 8 years as President Monroe’s Secretary of State and is widely-regarded as one of the greatest Secretaries of State in American history
•Martin Van Buren: Master politician at all levels except in the White House; New York State Senator; U.S. Senator; Governor of New York; Secretary of State under President Jackson; Vice President of the United States under President Jackson
•James Buchanan: Possibly the most experienced politician to be elected President; Member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; Five-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives; U.S. Minister to Russia; Elected to three terms in the U.S. Senate; Secretary of State under President Polk; U.S. Minister to Great Britain
•Andrew Johnson: An accidental President who succeeded Lincoln following his assassination; City Alderman and Mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee; Member of the Tennessee House of Representatives; Tennessee State Senator; Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for five terms; Governor of Tennessee; U.S. Senator (only Southern Senator to remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War); Military Governor of Tennessee; Vice President of the United States under President Lincoln
•William Howard Taft: Better suited for the judiciary than the Presidency and eventually landed his dream job as Chief Justice of the United States; Local governmental official in Hamilton County, Ohio/Cincinnati, Ohio; Judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court; United States Solicitor General; Judge of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court and Court of Appeals; Dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School; Military Commissioner of the Philippines; Governor-General of the Philippines; Secretary of War under President Theodore Roosevelt; Acting Secretary of State under President Roosevelt; Provisional Governor of Cuba; Reluctantly turned down three nominations to the Supreme Court prior to being elected President
Interestingly, all of these leaders who weren’t quite Presidential material continued to have active (and often more successful) careers following their Presidencies (with the exception of Buchanan who was nearly 70 years old upon leaving office). Adams spent 17 years in the U.S. House of Representatives; Van Buren ran for President two more times and remained a Democratic power broker; Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate; and Taft finally got his chance to accept a spot on the Supreme Court and spent the last 9 years of his life as the Chief Justice of the United States.
John Quincy Adams famously spent the last 17 years (1831-1848) of his life — his “retirement” after turning the Presidency over to Andrew Jackson in 1829 — as a member of the United States House of Representatives. JQA remained so devoted to hard work and his lifelong service to the nation that he literally died on the job — Adams suffered a stroke while casting a vote in the House and died two days later in the Speaker’s Room of the U.S. Capitol building.
As for JQA’s political party affiliation, that was something that evolved throughout Adams’s life in a manner just as messy and confusing as the creation and evolution of American political parties themselves.
JQA was a Federalist early in his political career, but became a Democratic-Republican once he signaled his support for President Jefferson. Adams remained loyal to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican successors, James Madison and James Monroe. JQA was particularly close to President Monroe, serving as Monroe’s Secretary of State for eight years.
Things got really confusing in 1824. During Monroe’s Presidency (1817-1825), the Federalist Party died, basically leaving the Democratic-Republican Party with no opposition. That led to the unique election of 1820 where Monroe, seeking a second term, was unopposed and breezed to victory.
Despite the Democratic-Republican Party still facing no opposition, the 1824 election was different. With President Monroe retiring after two terms, the race was wide-open. The Democratic-Republican Party didn’t nominate a candidate. Instead, regional factions of the party supported candidates, which resulted in a four-way race for the Presidency between four candidates who were all nominally Democratic-Republicans.
The messy 1824 campaign, unsurprisingly, was a disaster for the Democratic-Republican Party, which went from being the all-powerful, unopposed political monopoly of 1820 to splinter groups divided by sectional and ideological differences just four years later. It also resulted in the birth of the Whigs, Democrats, and, eventually, Republicans.
Back to John Quincy Adams — he won the 1824 election, but since none of the four candidates won an Electoral College majority, the election was decided by the House of Representatives. Adams was the last Democratic-Republican elected President. Four years later, he was soundly defeated by one of his 1824 rivals, Andrew Jackson, the first nominee of the new Democratic Party.
Former President John Quincy Adams was elected to represent Massachusetts in the House of Representatives in 1830. Adams was elected as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, a short-lived group that was largely a precursor to the Whigs. In 1834, JQA switched parties one last time — to the Whig Party. Adams spent the rest of his life as a Whig Party leader, vehement opponent of the Mexican-American War, and passionate critic of slavery.
In The Federalist No. 72, “Publius” — Alexander Hamilton — worried about the role of retired Presidents after leaving office, asking “Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of the government, to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised in the seat of the supreme magistracy wandering among the people like discontented ghosts and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?”
Ever since George Washington set the precedent of returning to civilian life at the end of two terms, the question has remained: What do we do with our ex-Presidents? The Presidents themselves have had to face another question: What can I do with the rest of my life? Since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1947 set a two-term limit for the President (right after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unprecedented four terms), some retiring Presidents have found themselves confronting the same problem experienced by Presidents who lost their bids at re-election. They were still relatively young, still healthy, still ready-to-serve, still focused on helping their country become a better place and, yet, Constitutionally barred from the highest office in the land.
For the first question, about what we should do with our former Presidents, Grover Cleveland had a suggestion in a letter he wrote in April 1889, “And still the question, ‘What shall be done with our ex-Presidents?’ is not laid at rest; and I sometimes think Watterson’s solution of it, ‘Take them out and shoot them,’ is worth of attention.” It’s a good thing for Cleveland that nobody took his advice seriously. When he wrote the letter in 1889, he had just turned over the keys to the White House to Benjamin Harrison, but four years later Cleveland was President again after winning the 1892 election. Oddly enough, Cleveland was actually a former President twice.
The second question is probably tougher to answer. Not only was Franklin Pierce not re-elected after the end of his term in 1856, but he was the first incumbent President to be denied renomination by his own political party. Pierce’s post-Presidency plans were not quite as admirable or idealistic as some of his colleagues in the Presidential fraternity. “After the White House what is there to do but drink?” said Pierce, and he didn’t hesitate to get started. When he died in 1869, it was years of heavy drinking which had led his health to deteriorate. Fortunately, Pierce’s retirement was the exception, not the rule.
The men who have become President of the United States are a rare breed. Undeniably ambitious and determined, after being the leader of the free world and the most powerful person on the planet it must be exceptionally difficult to be forced to retire either because of term limits or the will of the electorate. Very few one-term Presidents attempt to run for the office again and only one — Cleveland — was successful. Compounding the difficulty of a forced retirement is the fact that some former Presidents are still relatively young upon leaving office. While Ronald Reagan was a few weeks shy of his 78th birthday and content with retiring home to California, Bill Clinton was just 54 years old after his eight years in office. Theodore Roosevelt was only 50. Some Presidents are satisfied with the change-of-pace and the chance to relax after the chaos of the White House, but most still need an outlet — at the very least, they want to keep busy, but the majority of recent ex-Presidents have needed to continue to feel like they can still make a difference in the lives of people around the world. In the case of William Howard Taft, he made a difference in a different branch of government, serving as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1921-1930.
The establishment of a Presidential Library and Museum has become a tradition for American Presidents upon leaving office and every President since Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States, has built a library that houses the papers, records, and artifacts of their respective administrations. Hoover dedicated his library in West Branch, Iowa on his 88th birthday in 1962, but the first Presidential library was actually built by Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri. Truman’s library opened in 1957 and gave the energetic Missourian something to do in retirement, as he kept an office in the library and would often give tours to schoolchildren or answer the questions of museum-goers as they passed through. From time-to-time, Truman — an early-riser — would get to the library before his staff and answer phones, giving directions and surprising callers when he identified himself as the former President.
More recently, former Presidents have turned to humanitarian work, attempting to use their influence to help people in the United States and around the world. For the most part, former Presidents follow an unwritten code to not criticize or undermine the actual President. This protocol is not done solely out of respect for the office-holder, but out of respect for the office itself. Each former President knows how difficult it is to sit in that seat of power in the Oval Office and they understand how damaging it can be to be second-guessed or criticized by their predecessors. A civil relationship between President and former Presidents is essential, as a former President can be an indispensable source of advice for the current President, one of just 43 people in the history of the world who understand the current President’s position and responsibilities. The incumbent President also can call on former Presidents for their assistance with important initiatives, usually for humanitarian efforts or disaster relief.
The power of the Presidency is tremendous and it resonates around the world. Even former Presidents still have an aura of strength and influence that lasts throughout the remainder of their lives. When they die, our country stops and pays tribute to them, their funerals are national events, and their legacy continues to be debated on cable news television and in the pages of history books. That legacy can be shaped and crafted, enhanced and improved during the years of their retirement. Richard Nixon left office in 1974 after resigning in disgrace. Pardoned by President Ford a month later, it seemed as if Nixon was destined to live the rest of his life in exile at his secluded beach home in San Clemente, California. As years passed and opinions softened, Nixon emerged from San Clemente, began speaking to audiences, and traveled. Nixon’s long career had given him the opportunity to build relationships and establish connections with leaders around the world. By the time Nixon died at the age of 81 in 1994, he had become an elder statesman of sorts, dispensing advice to leading politicians about his area of expertise — foreign policy.
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have spent their post-Presidency years focused on humanitarian work with their respective non-profit organizations, the Carter Center and the Clinton Foundation. Among the many things he’s accomplished since leaving office in 1981, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for promoting international peace and human rights, has helped build homes through Habitat For Humanity, and has worked actively to nearly eradicate the guinea worm parasitic disease in Africa. The Clinton Foundation has focused on the global battle against HIV/AIDS, poverty in Africa, and childhood obesity in the United States. In 2004, President George W. Bush asked Clinton and his father, former President George H. W. Bush, to lead disaster relief efforts for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, President Obama asked Clinton and the younger Bush to lead relief efforts following a massive Haitian earthquake.
Still, within every politician is that itch to hit the campaign trail and run in one more campaign. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — barred from running for the Presidency again because of term limits — both said that they would have sought a third term as President if not for the 22nd Amendment. Only James K. Polk, James Buchanan, and Rutherford B. Hayes decided not to seek re-election after only four years in office. Former Presidents are often big fundraisers and much-sought-after for speaking engagements and endorsements by political candidates, particularly those running for Congress. Yet there is no political position that can replicate the Presidency of the United States to the men who have held that office, and in the 221 years since George Washington was inaugurated, only two former Presidents have held another elective office.
In 1828, President John Quincy Adams lost his bid for re-election against the popular Andrew Jackson. The 1828 election was a particularly vicious contest and a bitter Adams refused to attend the inauguration of his successor, deciding instead to return home to Massachusetts after a brief stay outside of Washington. The life of a retired Massachusetts farmer did not suit John Quincy Adams, however. In 1830, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives and headed back to Washington, D.C. Adams spent the rest of his life in Congress, the only former President elected to the House. For 17 years, Adams was a loud voice (often in the Whig minority) in opposition to Jackson, the Democrats, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and, most of all, slavery. Adams was one of the strongest advocates for slavery’s abolition and famously won freedom from the Supreme Court for the mutinous slaves who took over the Spanish slave ship Amistad. A political animal until the very end, the man nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” during his post-Presidential Congressional career was at his desk in the House Chamber and had just cast a vote when he suffered a debilitating stroke. When Adams died two days later, it was in the Speaker’s Room of the U.S. Capitol Building and his funeral was, fittingly, held in the House of Representatives.
Forty years after Andrew Jackson’s victory over John Quincy Adams, the beloved House of Representatives that Adams “retired to” impeached President Andrew Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act. In the Senate trial which ensued, Johnson narrowly escaped removal by office when he was acquitted with just one vote to spare. When Johnson handed over the Presidency to Ulysses S. Grant the next year, he did his best John Quincy Adams imitation and refused to attend his successor’s inauguration. Exhausted and disgusted with Washington’s politics, Johnson headed home to Greeneville, Tennessee. Much like Adams, though, Andrew Johnson was a politician through-and-through and he could not remain sidelined for long. Johnson stayed active within the Democratic Party, stumping for local candidates and speaking out in support of President Grant’s opponent in the 1872 election, Horace Greeley. Johnson was not as immediately successful as Adams. After failed attempts at the Senate in 1871 and the House of Representatives in 1872, Johnson was elected to the United States Senate in 1875 by the Tennessee state legislature. In March 1875, Johnson returned to the same legislative body that had nearly removed him from the White House just six years earlier. Johnson’s Senate career was short — he made one floor speech denouncing President Grant’s policy of Reconstruction and died after suffering a stroke during a trip home to Tennessee in July 1875.
Finding something to do in retirement is probably difficult for most people, but it must be especially difficult for former Presidents to transition from being in control of the most powerful nation on the planet to playing golf every day like Dwight Eisenhower or cattle ranching like Lyndon Johnson. LBJ’s friends feared what retirement would do to him, worrying that a man with so much energy and drive would die of boredom. Most historians believe that that is indirectly what happened with LBJ. When he retired to Texas in 1969, he started drinking again, started smoking cigarettes again, grew his hair long, and stopped watching his diet. He died of a heart attack less than four years later. While LBJ’s decision to let loose and Franklin Pierce’s descent into alcoholism weren’t great retirement plans, perhaps no post-Presidential choice was as bad for a President’s legacy as John Tyler’s. In 1861, Tyler urged his home state of Virginia to secede from the Union and served in the Provisional Confederate Congress. Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives in November 1861 but died before taking his seat, and his funeral in Richmond, Virginia took place after his body had lay in state at the Confederate Congress. For years after his death, Tyler was considered a traitor amongst Northerners and Tyler’s death was the only Presidential passing not acknowledged by the White House. As for his legacy, it wasn’t until 1915 — fifty years after the Civil War ended — that the U.S. Congress erected a monument near Tyler’s grave paying tribute to the fact that he was a former President.
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.
There’s no need to feel ignorant. They are complicated relationships, especially considering the lengthy public careers of all three men and their many interactions with one another.
The big beef between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay started in 1824 when that year’s Presidential election saw Jackson, Clay, John Quincy Adams, and William H. Crawford all pitted against one another. Jackson won the popular vote and a plurality of Electoral votes, but didn’t win the majority required to clinch the Presidency, so the election was thrown into the House of Representatives to be decided. The Constitution requires the House to decide between the top three candidates in the Electoral vote, which were Jackson (99), Adams (84), and Crawford (41), so Clay (37) was the odd man out. Clay threw his support behind Adams and, when the House elected Adams as President, Clay became his Secretary of State. The Secretary of State’s position at the time was considered a stepping-stone to the Presidency since the last three Presidents since 1809 (Madison, Monroe, and J.Q. Adams) had been at the helm of the State Department during their predecessor’s Administration. Jackson and his supporters accused Adams and Clay of secretly working together to deny Jackson the Presidency in 1824/1825 — what became known as the “Corrupt Bargain”. Jackson, of course, was elected President four years later and when he sought re-election in 1832, his opponent was Henry Clay.
John C. Calhoun was Vice President under President Adams, and when Jackson was elected in 1828, Southern Democrats ensured that Calhoun was on the ticket as Jackson’s running mate, so he began as Jackson’s VP. The messy John and Peggy Eaton affair embroiled Jackson’s Cabinet and scandalized Washington society from the beginning of Jackson’s term, the President sympathized with the Eatons and demanded that the Cabinet treat the couple with respect. Calhoun and his wife were among the Washington elite who particularly turned their noses at the Eatons. By the time Jackson signed a tariff law that South Carolina (home state of Vice President Calhoun) attempted to nullify, Jackson and Calhoun were openly battling each other over the larger issue of States’ rights and Calhoun broached the possibility of secession. Jackson made no attempt to hide his distaste or vehement disagreement with Calhoun, as well as the fact that Martin Van Buren was his choice for a running mate in 1832. Calhoun was elected to the Senate from South Carolina and resigned after the 1832 election but before his Vice Presidential term was over.
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.