Tuesday, July 11, 2017

This Day in Presidential History (Birth of John Quincy Adams, ‘Old Man Eloquent’)

July 11, 1767—John Quincy Adams, who like his father saw a lifetime of devotion to the young American republic culminate in a single, unhappy term as President, was born in in Braintree, Mass.

Adams may have left the most extraordinary ongoing glimpse into the achievement—as well as the physical and psychological health—of any President in the form of the diary he kept faithfully, beginning in 1779 at age twelve and continuing until his death almost 70 years later.

Anxiety, both about his own failures and those of his country, was expressed in splenetic rants that he wrote (or, in his late 70s, dictated, after a minor stroke) at the end of the day. Few people provoked him more than his successor in the White House, Andrew Jackson.

As his father did when he left Washington before the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson in 1801, Adams did not stick around to see the swearing-in of the man who defeated him in his re-election bid. Unlike his father, who reconciled with his old friend in retirement, Adams did not make peace with Jackson.

He could not draw on a reservoir of years of respect, affection and shared intellectual interests for Jackson, as John Adams could with Jefferson. Having endured four years of abuse from Jackson’s surrogates over accusations of a “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay in the House of Representatives that won him the Presidency despite losing the popular vote, Adams then lost a re-election campaign barely rivaled for rancor in Presidential history.

Out of office, Adams stewed whenever Jackson won additional acclaim or honors. He refused to attend the ceremony in which his beloved Harvard bestowed an honorary degree on this “barbarian and savage who could scarcely spell his own name.” Jackson, he fumed, was so “ravenous of notoriety that he craves the sympathy for sickness as a portion of his glory,” to the point that the President even permitted talk of his “constant diarrhea.”

Was Adams a sore loser? Sure. But much of his anger stemmed from genuine concern over the direction of the country set by Jackson and his followers.

During Adams’ post-Presidential years as a Congressman—the only former White House occupant to serve in the House of Representatives—he lent his prestige, as the son--and, therefore, one of the last link--to the leaders of the American Revolution, to opposing, sometimes single-handedly, “the Gag Rule,” a brazen attempt by Jacksonian Democrats to abridge freedom of petition by tabling any memorial touching in any way on slavery. Later, he opposed the admission of Texas to the Union and the Mexican-American War, deriding them as attempts to augment the power of the slave states.

Less well-known was his deep, lasting anger over Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans. Jackson had not only pushed the Cherokee tribe to leave their ancestral territory for new land west of the Mississippi, but had even defied a Supreme Court decision handed down by the revered John Marshall that he must honor the tribe’s rights. 

The climax for Adams may have come on June 30, 1841, in a morning visit from the Cherokee Chief John Ross and two others in his delegation. Adams, having refused appointment to chair the House Committee on Indian Affair, believed that this service would have resulted in “total impotence to render any useful service.” He could not help feeling alarmed at what he saw coming to pass, as he confided in his diary:

“The policy, from Washington to myself, of all the Presidents of the United States had been justice and kindness to the Indian tribes—to civilize and preserve them. With the Creeks and Cherokees it had been eminently successful. Its success was their misfortune. The States within whose borders their settlements were took the alarm, broke down all the treaties which had pledged the faith of the nation. Georgia extended her jurisdiction over them, took possession of their lands, houses, cattle, furniture, negroes, and drove them out from their own dwellings. All the Southern States supported Georgia in this utter prostration of faith and justice; and Andrew Jackson, by the simultaneous operation of fraudulent treaties and brutal force, consummated the work. The Florida War is one of the fruits of this policy, the conduct of which exhibits one (un)interrupted scene of the most profligate corruption. All resistance against this abomination is vain. It is among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring them to judgement—but as His own time and by His own means.”

The pre-Jackson policy of the American government should not be treated as a nirvana. It smacked of paternalism, of the need to “civilize and preserve” the tribes. The first six American Presidents believed in an expansionist America where whites enjoyed priority.

But Adams believed that abrogation of treaty obligations represented a dangerous, irreversible step, out of keeping both with our adherence to law and to respecting the rights of other nations. United States Indian policy, Adams confided in his diary on another occasion, amounted to a “sickening mass of putrefaction.”

The President responsible for this “putrefaction” preached a militant form of nationalism that has made him a favorite of Steve Bannon, adviser to our current President. Consider that when weighing if this is the kind of “populism” desirable for America.

As he rose, again and again, in opposition to the depredations of Jacksonian Democrats, Adams was given a nickname: “Old Man Eloquent.” His diary reveals in full the intellectual commitment and moral passion—along with the frequent bouts of depression—that animated his commitment to serving the United States.

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