Thursday, February 23, 2023

This Day in Presidential History (‘Old Man Eloquent’ Adams Dies in Congress, Combating Slavery)

Feb. 23, 1848—Two days after casting a loud “no” vote in the House of Representatives on a war he abominated for extending slavery, then suffering a massive stroke as colleagues watched helplessly, former President John Quincy Adams died in a private room just off the chamber where he had revived his reputation.

As he expired, the 80-year-old Adams—a son of America’s second President who had struggled to cope with high parental expectations, as well as with his own ambition, unrelenting conscience, and, very likely, a major depressive disorder—conveyed a sense that his taxing personal journey was complete. “This is the last of earth; I am content,” were his reported last words.

In the last couple of days, with the news that Jimmy Carter has gone on hospice care, many observers have noted that, whatever his failures in office, he rewrote the playbook on how post-Presidencies could be conducted.

But, with no disrespect to the ailing former President, Adams achieved a greater impact in less than half the time—a little less than 19 years after he departed the White House, versus 42 years for Carter.

That impact was achieved because, while Carter concentrated on non-governmental service, Adams was elected and reelected to the House of Representatives, a body where to this day, no other President has served after leaving the White House.

(Other ex-Presidents have been consequential after leaving the White House, but not to the extent Adams was, nor as happily. In 1875, Andrew Johnson went back to the Senate, only to die just a few months later. William Howard Taft became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he preferred immensely over the Presidency. Theodore Roosevelt was so unhappy over being out of the Oval Office that he ran for his old post in 1912 against his former friend Taft, opening up a fatal split between the conservative and progressive wings of the Republican Party.)

I believe that places can often express the essence of a historic person far more vividly than words can. In the case of Adams, two places yield special insights into his character.

One is National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Before this space was converted to an area where states could honor their most significant citizens, it served as the Hall of the House of Representatives.

When I toured this room some years ago, a guide not only pointed out that Adams had his fatal collapse at his desk here, but also this was where he had rattled opponents in debate.

To be sure, much of his effectiveness derived from his careful preparation for wording speeches and figuring what was most likely to unsettle adversaries, but he was also aided by the spontaneous insights he gained from a certain spot, where a mere whisper on one side of the room could echo to where he was standing.

The second place that provides a vivid sense of Adams is Peacefield, in Quincy, Mass.—for four generations of the family that lived here from 1788 to 1927, nicknamed “The Old House,” but now run by the National Park Service. I visited there 20 years ago, but vivid memories from my day there still linger.

The globes in Peacefield’s study belonged to John Quincy—a subtle reminder of a dazzling diplomatic career in which he not only served as America’s minister to Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain, but also altered the contours of the world’s maps by negotiating Florida’s purchase from Spain while he was secretary of state.

(Indeed, back in 1981, when American Heritage surveyed historians about “The Ten Best Secretaries of State,” Adams was the first choice of 80% of the respondents. I doubt if that result would change 40 years later.)

Adams’ son Charles Francis Adams built on the property a “Stone Library” to house the more than 6,00 books that his father acquired during his lifetime.

The most dramatic items in this library, and perhaps the ones cherished most by generations of the Adams family, are a Bible and a desk. They mark a vindication of sorts for the dedicated but politically frustrated Adams.

The English Bible was presented to John Quincy by Mendi tribesmen in gratitude for his Supreme Court arguments that won freedom for the Amistad slave mutineers in 1841—an episode in American history dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 drama Amistad.

The desk symbolizes John Quincy’s service in the House of Representatives from 1830 to 1848—a tenure that served as balm to a spirit made miserable by an ineffectual single term as President and wounded by scurrilous campaign charges.

(During Adams’ failed Presidential re-election bid in 1828, Andrew Jackson’s supporters claimed that the President had pimped for the Czar while minister to Russia, and that, in an “unfair bargain,” he had appointed Henry Clay secretary of state in return for Clay’s bloc of votes in Congress in the disputed election of 1824.)

But throughout his post-Presidential career, John Quincy’s resentment was transformed into positive energy on behalf of a cause.

As the most visible surviving link to the founders of the republic as the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he became the most valuable asset of the anti-slavery movement.

Leading an eight-year effort to overthrow the “gag rule” that restricted congressional debate on slavery and threatened the constitutionally guaranteed right of petition, Adams earned the nickname “Old Man Eloquent.” 

And, like freshman Congressman Abraham Lincoln, Adams had attacked the Mexican War from the outset, regarding the conflict as a pretext for adding a slave state to the Union.

Adams’ anti-slavery advocacy formed just part of his wider opposition to Jacksonian policies on the rights of non-white peoples. As President, he had called for better protection of Indian Territories. 

By 1841, having watched his successor’s “simultaneous operation of fraudulent treaties and brutal force,” he confided to his diary his sense of impotent rage over “this abomination”: “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.”

Adams was more successful during his post-Presidency in steering the nation towards another goal of his Presidency: government investment in scientific research. He was influential in seeing that the curious bequest of English scientist James Smithson—calling for “an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge" in the United States—was carried out when Congress created the Smithsonian Institution in 1846.

And one of the late, most gratifying periods of his life came in 1843. As he journeyed west to speak at the dedication of the Cincinnati Observatory, crowds turned out in droves to see this politician who had battled so stubbornly—and often at such a steep price to his mental well-being—for the causes of a lifetime.

For all the high intelligence, integrity, and unswerving patriotism that enabled Adams and other members of his family to achieve greatness, they also suffered an unrelenting, even puritanical pursuit of perfection, overwhelming depression, and tragedy when they couldn’t measure up to the near-impossible standards they set for themselves.

“If you do not rise to the head of your country…it will be owing to your own laziness,” John Adams advised his oldest and most dutiful son. John Quincy did so, but his brothers, wilting under their father’s disapproving eye, fell victim to alcoholism and depression, as did two of his own sons nearly 30 years later.

Often cold and austere, John Quincy made his British-born wife Louisa so miserable that only with great reluctance did she abandon her White House plans for a tell-all memoir about their marriage.

Adams tortured none of his loved ones, however, worse than himself. Assessing his life to date on his 45th birthday, he confessed to his diary:

“Two thirds of a long life are past, and I have done Nothing to distinguish it by usefulness to my Country, or to Mankind— I have always lived with I hope a suitable sense of my duties in Society, and with a sincere desire to perform them— But Passions, Indolence, weakness, and infirmity have sometimes made me swerve from my better knowledge of right, and almost constantly paralyzed my efforts of good.”

Others took a more generous view of his legacy. In an unprecedented gesture, thousands of mourners filed past his bier for two days as he lay in state in the Capitol.

Four years later, when he joined John, his mother Abigail, and wife Louisa in an enlarged family crypt, the ornate coffin prepared by Congress for him proved too large for his sarcophagus, halting the ceremony while stonemasons worked hurriedly to widen the enclosure.

The mishap aptly sums up a family that, to their despair and posterity’s favorable judgment, refused to fit into the narrow political confines of their day.

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