Edward Pessen. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, was one of the most brilliant, learned, and able men who has ever held high office in the nation. Blessed with a strong character, high principles, unswerving integrity, an iron constitution, and a flair for hard work, Adams enjoyed not one but several luminous careers. Commencing as a precocious but strikingly able young diplomat whose work was invaluable to his father, John Adams, and earned the praise of President George Washington, Adams went on to great political and academic successes. An excellent student while at Harvard and a devoted reader of the classics, Adams later was for a time simultaneously Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and United States senator. A forceful nationalist and indomitable patriot, he established himself during the years of the Monroe administration as one of the truly great secretaries of state. After leaving the White House for what he mistakenly thought would be the quiet years of retirement and contemplation, he carved out still another illustrious career: as “Old Man Eloquent,” he championed the antislavery cause in the House of Representatives, where he served for seventeen years as congressman from Massachusetts. And yet Adams was neither a great nor a successful president.
In this respect, Adams was very much like his father, for John Adams too was a man of the highest intellectual and characterological endowment who, although he served his country well and even brilliantly during a time of troubles, served it only with indifferent success when he was named to its highest office. Son, like father, lacked the common touch, appeared to suffer fools badly, and had neither zest for nor skill in playing the political games that evidently had to be played if a chief executive hoped to achieve success, whether in securing the enactment of a program or in assuring his continuation in the nation’s highest political office. Both Adamses were one-term presidents.
Since the criteria for “presidential greatness” are indeterminate, historians’ and political scientists’ evaluations inevitably differ. Yet, interestingly, even one of John Quincy Adams’ most knowledgeable as well as warmest scholarly admirers, Samuel Flagg Bemis, concedes the failure of his presidency, devoting no more than twenty-two words to it in his thirty-five-hundred-word essay on Adams in a recent edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In the conventional historians’ wisdom, John Quincy Adams’ presidency is worth remembering less for anything Adams may have done in administering the office than for the unprecedented manner by which he came to occupy it and the fascinating, if dismaying, political campaign by which, after one dismal term, he came to lose it.
As the first president in American history whose father had also held the office, Adams, who was born on 11 July 1767 in that part of Braintree, Massachusetts, which later became Quincy, had every advantage as a youngster. At the time of his birth, his father was an increasingly admired and prospering lawyer, and his mother, Abigail Smith Adams, was the daughter of an esteemed minister, whose wife’s family combined two prestigious and influential lines, the Nortons and the Quincys. Accompanying his father on diplomatic missions in Europe, young John Quincy Adams received a splendid education at private schools in Paris, Leiden, and Amsterdam, early developing his penchant for omnivorous reading. From youth on, he began each day with a reading of several chapters of the Bible, first in one language and then another, and meticulously kept a diary that has endeared him to historians. For this careful and often fulsome record provides both an accurate description of important historical events and Adams’ sometimes sour but always discerning and interesting responses to these events.
He seemed to serve an ideal apprenticeship for the office of chief executive, for in common with most of the presidents, he trained for the law after graduating from college and he made a “good marriage.” The young woman Adams wed was Louisa Catherine Johnson, whose father had been a substantial merchant and whose uncle was the governor of Maryland. In addition to the positions already mentioned, Adams served as minister to the Netherlands and then to Prussia between 1797 and 1801. After serving in the Senate from 1803 to 1808, he was appointed the first United States minister to Russia in 1809, turning down an offer of membership on the Supreme Court during his half decade in St. Petersburg. Adding to his reputation was his brilliant and tough-minded performance as chief American peace commissioner in the negotiations at Ghent that ended the War of 1812 and his effectiveness as minister to Great Britain during the last two years of the Madison administration.
If Adams was in 1824 widely regarded as the most able and deserving of presidential candidates, it was not merely because he had held high diplomatic and political positions but because he had displayed such outstanding ability and such independence of mind and character in executing his assignments. The son of a leading Federalist and himself an early champion of the Federalist party, Adams proved to be anything but a slavish devotee to that political cause. When he thought the party was in the wrong, he stood ready to oppose it. In fact, as he told his father, if he thought the country was in the wrong, he could not bring himself to solicit God’s approval for its course. President James Madison, a good Jeffersonian, awarded Adams the diplomatic plum of a ministry to Russia as a form of political reward for his break with his party in supporting the Jeffersonian Embargo Act of 1807, an act that was bitterly opposed throughout Adams’ New England. The infuriated Massachusetts Federalists prematurely ended Adams’ senatorial career. By 1808, Adams was attending the Republican party caucus that nominated Madison for the presidency.
Adams had also demonstrated his stubborn sense of independence while he was secretary of state. An uncompromising nationalist and patriot, he alone in President Monroe’s cabinet opposed the censure of General Andrew Jackson for the latter’s behavior in 1817. Jackson had violated the borders of Spanish Florida and came near embroiling the nation in another crisis with Great Britain over his execution of two British subjects during the course of his foray. Adams stuck to his guns, the censure motion was deflected, and within a year Florida fell into American hands for a song. And it was Adams who spurned the subsequent British offer that the two nations engage in a joint declaration against European intervention in South America; it was thus because of Adams that the Monroe Doctrine was put forward as a purely American conception.
A typical Adams in his evident conviction that he was not exceptional and that his performance of his various public tasks was inadequate, John Quincy Adams at age forty-five confided to his diary that with his life two-thirds completed, he had “done nothing to distinguish it by usefulness to [his] country or to mankind.” In fact, he had demonstrated great capacity, high character, and much promise of yet greater achievement in whatever responsibilities might lie ahead. The portrait he drew of himself as a “man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners” whose adversaries ostensibly regarded him as a “gloomy misanthropist” and an “unsocial savage” may have had some point. He certainly seemed to believe that these were actual defects in his character and that he lacked the “pliability” to reform them. In truth, John Quincy Adams was not a pliable man. But in view of the austerity and near rigidity of Washington and the lack of what is nowadays called charisma in other of Adams’ predecessors, Adams’ defects of personality, if they were indeed that, were neither unique nor a certain obstacle to his rise.
Election of 1824
In the judgment of many historians, Adams’ presidency was doomed to failure because of the manner in which he gained the high office. Adams never lived down the charge by his leading opponent that he had secured the necessary majority in the House only by agreeing to a “corrupt bargain,” by which Adams allegedly rewarded Henry Clay with the post of secretary of state—then the stepping stone to the presidency—in return for Clay’s intriguing and manipulating in the House to switch votes to Adams.
The fascinating presidential election of 1824 was a turning point in many ways. It followed a succession of three two-term presidents, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—the famous “Virginia Dynasty”—each of whom was identified with Jefferson’s Republican party. Monroe had run unopposed in 1820, for the Federalist party of Washington, Hamilton, and John Adams had finally given up the ghost, unable to shake off the popular belief that, in opposing as it had the War of 1812, it had skirted perilously close to treason.
Even before the disintegration of Federalism, the Republicans had the presidential field pretty much to themselves, as party members in Congress would meet in closed caucus to name the candidate for the forthcoming presidential election. As Monroe’s second term approached its end, the Republican congressional caucus by an almost unanimous vote recommended William H. Crawford of Georgia, secretary of the treasury in Monroe’s cabinet, as its candidate for president. According to Martin Van Buren, the political genius who controlled Republican politics in New York State, acceptance of the caucus’ choice for office was an “article of faith” or fundamental tenet of the Republican party. Not in 1824. Van Buren and not too many others dutifully threw their energies into the election of Crawford. But a number of other men, Republicans all, sensing that the caucus selection could this time be successfully opposed, threw their own hats into the ring. John Quincy Adams was one of this ambitious quartet.
By 1824, Crawford’s rivals no doubt agreed with the newly skeptical attitude toward caucus selection that was expressed by Adams in his diary entry for 25 January 1824. He had come to believe that “a majority of the whole people of the United States, and a majority of the States [were] utterly averse to a nomination by Congressional caucus, thinking it adverse to the spirit of the Constitution and tending to corruption.” Adams was no doubt sincere in his insistence that since he agreed with this sentiment, he could not accept a caucus nomination for the presidency, but he would have sounded more convincing had he had a realistic chance of securing such nomination. But he must have known that there was no such chance. Motivated as he was by soaring ambition, this pillar of rectitude sought to convince himself that he was breaking with tradition only for the loftiest and most principled of reasons. The other contestants simply saw their chance and took it.
Adams’ several rivals constituted one of the most impressive constellations of political luminaries that ever vied for the presidency in any single election. In addition to the estimable Crawford, the group included John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the brilliant Yale-educated nationalist who served as secretary of war under Monroe; Henry Clay of Kentucky, the master politician who had been the chief architect of the Missouri Compromise; and General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, a man of slight political achievement, little education, and notorious temper, but widely admired for his exploits as an Indian fighter and above all for his stunning victory in 1815 over the British at New Orleans. Withdrawing from the race when it became clear that he had no real chance to win, Calhoun and his backers settled for second place under the presidency of either of the two leading candidates—Adams, the only northerner in the competition, and Jackson, the darling of the South and West.
The election returns make clear how decisively the latter two candidates outdistanced Crawford and Clay. The tallies were as follows:
Since no candidate had won the required majority of electoral votes, the choice was turned over to the House of Representatives, in accord with Article II of the Constitution. Since, by Article XII, only the top three vote-getters qualify in such a circumstance, Clay’s name was dropped from the list presented to the lower house. Since Crawford was known to have become physically incapacitated and unable therefore to perform the duties of the high office, there was very little chance that many in Congress would join the diehards who appeared ready to stand by Crawford, near-dead or fully alive. In his diary entry for 9 February 1825, Adams wrote, “May the blessing of God rest upon the event of this day,” for earlier that day, Adams had been selected by the approving vote of thirteen states, with Jackson supported by seven states and Crawford by four.
Three weeks and two days later, Adams reported that he had suffered through two sleepless nights prior to inauguration day. His excitement and unease were induced not only by the fact that he was about to assume the great burden of the presidency but by the vilification that the Jacksonians had heaped on him for what they claimed were the sordid means by which he had won the election to the office in Congress.
The Corrupt Bargain
The charge of “corrupt bargain” began to be heard throughout the land as soon as Clay let it be known early in 1825 that he was supporting Adams for the presidency. What was earlier a murmur became a roar when Adams proffered, and Clay accepted, the position of secretary of state in Adams’ cabinet. In a rage at the outcome of the House’s “election,” Jackson said of Clay that “the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver,” and in Clay’s home state he charged that “the people [had] been cheated,” their will defeated by “corruptions and intrigues at Washington.” The following year Clay engaged in a duel with Senator John Randolph of Virginia, putting a bullet through that erratic man’s cloak after the Virginian had publicly denounced the “stinking” corruption and bargain between the “puritan and the black leg.”
Nothing Adams or Clay might do or say thereafter ever removed completely the taint resulting from the incessant braying of “corruption” by their enemies. Jackson was understandably upset at faring so poorly in the House after getting the substantial popular vote he did. But if a substantial plurality were sufficient to election, the Constitution would have so indicated. The lower house of Congress had every right to consider the runoff as a brand new election and to choose, as it did, the man widely regarded as the best and most responsible candidate. Neither Jackson nor his allies were able, then or afterward, to offer a scintilla of evidence backing up their charge of a bargain.
Adams had every right to appoint the gifted and experienced Kentuckian to the State Department, just as Clay had every right to support Adams and to try to influence others to follow suit. Thomas Hart Benton and Francis P. Blair, ardent Jacksonians both, testified that Clay, to their personal knowledge, had indicated his preference for Adams over Jackson well before the matter was placed before the House. Clay had differed with Jackson over matters of policy and principle and had understandable reason to oppose a natural rival, popular with the same sectional constituency as the Kentuckian.
It is not at all certain either that the Jacksonians fully believed the charge or that they were as horrified as they pretended to be over a pragmatic arrangement of the sort many of them had themselves entered into. What is more clear is that they derived great political capital out of the charge. There is much evidence indicating that Adams’ opponents would have opposed his administration and the measures it proposed no matter how it was installed or whom it named secretary of state. But with the appointment of Clay, supporters of Jackson, Calhoun, and Crawford had a marvelous pretext for mounting what was to be four years of incessant opposition to the Adams administration and all its works. John Quincy Adams had glaring faults as a political leader in an increasingly democratic and materialistic republic, but in view of the unyielding nature of his enemies, their cleverness in entering into their own dubious bargains in order to unify and solidify their opposition to him, and the broad geographical and financial support they were able to muster, it is doubtful that his administration would have been a success or he him. self reelected no matter how admirable his political program or how consummate his political skills.
Adams’ Qualities as President
One outmoded interpretation held that “the victory of John Quincy Adams gave the business community its last chance,” suggesting that the sixth president favored the propertied over the popular interest. In fact, Adams was an independent, as well as intelligent, thinker, a patriot who thought in national rather than class terms. His views were uncommonly humane for the major party politician that in a sense he was. This was a man who rejected the comforting notion that the United States was a classless society; who believed, as did few of his male contemporaries, that women in America were denied the equal opportunities that were their due; who, unlike the slaveholding Jackson, believed that slavery was “the great and foul stain upon the North American Union” and that “the Constitution’s protection of slavery was intolerable” and that it should be amended. Like his predecessors in the chief executive’s office, he believed that the presidential veto was a potentially despotic power that was to be rarely exercised (in accord with Hamilton’s promise to this effect in The Federalist).
In addition to his learning, intelligence, and independence of mind, Adams had a capacity for hard work that one would have thought boded well for the prospects of his presidency. His description of a day’s work, written a month after he took office, tells something of his approach to the job:
Since my removal to the Presidential mansion, I rise about five; read two chapters of Scott’s Bible and Commentary, and the corresponding Commentary of Hewlett; then the morning newspapers, and public papers from the several departments; write seldom and not enough; breakfast an hour, from nine to ten; then have a succession of visitors, upon business, in search of place, solicitors for donations, or from mere curiosity, from eleven till between four and five o’clock. The heads of department of course occupy much of this time. Between four and six I take a walk of three or four miles. Dine from about half past five to seven, and from dark till about eleven I generally pass the evening in my chamber, signing land grants or blank patents, in the interval of which, for the last ten days I have brought up three months of arrears in my diary index. About eleven I retire to bed. My evenings are not so free from interruption as I hoped and expected they would be.
By his fourth year in office he was, if anything, putting in an even longer day. His diary entry for 31 May 1828 notes that he would “rise generally before five—frequently before four” and “retire usually between eleven and midnight.” When weather permitted, Adams would swim in the Potomac, tend his garden, and ride horseback. By the end of his tenure, perhaps because he was worn down—more by the unremitting sniping at his heels by political foes than by the tasks of office—he was nodding off, briefly but often, on his sofa.
Sadly, neither high intelligence nor hard work availed to ensure a successful presidential tenure. It has become a historian’s commonplace to observe that once in the high office, Adams’ stiffness of personality, his inability to make the necessary small compromises, and the fancifulness of his proposals combined to defeat his hopes, whether for a great presidency or for reelection. Yet the evidence can be otherwise interpreted. It is not necessary to distort the historical record to conclude that Adams’ political rivals and enemies were simply intent on bringing him down, ready to exploit or distort every issue; magnify any error, no matter how trivial; and distort every statement and every action, all with an eye toward undermining his administration and ruining his chances for succession. That they succeeded with a vengeance doubtless indicates that Adams lacked at least some of the things that it takes to achieve a successful presidency. The success of Adams’ enemies also suggests, disturbingly, that a successful presidency may be beholden more to an incumbent’s opportunism and amorality than to intelligence and integrity.
The Adams Administration
Apart from the controversial Clay, Adams’ cabinet appointments were unexceptional. Adams was practical politician enough to try to mend his fences with Crawford by offering him continued tenure in the Treasury Department; the Georgian was too ill to continue. Cabinet offers went to men who, as a group, represented a geographical cross section of the nation: Henry Clay (State), James Barbour (War), Richard Rush (Treasury), Samuel L. Southard (Navy), and William Wirt (Attorney General).
Adams’ promise, in his inaugural message, ceaselessly to devote all of his faculties to the “faithful performance of the arduous duties” he was about to undertake was similarly unexceptional. But that Adams also said that he was “deeply conscious” that he was “less possessed of [the people’s] confidence” than had been any of his predecessors betrayed his continuing anxiety about his unimpressive popular vote. Perhaps, too, it betokened his unease concerning the unprecedented route he had followed to reach the highest office and the dark mutterings that followed in its wake.
In his first annual message, delivered on 6 December 1825, Adams presented his administration’s program to the Nineteenth Congress. A clue to the unrelenting hostility evoked by his almost every suggestion is afforded by the suspicion with which his opponents greeted what would appear to have been an unexceptionable and glittering generalization, to the effect that “the great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of those who are parties to the social compact.” To hear how some devotees of laissez-faire and states’ rights republicanism told it, “improvement” came close to being subversive, if not un-American. Adams, of course, had some champions in Congress—the Clay-Adams “coalitionists,” above all. But the great majority consisted of Jackson, Calhoun, and Crawford supporters—the last group led by the wily Martin Van Buren—all of them listening with jaundiced ears to Adams’ proposals.
The conflict between John Quincy Adams and his congressional opposition was not entirely a matter of office and power, of simple hostility by the “outs” to the “ins.” An element of political principle or ideology, broadly construed, was also present. Although their earlier and subsequent careers demonstrated the opportunism of Adams’ chief opponents and their readiness to switch from one political position to another when they thought it expedient to do so—as Calhoun reversed himself on the tariff or as Jackson did on the propriety of appointing former Federalists to office—they did tend to be unsympathetic to the idea of activism by the federal government, whether in economic or other matters. The issue of slavery did not arise directly during the years of Adams’ presidency, yet it rose indirectly, in the sense that many champions of the South’s “peculiar institution” appear to have been hostile to federal intervention in any area of American life, largely because they feared that recognition of such a right might in the future lead to federal interference with slavery.
Anti-Adams men, in Congress and out, who both before and after his message displayed readiness to utilize federal funds to promote internal improvements, now professed to be shocked at his suggestion that the national government facilitate “communications and intercourse between distant regions and multitudes of men” by building and improving roads and canals. The president’s enemies had a field day ridiculing his advocacy of scientific investigation and of “public institutions and seminaries of learning” as the essential instruments for achieving the “moral, political, [and] intellectual improvement” of the American people. Singled out for special scorn was his call for the “erection of an astronomical observatory [for] observation upon the phenomena of the heavens.” They lampooned the suggestion that the United States build its first such observatory, although no one deigned to challenge the president’s report that Europe had more than 130 of these “light-houses of the skies.” Even a modern critic of Adams and his administration, while finding the message politically inept, concedes that it was “one of the great presidential papers sent to any Congress.” But, inspired as they were by opportunism, unshaking determination to destroy the Adams administration, and what a modern historian calls their anti-intellectualism, Adams’ congressional opponents were oblivious to any of the message’s charms.
Adams did slip badly in one passage of his message. In urging that the Congress not be “palsied by the will of [their] constituents” in enacting the “public improvement” he called for, he left himself open to the charge that he had thereby revealed his contempt for democracy and the obligation of government to guide itself by the will of the people. The Jacksonians never let up in their subsequent campaign to portray Adams as an aristocrat at heart. His enemies took these words out of a context in which they were part of a ringing nationalistic appeal for the United States not to doom itself to “perpetual inferiority” to foreign nations “less blessed with … freedom.” Actually, Adams was demonstrating his accord with the well-known proposition, earlier offered by Edmund Burke, that the responsible political leader owes his constituents not his industry but his talents. Andrew Jackson and other of Adams’ enemies more than once acted in accord with this elitist principle. But Adams, characteristically, was frank and impolitic enough to state his beliefs openly and put them in the public record. Not surprisingly, in view of the circumstances, Adams’ “bold proposals” got absolutely nowhere in Congress.
As the year ended, Adams confided to his diary that it had been a year “without disaster to the country; with an unusual degree of prosperity, public and private.” He was right, yet he derived little political capital from the fact, for, as he discerningly noted, public opinion toward him continued to be negative. Aware of his own flaws as a public man, Adams put much of the blame for his lack of popularity on his personal deficiencies. Certainly he was woefully inept, whether at building an organized movement to agitate for his measures or at punishing foes, even when he had the power to do so because they had been appointed by and should have been beholden to him. But the lack of success of his administration appears to have been due above all to the amoral behavior of his political enemies. Its fate was sealed when under the masterful leadership of Martin Van Buren, Adams’ opponents all across the country organized what has been called the first truly mass party in American history. Dedicated to the twin propositions of destroying the reputation of John Quincy Adams and his administration and electing Andrew Jackson president of the United States in 1828, the new Democratic party was to have its way, fortified by lavish expenditures of money, brilliant grassroots organization, a national press network that undeviatingly preached the new party’s line, the constant reminder that Adams owed his presidency to a “corrupt bargain,” unremitting congressional warfare against every administration measure, and Adams’ own blunders.
Adams’ Nonpartisan Appointments
It throws an interesting, if not strange, light on the politics of the time that one of Adams’ chief blunders was simply his fair and high-minded treatment of his political enemies. The era of the “spoils system” did not reward political integrity of the sort that refused to kick men out of office merely because they were performing their jobs ably. The Jacksonians and their Whig successors judged political appointees not so much by the quality of their public performance as by their loyalty to the man or the party in power. Adams had the quaint notion that appointments should go not to the politically friendly but to the worthy.
At the outset of his administration, Adams said that he was “determined to renominate every person against whom there was no complaint”—no complaint, that is, about his professional performance. And he lived up to his promise, despite being importuned to serve his friends and reproved for overlooking them. He indeed would not—and did not—replace “able and faithful political opponents to provide for [his] own partisans.” By Adams’ old-fashioned standards, partisan appointments would have been a misuse of his presidential powers. He removed only twelve officeholders during his presidency and did so in each case on the grounds of the incumbent’s “gross negligence.” Clay and other of Adams’ astute supporters bemoaned the president’s unwillingness to remove John McLean, the postmaster general, and a host of lesser-known officials, all of them working behind the scenes to undermine the Adams administration. Adams brushed aside all evidence of the political disloyalty of these men as irrelevant: the only thing that mattered was whether they were performing their jobs ably. Of course, as Clay rightly argued, it mattered a great deal to Adams’ chances for success in the 1828 presidential election that his administration was in effect filled with traitors to his cause, men working to bring about his downfall.
Adams was not unaware of the force of this argument, but he was too principled to let it affect his appointments policy. He appears to have contemplated his forthcoming political disaster reflectively, fortified by his conviction that the path he had taken was the moral one. Indeed it was and therein lay one of the chief causes of his subsequent undoing. That one of the Jacksonian leaders regaled the Senate with a thundering denunciation of Adams’ allegedly partisan appointments policy only provides an example of the indifference of the president’s enemies to the facts of the case.
The Panama Congress
Some of what historians have called Adams’ blunders were blunders only in a manner of speaking; that is, they were proposals or policies that failed and even hurt him politically not because of their lack of merit but because his congressional opponents artfully and effectively made them objects of ridicule. Adams’ support of American participation in the Panama Congress of 1826 is a nice case in point.
In a special message on 26 December 1825, Adams told Congress that he had accepted the invitation from Simón Bolívar, the “Liberator” of South America, that the United States send a delegation to the congress of American nations called for the early summer of 1826 in Panama. As Adams carefully explained, although he “deemed [his acceptance of the invitation] to be within the constitutional competency of the Executive,” he thought it advisable to ascertain Congress’ opinion of the expediency of participating in the proposed congress before naming delegates to it. In an attempt to help the United States Congress better understand the value of attendance, Adams presented a number of reasoned arguments: it would, among other things, be in the national interest; it would strengthen commercial ties with, and opportunities in, South America; it would fortify the Monroe Doctrine’s warnings against European intervention in the hemisphere; and it would enhance the popularity of the United States among the nations south of the border. The response of the anti-Adams majority in Congress was predictable.
House and Senate alike denounced the alleged subversion of the powers of Congress and the betrayal of George Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements. They claimed to discern, too, a plot to enter, unconstitutionally, into a secret alliance. Southern congressmen warned that the Panama Congress would doubtless express criticism of the slave trade, and they voiced dark forebodings about the presence of black Haitians in Panama and the dangers that would flow from recognition of Haitian independence from France. Adams responded by avowing his veneration of Washington’s Farewell Addressington’s farewell address, his continuing opposition to foreign entanglements, and his doubts that Haiti “ought to be recognized as an independent sovereign power,” in view of its continued economic subservience to France. But what was wrong, he asked, with the United States cementing ties with its southern neighbors, strengthening the Monroe Doctrine, further dissuading European intervention, and enhancing American financial prospects?
Of course, nothing Adams said could mollify his critics. But on 22 April 1826 he won what Samuel E Bemis calls his “first and only victory in Congress,” when the House of Representatives approved the appropriation of $40,000 to cover the expenses of sending an American delegation to Panama. The victory was a hollow one, since nothing came of it. One of the delegates Adams selected, Richard Anderson, died en route; the other delegate, John Sergeant, did not arrive until the congress was essentially over. At Henry Clay’s request, Adams, on his very last day in office, communicated to the United States Congress the administration’s instructions to Anderson and Sergeant in order to include in the enduring record proof of the baselessness of the smears and innuendos leveled against the Adams administration’s role in the matter.
Toward the end of his life, Adams, in a reflective mood, dismissed the event and the controversy it engendered as a slight thing at best and a fiasco at worst. Bemis is more appreciative, viewing Adams’ support of the Panama Congress and the administration’s Latin American policy, of which attendance in Panama was a part, as a “noble experiment that led to nothing in its [own] day.” But the underlying idea of United States involvement in Latin America was to bear fruit at a later day.
The Last Two Years
It is not clear whether the last two years of John Quincy Adams’ presidency are better described as tragedy or farce. A sympathetic biographer, Marie B. Hecht, faults him for what she calls the “sin of pride,” not only in failing to exercise the powers available to him in order to marshal support for his programs but for failing to build an effective party machinery that might have organized support for the Adams programs. Although Henry Clay and other Adams supporters did belatedly create a fairly efficient organization to wage Adams’ election campaign in 1828, the criticism of Adams no doubt has merit. And yet, in view of the unrelenting efforts of his opponents in Congress, out to ridicule his administration and to frustrate its every initiative, one wonders whether his employment of even the most artful tactics could have sufficed to turn the tide. In a letter to his son, Charles Francis Adams, Adams described the majority in both houses of the Twentieth Congress as a coalition of factions “united by a common disappointment into one mass envenomed by one spirit of bitter and unrelenting persecuting malice” against him. These were, of course, the words of a beaten man. Interestingly, Robert V. Remini, a historian highly sympathetic to Adams’ enemies, agrees that the sole object of the pro-Jackson Twentieth Congress either in passing or opposing legislation was to bring about the victory of Jackson over Adams in 1828.
In his third annual message, presented at the end of 1827, Adams proposed a modest program, urging that sympathetic attention be given to the remaining debt the nation owed veterans of the Revolutionary War and to the need for enlarging the judiciary in order to meet the expanding nation’s needs. This man, ostensibly unsympathetic to the plight of the needy, also advocated amelioration of the nation’s harsh bankruptcy laws. But it mattered not whether his proposals were slight or weighty, reflective of this ideological viewpoint or that. They were all given equally short shrift by a Congress seemingly indifferent to the merits of legislative proposals, in its preoccupation with undermining the administration that presented them.
Adams appears to have been worn down by the unrelenting harassment of his political enemies. In a diary entry for 1827, Adams complained about the unending chores and the unceasing stream of visitors that made his life so irksome. Yet one feels that his malaise was caused more by his growing conviction that his presidency was doomed to failure than by the mundane burdens of the high office—burdens that he, as a highly experienced national leader, had every reason to know were unavoidable in the performance of the job. It seems unlikely that a successful president would have been quite so distraught at the multitude of chores, no matter how mundane or monotonous, to have felt that nothing could be “worse than this perpetual motion and crazing cares” or that the “weight grows heavier from day to day.” Ever the gentleman, Adams continued to receive gracefully the constant stream of congressmen who paid social visits to the White House or sought favors from its chief occupant, many of whom were not only hostile but, in his own phrase, “bitter as wormwood” in their opposition to him. Only what Adams called the “besotted” and violent John Randolph, the calumniator of Adams and Clay, was not welcome.
Randolph may not have been personally acceptable to Adams, but no one described as well the true purpose of the complicated tariff measure constructed and steered through the Twentieth Congress in 1828 by Van Buren and the Jacksonians than did the erratic Virginian. An inconsistent and seemingly contradictory set of protective schedules that was transparently designed to widen further the breach between the president and the nation’s diverse sectional and economic interests, the tariff was characterized by Randolph as a measure truly concerned with no manufactures except the manufacture of the next president of the United States.
Remini, the modern authority on this “Tariff of Abominations,” has described the bill as a “ghastly, lopsided, unequal bill, every section of which showed marks of political preference and favoritism,” and as the “supreme example of political horsetrading in the 20th Congress.” He has refuted the long-accepted notion that the authors of the measure actually sought its defeat. Its managers frankly conceded that their chief purpose was to overthrow Adams in 1828 by bringing Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri into the Jackson camp while keeping New York and Pennsylvania within the military hero’s fold.
An unanticipated political effect of the bill was the sharp reaction its passage evoked from South Carolina and its leading statesman. In 1828, John C. Calhoun’s South Carolina Exposition and Protest argued that a tariff for protection rather than for raising revenue was unconstitutional; the passage of the tariff left his state no alternative but to assert its right of “interposition” against the “despotism of the many.” Four years later, the nullification crisis erupted. Adams, who for all his nationalism and the loose constructionism of some of his principles was no champion of protectionism, was simply bypassed throughout the controversy over the tariff. There can be no doubt that he was badly hurt by the Tariff of Abominations.
The cynicism of Adams’ congressional opponents manifested itself, too, in other measures. The same men who expressed their horror at the alleged unconstitutionality of Adams’ nationalistic economic proposals thumbed their noses at the strict-constructionist proposals they professed to revere, passing a great array of “pork barrel” bills, which tapped the federal treasury in order to finance construction, bonuses, land giveaways, and harbor installations that were dear to their hearts because they were likely to be politically useful. Committed as they were to harassing the president, Van Buren’s legions deluged Adams as no earlier president ever had been, with requests for official statements from his office to justify his position on issues. It has been estimated by Hecht that committees of the Twentieth Congress “sent to the executive office about five times more requests for facts and opinions” than had been sent by earlier Congresses to Adams’ predecessors.
Although Adams had shown himself a great secretary of state, ready to resort to vigorous measures to enlarge both the nation’s territorial expanse and its influence in the world, he fared as poorly in foreign policy as in domestic. His presidency must have been a disappointment to nationalists, who expected even greater successes of him when he was able to make, rather than merely execute, foreign policy. His attempts to secure Texas peacefully were thwarted, in part because of the excessively aggressive, meddlesome behavior of Joel Poinsett, the first United States minister to Mexico. In this instance, it is possible that Adams refused to punish an errant appointee not out of a high-minded insistence on disregarding the politics of officials but out of private agreement with Poinsett’s blatant interference in Mexico’s internal politics.
Although Adams did succeed in inducing Great Britain to pay an indemnity of more than $1 million for the slaves it carried away during the War of 1812, he failed to achieve the more significant objective of bringing Great Britain to the bargaining table to negotiate the restoration of trade by American ships with the British West Indies. Bemis, the outstanding authority on the subject, attributes the defeat of Adams’ attempt to retaliate against British shipping to Van Buren’s “sniping.” Adams’ refusal to back off from the forty-ninth parallel as the dividing line between Britain and the United States in the Oregon Territory killed chances for an agreement on the issue in Adams’ own time, but of course, it meant that the United States two decades later would secure most of what became the new state of Washington.
A nice example of the conflict between principle, represented by President Adams, and amorality, represented by his Jacksonian opponents, is afforded by the controversy that arose between the Creek Indians and the state of Georgia. Like his presidential predecessors, Adams was no inveterate or humanitarian champion of Indian rights. He, too, sought the removal of the southern tribes to west of the Mississippi, and he countenanced threats and unlovely inducements to accomplish it. But, unlike his successor in the White House, Adams recognized limits to the American disregard of Indian rights guaranteed by federal treaties. When in 1827 Georgia improperly conducted surveys in treaty-guaranteed Indian lands, Adams issued an ultimatum warning that “the Executive of the United States [would] enforce the laws … by all the force committed for that purpose.” The House of Representatives supported Adams, insisting that purchase, not crude annexation, was the only proper means by which Georgia might acquire Indian lands. But the Senate, led by arch-Jacksonian Thomas Hart Benton, thwarted the president.
Election of 1828
Confronted by a brilliantly organized opposition that had created the first truly modern political party network in American history, Adams harbored no illusions about his chances for reelection in 1828. He would not stoop to making personal appearances before citizens whose votes he needed. In turning down a proposal that he speak to German farmers on the occasion of the opening of a canal in Pennsylvania, Adams said he thought such behavior “unsuitable to [his] personal character and to the station in which [he was] placed.” To the modern critics who attribute Adams’ decisive defeat in the presidential election largely to his own failure to match the organization and the tactics of his opponents, Adams would have answered that his principles meant more to him than did reelection. It was Henry Clay who later said he would rather be right than president, but it was John Quincy Adams who best lived up to the ideal. Certainly Adams would have rudely dismissed any suggestion that he should have modified or watered down the proposals his administration presented to Congress, with an eye toward broadening the base of his electoral support in 1828. He labored under the antique notion that there were things more important to a president than his reelection.
The 1828 campaign was a vicious one. A political ally of Adams’ wrote him that he had never seen an opposition so “malignant and unprincipled as that which is organized against you.” Over seventy years ago the historian Edward Channing, in attributing Adams’ defeat to Jackson’s overwhelming support in the South “combined with the employment of most unjustifiable methods by his partisans in Pennsylvania and New York,” concluded that “possibly it was more honorable to have been defeated in 1828 than to have been elected.” Writing a half century later, Remini concurs with this estimate, concluding that “this election splattered more filth … upon more innocent people than any other in American history.” Jackson’s opponents did not wear kid gloves, charging the Hero of New Orleans with murder and adultery, among other things. (Both charges were true, if only in a technical sense.) But these attacks paled in comparison to the smears leveled at Adams, who was charged, falsely, with adultery, using public funds to buy personal luxuries, and pimping for the czar during his ministry in Russia. Neither was the infamous “corrupt bargain” neglected.
Inevitably, the election returns can be variously interpreted. Jackson won a decisive victory in the electoral college, 178 to 83. When the popular vote is examined, Jackson’s small majority in the West and the Middle Atlantic states and his decisive defeat in the New England states suggest that his smashing three-to-one majority in the South was the vital element in his election. Jackson’s friends congratulated him on the outcome, one claiming that it was a victory for virtue. It was more surely a victory for the South. The popular totals also suggest that voters were not altogether indifferent to what they discerned as the principles of the two candidates—one a large slaveholder, the other a critic of slavery—for all the campaign’s emphasis on parades, rallies, the dispensation of liquor, and other forms of ballyhoo.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the author of perhaps the most popular and influential book on the age of Jackson, attributes Adams’ “overthrow in 1828” to his failure “to meet the problem” of an alleged widespread discontent among the American people. Historians’ interpretations of such matters are bound both to differ and to change over time. The weight of the evidence seems to be that the chief “problem” Adams failed to confront was one posed not by the discontent of the people but rather by the ambition of political rivals determined under no circumstances to permit the sixth president to succeed himself in office.
Adams as Congressman
Adams himself appears not to have regarded his defeat in 1828 as a tragedy. When his Quincy neighbors elected him to the House of Representatives in 1830, he proceeded to throw himself heart and soul into the performance of his new duties for the last seventeen years of his life. When friends wondered whether acceptance of membership in Congress might be degrading for a former president, Adams responded that no one could be degraded for serving the people, no matter in what capacity. It would be under-statement to say that Old Man Eloquent served with distinction in Congress.
As congressman, John Quincy Adams was the stuff of legend. He spoke truth when he said of his congressional years, “I shall be as I have been—a solitary.” But the stubbornness, devotion to principle, willingness to go it alone, and the seeming indifference to hostile critics that had availed him so little when he occupied the White House, served to make him the center of attention and controversy when he sat in the House of Representatives. Where his presidential performance earned him contempt or disdain, his congressional labors won him either bitter opposition or enthusiastic acclaim, but never indifference.
The lofty principle he now championed was antislavery. In fairness to his total congressional record, it must be said that Adams was a heroically conscientious representative, actively participating in debate on issues ranging from tariffs and banking to crucial foreign policy controversies. He was awarded the sobriquet Old Man Eloquent for a nationalistic speech urging military appropriations during the war crisis with France of the mid-1830s. But his claim to a place in the pantheon of Congress rests almost entirely on his twin campaigns to win congressional acceptance of the antislavery petitions he presented in behalf of his constituents (and other Americans) and to end the “gag rule” under which the House regularly voted to table petitions bearing on slavery or its abolition.
Commencing on 9 January 1837, when he presented an antislavery petition in behalf of 150 women from his district, Adams persisted in his one-man campaign in behalf of thousands of subsequent petitioners, year after year defying votes to table, insults, censure resolutions, and even death threats until finally, on 3 December 1844, the House passed a resolution rescinding the gag rule. Although he had for a while been decried by abolitionists because of his opposition to what he felt was the impractical goal of an immediate, uncompensated end to slavery, Adams ultimately won the respect of almost all persons who believed as did he that slavery was “a sin before the sight of God.” He died dramatically after he suffered a stroke almost immediately after voting on 21 January 1848 to oppose a resolution thanking military officers for their services during what he regarded as the proslavery Mexican War. He lapsed into a coma and died on 23 February 1848.
Adams’ onetime political opponent, Martin Van Buren, called him honest and incorruptible, the least venal of men. The praise may be justified, but it has, of course, done nothing for the reputation of the Adams administration. Undervalued in his own time, Adams’ service to the nation as president continues to be undervalued in the present age. It is a disquieting testimony to our scale of values that honoring, as we do, political “success” achieved at whatever price and for whatever small or unlovely purposes, we continue to be indifferent to great integrity and devotion to lofty principles displayed by our highest officeholders—even when their failures seem largely to have been due precisely to their manifestation of these admirable qualities.