John Quincy Adams: A Life | Chapter 22 of 27

Author: Harlow Giles Unger | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 8937 Views | Add a Review

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Freedom Is the Prize
After burying Fanny, the Adamses returned to Washington and brought their surviving granddaughter and her mother to live in their house on F Street. Their presence brought new joy into Louisa’s otherwise drab life and even sparked a smile or two on John Quincy’s often dour face—especially when Mary Louisa turned to her “Grandpappa” for help in algebra and logarithms. He often encouraged her to copy poems—one of them a favorite of his by Scottish poet William Russell, whose “Ode to Fortitude”2 asked, “Can noble things from base proceed?”
“Not so the lion springs,” John Quincy often answered his grandchild, “not so the steed; Nor from the vulgar tenants of the grove, sublimed with pageant-fire, the strong-pounced bird of Jove.”3
In addition to Mary Louisa, the Adamses had grandsons to fuss over. One of them, Charles Francis Adams II, would long remember his grandfather’s continually herding the grandchildren through a canyon of books into his study, and his younger brother Henry Adams would remember his grandfather as “an old man of seventy-five or eighty who was always friendly and gentle, but . . . always called ‘the President,’” while Louisa was “the Madam.”
Author of the renowned autobiography The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams passed summers with his grandparents at Quincy until he was twelve years old and would remember throughout his life “the effect of the back of the President’s head as he sat in his pew on Sundays.”
It was unusual for boys to sit behind a President grandfather and to read over his head the tablet in memory of a President great-grandfather who had pledged “his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor” to secure the independence of his country and so forth. . . . The Irish gardener once said, “You’ll be thinkin’ you’ll be President too.”4
When Congress reconvened in December 1839, elections had divided the House evenly, and disorder attended every effort to establish committee memberships. Deadlocked and facing legislative paralysis, Congress turned to the only man every member trusted, regardless of what they felt about his politics or him personally—and some genuinely hated him. But John Quincy Adams was the man who represented the whole nation, and above all else, they knew him to be that rarest of colleagues: an honest man and patriot. Astonished by the sudden—and almost universal—embrace, John Quincy accepted the invitation and served as Speaker pro tem long enough to work out committee memberships. When he suc-ceeded to everyone’s satisfaction and stepped down from his leadership role, they immediately turned on him again, reimposed the Gag Rule, and overrode his angry demands to repeal it.
John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams’s grandson Henry Adams, seen here as a Harvard undergraduate, had warm memories of his grandparents that he related in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. (NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE, ADAMS NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK)
Just then, however, his friend Ellis Gray Loring, a prominent Massachusetts attorney and outspoken opponent of slavery, drew John Quincy’s attention away from the turmoil in Congress with some startling legal documents. In January 1840, a federal district court in New Haven, Connecticut, was about to hear the case of thirty-six Africans who had been prisoners on the slave ship Amistad off the coast of Cuba. Led by a Congolese chief named Cinque, they had broken their chains, killed the captain and three crewmen, and overpowered the white crew. Knowing nothing of navigation, they ordered the white crew to sail them to Africa, and by day the crew complied. At night, however, the crewmen reversed course and eventually sailed into American waters, where an American frigate seized the ship and took it to New London, Connecticut. Officials there arrested the Africans and charged them with piracy and murder, but a number of legal questions complicated the case: Were the Africans property—that is, slaves—to be returned to their owners? Or were they people, to be released on habeas corpus and later tried for piracy and murder? And finally, did the United States have jurisdiction? Or should U.S. authorities release the prisoners to Spanish authorities to do with as they wished under Spanish law?
Killing of the captain of the Amistad by a band of free Africans kidnapped by slavers and transported to Cuba to be sold as slaves. John Quincy Adams pleaded for their freedom before the U.S. Supreme Court. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
The district court pronounced the Negroes to have been free men, whom slavers had kidnapped and transported to Cuba illegally—under Spanish as well as American law. It deemed the killings justified as legitimate acts of self-defense against the kidnappers and ordered the Africans turned over to the President of the United States for transport back to their native land at American government expense.
Having already alienated southerners by rejecting Texas annexation, President Van Buren was unwilling to provoke his southern constituency further and ordered the district attorney to appeal the lower court order to the circuit court. The circuit court upheld the district court and forced government prosecutors to take the case still higher to the U.S. Supreme Court. By then, however, abolitionists who had paid for the legal defense of the Amistad Africans ran out of funds, and all but two attorneys quit. Only Loring and Roger Sherman Baldwin, grandson of Revolutionary War hero Roger Sherman, agreed to remain on the case pro bono. They turned to John Quincy to join their appeal to the Supreme Court—also without a fee—and he agreed.
“Gracious heavens, my dear Sir,” an outraged Virginian exclaimed in reaction to John Quincy’s embrace of the Africans’ defense. “Your mind is diseased on the subject of slavery. Pray what had you to do with the captured ship? . . . You are great in everything else, but here you show your weakness. Your name will descend to the latest posterity with this blot on it: Mr. Adams loves the Negroes too much, unconstitutionally.”5
Before the case reached the Supreme Court, seventy-three-year-old John Quincy won reelection to the House by a two-to-one majority, while sixty-eight-year-old General William Henry Harrison, hero of the Indian wars, defeated President Martin Van Buren in the presidential election.
“The life I lead,” John Quincy grumbled to his diary as he returned to Washington for double duty in Congress and before the Supreme Court, “is trying to my constitution and cannot be long continued.”
My eyes are threatening to fail me. My hands tremble like an aspen leaf. My memory daily deserts me. My imagination is fallen into the sear and yellow leaf and my judgment sinking into dotage. . . . Should my life and health be spared to perform this service . . . then will be a proper time for me to withdraw and take my last leave of the public service.6
Before the Amistad appeal began, John Quincy received a letter from one of his new African clients, a member of an obscure tribe, the Mendi. He had had no knowledge of English before languishing in Connecticut jails for two years:
“Dear Friend Mr. Adams,” the letter began.
I want to write a letter to you because you love Mendi people and you talk to the Great Court. We want you to ask the court what we have done wrong. What for Americans keep us in prison. Some people say Mendi people crazy dolts because we no talk American language. Americans no talk Mendi. Americans crazy dolts? . . . Dear friend Mr. Adams you have children and friends you love them you feel very sorry if Mendi people come and take all to Africa. . . . All we want is make us free.7
Congolese chief Cinque masterminded the killing of the Amistad captain but knew too little about navigation to prevent the crew from sailing into American waters, where the Africans on board were captured and brought to trial as escaped slaves. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
On February 22, 1841, John Quincy walked from his house to the Supreme Court, which sat in the east wing of the Capitol beneath the Senate floor. It was George Washington’s birthday—the Founding Father whom John Quincy most revered after his own father and who had launched John Quincy’s career in public service. Uncompromising southern slaveholders made up the majority of the nine judges, and John Quincy knew them all. In the minority were Joseph Story of Massachusetts, a former Harvard law professor, and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a Maryland slaveholder who would later free his slaves. After the prosecution demanded that the government return the Amistad Negroes to the Spanish minister for restoration to their “owners,” Roger Baldwin argued for the defense: “The American people,” he declared, “have never imposed it as a duty upon the government of the United States to become actors in an attempt to reduce to slavery men found in a state of freedom by giving extraterritorial force to a foreign slave law.” The prosecuting attorney replied that slaves “released from slavery by acts of aggression” do not lose their status as the property of their rightful owners “any more than a slave becomes free in Pennsylvania who forcibly escapes from Virginia.”8
The next day, February 24, John Quincy rose to address the court. “The courtroom was full, but not crowded,” he noted, “and there were not many ladies. I had been deeply distressed and agitated till the moment when I rose, and then my spirit did not sink within me. With grateful heart for aid from above . . . I spoke four hours and a half, with sufficient method and order to witness little flagging of attention by the judges.”9
“Justice,” he began, “as defined in the Institutes of Justinian nearly 2,000 years ago . . . is the constant and perpetual will to secure every one his own right.”
I appear here on behalf of thirty-six individuals, the life and liberty of every one of whom depend on the decision of this court. . . . Thirty-two or three have been charged with the crime of murder. Three or four of them are female children, incapable, in the judgment of our laws, of the crime of murder or piracy or, perhaps, of any other crime. . . . Yet they have all been held as close prisoners now for the period of eighteen long months. 10
John Quincy told the justices of his distress in prosecuting the government of his own nation before the nation’s highest court and, indeed, “before the civilized world.” But, he said, it was his duty. “I must do it.”
The government is still in power. . . . The lives and liberties of all my clients are in its hands. . . . The charge I make against the present executive administration is that in all their proceedings relating to these unfortunates, instead of that justice which they were bound not less than this honorable court itself to observe, they have substituted sympathy!—sympathy with one of the parties in this conflict and antipathy to the other. Sympathy with the white; antipathy to the black—and in proof of this charge, I adduce the admission and avowal of the secretary of state himself.11
John Quincy went on to read the letter from Secretary of State John Forsyth of Georgia to the Spanish minister in America, citing the owners of the Amistad as “the only parties aggrieved”—that all the right was on their side and all the wrong on the side of their surviving, self-emancipated victims.
“I ask your honors, was this justice?”12
Far from any “flagging of attention,” the judges sat transfixed for more than four hours—until other needs forced them to adjourn until the next day. That night, however, one of the justices died, and Chief Justice Taney postponed resumption of John Quincy’s argument for a week.
The court reconvened on March 1, with John Quincy summarizing his previous argument, then standing for three more hours, reiterating the argument that the Amistad Negroes had been free men, seized against their will on their native soil, abducted onto a ship, where they defended themselves and, in doing so, killed their kidnappers. “What . . . would have been the tenure by which every human being in this Union, man, woman, and child, would have held the blessing of personal freedom? Would it not have been by the tenure of executive discretion, caprice, or tyranny . . . at the discretion of a foreign minister, would it not have disabled forever the effective power of habeas corpus?”
Then he came to the end of his presentation. Eschewing secular, legalistic appeals, “Old Man Eloquent” reached into his rhetorical reservoir for spiritual principles he believed he shared with every decent human being. In a moment that ensured his standing in the history of Congress and the Supreme Court, John Quincy Adams told the court that “more than thirty-seven years past, my name was entered and yet stands recorded on both the rolls as one of the attorneys and counselors of this court.”
I appear again to plead the cause of justice, and now of liberty and life, in behalf of many of my fellow men. . . . I stand before the same court, but not before the same judges. . . . As I cast my eyes along those seats of honor and of public trust, now occupied by you, they seek in vain for one of those honored and honorable persons whose indulgence listened then to my voice.13
After a dramatic pause, John Quincy turned his eyes toward the heavens, calling out the hallowed names of the court’s early justices—John Marshall, Bushrod Washington, and Thomas Todd of Virginia, William Cushing of Massachusetts and Samuel Chase of Maryland, William Johnson of South Carolina, and Henry Livingston of New York. “Where are they?” he cried out, turning to focus on the faces of each of the justices. “Where?” he paused before lowering his voice to a near whisper.
Gone! Gone! All Gone! Gone from the services which . . . they faithfully rendered to their country. . . . I humbly hope, and fondly trust, that they have gone to receive the rewards of blessedness on high. In taking leave of this bar and of this honorable court, I can only . . . petition heaven that every member of it may . . . after a long and illustrious career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of the Lord.”14
As tears flowed down spectators’ faces, the prosecuting attorney shook his head in disbelief. He had no idea what John Quincy’s closing had to do with the facts of the case, but members of the court understood that by recalling the names of the legendary justices who had helped establish the nation’s federal judiciary and, indeed, the nation itself, John Quincy was asking them to abide by standards higher than man’s law. Accordingly, the court voted unanimously to give its senior member, Joseph Story, the honor of reading their monumental decision on March 9:
“There does not seem to us to be any ground for doubt that these Negroes ought to be free.”15
“Glorious!” Roger Sherman Baldwin congratulated John Quincy. “Glorious not only as a triumph of humanity and justice, but as a vindication of our national character from reproach and dishonor.”16
John Quincy was equally elated and wrote to his last surviving son, describing his courtroom triumph as one of the most notable events in the family’s illustrious history: “The signature and seal of Saer de Quincy to the old parchment [the Magna Carta],” John Quincy told his son, “were . . . almost my only support and encouragement, under the pressure of a burden upon my thought that I was to plead for more, much more than my own life.”17 John Quincy’s plea for the freedom of the Amistad captives marked more than six centuries during which he and his forbears had led man’s quest for freedom. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” he said to himself.
A flood of anonymous hate mail awaited John Quincy when he returned home. “Is your pride of abolition oratory not yet glutted?” asked a Virginian. “Are you to spend the remainder of your days endeavoring to produce a civil and servile war? Do you . . . wish to ruin your country because you failed in your election to the Presidency? May the lightening of heaven blast you . . . and direct you . . . to the lowest regions of Hell!”18
While John Quincy continued his daily walks and public swims unmolested, abolitionists paid the price for sending the Amistad captives back to their homeland. After they left, a shipload of 135 slaves mutinied aboard the ship Creole, bound from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to New Orleans. After killing one of the owners, they directed the crew to sail to Nassau, where British authorities hanged those identified as murderers and freed the rest.
Although John Quincy had promised himself that if his life and health were spared to defend the men of the Amistad, he would “take my last leave of the public service,” his Supreme Court triumph so elated him that he decided the time had not yet come to keep his promise. “Fifty years of incessant active intercourse with the world,” he now said to himself,
has made political movement to me as much a necessary of life as atmospheric air. This is the weakness of my nature, which I have intellect enough left to perceive, but not energy to control. And thus, while a remnant of physical power is left to me to write and speak, the world will retire from me before I retire from the world.19
President John Tyler of Virginia was a slaveholder who defended slavery as a quintessential American institution and supported efforts in the House to censure and expel John Quincy Adams. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
A few days later, on April 4, 1841, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia after only a month in office. Vice President John Tyler, a fervent defender of states’ rights from Virginia and champion of slavery, succeeded to the presidency. With Tyler’s warm approval, slaveholders in the House prepared to censure and expel John Quincy Adams.
Too elated by his Supreme Court triumph to notice the puerile antics of his congressional enemies, John Quincy pursued his interests in the sciences, using his chairmanship of the committee on the Smithson bequest to promote establishment of astronomical observatories—his famous “lighthouses of the sky.” He not only ignored the ridicule of political foes but gave his alma mater, Harvard, $1,000 to help build its own observatory and loaned $13,000 of his own money to Columbian College, the institution “for the general diffusion of knowledge” that George Washington had helped found with a bequest in his will. It would grow to become George Washington University.
His constant glorification of the benefits of astronomical observatories to expand man’s knowledge encouraged the Navy Department, the University of North Carolina, Williams College, Western Reserve College, Miami College (Ohio), and the United States Military Academy to build observatories. Even Philadelphia’s high schools built one—the Philadelphia High School Observatory, which opened a John Quincy Adams “Lighthouse of the Sky” to the citizens of the city. Ridiculing those who had scoffed at John Quincy’s advocacy of such observatories, enlightened communities across the nation turned his vision into reality.
John Quincy’s broad interest in science included insatiable curiosity about every new invention. As a boy, he had witnessed the first balloon flights in Paris and public demonstrations of Franz Mesmer’s then new technique, mesmerism, later known as hypnotism. In 1839, another French inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a scene painter for the Paris opera, developed a process that used sunlight to make permanent pictures on metal plates. By 1842, John Plumbe Jr., a civil engineer, had opened the Daguerrian Gallery in Boston, which John Quincy visited in September 1842, becoming the first American President ever to be photographed live. Unfortunately, the Plumbe photos of John Quincy were lost, with much of that pioneering photographer’s works, but the following year, engraver Philip Haas opened another daguerreotype studio, and John Quincy Adams asked him to take another photograph. By then, sixteen portrait artists, five sculptors, and one medalist had captured John Quincy’s likeness. Haas produced the first surviving photograph.20
The Amistad case touched John Quincy in ways different from any previous experience, pushing him firmly into the abolitionist camp. Although they had failed to organize a full-fledged political party, northern abolitionists had nonetheless formed a powerful Select Committee on Slavery and rejoiced when John Quincy accepted their long-standing invitation to join. He did so on condition that they accept his leadership in matters concerning the House of Representatives, and the first thing he made them do was change their name to the Committee of Friends of the Right of Petition. The change cloaked their divisive abolitionist goal in the mantle of constitutional rights and broadened their appeal to defenders of the Bill of Rights by calls to defend the rights of all Americans to petition and to free speech.
Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams is the first surviving live photograph of an American President. Taken by Philip Haas, a pioneer in the process.
When Congress convened in January 1842, John Quincy hoped his Supreme Court victory had covered him—and the Constitution—with enough laurels to convince the House to repeal the Gag Rule. As he had at the beginning of every session since its imposition six years earlier, he opened the January 1842 session of Congress by assailing the Gag Rule as a clear violation of his own constitutional right to free speech and the right of his constituents to petition government for redress of grievances. To these, he added the questionable constitutional right of uninterrupted free debate in Congress.
In renewing the Gag Rule, each session of Congress had extended its scope, so that instead of simply banning the mention of the word “slavery,” the rule now stated, “No petition, memorial, resolution or other paper, praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or any other state or territory, or the slave trade between the states and territories of the United States where it exists shall be received by this House, or entertained in any way whatsoever.” The increased strictures offended many congressmen unopposed to slavery in the South but concerned only with its spread into other states and territories. The new Gag Rule seemed too restrictive. Far from the overwhelming majority that had instituted the rule in 1836, it passed by only four votes in 1841, and John Quincy sensed victory near as he honed his rhetorical weapons for 1842. He picked what he knew “would set them in a blaze”—a petition from “the citizens of Haverhill, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts . . . that you will immediately adopt measures peaceably to dissolve the Union of these States.”21
As he knew it would, the parliamentary lynch mob from the South gathered about him, with cries of “Order!” “Stop him!” He raised his voice and continued above the din.
“Old Nestor,” said an eyewitness at the scene, “lifted up his voice like a trumpet, till slaveholding, slave trading, and slave breeding absolutely quailed and howled. . . . The old man breasted the storm and dealt blows upon the head of the monster. Scores . . . of slaveholders [strove] constantly to stop him by . . . screaming at the top of their voices, ‘That is false!’ . . . ‘I demand that you shut the mouth of that old harlequin.’”22
Kentucky congressman Thomas Marshall, a nephew of the deceased chief justice John Marshall, moved to censure John Quincy for having “committed high treason when he submitted a petition for the dissolution of the Union.”
“Sir,” John Quincy shot back, “what is high treason? The Constitution of the United States says what high treason is. . . . It is not for the gentleman from Kentucky, or his puny mind, to define what high treason is and confound it with what I have done.” John Quincy then ordered the clerk to read the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. When the clerk hesitated, John Quincy repeated his demand, shouting, “The first paragraph!”
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation—”
“Proceed!” John Quincy thundered. “Proceed! Down to ‘right’ and ‘duty’!”
The clerk continued: “It is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.”
“Now, Sir, if there is a principle sacred on earth and established by the instrument just read, it is the right of the people to alter, to change, to destroy, the government if it becomes oppressive to them. There would be no such right existing if the people had not the power in pursuance of it to petition for it. . . .
“I rest that petition on the Declaration of Independence!” John Quincy boomed.
When the House had quieted down, he then challenged its right to charge him with high treason, a crime for which, he said, “I could only be tried by a regular circuit court, by an impartial jury.”23
Virginia’s Henry Wise stood to contradict John Quincy but made the tactical mistake of talking too much and digressing into a defense of “the principle of slavery” as “a leveling principle . . . friendly to equality. Break down slavery and you would with the same blow destroy the great democratic principle of equality among men.” Wise had built a reputation as a staunch defender of slavery, which he said was “interwoven in our political existence . . . guaranteed by our Constitution . . . resulting from our system of government.”24
After catcalls from northern congressman subsided, Wise got back on track, pretending to mourn John Quincy’s having “outlived his fame. . . . To think of the veneration, the honor, the reverence with which he might have been loved and cherished. . . . I thank God that the gentleman, great as he was, neither has nor is likely to have sufficient influence to excite a spirit of disunion throughout the land. . . . The gentleman is politically dead.”25
Far from politically dead, John Quincy found new life across the nation, as tens of thousands in the North and parts of the West rallied to his side. “When they talk about his old age and venerableness and nearness to the grave,” Ralph Waldo Emerson responded, “he is like one of those old cardinals who, as quick as he is chosen Pope, throws away his crutches and his crookedness and is as straight as a boy. He is an old roué, who cannot live on slops, but must have sulphuric acid in his tea.”26
When the time came for John Quincy’s final defense against the attempt to quiet him, he challenged the southern parliamentary lynch mob, daring them to punish him for having presented the Haverhill petition. “If they say that they will punish me, they must punish me. If they say that in grace and mercy they will spare my expulsion, I disdain and cast their mercy away. . . . I defy them. I have constituents to go to who will have something to say if this House expels me. Nor will it be long before gentlemen will see me here again.”27
John Quincy then turned and pointed to Virginia’s Henry Wise, whom the House had blandly readmitted after his participation in a duel that was tantamount to murder. Crack shots and swordsmen from the South had used dueling as a weapon to silence political opponents who lacked shooting skills and feared uttering even the slightest criticism that a southerner might interpret as an insult and thus grounds for a challenge. John Quincy’s son had faced just such a challenge, and Wise had been a second in such a duel between two other congressmen. When both had survived the first round and would normally have left the field with their honor—and bodies—intact, Wise insisted that they keep firing, until the third round left one duelist dead. John Quincy Adams was so outraged at the spectacle that he sponsored a landmark bill—the Prentiss-Adams Law—to ban dueling in the District of Columbia. In proposing the ban, John Quincy called dueling a form of slavery that allowed trained killers to blackmail the less skilled marksman or swordsman into suicidal combat or face a loss of honor.
“That far more guilty man,” John Quincy pointed at Wise, “came into this House with his hands and face dripping . . . reeking with the blood of murder.” Turning, he then pointed at Kentucky’s Thomas Marshall, urging him to “go to some law school and learn a little of the rights of the citizens of these states and the members of this House.”28 John Quincy’s public scolding sent Marshall scurrying back to Kentucky humiliated, with his intellectual tail between his legs, never again to return to national politics.
With John Quincy luring more House members to his side, one southerner offered to withdraw the petition of censure if John Quincy would withdraw the Haverhill petition for disunion.
“No! No! I cannot do that,” John Quincy replied in the deepest tones he could find to add to the drama of the moment. “That proposition comes to the point and issue of this whole question . . . the total suppression of the right of petition to the whole people of this Union. . . . If I withdraw this petition, I would consider myself as having sacrificed . . . every element of liberty that was enjoyed by my fellow citizens. . . . Never more would the House see a petition presented from the people of the Union expressing their grievances in a manner that might not be pleasing to the members. . . . There is the deadly character of the attempt to put me down.”29
The debate continued for two weeks, with John Quincy’s eloquence stirring the nation to petition Congress. Day after day, he held the floor, as petitions flew through the door protesting congressional attempts to censure him. On February 7, he tried holding back a smile as he announced he would need another week to complete his defense, to which a member of the Virginia delegation moved to table the censure motion and end the matter. When the House agreed, John Quincy responded by presenting two hundred more petitions and addressing the House with one of the most momentous speeches he would ever deliver. Indeed, his words would later serve as the constitutional basis for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
“Under this state of things,” he spoke, staring at the southerners, “so far from its being true that the states where slavery exists have the exclusive management of the subject, not only the President of the United States but the commander of the army has power to order the universal emancipation of the slaves.”30
Years later, Henry Wise would characterize John Quincy as the “acutest, astutest, archest enemy of southern slavery that ever existed . . . and his prophecies have been fulfilled . . . far faster and more fearfully . . . than ever he anticipated.”31
John Quincy’s triumph in the House provoked the usual hate mail, but the number of his supporters swelled across the nation, with one Pennsylvanian writing, “You are honored, old man—the hearts of a hundred thousand Pennsylvanians are with you.” Another called him “the only public man in the land who possesses the union of courage with virtue.” Poet John Greenleaf Whittier prayed, “God bless thee, and preserve thee.”32 Even those who had opposed the aggressive tactics of abolitionists now wrote, “I am no abolitionist, yet I am in favor of the emancipation of the colored race.”33
His popularity exceeded that of the President, and had he defended his beliefs as aggressively when he was President, he would certainly never have suffered the humiliation of defeat in his run for reelection. Few Americans knew or understood him as President; almost every American now knew and understood him—indeed, revered him—after his battle in Congress, and millions now listened to every word of the Sage of Quincy. Hundreds lined up to see him, to hear his words, to try to talk to him as he walked about Washington, striding to and from the Capitol each day. Luminaries from all parts of the United States, Britain, and Europe called at his home. Charles Dickens and his wife stopped for lunch, and Dickens asked for John Quincy’s autograph before leaving. John Quincy had emerged as one of the most celebrated and beloved personages in the Western world.
In 1843, his son Charles Francis, by then a member of the Massachusetts state legislature, introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment abolishing the right of slave states to count five slaves as equal to three white men in determining representation in the House of Representatives. With deep pride, John Quincy in turn introduced his son’s amendment in the House—which ignored it. After he won reelection in 1844, however, the House could not ignore his resolution abolishing the Gag Rule. Indeed, it passed it immediately, 105–80, ending the great battle he had fought for freedom of debate in Congress, freedom of speech generally, and the right of citizens to petition their government. It was the first victory the North would win against the South and the slaveocracy.
“Blessed, ever blessed be the name of God,” John Quincy exulted afterwards.34
Riding his wave of popularity, he set off to promote national interest in science and education by accepting an invitation to speak at ceremonies laying the cornerstone of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society’s observatory. It was an arduous trip for an old man, but one with opportunities to promote science education—especially his “lighthouses of the sky”—across a broad territory.
He had no sooner received his invitation to speak in Cincinnati when another invitation arrived—this one to attend the long-anticipated completion of the Bunker’s Hill Monument, commemorating the battle he had witnessed as a seven-year-old with his mother in 1775. When, however, he learned that President John Tyler “and his cabinet of slave-drivers” would also attend, he refused. “How,” he asked, “could I have witnessed this without an unbecoming burst of indignation or of laughter? John Tyler is a slave-monger.”
With the association of the thundering cannon, which I heard, and the smoke of burning Charlestown, which I saw on that awful day, combined with this pyramid of Quincy granite and John Tyler’s nose, with a shadow outstretching that of the monumental column, I stayed at home and visited my seedling trees and heard the cannonades, rather than watch the President at dinner in Faneuil Hall swill like swine and grunt about the rights of man. 35
Celebration at the completion of the Bunker’s Hill Monument in Charlestown in June 1843. Invited to be the principal orator, John Quincy Adams refused to attend because of the presence of President John Tyler, a Virginia slaveholder and fierce opponent of abolition. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
Shortly after the Bunker’s Hill ceremonies, John Quincy left for Cincinnati, fulfilling his every lust to experience the latest scientific advances in transportation—steam-driven trains to Albany, New York, and across New York State to Buffalo, then steamboats across Lake Erie to Cleveland and down the Ohio Canal to Columbus. At every stop, cheering crowds welcomed him as a hero. The “firing of cannon, ringing of bells . . . and many thousand citizens” greeted him in Schenectady, New York; thousands more—and the governor—waited in Albany. A torchlight parade led his way through Utica, New York, climaxing with a photographer taking a daguerreotype of him with General Tom Thumb. “Multitudes of citizens” cheered in Cleveland, and in Columbus, he confessed, he had never witnessed “so much humanity.” In Dayton, two military companies awaited to escort him, along with “an elegant open barouche in which I took a seat and thus in triumphal procession we entered the city,” where “a vast multitude” awaited. He reached Cincinnati on November 8 and, to his enormous satisfaction, learned that the city had named the hill on which its new observatory would stand Mount Adams.
His last major stop was in Pittsburgh, which gave him a “magnificent reception” before he helped lay the cornerstone for still another astronomical observatory “to promote the cause of science.” He returned to Washington in November, after traveling across Pennsylvania, with brass bands, public officials, and huge crowds cheering his visit in every community. Speaking at every stop, however, took its toll, and he contracted a debilitating cold, complete with sore throat, cough, and other symptoms.
“My strength is prostrated beyond anything that I ever experienced before,” he moaned. It was, after all, his first “campaign.” He had refused to campaign in 1824 and 1828 when he ran for the presidency, and now that he was not even contemplating that office, he finally learned what campaigning was like—and he rather enjoyed it.
After President Tyler declined to run for a second term, former Speaker James K. Polk of Tennessee won the Democratic nomination for President in 1844 and the presidency itself, defeating the perennially ambitious Henry Clay. As loser, Clay nonetheless shared one distinction with his winning opponent: news of the presidential election results had, for the first time in history, traveled over the wires of a new invention, the telegraph.
During his last month in office, President Tyler asked Congress again to approve annexation of Texas, and although John Quincy had blocked two earlier attempts, the House finally approved it in February 1846. As John Quincy had predicted, war with Mexico followed Polk’s assumption of power. Only ten members of the House joined John Quincy in voting against the war.
In November 1846, John Quincy suffered a stroke while visiting his son Charles Francis in Boston. Rendered speechless and confused, his right side paralyzed, he seemed close to death; his doctors gave Louisa little hope for her husband’s recovery. As she kept vigil in his room each day, however, he gradually recovered his speech, then his mind and memory, and by early December, he laughed off his illness, snapping at his friends that he had suffered only vertigo. But when he tried to stand and walk, he fell; he could no longer support himself.
By Christmas, however, he was talking about returning to Congress, and on New Year’s Day, he set out for a ride in his carriage. A month later, on Sunday, February 7, sheer willpower held him upright as he walked from his son’s house to both morning and afternoon church services to take communion. Despite protests from his wife and son, he and they, and a nurse, left for Washington the next day, reaching the Adamses’ F Street home in February 1847, in time to celebrate Louisa’s seventy-second birthday. The following morning he walked slowly, but magisterially, onto the floor of the House, and as he took his seat, the members rose as one—North, South, East, and West—to cheer him. Among those celebrating his return was a tall, lanky, unkempt freshman congressman from Springfield, Illinois—Abraham Lincoln. During his short tenure in the House, Lincoln would prove one of John Quincy’s strongest supporters—not just in the cause of abolition but regarding Adams’s proposals for federal initiatives in highway and canal construction and other forms of national expansion. Echoing the words of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, Lincoln asserted that “Congress has a constitutional authority . . . to apply the power to regulate commerce . . . to make improvements.”36
After Congress recessed in 1847, John Quincy insisted on returning to Quincy for the summer. Friends and relatives staged a gala eightieth birthday party for him on July 11, and two weeks later, they feted John Quincy and Louisa’s golden wedding anniversary. John Quincy overwhelmed Louisa by giving her a beautiful bracelet that his son Charles Francis had purchased for him.
Congressman Abraham Lincoln won election to the House of Representatives in 1847 and served during John Quincy Adams’s last days in Congress. He is seen here in a daguerreotype probably taken in Springfield, Illinois, in 1847. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
On November 1, Louisa and Charles Francis took John Quincy back to Washington, but the trip exhausted him—left him palsied, his entire body shaking. Too weak to speak audibly or to write, he walked unsteadily; he was nearly blind. He nonetheless insisted on taking his seat at the opening of the House on December 6, and Louisa conceded, “The House is his only remedy.”37
Although he gave up all but one of his committee obligations and rode instead of walking to the House, he appeared for every roll call every day thereafter. He cast one of only four votes in favor of a resolution to withdraw U.S. troops from Mexico. Even Lincoln voted against it. And his face, if not his body, came to life when he heard a resolution supporting a Spanish government demand that the United States pay the Amistad ’s owners $50,000 for the loss of their ship and its “cargo,” which the Spanish minister characterized as a band of assassins. Although he lacked the spring that once shot him to his feet, he nonetheless accomplished the same result and assailed the Spanish minister for having wanted the Amistad captives “tried and executed for liberating themselves.”
“There is not even the shadow of a pretense for the Spanish demand,” John Quincy growled after the laughter subsided. “The demand, if successful, would be a perfect robbery committed on the people of the United States. Neither these slave dealers, nor the Spanish government on their behalf, has any claim to this money whatever.”38 The House agreed and rejected the proposal. He then presented two petitions for peace with Mexico, and the House rejected them both.
By mid-December, he had grown too weak to continue writing in the diary he had kept for sixty-eight years, and, indeed, he had to refuse a treasured invitation to speak at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument on December 10.
On New Year’s Day, he wrote to his only surviving son, Charles Francis, and, with an unsteady hand, wished him “a stout heart and a clear conscience, and never despair.”39 On February 21, 1848, President Polk sent the Senate a treaty of peace with Mexico for ratification. In the House, supporters of the war proposed sending the thanks of Congress to the American generals for their victory. When the echoes from the roar of “ayes” had faded, a single, shrill voice startled the Congress. In a last, desperate effort to punish those engaged in what he called that “most unrighteous war,”40 John Quincy Adams sounded a firm, unmistakable “No!” It was his last word to the Congress he cherished.
When the clerk read the next resolution and called his name—his was third on the alphabetical roll—he tried to stand, his right hand gripping his desk as he rose. Then he slumped to his left—fortunately, into the arms of a fellow congressman who had been watching him.
The death of John Quincy Adams in the Capitol he loved, with, presumably, his former secretary of state Henry Clay holding his right hand. (FROM A NATHANIEL CURRIER LITHOGRAPH, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
“Mr. Adams is dying,” cried a congressman nearby. “Mr. Adams is dying.” The words passed from member to member. Other members found a couch that they brought onto the House floor and helped their stricken colleague stretch out. Someone thought to ask for a formal adjournment. Both the Senate and Supreme Court followed suit when they learned of John Quincy’s collapse. A group of congressmen carried the sofa and its occupant into the rotunda to give John Quincy more air, but they eventually moved it into the Speaker’s office, where they barred every one but physicians, family, and close friends. John Quincy revived enough to thank those around him and to ask for Henry Clay, who arrived weeping. He clasped his old President’s hand, unable to say a word before he finally left, inconsolable.
“This is the end of earth, but I am composed,” John Quincy whispered, then lapsed into a coma. Louisa arrived with a friend and looked down at her husband, but his eyes showed no sign of consciousness. Eighty-year-old John Quincy lay in a coma for the next two days, and at 7:20 p.m., on February 23, 1848, he died in the Capitol he adored.
The next day, House members appointed a committee with one member from each state to escort John Quincy home to Massachusetts for burial. In the Senate, one of his bitter political foes, Thomas Hart Benton, stood to proclaim, “Whenever his presence could give aid and countenance to what was useful and honorable to man, there he was. . . . Where could death have found him but at the post of duty?”41
The nation mourned as it had not since the deaths of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. John Quincy lay in state in a committee room in Congress for two days after his death; thousands filed by silently, often not knowing why exactly, but somehow realizing they had lost a champion of their rights—a representative of no single constituency, state, or region but of all Americans and of the whole nation. He was an aristocrat of an earlier generation, raised in an age of deference, who spoke a rich language that ordinary people could seldom fathom, but in the end, they sensed that he spoke for their greater good and to protect their rights and freedoms.
A single cannon blast awakened Washington on Saturday morning, February 25; another boom shook the city a minute later and every minute until noon. Again, the multitude reappeared, filling the streets like a great river flowing to the Capitol. At 11:50, the bell on Capitol Hill began to toll, and the President of the United States led the justices of the Supreme Court, high-ranking members of the military, the diplomatic corps, and members of the Senate into the House chamber. John Quincy lay in a silver-framed coffin on an elevated platform in front of the rostrum, his eloquence still resounding in the silent chamber:
My cause is the cause of my country and of human liberty . . . the fulfillment of prophesies that the day shall come when slavery and war shall be banished from the face of the earth.42
With the President seated at the Speaker’s right, the vice president at his left, and the portraits of Washington and Lafayette looking down on them all, the chaplain of the House prayed and set off what Charles Francis Adams called “as great a pageant as was ever conducted in the United States.” Choirs sang to the gods, and orators lifted their voices to men, repeating the appeal for John Quincy’s precious “Union.” When the assembly had intoned its final hymn, pallbearers carried the former President out of the Capitol to a silent multitude that stretched to the edge of the city. The great casket emerged from the Capitol, surrounded by an official committee of escort and followed by Charles Francis Adams and his wife, then John Quincy’s closest friends from the legislature. In the procession that followed, the Speaker of the House led members of that body, the Senate, then President Polk, justices of the Supreme Court, the diplomatic corps, and an interminable line of military officials, state officials, college students, firemen, and members of craftsmen’s organizations and literary societies. . . . It was endless—a collective outpouring of love and veneration the nation had rarely seen.
John Quincy lay in rest at the Congressional Cemetery for a week before the congressional committee of escort—a member from each state—came to take him aboard a train to Boston. Thousands lined the tracks northward to bow their heads as the train passed slowly, one car draped in black bearing John Quincy’s coffin. The train stopped at various stations and crossings to allow citizens to climb aboard and say their good-byes as they filed past him. Churches sang his praises; newspapers expounded his glory and cited and published his oratory and poetry. Thousands awaited his arrival in Boston, filling the streets and all but blocking passage for his coffin to Faneuil Hall for a massive funeral ceremony before members of the state legislature and other prominent citizens. With the end of the eulogy and last prayer, the congressional committee delivered the body of their colleague, John Quincy Adams, to Mayor Josiah Quincy, John Quincy’s cousin and former president of Harvard, for transport to the family vault in Quincy. A lifetime of friends and neighbors had gathered with his relatives and family to place John Quincy beside his father. As they laid John Quincy to rest, a small troop fired rifles in a last salute from nearby Penn’s Hill, where John Quincy and his mother, Abigail, had watched the Battle of Bunker’s Hill and the beginning of the Revolution that spawned a new nation.
Day of my father’s birth, I hail thee yet.
What though his body moulders in the grave,
Yet shall not Death th’ immortal soul enslave;
The sun is not extinct—his orb has set.
And Where on earth’s wide ball shall man be met,
While time shall run, but from thy spirit brave
Shall learn to grasp the boom his Maker gave,
And spurn the terror of a tyrant’s threat?
Who but shall learn that freedom is the prize
Man still is bound to rescue or maintain;
That nature’s God commands the slave to rise,
And on the oppressor’s head to break his chain.
Roll, years of promise, rapidly roll round,
Till not a slave shall on this earth be found.
A little more than twelve years after John Quincy died—on December 24, 1860—South Carolina’s legislature proclaimed without dissent that “the union now subsisting between South Carolina and the other States, under the name of the ‘United States of America,’ is hereby dissolved.” Early in 1861, ten other states followed suit, and in April 1861, the civil war that John Quincy Adams had predicted was under way, eventually costing the lives of more than 275,000 Americans.
Louisa Adams died four years after John Quincy, on May 15, 1852, in Washington, DC.
She and her husband now lie together next to John and Abigail Adams in a granite crypt in the church in Quincy, Massachusetts, where Charles Francis had them all transferred after escorting his mother’s body from the capital. Although no subsequent members of the Adams family ever followed John or John Quincy Adams to the presidency, no American family ever surpassed the Adamses in accession to national prominence in so many fields. Beginning with his son Charles Francis Adams, who served as American ambassador to Britain and twice ran unsuccessfully for vice president, John Quincy Adams spawned an august line of American scholars, teachers, historians, authors, legislators, jurists, diplomats, lawyers, doctors, business leaders, and other professionals who upheld—and uphold—the principle of their distinguished ancestor:
You must have one great purpose of existence . . . to make your talents and your knowledge most beneficial to your country and most useful to mankind.

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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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