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DIBACCO: A lifelong public servant

The rare legacy of John Quincy Adams

- - Monday, July 15, 2013

July 11 marked the anniversary of the birth of John Quincy Adams in 1767, sixth president of the United States and son of the second president, John Adams. Except for the few Americans who live in and around the still-existent Adams family home in Quincy, Mass., there wasn't likely to be much celebration. Yet, the fault is not with Adams so much as it is with the historical profession that has chosen to concentrate on strictly presidential parameters rather than the entire lives of individuals who served their nation.

Nobody served their nation for their entire life as did Adams, the only president who served in the House of Representatives — for 17 years — after his stint in the White House. To be sure, Andrew Johnson after his presidency was chosen by the Tennessee legislature for the U.S. Senate, but served only a few months before his death, and ex-President William Howard Taft distinguished himself as chief justice of the Supreme Court for nine years.

But only Adams was born into politics and died in the midst of political activity. Note his resume: at age 14, secretary to the American minister to Russia; at age 27, minister to the Netherlands and then minister to Berlin; elected as a state senator at age 35 and a U.S. senator a year later; at age 42, chosen minister to Russia; at age 47, head of the delegation to negotiate the peace ending the War of 1812; minister to Great Britain a year later; and at age 50, selected as secretary of state by President James Monroe, a position he held for eight years until his election as president.

Perhaps the supreme insult to Secretary of State Adams was that the doctrine that was enunciated in 1823 by President Monroe to the effect that the American continents "are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers" was named after Monroe, not its author, Adams. Adams was unfazed, though. He went on to win the presidency in 1824, but was largely a failure, defeated solidly by Andrew Jackson four years later. Adams' problems as president largely revolved around his inability to be a party leader as well as the chief executive. The now-deceased historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., perhaps summed it up best when he wrote that "Adams was, in fact, the last of the presidents to look upon parties as an evil and to cling to the 18th-century ideal of a national consensus with himself as its spokesman."

Not surprisingly, Adams in 1829 didn't look forward to retirement at age 62. "I can scarcely yet realize my situation," he wrote in his diary, "after fourteen years of incessant and unremitted employment, I have passed to a life of total leisure and from living in a constant crowd to a life almost of total solitude. The sun of my political life sets in the deepest gloom."

Surprisingly, a year later, Adams' political opponents suggested editorially that Adams become a candidate for the House of Representatives from the 12th Congressional District of Massachusetts. Their purpose was sinister: What better way, they reasoned, to embarrass an ex-president than to have him sit in the lowly House and by doing so, keep the old man from running for the White House in 1832?

Adams' own party followers, however, thought the idea a magnificent way to bolster their House seats, and Adams won the seat in November 1830 without campaigning, garnering more than 75 percent of the vote. "I am a member-elect of the Twenty-Second Congress," the ex-president and former senator wrote in his diary. "No election or appointment conferred upon me ever gave me so much pleasure. My election as President of the United States was not half so gratifying to my inmost soul."

Without doubt, Adams was viewed as an oddity — a pariah to some — in the House. He represented the old generation of aristocrats that had little in common with the ever-changing westward and democratic movement of Americans. Yet it was Adams who consistently backed the most basic requirement of a democracy — free speech — urging that the House be permitted to debate freely the numerous anti-slavery petitions arriving each day from constituents. Instead, the House adopted a gag rule on May 18, 1836, that automatically tabled such petitions.

Using every parliamentary maneuver at his disposal, Adams challenged the rule with brilliantly argued speeches, leading to his nickname of "Old Man Eloquence." Finally, thanks to Adams' persistence, the gag rule was revoked by the House on Dec. 3, 1844. "Blessed, ever blessed be the name of God," Adams wrote in his diary.

But the fight was taking its toll. In late 1846, Adams suffered a stroke that put him out of commission for three months. Afterward, he resumed his House seat, but his fire was ebbing. He said little, and he moved ever so slowly. During a roll-call vote on Feb. 21, 1848, he slumped over in his seat and passed away two days later.

President James K. Polk attended Adams' funeral in Washington. Polk was no friend, however. He served as speaker of the House during part of Adams' tenure and was frequently exasperated by his tactics. Still, Polk confided in his diary that Adams' funeral was impressive in terms of the outpouring of respect: "The service being over, a long procession of carriages, persons on horseback and on foot, of military, the order of Odd Fellows, the fire companies, and citizens moved with the corpse. It was the most numerous funeral procession I ever witnessed."

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.