President of the Whole Nation
As John Quincy Adams assumed office he acknowledged to the American people that he was "less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors," but he promised to make up for this with "intentions upright and pure, a heart devoted to the welfare of our country, and the unceasing application of all the faculties allotted to me to her service." In his first message in December of 1825, John Quincy set forth his vision for the United States asserting "The great object of the institution of civil government, is the improvement of the condition of those who are parties to the social contract." Within this perception Adams had little use for those who favored states rights' at the expense of the common national good. In particular, the president recommended establishment of a national university and national naval academy to help train the wise and patriotic leadership he thought the country needed. Adams also advocated an extensive system of internal improvements (mostly canals and turnpikes) to be paid for out of increasing revenues from western land sales and a continuing tariff on imports. He called too for the establishment of a uniform system of weights and measures and the improvement of the patent system, both to promote science and to encourage a spirit of enterprise and invention in the United States. In a further effort to support science and spread its benefits to the nation and to the world, Adams advocated not only an extensive survey of the nation's own coasts, land and resources but also American participation in worldwide efforts for "the common improvement of the species." John Quincy's ambitions for the improvement of science were not limited to this planet, he urged the building of an astronomical observatory (light-houses of the skies) so the United States could make at least one such contribution to the advancement of knowledge to supplement the 130 observatories that had already been constructed in Europe.
While today we may view President John Quincy Adams' plans for the United States as far- sighted, they were perhaps over ambitious and unrealistic for 1820's America. His proposals were greeted with scorn and derision, regarded as efforts to enlarge the power under his control and to create a national elite that would neglect the common people and destroy the vitality of state and local governments. Personal tragedy compounded John Quincy's political woes when on July fourth, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence, his father died. The death of his father, always his staunchest political and personal ally, left Adams more isolated than ever. It was unfortunate that at this time John Quincy faced his greatest challenges politically, because his Jacksonian enemies had won control of both Houses of Congress in the election of 1826. Appropriations for internal improvements fell far short of the amount that President Adams requested from Congress. A new tariff, enacted in 1828, sponsored by both Administration and anti-Administration congressmen from the Middle and Western states, was not the useful and fair measure that Adams had intended it to be. The bill was poorly drawn, and because of its concessions to the extreme protectionists the Southern cotton interest called it the "tariff of abominations." Yet Adams signed it.
As his presidential term progressed, John Quincy Adams' best intentions for the improvement of his nation seemed to always meet with failure. He refused to sign a fraudulent Indian treaty by which the Creeks were to be removed from all their lands in Georgia. But his scrupulous concern for the rights of Native Americans irritated both Southerners and Westerners. Even in foreign affairs, despite John Quincy's vast experience, the Administration failed to achieve its goals. In 1826, chiefly for partisan reasons, Congress obstructed Secretary of State Henry Clay's attempt to send U.S. delegates to a conference in Panama, which aimed at building closer ties between the nations of the Western Hemisphere. Adams also failed to persuade the British to open their West Indian islands to U.S. trade.
At home, while his foes continued their relentless attack, John Quincy Adams further weakened his position by spurning the role of party leader and refusing to use the patronage weapon in his own defense. Adams was, in fact, the last of the Presidents to look upon parties as an evil and to adhere to the eighteenth-century ideal of a national consensus with himself as its spokesman. While John Quincy Adams was adverse to party politics, Jacksonian partisans articulated and brought into existence a new, positive idea of political party. They saw political parties as manifestations of the needs and interests of the people of a free society. The job of the party and its leaders was to accept, enlarge, and fulfill the aspirations of the multitude of factions and mold them into a political instrument that could gain national power. Under this new ideology of party, Martin Van Buren organized the Democratic Party around the objective of electing Andrew Jackson president in 1828. In contrast to President Adams who regarded "politicking" as beneath the dignity of the office, Jackson's supporters organized and gathered their forces in order to win the election. By mid-1828 the campaign became increasingly hostile, and it was clear that the tide was running strongly for the Jacksonians. Supporters on both sides tried to use the press to circulate scandalous stories about the opposition candidate in hopes of getting their man elected. New England, and some of the Mid-Atlantic States, remained loyal to Adams, but the Jacksonians used their superior organization to capitalize on the burgeoning sectional and democratic trends of the country. When the returns were in, Jackson had gained a 178 to 83 victory in the electoral college and had a 647,276 - 508,064 margin in the popular vote. The John Quincy Adams presidency, then, somewhat like that of his father, ended in frustration and a sense of having lost a vital battle to new, and to the Adamses, unwelcome political forces. The tragedy of this loss was compounded soon after the election by the death of John Quincy's oldest son, George Washington Adams. Virtually penniless, grieving over the death of his son, and believing his political career to be over, Adams retired to Quincy to seek solace in his garden and his books.
Return to Washington
Throughout, he was an ardent opponent of the expansion of slavery. In 1839 he presented to the House of Representatives a resolution for a constitutional amendment providing that every child born in the United States after July 4, 1842, should be born free; that with the exception of Florida, no new state should be admitted into the Union with slavery; and that neither slavery nor the slave trade should exist in the District of Columbia after July 4, 1845. The "gag rule," a resolution passed by Southern members of Congress against all discussion of slavery in the House of Representatives, effectively blocked any discussion of Adams' proposed amendment. His prolonged fight for the repeal of the gag rule and for the right of petition to Congress for the abolition of slavery was one of the most dramatic in U.S. legislative history. Adams contended that the gag rule was a direct violation of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution, and he refused to be silenced on the question, despite the bitter denunciation of him by opponents. At each session of Congress the majority against him decreased until, in 1844, his motion to repeal the gag rule of the House was carried by a vote of 108 to 80, and his long battle was over. Another spectacular contribution of Adams to the antislavery movement was his championing of the cause of the Africans of the slave ship Amistad. The Africans on this ship were being held captive by Spanish slave merchants who planned to sell them as slaves, but before the ship reached port the brave Africans revolted and escaped from their captors by bringing the ship into U.S. waters near Long Island, New York. Adams successfully defended the Africans as freemen before the Supreme Court in 1841 against efforts of the administration of President Van Buren to return them to their captors and to inevitable death. Fighting slavery did not imply neglect of other interests for John Quincy Adams. His love of science still continued and in 1844, at the age of seventy-seven, he traveled to Cincinnati to lay the cornerstone of an observatory. In 1846, he was largely responsible for the grant of a Congressional charter to the Smithsonian Institution, the earliest American foundation for scientific research. The respect in which he was held was demonstrated that same year when, after a stroke kept him away from Congress for several months, he received an ovation on his return. On February 21, 1848, in the act of protesting the U.S.-Mexican War, John Quincy suffered a second stroke, fell to the floor of the House and died two days later in the Capitol building.
The Legacy of John Quincy Adams
Today, the Adams National Historical Park serves as a setting to investigate the role that John Quincy Adams played in establishing and perpetuating the American democratic tradition. John Quincy Adams' life and that of his family are vividly interpreted by National Park Service Rangers using the three historic residences that comprise the site as backdrops to tell the story. Visitors can witness first hand the environment that shaped the character and ideas of John Quincy Adams and his family. The National Park Service conscientiously preserves these houses and the property around them to provide present and future generations with a window to view an American family who contributed to their country through public service.
Last updated: March 31, 2012