Thursday, February 21, 2013

Old Man Eloquent

One of those months that I kinda forgot I had a blog. But the good news is that I'm now officially published. Titled "The Union League, Black Leaders, and the Recruitment of  Philadelphia's African American Civil War Regiments," it appears in the Winter 2013 issue of Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. Even more exciting for me is that it's the lead article. Thanks to everyone who's helped me along the way.

Now for today...

John Quincy Adams, from
On February 21, 1848, "Old Man Eloquent," John Quincy Adams suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on the floor of the Hall of House of Representatives. He voiced his objection to a vote honoring officers from the Mexican War and collapsed at his desk. He died two days later in the Speaker's Office, now the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women's Reading Room.

Adams, the son of our second president John Adams, had a long distinguished career as a diplomat, senator (featured in John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage for breaking with his party over the Embargo Act of 1806), and secretary of state. He helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812 (leading to his appointment as secretary of state), negotiated a treaty with Spain that set America's southern border, and was the brains behind the Monroe Doctrine.

He came in second in the popular vote and Electoral College in 1824. However, Andrew Jackson, the leader, didn't have a majority of electoral votes. By the terms of the Constitution (particularly the Twelfth Amendment), the House of Representatives settled the election. Speaker of the House Henry Clay swung the election over to Adams, who then appointed Clay as secretary of state. While there was likely no shady deal (at most an unspoken agreement), it destroyed Clay's hopes of becoming president and the Adams Administration's agenda. Though he was brilliant, he didn't have the temperament to be an excellent president.

It was his post-presidential career that was remarkable. Much to the chagrin of his wife, he won a House seat from his home state of Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. He took his seat in 1831. During his term he pushed through the bill to accept James Smithson's generous gift and create the Smithsonian Institution. He opposed nullification (I promise a post on this at some point) and the 1836 "gag rule."

A nationwide religious revival, the "Second Great Awakening," sparked a number of social movements, notably the abolitionist movement. As a result, citizens sent petitions to Congress, asking the national legislature to abolish slavery in Washington, DC or the territories--where Congress had jurisdiction. The House barred the consideration of these petitions in 1836. Adams opposed the rule because of his own antislavery sentiments and his belief that the rule violated citizens' First Amendment rights to petition their government. The former president continued to bring petitions to the floor, facing congressional censure, the harshest punishment short of expulsion. He survived the censure vote and finally, in 1844, gathered enough votes to overturn the rule.

If you've seen the 1976 miniseries The Adams Chronicles or the 1997 film Amistad, you might remember Adams for his eight-hour long arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of slaves who mutinied aboard the Spanish trader Amistad. Adams and the Court, in its decision, invoked international law and the captives were sent back to Africa.

Certainly, Adams was a remarkable, if often forgotten, American.