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Mr. Adams stays in Washington

How a frustrated president morphed into powerful congressman

In Congress, Adams was an eloquent and tireless foe of slavery. In Congress, Adams was an eloquent and tireless foe of slavery. (Corcoran gallery of art)
Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Price
February 24, 2008

Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress
By Joseph Wheelan
PublicAffairs, 309 pp., illustrated, $26.95

Though many former US presidents have retired from the public eye, not all have been content with quiet pursuits. Thomas Jefferson, among his other accomplishments, founded a university in his home state of Virginia. William Howard Taft, defeated in the election of 1912, changed branches of government when he became chief justice of the Supreme Court nine years later. In our time, Jimmy Carter has built houses for the poor, aided relief efforts, and provoked controversy with his views on the Mideast.

Then there's the extraordinary instance of John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts. Son of illustrious Founding Father and second president John Adams, Adams fils was a one-term president (1825-29) of middling rank. Outmaneuvered by his enemies in Congress, President Adams could not get much done while in office. In the election of 1828, the charismatic Andrew Jackson inflicted a humiliating defeat on Adams, a stiff, reserved man who loathed campaigning. Adams looked finished in politics, but in the defeat lay the seeds of a new beginning.

Persuaded by friends back home, Adams took an unlikely turn and stood for the US House of Representatives from the Plymouth district, winning a seat in 1830. (At 63, he was the oldest freshman congressman elected that year.) Moving from the commanding heights of the White House into the trenches of Congress might be seen as a step down, but Adams would flourish there. Arguably, he was a better congressman than president. He developed a powerful speaking style - his admirers dubbed him "Old Man Eloquent" - ferociously jousting with his Southern colleagues over the fate of slavery, which would become Adams's signature issue.

In "Mr. Adams's Last Crusade," journalist and historian Joseph Wheelan has written a solid and entertaining account of Adams's 17-year congressional career. Though Wheelan can be critical of his subject's limitations, this is a portrait written in admiration. Wheelan salutes Adams's stubborn devotion to principle, which would set him at odds with even his own allies. "Almost alone among his fellow congressmen," Wheelan writes of this throwback to a bygone political era, "Adams believed in and upheld the principles of the Founding Fathers, embodied in the individual liberties of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, in the soaring words of the Declaration of Independence, and in the antiquated ethic . . . of nonpartisanship and selfless public service."

Adams's fealty to these values set him on a collision course with his fellow representatives over slavery. But, as Wheelan explains, Adams's feelings about the issue were complicated. Though he called it "the great and foul stain upon the North American Union," he also considered the righteous fury of the abolitionist movement a destabilizing force. Adams believed that slavery could not simply be abolished outright, but he also thought Congress had no authority to sanction it, either; he preferred a course of gradual emancipation. What outraged Adams was the way the Southern bloc, with the connivance of Northern allies, tried to squelch debate about slavery altogether.

Sidestepping the abolitionist cause, Adams found a way to attack slavery by taking up the case of antislavery petitioners in the 1830s. Throughout the decade, Congress would be flooded by hundreds of documents calling for the end of slavery. But Southerners furiously moved to prevent the reading of petitions on the House floor. For Adams, the constitutional right of petition was sacred, and he vowed to defend it. In 1836, the House passed the notorious "Gag Resolution," which made it impossible for antislavery petitioners to air their grievances.

Adams would spend the rest of the decade battling to strike the gag rule from the books. He taunted his Southern colleagues with devastating rhetorical jabs. Wheelan profits by extensively quoting Adams's speeches, in moments that will delight fans of old-fashioned political oratory. In his attacks, Adams turned sarcasm into an art form. "Will you not discuss this question?" he needled defenders of slavery in an 1840 speech. "Do you fear the argument? . . . Perhaps we shall come round; who knows but you may convert us?" (About the bite of Adams's rhetoric, writer Ralph Waldo Emerson commented, "He is an old roué, who cannot live on slops, but must have sulphuric acid in his tea.") Adams's enemies took to calling him the "Massachusetts Madman" and even tried to censure him, but he stood his ground.

The 1840s were a decade of triumph for Adams. A beacon for those who fought for the rights of Indians, women, and blacks, Adams defended a group of mutineer slaves who had taken over the ship caging them, the Amistad, further increasing his notoriety. Arguing before the Supreme Court in 1841, Adams successfully made the case that the mutineers were not slaves at all, but kidnapped freemen who acted in self-defense when they took over their ship and attempted to return to Africa.

In Congress, Adams pressed on with his fight against the gag rule despite every effort of his opponents to stifle him. His reservations about the abolitionists waned as his torment about slavery deepened. "My soul is oppressed," Adams lamented. "The deepest of my afflictions is the degeneracy of my country from all the principles which gave her existence, and the ruin irreparable of them all, under the transcendent power of slavery and the slave-representation." Adams triumphed in 1844, when the House finally abolished the gag rule. This was a culminating moment for "Old Man Eloquent," who had a lot of fight left in him for a man of 77. As the United States rushed to war against Mexico, he found himself again in opposition. But no tribute to Adams could have been greater than the fact that, when he died at his post in 1848, even his enemies mourned his passing.

Matthew Price is a critic and journalist in Brooklyn.

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