John Quincy witnessed firsthand the birth of our nation. When a young child, he watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from a distance; at the age of eleven he accompanied his father on a diplomatic mission to France; at fourteen he became the private secretary to the American minister at St. Petersburg; at eighteen he returned home after extensive travels through Europe; at twenty he graduated from Harvard.
After Harvard, John Quincy became a professor at Harvard, a Boston lawyer, and he represented America in five European capitals. He was known as a man of learning, of blameless reputation, and a genuine lover of his country.
John Quincy became a member of the United States Senate, then Secretary of State under James Monroe. On December 2, 1823, President Monroe sent a message to Congress which set forth the famous Monroe Doctrine; John Quincy Adams was its author.
There were four candidates for President in 1824: Adams, Henry Clay of Kentucky, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, and William Henry Crawford of Georgia. None of these received a majority of the electoral votes so the decision fell to the House of Representatives (as provided for in the Constitution at that time). They chose John Quincy Adams as the 6th President of the United States.
Many complained saying the political elites in the House chose the President. Things looked fishy to some. Here’s why:
Henry Clay was the Speaker of the House. Clay hated Jackson because he accused Clay’s fellow Kentuckians of being cowardly during the battle of New Orleans. Now Clay could control Jackson’s fate. Clay swayed the voters toward Adams, and after Adams was elected, Clay was chosen as the Secretary of State. Jackson claimed it was “corrupt bargain” and his supporters were angry. These circumstances contributed to a tumultuous four years while John Quincy was in office.
I think to properly judge John Quincy Adams with regards to this stormy election and the accusations that were hurled at him, we must consider his subsequent career. First of all, there’s no proof of a “corrupt bargain.” Partisan political insinuation isn’t proof. However, an accused man’s subsequent behavior speaks volumes, as we shall see.
Adams had big plans as President. He wanted to explore the west and implement a type of “new deal.” To connect the states, Adams wanted the Federal Government to build new stone roads and canals. During his administration, in 1825, the Erie Canal opened. The following year the first railroad of the United States was completed. President Adams also wanted to create a National University, a National Astronomical Observatory, and promote scientific advancements.
Congress, however, wouldn’t cooperate. They shot the President’s plans down saying they were unconstitutional. But it seems personal motives, rather than Constitutional principles, guided many Congressmen in their opposition. Adams, because of the circumstances surrounding his election, was unpopular with the Jacksonians – they despised him. Adams lost re-election.
Some think that once a person serves as President any other job is “beneath” him. John Quincy Adams didn’t think so. Two years later he returned to Congress where he remained for the next sixteen years. There John Quincy Adams took the lead in the fight against slavery and was outspoken against secret societies. Even in his advanced age he was so skillful and energetic in debate people started calling him, “the old man eloquent.” His fame as the champion of popular rights only increased with every year.
John Quincy Adams fought for these rights to his dying day, literally! He suffered a stroke while on the house floor and lingered in and out of consciousness for two more days. His last words were,
“This is the last of earth; I am content.”
Does this sound to you like a man who made corrupt bargains? Time has been on John Quincy’s side. Some of his contemporaries didn’t like him, mostly because they were motivated by partisan politics. John Quincy’s character, however, has been vindicated by his career. His ideas and plans, though shot down by his contemporaries, were promoted by future Americans and are lauded by many to this day.
“Roll, years of promise, rapidly roll round, till not a slave shall on this earth be found.” John Quincy Adams