On April 1, 1803, John Quincy Adams received a letter with shocking news: The London banking firm of Bird, Savage and Bird had collapsed seven weeks earlier. His father was wiped out. John Adams had purchased $16,000 worth of bonds issued by the Continental Congress during the Revolution, and had later deposited them in Holland. While serving as minister to Holland, John Quincy had moved the funds to Bird, which offered higher interest rates. He hurried home to deliver the catastrophic news. “They felt it severely, but bore it with proper firmness and composure,” he wrote in his journal. Indeed, stoicism in the face of loss was deeply etched in the family ethos. “If I cannot keep a carriage, I will ride in a chaise,” Abigail wrote to her younger son, Tom. “If we cannot pay our labourers upon our Farms, we will let them to the halves, and live upon a part.”
The farm was the great joy of John and Abigail’s life. John Adams had dubbed it “Peacefields,” and regarded it as the shelter from the violent storms of his life. After losing his re-election bid to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Adams had retired to the farm to live the quiet life of a farmer. Abigail delighted in the fruit trees in her garden—pear and apple, plum and peach. At the center of Peacefields was a home worthy of a former president—the Vassal-Borland House, a long three-story structure with fine parlors with furniture and porcelain which Adams had acquired in Europe. Three generations of Adams now lived in Peacefields. Yet it wasn’t at all clear that the Adamses would be able to keep the farm by leasing out portions of it. If their son couldn’t bail them out, they might lose everything.
The Vassall-Borland House
“I feel myself in a great degree answerable for this calamity, and of course bound to share largely in the loss,” Adams wrote. Drafts written on the account were already being returned “protested”; that is, they had bounced. This was a matter of public humiliation as well as financial danger. Adams resolved immediately that he would sell his own home, and his fire and marine insurance, to keep creditors at bay, though even so he wouldn’t have sufficient assets to make his parents whole. He wrote to his brother-in-law, William Stephens Smith, in New York, to see if Bird had any assets he could move to attach. Rufus King, the U.S. minister to England, wrote to say that he would personally honor Adams’ bills; another family friend offered a $10,000 loan.
Within a few weeks, Adams concluded that the only way to save Peacefields was to sell everything he had and use the proceeds to buy the farm and give it back to his parents to use during their lifetime. Adams was then a lawyer with a very modest practice as well as a member of the state legislature; he had, in short, very poor prospects of earning his way out of the hole he now proposed to dig for himself. But there is no evidence that he gave the issue a second thought, or that he discussed it with his wife, Louisa. His obligations to his parents preceded his obligations to his own family; it was that simple.
On May 5, John Adams wrote to his brother Peter asking him to appraise the land, the house and every structure on the property. Peter came back with a figure of $16,802.50 for the land as well as four houses and three barns. John Quincy agreed to give his parents $12,812 2/3 for 250 acres, the barns and all the houses save the home itself, which they would keep. He succeeded in selling his own home in Boston for $7000, and raised the rest of the money through selling stock mortgaging other property. His parents would remain on the farm, and in the house, for the remainder of their lives.
Adams was, with a few exceptions, a prudent investor. Had he been responsible only for his immediate family, he could have lived free of financial anxiety. But he was not. When his When his hapless brother Tom went bankrupt, he took care of Tom’s family. When his son John died with a mountain of debts, Adams paid off the creditors and took John’s widow and children into his own household. And when John Adams finally died at 91, Adams insisted, to Louisa’s utter horror, in buying the Vassal-Borland House and 103 adjoining acres for $12,000, which of course he didn’t have. Whatever his worthy family feelings, she wrote, “that you should waste your property and burthen yourself with a large unprofitable landed estate, which nearly ruined its past possessor, merely because it belonged to him, is scarcely prudent or justifiable.”
No, it wasn’t. But Adams felt far too deeply bound to the land, to his parents, to his family name and history, to do otherwise. He lived in debt virtually his entire life. It was a debt he willingly paid to his own ancestors.
In the household of John and Abigail Adams, the great figures of republican Rome were regarded as models, as teachers—almost as friends. John Quincy, their oldest son, was raised on a steady diet of Roman history, and of the works of Livy, Sallust, Tacitus and others, both in English and in Latin. Of all of the ancients, Johnny was taught most to revere Cicero, whom his father considered the greatest example of the philosopher-statesmen the world had ever known. The lessons stuck: Throughout his life, John Quincy Adams would feel Cicero’s guiding hand at his shoulder.
Cicero, Adams’ great guide
For the Adamses, father and son, Cicero was the very type of the republican citizen. A scholar of the first order, Cicero was also a public man who sought to shape the civic life of his time as a lawyer, a civil servant, a politician and, above all, an orator. He was beloved by the people, for he championed republican principles at a time when the Roman republic had descended into autocracy. The price of his courage was death: Marc Antony had him killed as an enemy of the state. Cicero left behind the classic world’s greatest works of oratory.
John Quincy Adams continued to read Cicero once he had left his father’s orbit. In 1792, as a young lawyer with aspirations for public service, he turned to the Philippics, Cicero’s magisterial indictment of Marc Antony. He was deeply impressed with the way Cicero slowly raised the flame of accusation, first speaking of Antony as a friend and only later attacking him “with great vehemence.” Adams was struck as well by Cicero’s willingness to league himself against Antony with the party of Caesar, a compromise struck in the name of principle.
Adams’ journals are full of subsequent references to Cicero. When, in 1805, he was named the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, he immediately turned to Cicero for instruction. He read Cicero on the immortality of the soul, and thought him the pagan philosopher who came closest to Christian wisdom. He sought him out for consolation, and for wisdom. When he suffered a shattering loss to Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential contest, Adams committed himself to re-read Cicero’s complete works.
What he found there, characteristically, was not stoic resignation but stern resolution. In the 14th oration of the Philippics, Cicero had responded to a proposal to end the dispute with Marc Antony. “The argument of Cicero,” he wrote in his journal, “is that peace is impossible. It begins with a beautiful encomium upon peace, and expression of abhorrence to civil war. But contends that peace must be consistent with liberty, and the guilt of war upon those who would reduce the country to servitude.” So Adams’ father would have said half a century earlier. So Adams himself, who foresaw civil war over slavery, had come to believe.
Adams passed on to his own sons the reverence for Cicero he had learned from his father. While Adams was in the White House, his son Charles Francis, a recent Harvard graduate, had asked his advice in developing a suitably grave and eloquent writing style. Of course Adams immediately suggested Cicero. Of Caesar little remained save the words of others, he observed; Cicero’s works have made him an immortal source of wisdom and moral courage. He advised his son to “make him the study of your whole life,” as he himself had done.
Over the next few months, the next generation of Adamses argued over Cicero. Charles was unmoved by the great orator’s reverence for public service, and, by implication, his father’s. The real motive, he claimed with the smug superiority of the young, was the vanity of the ambitious man. Far from taking offense, a delighted Adams seized the opportunity to defend the principles of republican citizenship. Have you, he asked Charles, imagined what you would have done had you lived in a dictatorship rather than a republic? Cicero, at age 27, had defended Roscius, deemed an enemy of the state. Was that ambition? Charles would no doubt prefer Cato, Cicero’s great rival in the Roman Senate, who had expressed his disdain for Rome’s rulers by committing suicide. Yet in such a choice there was more “obdurate pride” than true patriotism. Perhaps when you are my age, Adams suggested, you will recognize “the necessity of measuring by a more pliant standard the firmness of others.”
Adams had learned from Cicero the daily heroism required of the dedicated reformer. In his final letter on the subject, he quoted an expression of Bacon’s: “all rising to great place is by a winding stair.” That, he told Charles, was the Ciceronian rather than the Catonian perspective—the wisdom of “the practical statesman” rather than the “inflexible moralist.”
In the first days of February, 1837, John Quincy Adams received a petition on slavery. Adams received dozens of such documents every week; he was then virtually the only man in Congress prepared to enrage Southern legislators by presenting public petitions calling for an end to slavery and the internal slave trade. They had responded by imposing an unprecedented “gag” preventing petitions on slavery from being read into the record or referred to committee, as was typically the case. This document, however, was unprecedented, for it purported to come from slaves themselves. What’s more, the signatories opposed abolition, insisting that they wished to serve their masters “as long as life and health will permit.” The document’s author had suspiciously good penmanship and diction, while the actual signatures—“Susan Risky,” “Billy Lukes”—were scrawled down the page. Some signed their last name with an “X.” The petition was plainly a fraud designed to make Adams look ridiculous.
The petition was, in fact, a godsend. Adams wanted to force the Southerners to defend slavery, and thus expose to the public the bloody-minded logic of their “peculiar institution.” At the same time, the gag infuriated him, for he viewed the constitutionally-mandated right of petition as inviolable. On February 6, Adams rose in the House to say that he held in his hand a petition from twenty-two persons “declaring themselves to be slaves.” He did not say what these petitioners sought, leaving the obvious impression that they wished an end to slavery. Since the gag prohibited the presentation of such petitions, Adams asked the Chair to decide whether it could be received—especially since, he noted slyly, it was “one of those petitions which had occurred to his mind as not being what it purported to be.”
The U.S. Capitol in 1839
The South rose as one to denounce the presumption, the fanaticism, the incitement, of presenting a petition from slaves. Dixon Lewis of Alabama Lewis offered a resolution stating that “by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen,” Adams “directly invited the slave population to insurrection,” and thus should be “forthwith called to the bar of the House, and be censured by the Speaker.” If slaves have the right to petition, Waddy Thompson of South Carolina declared, must it not be conceded that they have as well the right to vote? It was hardly an absurd question.
For three days Adams sat quietly—it must have taken superhuman self-restraint—while his adversaries, making the case for censure, rained down abuse. Only two members defended him. Finally, Adams rose in his own defense. He passionately defended the right of petition, a principle founded on the universal right “to seek for mercy.” Has even the worst despot “ever denied this humble privilege to the poorest or the meanest of human creatures”? Yes, he would present petitions from slaves—or from “a horse or a dog” if it had “the power of speech and of writing.”
Adams now rounded directly upon his accusers, all of whom had fallen into the trap he had set by brandishing the alleged petition from slaves without explaining that those petitioners sought the end of abolitionism, not of slavery. He offered a small bit of advice from an old man to the young: “that when in future they charged others with crimes, first to be quite sure of their facts.” Having enraged his foes, he now exploited their extremism. Waddy Thompson had called for Adams to be subject to criminal prosecution. Do the slave-state representatives, he asked, believe that a member should be criminally liable for seeking to present a petition? If, as Thompson had claimed, the law of South Carolina sanctioned such an act, Adams proclaimed, “I thank God I am not a citizen of South Carolina!” The court reporter tersely summarized the reaction to this last provocation by writing “Great agitation.”
Adams had touched a fault line among the Southerners. Henry Wise of Virginia volunteered that he would never permit a grand jury to sit in judgment upon words spoken in Congress. Adams pocketed the concession and then turned back to Waddy Thompson. “If he thought to frighten me from my purpose,” Adams thundered, “if that, sir, was his object, he mistook his man! I am not to be intimidated by the gentleman from South Carolina, nor by all the grand juries in the universe.” It is unlikely that by that point any member thought otherwise.
By the time the vote was taken, only 22 members could be found to vote for censure. The editor of The Boston Daily Advocate wrote that “The effect of the speech has been rarely if ever exceeded by the influence of any speech on any assembly.” Adams had given courage to his timid Northern colleagues and thrilled the burgeoning abolitionist movement. He had shown what one man could do.
He could only do so much, however. The House voted 162 to 18 that slaves do not have the right of petition. And the gag would not be repealed until 1844.
In the fall of 1797, John Quincy Adams and his new wife, Louisa, arrived in Berlin, where Adams was to take up his post as minister to Prussia. Today the word “Prussian” conjures up a military state, but by the late 18th century the court in Berlin was idle and dissipated. Adams was presented, seriatim, to the chief members of the royal family, including the empress dowager and various princes and princesses royal. Adams described one such ritual in his diary: “Thence I went to the Palace of the order of Malta, where the Prince and Princess Ferdinand reside. She was a daughter of the Markgraf of Brandenburg Schwedt, a cousin of the late king. He is grand Master of the order of Malta, within the Prussian dominions. Introduced first to the Princess by Monsr. de Sydow, and afterwards to the Prince by the Baron de Geertz.” Having grown up in European courts, Adams mastered the elaborate protocol with ease, though he found it crushingly tedious.
Louisa had only left the bosom of her family a few months earlier; she was terrified, bewildered, and not at all blasé. She was delicate, pale, pretty and terribly correct. She was very quickly taken up by King Frederick Wilhelm III’s lovely queen Louise, who like her near-namesake was 22 years old. At her very first court ball, first Prince Radziwill and then Prince Wittgenstein asked her to dance, and she stayed on the floor till 2 in the morning. She danced with Beau Brummel, the most celebrated dandy of the period, and with Lord Elgin, of the marbles. (He was, she noted in her own journal, “a remarkably handsome roué.”) She was the only foreigner invited to the Ridotto, a meticuloulsy choreographed pantomime in which the court re-enacted famous scenes from history. Louisa was shocked by the decadence of court life but, shy hothouse plant that she was, she could not help feeling surprised and delighted at effect she had produced.
Queen Louise of Prussia
At a ball in January of 1799, one of the court ladies informed Louisa that the king himself wished to take the first country dance with her. Louisa went deathly pale with fright. The queen, taking pity, offered her some rouge from her own box. When Louisa said with what must have been great embarrassment that her husband would never permit her to wear rouge, the queen “smiled at my simplicity, and observed that if she presented me the box he must not refuse it, and told me to tell him so.” Republican scruples were beyond the ken of the royal court; that night, Adams sternly told his wife to return the box as soon as she could.
Why was Adams, who had spent a small fortune on his own court dress, prepared to humiliate his wife over a box of rouge? He would have said that he had many good reasons. He had always treated female adornment and artifice as contemptible. His supreme model of womanhood was his mother Abigail, a woman who could run a farm, but not dance a quadrille. He feared that Louisa lacked the New England spirit of austerity. When courting his future wife, he had warned in a battery of letters that she was dangerously attached to trifles, and admonished her “not to form habits of attachment to the empty baubles of a life connected with Courts.” Perhaps, though he would never have let on, he was vexed, and a little jealous, about her rapid conquest of the hearts of gentlemen, rakes and even a king.
Louisa had been a spoiled child, and she was not accustomed to taking orders. Though she had calmly accepted the cramped apartment and dismal furnishings compelled by Adams’ modest salary, she quietly rebelled at the sacrifice of a harmless vanity. Several months after the ill-fated party, Louisa put on rouge at home and before coming downstairs asked Adams to snuff the light. The imposture failed: He spotted the make-up on her pale skin, and demanded that she wash it off. She tried again yet another evening. This time, as she later wrote, she “walked boldly forward to meet Mr. Adams— As soon as he saw me, he requested me to wash it off, which I with some temper refused; upon which he ran down and jumped into the Carriage, and left me plànté là! even to myself appearing like a fool crying with vexation.” Louisa, defeated, undressed, went off instead to join friends and swore to stop attending court affairs.
Adams was unyielding in all matters involving principle. He was, however, inclined to view practically everything as a matter of principle.
Throughout his Presidency, and beyond, John Quincy Adams was dogged by the accusation that he had gained office only owing to a “corrupt bargain” he had reached with one of his competitors, Henry Clay. Adams’ biographers, deeply protective of his moral standing, have been at pains to refute the accusation. But it’s far from absurd.
No candidate emerged from the 1824 election with a majority of electoral votes, thus sending the top three finishers—Adams, Andrew Jackson and William Crawford—into the House of Representatives. Clay had finished fourth. Because each of the 24 states in the House would have one vote, Clay could swing the election by instructing his loyalists to vote for one of the top three.
Henry Clay, Adams’ alleged co-conspirator
On December 15, Edward Wyer, a former diplomat whom Adams used on sensitive missions, came by Adams’ home to say, as Adams noted in his diary, that “he had it from good authority that Mr. Clay was much disposed to support me, if at the same time he could be useful to himself.” On the 17th, Rep. Robert P. Letcher, a Clay confidante from the latter’s home state of Kentucky, paid a call. Letcher was obviously Wyer’s source. He explained that while Kentuckians preferred Jackson to Adams, as Adams, who had received zero popular votes in the state, knew perfectly well, many of Clay’s friends were prepared to follow his guidance. What, Letcher, wished to know, were Adams’ sentiments towards Clay?
Adams understood that Letcher was telling him that if he could reassure Kentucky’s House delegation that Clay would have “a prominent share in the administration,” they would be prepared to overlook their own views and vote for him. Adams blamed Clay for artfully spreading rumors designed to put Adams’ patriotism in question. Nevertheless, he said that he “harbored no hostility towards Clay.” Letcher “made no definite propositions,” and Adams himself responded “in general terms.”
At a New Year’s Day dinner at the White House, Clay sidled up to Adams and whispered that he would like to have a “free & confidential visit” with him. Clay came to Adams’ home on F Street at 6 pm January 9. Adams later wrote that in the course of “a long conversation explanatory of the past and prospective of the future.” Clay had asked him, “as far as I might think proper, to satisfy him with regard to some principles of great public importance, but without any personal considerations for himself.” Of course, Clay observed sententiously, he had reassured his friends that they should vote according to their own consciences. As for himself, however, “he had no hesitation in saying that his preference would be for me.”
This was almost certainly true. Clay had written to a friend that Crawford was too sick for the rigors of the job, and as between “the two evils” remaining, Jackson would “give the military spirit a stimulus and confidence which could lead to the most pernicious results,” whereas Adams would leave America’s institutions as he had found them.
Nevertheless, we can not help wondering what concerns “prospective of the future” the two men discussed. Adams, uncharacteristically, does not say. Strikingly, he left a blank space at the end of the passage, as if he had planned to write more, and never got around to doing so. Nothing may have been said of votes and jobs because nothing needed to be said. Clay later wrote in a letter to an ally that, though Adams had made no promises, he concluded from the interview that he could have whatever job he wanted.
On January 13, the Kentucky state legislature passed a resolution overwhelmingly pledging support for Jackson. Nevertheless, only eleven days later the Kentucky Congressional delegation announced for Adams, 8-4. On February 9, Adams eked out a victory over Jackson thanks to the votes of Kentucky and two Western states that had also gone for Clay. He soon named Clay his Secretary of State.
Even before the House vote, prominent newspapers in Philadelphia and Washington had printed an anonymous letter claiming that Clay and Adams had reached a secret deal. There was, after all, no other plausible explanation for the behavior of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation. Thus the story of the “corrupt bargain” was born.
There had been a quid pro quo, whether explicit or not, and the deal had subverted the will of the people of Kentucky. Was that corrupt? We might shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s politics.” Adams’ defenders also point that Adams might well have made Clay his Secretary of State even without a deal. But it won’t wash. Clay was a gambler and a conniver, but Adams was an unyielding moralist. In this case, he permitted himself to indulge in the conventional deal-making politics he despised in others. He did so because he wanted desperately to be President. And he paid the price. Andrew Jackson and his allies made sure that “corrupt bargain” clung to Adams for the next four years like a trail of tin cans.
When John Quincy Adams arrived in England to take up his post as minister in 1815, the Industrial Revolution was in full flower. In home laboratories all over England, men were dreaming up strange and wonderful devices, and hoping to get rich off them. Many of these men—an endless stream of them, in fact—found their way to Adams’ office on Craven Street near the Strand, hoping that he could help bring their invention, inexplicably scorned at home, to the American market.
In July of 1815, a Captain Johnson, allegedly the agent for Robert Fulton, the great American inventor of the steam boat, came to show Adams his plans. He had, as Adams later recorded in his diary, “improved upon Fulton’s Torpedo-system to such a degree that he can fix a torpedo, at the bottom of any vessel in spite of any defence that she can make.” Captain Johnson had threatened his friend the Duke of York that he would bring his invention to the Americans if the British Navy refused to buy it. Similarly, and perhaps more plausibly, a gentleman came to peddle “a cork jacket, known as seaman’s friend”—a life jacket— which the Admiralty had also declined.
Robert Fulton and his steam boat
In his journal Adams generally described these “projectors” as pests, but he never turned one away. Adams’ father, John Adams, had been fascinated by the laws of science, though he had lacked the imaginative capacity of his friends Franklin and Jefferson to devise inventions of his own. So, too, was John Quincy Adams. In the 1790s he and his young fellow-members of the Crackbrain Club had carried out experiments to harness the power of electricity. In his travels through Silesia, in eastern Prussia in 1800, Adams had learned, and described, how the locals made glass and carded wool, and gazed in admiration at the ingenious contraptions of woodsmiths. He had, as well, a patriotic interest in anything which might improve American life.
Adams enjoyed humoring the more outlandish of the projectors. Mr. Studley and Mr. Service arrived at his doorstep in November, 1816—“extremely illiterate, but authors or possessors as they profess of innumerable useful and important inventions,” including “Gas-lights, iron pavements, a new method of bleaching flax, and I know not how many more improvements that are to change the face of the world.” The gentlemen spent more than an hour “descanting upon their various schemes, explaining them to me most unintelligibly.” They returned three weeks later with an expanded list of eight inventions. “I observed to them,” Adams noted drily in his journal, “that the Iron pavement was omitted. They said that they had not put that down, and there were many others which if they once got settled in America, and found encouragement, they should be able to introduce, to the great benefit of the Country. “Adams concluded that Studley and Service were artisans forbidden by law to leave the country, and were hoping to enlist the American minister in a scheme to escape to America. Inventing had become a craze, and thus, inevitably, a scam.
But it was not only that. Adams met visionary men who lacked the means to put their ideas into effect. Mr. Busby had dreamed up “a machine or Carriage to travel or to transport merchandize by land, with a velocity equal to one hundred miles an hour.” The machine required “only a road analogous to the iron railways now used in this Country.” (Steam engines were then being used to pull loads over rails, often in quarries.) Adams dismissed this would-be pioneer of train travel as “one of that numerous class of inventors who are mad with regard to their main objects and sober in all the calculations of detail to be carried into effect.”
A few of these men were true inventors. Gabriel Tigère, a French Canadian, came to enquire if he could obtain in the United States a patent for a species of writing paper he had invented. In recent years, Tigère explained, rogues had found that “oxy-muriatic acid”—what is now known as hydrochloric acid—could erase ink on a document without leaving a trace, thus enabling all manner of forgery and fraud. Tigère had developed a paper “from which the writing could not be taken out.” Adams, duly impressed, said that he would help him obtain a patent in the U.S., which in fact he tried to do once he returned home. Tigère did in fact receive a British patent for the manufacture of such paper.
Adams yearned to serve the cause of science. He daydreamed about devoting his life to the study of metals, or perhaps to writing a history and classification of inventions. He never did any of those things. At the end of his life he would, however, play a crucial role in the birth of the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, few politicians did as much as Adams to further the cause of scientific research.
In late 1835, Americans learned that they had received an astonishing and unforeseen gift. An unknown British citizen named James Smithson had bequeathed the equivalent of $500,000 to the U.S. in order to “found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men.” Congress convened a special committee to consider what to do with this windfall; the chairman was John Quincy Adams. The former president set about writing a bill to pemit the acceptance of the bequest, and a speech to accompany it. Who was Smithson? A British diplomat said that he appeared to be “the antenuptial son” of the Duke of Northumberland. Another contact had heard that the man was insane. How else to explain this inexplicable gift?
James Smithson, America’s mysterious benefactor
That wasn’t Adams’ view at all. To him, the fact that a descendant of one of Britain’s great families, an utter stranger to America, had offered such a boon was, as he wrote in his journal, “an event in which I see the finger of Providence, compassing great results by incomprehensible means.”
Smithson was, in fact, the very post-nuptial child of an affair between Northumberland and Elizabeth Macie Hungerford, herself heir to a great and ancient fortune. He had been a respected mineralogist who had had no family of his own. When he had died, in 1826, Smithson had left his fortune to a wastrel nephew, with the proviso that should his heir die intestate, the money would go for the specified institute. The nephew obligingly died intestate. Smithson had never been heard to express republican sympathies. He had never spoken of founding an institution. No one then, and no one since, has been able to explain what moved him to draw up this very strange, two-stage will.
Unexpected gifts provoke suspicion. Some of Adams’ colleagues wanted to return the bequest, as if Smithson had insulted America by proposing to do what it had not done for itself. Adams, however, saw the finger of Providence. He had been the first president to advocate for an activist federal government. In his first annual message to Congress, in 1825, he had called for a national program of “internal improvements” including not merely roads and canals but institutions for man’s “moral, political, intellectual” betterment—a national university, a program of continental exploration and even a network of astronomical observatories, which he christened “lighthouses of the skies.” The whole grandiose scheme had been ridiculed, and then largely ignored. The Smithson bequest would achieve through private philanthropy some of what he had hoped to do through public funds.
Once the initial bill died in the House, Adams dedicated himself to protecting and promoting the Smithson windfall from political abuse. He railed against a secret deal which the Secretary of the Treasury reached to invest the funds in Arkansas and Michigan bonds, and ultimately had the money restored to federal control. He resisted efforts to squander the gift on one or another pet project. In June, 1838, Adams met with President Martin Van Buren, who agreed that the legacy should not go to the establishment of public schools, which Adams viewed as a government responsibility unsuitable to private philanthropy, and should not fall victim to the usual fate of charitable bequests—“no jobbing, no sinecures—no monkish stalls for lazy idlers.”
Adams now began to badger Van Buren’s cabinet members. He wrote a series of long letters to Secretary of State John Forsyth detailing his vision for the Smithsonian Institution. The chief ornament would be an astronomical observatory—Adams’ own pet project, to be sure—to be accompanied by a lecture series on the natural, moral and political sciences. He envisioned an independent Board of Trustees with the capital’s most eminent figures. He offered a panegyric to astronomy, “the sublimest of the physical sciences” whose “field of future discovery is as unbounded as the universe itself.” Straining to find a clear national interest for this glorious but perhaps unworldly plan, Adams noted that in future American mariners would no longer have to depend for navigation on France and England for measurements of the stars.
Legislation languished in Congress, which was then convulsed with the debate over slavery (in which Adams played a central role). Very few men shared Adams’ passion for national institutions of science. Finally, in 1846, when Adams was 78 and increasingly frail, Congress passed a bill that authorized the establishment of an institution with the Smithson bequest. The observatory was gone, and other men had shaped a different kind of institution, with exhibits of curiosities open to the public. But it was owing to Adams’ tireless efforts that the flame of Smithson’s inspired vision had not guttered in the course of a long decade. The Smithsonian Institution is a monumental reminder of Adams’ commitment to a national government deeply engaged in the promotion of the public good.
On October 23, 1837, the 70-year-old John Quincy Adams, now serving in Congress, saw a shocking ad in the National Intelligencer, a Washington daily. A slave woman, Dorcas Allen, and her two surviving children, aged approximately seven and nine, were to be sold that day. Dorcas had murdered her two younger children in a fit of insanity, and the slave-trader who had bought her earlier that year had now returned her as unfit. In his journal, Adams wrote, “It is a case of conscience with me whether my duty requires or forbids me to pursue the inquiry of the case to ascertain all the facts and to expose them in all their turpitude to the world.”
Though he did not favor immediate abolition, Adams had become the most passionate and prominent opponent of slavery in Congress. He had earned the enmity of both Southern members and the Northern Democrats associated with President Martin Van Buren. He had received death threats. He believed that he had lost the support of his own constituents. Fearless as he was, Adams still reminded himself that he could serve no useful purpose as a lone extremist. Yet Dorcas’ terrible deed struck him less as an act of madness than as a judgment on the unspeakable practice of slavery. Was it not his duty to pursue the issue, come what may?
Adams might have chosen prudence, but five days later he saw another ad for Dorcas’ sale. This time Adams, the ex-President, went directly to the slave auction house, a place where Northern gentlemen were not usually to be seen. He met the children and Dorcas, “weeping and wailing most piteously.” The auctioneer, a Mr. Dyer, explained that several days earlier he had sold Dorcas to her own husband, a free black named Nathaniel Allen, for $475. Allen worked as a waiter at Gadsby’s, a prominent hotel and tavern in Alexandria where many Congressmen stayed during the term. Now Nathaniel was trying to scrape up the funds. Dyer doubted he could, so he had placed another ad.
Alexandria Slave Prison
Dyer told Adams that on her deathbed the woman who had owned Dorcas many years earlier had made her husband, Mr. Davis, promise to free her. Dorcas had married Nathaniel and the two had lived as free blacks for a dozen or so years. In the meanwhile, Davis had died, his second wife had re-married and that woman’s husband had sold Dorcas to a slave trader as if he owned her. That very day, Dorcas and her children had been seized and thrown in the Alexandria slave prison, a dismal warren of cells now famous from the movie “Twelve Years A Slave.” Dorcas must have been as staggered as that movie’s Solomon Northrup. That night, she had murdered a four-year-old boy and an infant girl; the screams of the older children prevented her from killing them too. A jury had acquitted her by reason of insanity, though it heard no prior evidence of mental instability. When asked why she had killed her children, Dorcas had said that “that they were in Heaven, that if they had lived she did not know what would become of them.”
Dorcas was no longer a cause to be publicized but a woman to be rescued. Adams returned to the slave house and told Dyer that he had no right to sell a free woman into slavery. Dyer, of course, disagreed. By now Nathaniel Allen had learned that Adams had taken an interest in his case, and came to him for help. He worried that Davis’ creditors would claim Dorcas even if he bought her. Adams promised to track down the Washington district attorney, Francis Scott Key, better known today as the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A slave owner and aggressive defender of slavery, Key was not sympathetic, but did tell Adams that Allen’s title to his wife could not be contested.
On November 13, Nathaniel came to Adam’ home with Dorcas, temporarily released from bondage. Nathaniel explained that another supporter, General Walter Smith of Georgetown, had examined Davis ‘will and found that he had in fact bequeathed Dorcas to his second wife despite the vow he had made to his first. Nathaniel would have to put the money together. Gen. Smith said that he could raise up to $330. At the time, Adams was so deeply in debt that in April his son Charles had had to send him a check so that he could travel from Washington to his home in Quincy. Nevertheless, Adams promised to add $50—a figure equal to $27,000 today in terms of relative income. Nathaniel and Dorcas exited from Adams’ home and from his life, presumably to freedom.
Adams was not a warm man; he was stern by principle. But principle also made him selfless, generous and brave.
Who deserves credit for the Monroe Doctrine, America’s bold assertion that European powers would no longer be permitted to establish colonies in the new world? The obvious answer is, President James Monroe, who wrote it. But a strong case can be made that the primary author was Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams.
President James Monroe
In the early 19th century, presidents delivered annual messages when Congress re-convened each December. On November 12, 1823, when Adams had just returned from his long summer holiday, Monroe came to his office to talk about his annual message. The President was deeply worried about affairs in Europe, where autocracy was on the rise. Tsar Nicholas of Russia had formed the Holy Alliance, whose explicit goal was to extinguish the virus of republicanism. Monroe feared that the Alliance would send troops to overthrow the republican governments in South America which had just liberated themselves from Spain. He was equally worried about the intentions of France under Louis XVIII, which was believed to be planning to install Bourbon kings in those South American nations.
In a July 4 oration delivered two years earlier, Adams had argued that colonialism was intrinsically unjust, and had proposed a non-intervention bargain with Europe: America, he observed, “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart…. She goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
This was, in effect, the text from which Adams worked in long discussions that month with Monroe and with other cabinet members, including Secretary of War John Calhoun. On November 21, according to his journal, Adams suggested that Monroe stipulate that America would not seek to propagate her principles in Europe so long as Europe would not seek to do so in our own hemisphere.
The cabinet, as well as ex-Presidents Jefferson and Madison, agreed with the second half of that proposition. The time had come to shed the cautious isolationism of George Washington’s Farewell Address, with its warning about foreign alliances. The idea that the U.S. must serve merely as a passive “well-wisher” to republicanism, however, went against the idealistic grain of America’s founding generation. After listening to Adams and the others, Monroe read a draft of his message that included a strong affirmation of American support for the Greek struggle for independence against the Ottomans, and a sharp rebuke to France for its aggression against the republican government of Spain. Calhoun applauded the President’s moral clarity.
Adams was deeply alarmed. He insisted that even rhetorical bellicosity would be heard abroad as “a summons to arms…against all Europe; and for objects of policy exclusively European.” The following day he pressed his case with Monroe in private, repeating his formulation of mutual non-interference. Monroe wavered. On the 24th, the President read Adams the proposed passages from his message on all the sensitive subjects. He had come around. Adams pronounced himself “highly gratified.”
The Monroe Doctrine, which occupied several paragraphs of the message which the President delivered December 2, was at its core a declaration of independence on behalf of a new republican world as against an old militaristic and autocratic order. It cast the essential struggle of the world as between rival political systems rather than between great powers. ”Since “the political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America,” Monroe declared, “we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”
But Monroe had adopted Adams’ formulation of the overall principle. He soft-pedaled his support for republicanism in Europe, and declared, in language almost identical to Adams’ own, that “In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, not does it comport with our policy to do so.” The U.S. would remain “anxious and interested spectators” of European affairs.
Dexter Perkins, one of the leading historians of the period, has written that the Monroe Doctrine had no single author, but rather “expressed what many men, great and humble, had thought, were thinking then, and were to think in the future.” Yet no man had expressed these views as forcefully and consistently as Adams had. What’s more, the consensus Perkins described operated only at a very high level of generality. Monroe, like most of his contemporaries, saw America as an active force for global good, promoting its own republican values in Europe. Adams did not; he feared that an America which sought to slay foreign monsters would lose its own soul.
The Presidential election of 1828, which pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson in a re-match of the 1824 cliffhanger, set a new standard for bitterness and scurrility. Jackson had begun running before Adams had even been inaugurated, repeating to all comers the story that Adams had secured his victory thanks to a “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay, whom he had allegedly agreed to make Secretary of State in return for the votes of Clay’s home state of Kentucky.
Jackson v Adams (the broadsheet accuses Jackson of having summarily executed soldiers under his command)
In early 1826, Jackson supporters loaned $5000 to the editors of a new Washington-based paper, the United States Telegraph, converting it into a mass-circulation mouthpiece for the Jackson campaign. The Telegraph’s editor, Duff Green, served as one of Jackson’s closest advisors. Day after day, the paper hammered away at the “bargain, intrigue and management” upon which the Adams administration had been founded. Adams, the editors claimed, was a monarchist, Clay a schemer and a debauchee.
The opposition in Congress homed in on Adams’ reputation for flinty integrity. Jacksonites accused him of using patronage to replace capable men with political allies. (In fact, over four years Adams would remove a grand total of twelve men from office, all for cause.) He was said to have padded his expenses as minister to Russia. A North Carolina Congressman accused Adams of billing the American people for the purchase of a billiard table, billiard balls and a chess set—a total of $80. The story had gained wide circulation by the time Adams was able to prove that he had paid for the items himself.
Adams believed that a President should govern, not campaign, and thus refused to lift a finger on his own behalf. His friends, however, were not about to let Jackson win without a fight. Clay and Daniel Webster, the great Massachusetts orator, plotted to assemble a newspaper network of their own. In the summer of 1827, Clay wrote to Webster suggesting that they find some way to support Charles Hammond, editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Hammond was an early abolitionist who loathed the slave-owning Jackson and served as a conduit for vicious rumors and outright lies about Old Hickory. He regularly described Jackson’s wife Rachel as a “convicted adultress” who had married Jackson bigamously. (The two appear to have married, perhaps knowingly, before Rachel’s divorce had been finalized.) According to one of Hammond’s squibs: “General Jackson’s mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterwards married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of whom GENERAL JACKSON IS ONE!!!”
Webster was not put off by Hammond’s mendacity. Perhaps, he wrote Clay, they could buy the editor a new set of type. Webster visited printers in Boston, and found that a new set of type would run $500 to $600. At that point the correspondence trail runs cold, though it is likely that Hammond was a beneficiary of a fund-raising campaign Webster organized among the merchants of Boston.
Adams and Jackson had once admired and defended one another. No more: By the time this bloody bout ended with a resounding Jackson victory, the two held one another in contempt. Jackson considered the endlessly reiterated slurs against his wife further evidence of Adams’ and Clay’s corruption. Then a terrible thing happened: As Jackson prepared to leave Tennessee for the White House, Rachel fell ill and died. Jackson believed that her spirit had been shattered by the malicious attacks upon her virtue. He and his family—and since then his biographers—blamed the Adams’ campaign, and Adams himself, for her death.
Is it true? If it is, then Adams’ view of himself, and posterity’s view of him, as a man dedicated above all else to principle, would be hard to sustain. Yet his unwillingness to even discuss election tactics baffled and frustrated everyone working on his behalf. There is no sign, in Adams’ correspondence or his journals, that he was aware of, much less participated in, the onslaught against Rachel, or any other aspect of the campaign. Still, could he really have been unaware of what was said and done on his behalf? That is an impossible question to answer. Adams’ horror of self-aggrandizing behavior may have prevented him both from promoting his own prospects and from examining too closely anything done in his name. He was an intensely ambitious man who could not acknowledge his own ambition.
In March of 1832, a Jackson lieutenant, Senator Richard Mentor Johnson, came to Adams to effect a reconciliation. Adams replied stiffly that the fault lay with Jackson, who unjustly blamed him for his wife’s death. Johnson conceded that some people around Jackson held that view, but added that the President himself did not. That was probably untrue; Jackson was not a man to forget a slight, much less a grave insult. Adams rejected the olive branch. Each man would go to his grave with bitter feelings towards the other.