Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade

Nasty presidential campaigns are not new. The 1800 election, which brought Thomas Jefferson to power, was venomous. So was the 1828 contest, in which populist Andrew Jackson defeated patrician John Quincy Adams.

The reasons for Adams’ defeat were many, and went back to the 1824 election in which many people believed that Adams and Henry Clay made a "corrupt deal" in which the latter traded his support for appointment as Secretary of State. There almost certainly was no deal, but since the deadlocked race had ended up in the House of Representatives, where Clay’s backing proved essential to Adams’s victory, the appearance looked otherwise.

Moreover, Adams was no glad-handing politician. He refused to use the patronage power to reward his supporters, alienated his congressional allies, and came across as aloof in public. One of America’s best prepared presidents – and someone who, writes Wheelan, "at small dinner parties … could be surprisingly animated and urbane" – Adams nevertheless was one of America’s worst presidential candidates.

His loss was made no less painful by its predictability, and he was relieved by his escape back to Boston. Yet, notes Wheelan, "the Boston establishment gave him a cold shoulder, resenting afresh his betrayal of the Federalists in 1808." With memories long in New England, it looked like the 61-year-old Adams was about to enter into a chilly, and financially fragile, retirement.

But then his constituents asked him to be their representative in Congress. Elected in 1830, he originally expected to serve one term. Instead, he devoted the last 17 years of his life to the job. It turned into an extraordinary legislative career, and one identified with the quintessential issue of human liberty: ending slavery.

No surprise, he was the oldest of 89 freshmen representatives. He was immediately appointed chairman of the Committee on Manufacturers – the House operated differently in those days! He was dragged into an angry dispute between President Jackson and Vice President John Calhoun over the latter’s stance towards then-General Jackson’s unauthorized invasion of Spanish-controlled Florida in 1818. Adams fought on behalf of the Bank of the United States, killed by President Jackson, and the Cherokee Indians, who were victimized by the State of Georgia with President Jackson’s acquiescence.

He opposed South Carolina in the so-called nullification crisis and campaigned against Freemasonry. In 1835 he sacrificed a chance for appointment to the Senate by backing the Jackson administration in a dispute with France. At that point, notes Wheelan, "Adams was aware that he now stood alone, without strong parties, and he wondered how he would fare during the next congressional session."

Quite well, it turns out. For that’s when he took up the cause that would dominate his remaining years – fighting what was commonly called "The Slave Power."

The abolitionist movement was stirring in the 1830s, but it remained very much a minority view. President Jackson owned 100 slaves. Vice President – and later Senator – Calhoun of South Carolina was one of the strongest supporters of the institution. The country was divided equally between free and slave states, but many Northern legislators wanted no part of a controversial issue that could divide the nation.

Adams, however, learned to hate slavery as a child. In time his convictions animated his political career. Writes Wheelan:

"Although the bitter debate over Missouri statehood did not involve Adams directly, it impelled him, watching with keen interest from the sidelines, to clarify his convictions about slavery and for the first time to recognize the threat that it posed to the Union. In his diary, he unequivocally declared that slavery was ‘the great and foul stain upon the North American Union’ and that it should be abolished. From 1820 forward, Adams never once departed from his belief that slavery was a great evil that degraded both slaves and owners. For the rest of his life, his sole questions about slavery concerned whether emancipation was possible, whether it was ‘practicable,’ and if carried out, whether it would destroy the United States. How could it be accomplished with the least loss of life?"

For many years he thought the cause essentially hopeless, and for reasons both constitutional and political avoided supporting the abolitionist cause. What he refused to abide, however, were Southern attempts to limit debate. Abolitionists turned to their constitutionally-protected right to petition Congress – a right largely ignored today. Petitions began flooding into the House. Explains Wheelan: "By 1838, the accumulated petitions would fill a room to the ceiling in the Capitol."

His course was set in 1836 when Adams denounced proposals to annex Texas. Writes Wheelan: "The hour-long speech was the most consequential of his life until that time; the barbed, sarcastic manner of delivery would very soon become Adams’s recognized trademark. Afterward, he noted with evident satisfaction that it was met by ‘echoes of thundering vituperation from the South and West, and with one universal shout of applause from the North and East.’"

More momentous, however, was the House’s subsequent decision to mandate that all slavery petitions be tabled without debate, the so-called "Gag Rule." Its repeal became central to Adams’s life.

Wheelan spins quite a tale, including a failed attempt to censure Adams for his persistent success in tormenting the advocates of slavery. Yet even those who hated Adams’s defense of abolitionist petitioners admired his integrity. In December 1839 the House faced chaos due to a dispute over New Jersey’s five seats. Adams was chosen to preside over the body until permanent officers, including a speaker, could be elected.

He added to his responsibilities Native Americans, who were routinely cheated and victimized by the federal and state governments, as well as women, whose right to petition he defended. He joined the legal fight on behalf of the slave mutineers on the Cuban ship Amistad. But it was not until 1843 that he became an open and avowed abolitionist. At the end he was a bona fide celebrity, venerated in some regions of the country and execrated in others.

In 1844 the House finally abolished the Gag Rule. Adams’s efforts were the spark, but his success reflected the ongoing transformation of the political environment. While many Northerners remained unsympathetic to abolition, they were distressed by what they perceived as the disproportionate power of slave interests. And they finally decided to stop sacrificing the civil liberties of their constituents to satisfy Southern slaveholders. But he was not done embracing unpopular causes – he criticized the Mexican-American War and defended Mexico’s right to defend itself.

In 1845 Adams suffered his first stroke. He recovered, but his health gradually declined. He was stricken on the House floor on February 21, 1848 and died two days later in the House Speaker’s chamber.

His was a singular career. John Quincy Adams was in many ways a "failed" president, whose agenda was rejected by Congress and whose reelection was rejected by the public. But he was a brilliant congressman. Not because he was a master legislator, able to manipulate the system to push through one or another grand programs. Rather, he understood that his principal duty was to defend human liberty – most directly, the right to petition government, but ultimately, the right to be free. And he poured his all into that fight.

A fight in which his side ultimately triumphed.

Joseph Wheelan has produced an enthralling story with Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade. At a time where the political system seems to offer little hope of real reform, the story of John Quincy Adams demonstrates that good people can triumph when the cause is right. It’s a lesson that we need to remember today.