Exactly how a man with as much disdain for politics, glad-handling, pandering, and seeking voter approval came to be elected President of the United States is a great anomaly - even for the early 19th-century. And as for Adams' disclaimers that he would not actively seek the office, author James Traub discounts much of Adams' protestations, "Adams was not less ambitious than other men, but he had learned from childhood to force his appetite through the narrow streets of principal. Republicanism, for Adams, meant self-abnegation."
How we elected presidents in 1824 would seem foreign [or, given the 2016 race, maybe not] today. By 1824. of the 24 states in the Union, six - including New York - left the choice of president up to the state legislature. In other states, legislators set the terms of the state-wide or district-by-district balloting that determined the outcome. Regardless, it is worth noting that less than 350,000 Americans - out of a population of 11,000,000 - actually cast a vote in the 1824 election.
In the race, Andrew Jackson was the only candidate to have truly national support. In those states were citizens voted for president, Jackson had received 153,544 votes; Adams 108,740 votes; Clay 47,136 votes; and William Crawford 46,618 votes. But it was the Electoral votes that counted, and here the final tally read Jackson 99 votes; Adams 84; Crawford 41; and Clay 37. The top-three Electoral vote-getters [Jackson, Adams, and Crawford] would be on the ballot in the House of Representatives, with a vote scheduled for February 9, 1825.
For a man who had disclaimed to not want to seek the presidency, Adams' behavior between November 1824-February 1825 said otherwise. As Traub notes, "Adams could have taken the position that the nation had spoken, the voters had chosen Jackson, that [Adams’] candidacy had remained alive only by virtue of a constitutional technicality. That is, he could have withdrawn. Jackson's friends put it out that this would be the correct thing for Adams to do. There is no sign that this idea crossed [Adams] mind. Adams would not have acknowledged that anything in the Constitution could be deemed a 'technicality'....Already he had allowed himself to offer the kind of veiled reassurances [to others] that once would have struck him as low political bargaining; now he would shred the fine tissue of his conscience."
This, of course, refers to the so-called "Corrupt Bargain" between Adams and Clay - the theory being that Clay promised to release Kentucky's vote [in the House] to Adams in return for Adams appointing Clay Secretary of State. The famous meeting between the two men took place on January 9, 1825. Henry Clay was from Kentucky. Thus, Traub notes, "Adams had not received a single popular vote in Kentucky - not one. Jackson was immensely popular there, and the state plainly would have gone for [Jackson] had Clay not been a favorite son. Adams would never have to know how Clay would exert his influence [on the Kentucky House vote], but he would know that the consequence was that the will of the people [of Kentucky] would be overborne. That was a great violation of his own Republican principles. Adams would have said that no price was worth paying for the sacrifice of principal, but there is no sign that he believed at the time that he had done any such thing. He was thinking about the goal, not the means." By the end of January word of the "Corrupt Bargain" had leaked out. On February 9, 1825, Adams surprisingly won on the first ballot.
By any objective measure, Adams' presidency accomplished almost literally nothing. Much of that was preordained by the manner in which Adams secured the office in the first place. From the moment of the House vote, Jackson and his supporters launched the 1828 campaign against Adams. Add to that Adams' complete unwillingness to reward supporters and punish opponents with patronage sealed his fate and were a recipe for disaster.
In his first months in office, Adams was clearly a man that needed to shore up his political base. In addition, he should have been keen to avoid any topics that could possibly unite his varied opposition into a single cohort that could rally around Jackson. Instead, now that he had secured the presidency - and perhaps because he knew he had only four years in the office - he planned on trying to implement what had been called the "American System" - initially put forth by Clay but to which Adams had quickly subscribed. The American System included internal improvements and a much larger role for the federal government in the lives of all Americans. As beneficial to the nation as the American System would be, though, it was also guaranteed to give the opposition a cause to unite behind Jackson and against Adams.
Adams' own Vice President, John Calhoun, led the opposition from inside the administration. Traub notes, "It is striking - in fact, it's astonishing - that not only political schemers and proslavery advocates and reactionary ideologues but one of the nation's greatest political thinkers [Calhoun] had come to adopt a conspiracy theory [the "Corrupt Bargain"] about the president with no obvious foundation. Adams' adversaries could not accept him as president, and not only because he had failed to win a majority and then eked out a victory through a form of subterfuge. These men saw Adams as the representative of an archaic elite that had lost whatever right it had once had to govern the nation. And the president gave them all the help they needed by acting like just such a throwback. As a matter of character, he was, indeed, a remnant. His ideas were bold and forward-looking, but he formulated them at a moment when most Americans were seeking liberty rather than power. He was a man both behind his times and ahead of them." British historian George Dangerfield summed up Adams' presidency as, "a rather conspicuous example of a great man in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the right motives and a tragic inability to make himself understood."
On December 3, 1828, Adams learned that he had been defeated by Andrew Jackson. Jackson won 178 electoral votes to Adams' 83. Traub writes, "Adams’ support was confined to New England and the mid-Atlantic [not including New York]. The popular vote was twice the size of the 1824 figure, and Jackson received 56% of the total."
Amazingly, though, Adams was not done. He was elected to the House of Representatives on December 6, 1830. Because of the schedule at the time, though, he would not actually enter Congress for one year. It was there, in December 1831, Traub writes, that, "Adams' first act in Congress was the presentation of twelve petitions from citizens in Pennsylvania seeking the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, over which the Congress exercised jurisdiction.… Adams, however, accompanied the presentation with his maiden speech, which he used to make a very strange assertion that he did not believe the issue was suitable for congressional debate… Adams explained that he felt obliged to present petitions from his fellow citizens but saw no point in exacerbating 'ill will' and 'heart burnings' in the House, which would never vote to curb slavery.... For all his hatred of slavery, Adams was not about to waste the precious time of Congress on an ill it was not prepared to address."
In late-1831, these petitions did not generate much reaction from the South. By late 1835, however, representatives of slave states in Congress no longer viewed the presentation of anti-slavery petitions as harmless. Rep. James Henry Hammond of South Carolina proposed that the House refuse to receive such petitions - Congress had never prohibited these petitions on any subject before. Traub writes, "Yet, while Southern planters rose one after another to defend [Hammond's] proposal, free-state representatives remained silent. The South could not dominate public opinion, but thanks to the three-fifths compromise [in the Constitution] it could, and did, dominate the House of Representatives." Up until now, Adams had felt Congress could not outlaw slavery in D.C.; but he'd dutifully reported all petitions requesting such, knowing they'd go nowhere. Now, though, Adams warned that if the House did not allow them to even be considered, "it would force a discussion on slavery itself to the floor. In that case, he said, 'the speeches of my colleagues, probably of myself, will be incendiary because, if discussion is thrust upon us, I doubt not I might make a speech as incendiary as any pamphlet upon which such torrents of denunciation have been poured upon us.'" Here, Traub notes ironically, "Adams appeared to be counseling the slave-state representatives on their self-interest. If he was defending anything, it was the 'sacred' right of petition rather than the human rights of slaves. But that wasn't quite so, for he was also plainly threatening a righteous assault on slavery from worthy, honest, and honorable men."
Adams personally abhorred slavery. But as late as 1835, Traub writes, "Adam saw no way out on slavery. He knew that his constituents [in Massachusetts] did not share his passionate convictions. He did not seek to meet with abolitionists, and he did not look for opportunities to reveal his views in Congress....The rise of anti-slavery petitions, on the other hand, presented Adams with an issue on which he had unambiguous feelings. A debate on the gag rule would forward him the high ground in a debate with the slaveocracy. If it allowed him at the same time to disclose the horrors of slavery, so much the better." With the approval of the so-called "Gag Rule" against anti-slavery petitions in 1836, Traub writes, "Adams was now prepared to use his own solitary resistance to the slaveocracy to illustrate and publicize the grave threats to cherished constitutional liberties that accompanied the defense of slavery. Adams was staging a theater of martyrdom - a species of drama to which, thanks to his rhetorical gifts, his fearlessness, his towering sense of moral purpose, he was supremely well-suited."
Yet it is important to reinforce that as of 1836, Adams still refused to allow himself to be identified with abolitionism. For one thing, Adams at the time did not share, "their views on ending slavery in Washington or on the imperative of immediate abolition, which he feared would lead to insurrection and race war." While petitions were one thing he was willing to stubbornly protect, "he understood that if he called for an immediate end to slavery, even [just] in Washington, as the abolitionists implored him to do, he would marginalize himself in Congress and in national public opinion. Adams continued to maintain a wary distance from the abolitionists."
Yet by the fall of 1837 abolitionism had spread across the country with astonishing speed. Over the course of the 1837-38 congressional session, legislators would receive 412,000 slave-related petitions. In return, there was violent opposition. The geographic location of that violence, however was surprising. Traub writes that ironically, by 1838, "abolitionists needed protection not in the South, where few ventured, but in the cities of the North and the West, where most people viewed them as radicals seeking to tear the country in half. For every abolitionist newspaper there were two or three [papers] inciting readers to fury against the anti-slavery activists. No place was safe from the lynch mob - not even Philadelphia, the home of the abolitionist movement."
The threat of violence went directly to John Quincy Adams. Traub writes that by the late 1830s, Adams' daily mail, "began to include… an astounding number of death threats.... All the letters came from the South. Slaveholders seem to have persuaded themselves, and one another, that by killing Adams they could scotch the snake of abolitionism. This was a delusion, of course, but also a remarkable tribute to Adams' reputation as the scourge of the slaveholders. The fact that Adams was not even an abolitionist seemed not to matter, for few men had launched so frontal an attack on slaveowners as Adams had."
Then came the Amistad.
In late summer-1839, an American naval vessel had encountered a slave-trading ship, the Amistad, off the tip of Long Island. After finding that the captives, whom the American naval officer took to be slaves, had mutinied and killed the ship's captain and cook, and were now seeking to return to Africa, the naval officer seized the ship with its human cargo and brought it into port in New London, Connecticut. The tribulations of the captives on the ship were abhorrent. They had been free people living in Africa until being captured and enslaved before being put on the Amistad. Even upon being held in the United States, they would undergo another two years of captivity before receiving their freedom. Which would come, in part, thanks to John Quincy Adams.
Why would Adams become involved in such a case. Traub writes, "Adams had just finished excoriating the [abolition] movement for imagining that slavery could be ended by righteous rhetoric. He considered [abolitionist leader William Lloyd] Garrison a wild-eyed radical. The captives on the Amistad had apparently killed a white man in cold blood. Why, then, had Adams so quickly leapt to their defense? Certainly Adams felt very differently about enforcing the laws and treaties that prohibited the slave trade then he did about the quixotic effort to overturn settled law in the face of overwhelming resistance. But Adams' quick reaction also showed that he hated slavery as viscerally as [the abolitionists] did, and that he instinctively saw slaves as fully human beings. And for Adams, a republican in his very soul, mankind's great distinguishing feature was the inextinguishable wish for liberty."
The case went to the Supreme Court. Adams was not needed as an attorney - the captives had a brilliant one in Roger Sherman Baldwin - but Traub writes they needed Adams as, "a man of national stature who could present to the Justices a vision of American national interest more compelling than the one the government [in the form of the outgoing Van Buren Administration] would deploy in arguing to honor the terms of the treaty with Spain [which would have sent the Amistad captives back into slavery]. They needed an attorney who could speak to the Justices as an equal. And of course they needed someone prepared to risk his reputation for a noble cause." The court upheld the captives and freed the slaves on board the ship.
As with most accomplishments, we often wonder exactly how much influence the protagonist had in the outcome. Traub notes that, as far as how much credit for the Court's decision belongs to Adams, "We cannot know, of course, how the Court would have voted in his absence, but the truth is that, once the [lower] Circuit Court had accepted that the captives were neither pirates nor slaves, the Appellant - the federal government - was left to advance Spain's dubious interpretation of the Treaty of 1795. It was a weak case. And [the slaves' attorney,] Baldwin made a fairly convincing argument before the Circuit Court and the Supreme Court. Adams may have won some extra votes. Beyond that, though, he had brought to the case both his priceless reputation for integrity and the sheer fact of his fame, elevating it in the public mind into the great cause of the day. The Amistad case set no lasting legal precedent; it was, however, a ringing triumph for abolitionism."
By 1842, Adams was an abolitionist. On January 21,1842, Adams introduced two petitions in the House that set it ablaze. Traub writes that, "he presented a petition from citizens of Massachusetts complaining that the slave states, by their 'absolutely despotic, onerous and oppressive' behavior, had denied the free states their constitutionally guaranteed right to republican government." The second petition was, "a warning from the citizens of Pennsylvania that the nation was prepared to go to war with Great Britain to protect the slave interest, a reference to the mounting tensions over England's insistence on boarding American vessels in order to search for slaves." After these two petitions were read, the House was in turmoil. Many of the slave representatives called for a vote to censure Adams. Then one of these opponents overreached and called for him to be expelled from the House. When that effort was defeated handily, "Adams had shattered the overweening confidence of the South.... The South had fought a pitched battle over petitions and lost. Two more years would have to pass before the House defeated the Gag Rule, but as of that moment southern resistance was spent. The mistake of the abolitionists, however, was to believe that slavery could not survive a crushing defeat in the court of public opinion."
At the age of 75, "Adams no longer saw his beloved country as the world's shining beacon of liberty.… He had begun to identify with the global champion of abolitionism.... Adams believed that the influence of the slave power was leading the United States to surrender the principles it had cherished since the time of George Washington."
By now, opinions of John Quincy Adams were changing. Unlike any of his predecessors, Adams lived to see his reputation restored in his lifetime - largely because of his own post-presidential efforts. As Traub writes, "As the first president to have gone back to work after his tenure, Adams had given himself the opportunity, as none of his predecessors had, to benefit from a 'sober second thought'. He had changed the meanings Americans attached to him. No longer the dynastic New Englander who represented an archaic federalist America, Adams had become the dauntless standard-bearer of the very modern cause of abolitionism. At the same time, his rootedness in the republican principles of the founders also placed him on a pedestal in the national pantheon. Indeed, the very fact that he had not changed, that he had stood for principles when they were despised and lived to see them vindicated, offered the most powerful evidence of his greatness of character."