The Election of 1824 was a turning point in American history. With the retirement of President James Monroe, the Revolutionary Generation was officially stepping aside. The United States of America was approaching it's 50th birthday. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton had all been gone for decades. Only three signers of the Declaration of Independence were still living. A mere six men who had signed the Constitution were alive in 1824. The fierce political battles of the early republic had given way to a period known as a "Era of Good Feelings" in which there was only one political party. A new generation of leaders, men who had been boys during the American Revolution, were ready to assume their place as leaders of the Republic. 1824 was also significant because it was the first time in American history that the national popular vote in the Presidential Election was counted. To this point in history, few states allowed common white men the right to cast a vote for the highest office. Of those that did, few kept a record of such votes. The decision as to who would occupy the White House, in line with the Framer's intentions, was completely decided by the members of the Electoral College. 1824 revealed a flaw with the system.
Because no candidate received a majority of the electoral vote, the Constitution requires that the top 3 be sent to the House of Representatives who would choose among them. Bronze medalist William Crawford became ill and was no longer under consideration. No doubt many were expecting a long debate between the political insider Adams and the overwhelmingly popular Jackson. However, to the shock of the nation, the House, under the leadership of Speaker Henry Clay, awarded the presidency to John Quincy Adams on the first vote. Shortly thereafter, President Adams appointed Henry Clay the new Secretary of State; the most prestigious of all cabinet positions. The Jackson camp screamed collusion. They claimed their candidate was the victim of a "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay. Regardless of the outrage, Adams was the president and the appearance of corruption would haunt him during his four beleaguered years in office.
John Quincy Adams was not a skilled politician, but he was without question a statesman. Adams was a man who, often times reluctantly, dedicated his entire life to the service of his country. During the Revolutionary War, young John Quincy accompanied his father, John Adams, during his diplomatic missions to Europe. The younger Adams had a front row seat to witness his father and others obtain crucial recognition and assistance from various European powers. After completing his education and travels abroad, Adams returned home to begin practicing law. After ratification of the Constitution and the election of George Washington, the new administration, and indeed the nation, was in desperate need of wise council and skilled diplomats. Washington appointed John Quincy minster to the Netherlands. At 26 years old, John Quincy Adams had already proven to be a valuable asset to the new Republic. When his father was elected President in 1796, John Quincy continued to serve the nation in a diplomatic role. He returned home and was quickly elected to the Senate during the Jefferson administration.
It wasn't long before Adams was once again called abroad. President James Madison, who was a member of the rival Democratic-Republican Party chose Adams, a Federalist, to serve as the United States' first minister to Russia. Being appointed to serve in such an important position illustrates how respected Adams was by people of all political persuasions. However, it was during the administration of James Monroe where Adams made perhaps his greatest contribution. Many scholars consider John Quincy Adams to be the finest Secretary of State the United States has ever had. While serving in the Monroe administration, Adams negotiated the end to hostilities between the U.S., Spain, and Great Britain over Florida, successfully adding the territory to the Union. He further negotiated to create clear and defined boundaries between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. In fact, it was Secretary Adams who was the primary architect of the Monroe Doctrine, which guided American foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere for the next century. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe had all served as Secretary of State prior to becoming President of the United States. Secretary Adams was the logical choice for many in Washington, however it appears the White House didn't quite suit the principled (stubborn) Adams.
John Quincy Adams came to the White House with lofty goals. He proposed a nationalistic infrastructure program aimed at building canals and roads to connect the eastern states to those in the west. It didn't happen. He wanted the federal government to focus on education, establish a national university, and support the study of math and science. It didn't happen. In fact, Adams left the White House after four years with no significant legislative or foreign policy achievements. Why? Most presidents, even the bad ones, can claim to have advanced at least one policy goal. Why was a person accustomed to as much success as John Q. Adams, so unsuccessful as the nation's Chief Executive? Politics. A large percentage of Congress was loyal to Andrew Jackson and felt that he had been robbed of the presidency by Adams and Henry Clay. To put it in a modern terms, Adams represented the establishment and Jackson represented the people. Jackson's supporters essentially waged a war of obstruction against President Adams refusing to allow any of his agenda to pass. No doubt a more politically skilled president would have been able to negotiate with the opposition and reach a compromise. Not Adams. Like his father before him, the younger Adams was stubborn, arrogant, and convinced he was right.
In 1828, Jackson came back with a vengeance. In what would become one of the dirtiest campaigns in history, the Adams and Jackson camps attacked the personal character of opposing candidates. Frankly, it was far easier to attack Jackson than Adams because, as discussed in an earlier post, Andrew Jackson was a bad person. This didn't stop the Jackson people from relentlessly attacking the President and spreading lies about him. And yes, even in the 1820s, Russia was a topic of presidential politics. The Jackson people claimed that Adams, while serving as a diplomat in Russia, provided a young American virgin as a gift to the Czar. The accusation was false, but sometimes in politics the truth doesn't seem to matter. Andrew Jackson won in a landslide.
Following his defeat, Adams did something unthinkable for any modern ex-president: he ran for Congress. From 1831, until his death in 1848, John Quincy Adams represented the people of Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. In this role, Adams thrived. The former president played a crucial role in many of the important issues facing the nation throughout the 1830s, however, he will always be remembered for being the foremost Congressional champion in the fight against slavery. In additional to speaking out against the slave powers of the south and opposing the spread of the sinful institution, Adams personally argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the African slaves in The United States v. The Amistad securing their freedom.
John Quincy Adams served his country until the very end of his life. In fact, after rising to speak in the House of Representatives in 1846, Adams collapsed and fell to the House floor. He died two days later in the Capitol. A young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln served on the committee that handled Adams' final arrangements.
John Quincy Adams' role in American history is unique. For most politicians, serving as President of the United States is the ultimate achievement, the ultimate goal, and the position of the most influence. However, Adams' four years in the White House were certainly not the most significant of his distinguished career. His presidency has largely been overlooked and forgotten. Yet, from the international borders that still define our country, to the eloquent words of abolition still studied by students today, John Quincy Adams' legacy is secure.
Derek Trent Ashcraft
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