What is the proper role of an ex-president? Should he retire to enjoy his newfound freedom from public life, write his memoirs and, perhaps, attend official functions as might be asked of him? Most former presidents have done just that. Presently we have three living ex-presidents in the United States; none, however, has been out of the public eye for long. One is active in humanitarian causes, another is the father of the sitting president, and the third is campaigning for his wife to become the first woman to occupy the Oval Office. This has not been the norm in the history of the country; rarely has an ex-president returned to active public life.
In Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade, the author and journalist Joseph Wheelan has written a highly readable and thoroughly engaging account of John Quincy Adams’s life as a congressman from Massachusetts. While there are many works on Adams’s presidential career, Wheelan notes, there are few that examine his post-presidential years.
This book starts out with a brief overview of the Adams family and the early years of J.Q.A. The son of the second president of the United States John Adams (1797-1801), John Quincy Adams was this country’s sixth president (1825-29). A “son of the Revolution,” the young Adams learned the art of politics and diplomatic life at his father’s side during the American Revolution. Later educated at Harvard, Adams practiced law in Boston, but he never felt well suited for the profession. With an appointment from President George Washington to become U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, John Q. Adams began a remarkable political career: diplomat, U.S. senator and secretary of state.
Election year 1824 found four men vying for the White House: Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, William Crawford and John Quincy Adams. Adams was elected President of the United States, but not without controversy. While Jackson had won the popular vote, he did not have the necessary electoral college votes to win the presidency outright. Adams, second in the balloting, also lacked the electoral votes. When third-place finisher Henry Clay threw his support to Adams, the son of a president won a controversial election as decided by the House of Representatives. And when the new president appointed Clay secretary of state, Jackson supporters cried foul, claiming that Adams had made a “corrupt bargain” to gain the White House. Both Adams and Clay denied the charge, but both presidential careers were over. Adams lost his re-election bid in 1828 to Jackson, and Henry Clay never became president. In 1830, two years out of office, however, the ex-president was elected to represent Massachusetts’s 12th Congressional District (later the 8th District). He was 64 years old.
Relying on a variety of secondary sources but, more important, on Adams’s own journals, Wheelan focuses on three major events in Adams’s career as a member of Congress: the gag rule, the Amistad case and the annexation of Texas. All three touched on the issue of slavery, and in each instance, Wheelan highlights the extraordinary influence Adams exerted over Congress and the nation regarding the most pressing issue of the day. Whether fighting for the right to petition Congress, to free slaves illegally brought to the New World or to thwart the expansion of slavery, Adams may not have always been liked but he was always respected. Wheelan’s study of Adams is a study in integrity, determination and courage. Would that one could say the same for our present political leadership.
On behalf of his constituency, Congressman John Quincy Adams regularly presented petitions to the House that dealt with the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Because discussion of the South’s “peculiar institution” was so inflammatory, Congress passed a “gag” resolution, later a House rule, in 1836 that did not allow a Representative to present citizens’ petitions concerning slavery. Wheelan recounts in detail how Adams, a master parliamentarian, fought his opponents, outwitting them at their own game in order to defend the Constitution and the First Amendment right to petition the government. Adams’s efforts won the admiration of the abolitionists, resulted in a House censorship trial, which he won, and transformed him into an opponent of slavery. In 1844 the gag rule was rescinded.
The story of the Amistad is well known, thanks to the efforts of the movie maker Steven Spielberg. What most Americans may not know is that Adams was not the first choice to argue the case before the Supreme Court. Furthermore, he spoke before the court not for 15 minutes, as depicted in the film, but for eight-and-a-half hours over a two-day period. His insight and understanding of the Revolution, the Constitution and diplomatic history won the case for the African slaves. Wheelan leaves the reader with the impression that a lesser person than Adams could not have successfully argued the case.
Wheelan notes that Adams’s opposition to the annexation of the Republic of Texas was based on his rejection of admitting another slave state to the Union. Adams feared that resolution of the issue of slavery would ultimately be decided by civil war. Though Texas was admitted to the Union in 1845, Adams proved to have been prescient about the future of America.
Histories of the early republic often focus on the careers of Andrew Jackson and his struggles with Congress, the compromises made at the federal level to mitigate the harsh realities of slavery and the evolution of “manifest destiny.” Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade presents a different perspective on this time period and offers the American public an alternative understanding of the role an ex-president can play in representative government.