Ask anyone of a progressive bent who features in their pantheon of political heroes, most of the answers you’ll get will be fairly modern: usually icons of the Sixties, like Noam Chomsky or Robert Kennedy, get many mentions. Sometimes you’ll get Herbert Marcuse. The most historically minded tend to go for Franklin Roosevelt.
It may be a slight stretch, but it is perhaps fair to say that John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States and lion of the House of Representatives, rarely or never gets a mention. However, he should, as this new volume by Joseph Wheelan illustrates.
Adams seems an unlikely source for progressive political thought: after all, he was part of the Revolutionary generation, one that accepted a constitutional settlement which suggested a slave was three-fifths of a person in terms of reckoning the electorate. His balding, stern visage as seen in his portraits seems an embodiment of Purtianical white male hegemony.
However, lost in the mists of time is a different notion of Puritanism, the kind that stressed striving towards personal righteousness and personal self-improvement, the kind that meant sacrificing oneself for principle, rather than herding others towards the same goal. Adams was an embodiment of this earlier form of thinking, and this led him in surprisingly modern directions.
Wheelan’s discussion of Adams’ early career as a diplomat and Secretary of State echoes earlier accounts; by all indications, the young Adams was a “wunderkind” of American diplomacy, multilingual and quick to absorb national nuances. In the first years of the American Republic, Secretaries of State often were expected to run for President, which Adams did in 1824. No clear winner emerged from that election as there were four candidates; it was only through Henry Clay, one of the contestants, agreeing to throw his support to Adams that his office was guaranteed.
Once in office Adams refused to behave like a politician: he didn’t sack the existing staff, so long as they were competent at the jobs they were hired to do. This infuriated Adams’ allies, who thought they deserved a share of the spoils. This also gave Adams’ enemies a powerbase to undermine his Presidency. His obstinacy about doing things in a manner that would be described as “typical”, meant that he was unable to get much of his ambitious agenda for public works through, a programme summarised with the slogan, “Liberty Through Power”.
Adams also was constantly at loggerheads with his Vice President, John Calhoun of South Carolina; here began Adams’ vocal antipathy for slavery. With all these factors going against him, and the fact that he found “spin” somewhat bizarre, he was heavily defeated in his bid for re-election in 1828 by Andrew Jackson.
Had Adams stopped there, this account would have been quite short, and that of a failed, if quirky President. However, Adams ran for a Congressional seat in 1831, and then came into his own.
Being a Congressman enabled Adams to take on opponents in debate, something which he was skilled at, rather than having to go through the labourious business of herding legislation through Congress. Once there, he became quickly known as “Old Man Eloquent”, and proceeded to infuriate every reactionary member of the House of Representatives.
It’s tempting to think that “Yes” is the most powerful word in politics, however Adams career, as Wheelan demonstrates, shows the strength of “No”. When President Jackson wanted to clear Native Americans off their lands, Adams said “no”, saying it violated the Indians’ rights and the existing treaties signed with them. Adams was consistently against the annexation of Texas, and as he had negotiated the treaty which had defined the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase, he was able to puncture Jackson’s claim that Texas was part of it. When Congress started talking about abridging the rights of women, Adams said “no”, and publicly and loudly said that women had political rights. When Congress tried to skip paying a set of workmen, Adams managed to trick Congress into paying them. This had the unexpected effect of making Adams something of a hero, who received that rarest of all political tributes: fan mail. His defence of women in particular led to many admiring tributes, and apparently more woolen knitwear than he knew what to do with.
That said, according to Wheelan, the loudest and longest battle Adams faced was against slavery, and indeed, the resistance to any discussion of the topic. Not long after he arrived, a regulationknown as the “Gag Rule” was put in place, blocking any debate. Adams constantly provoked the Southern members of Congress, using oratory, parliamentary procedure and even a bit of grandstanding to get his way; eventually the Gag Rule was repealed, with the assistance of his allies.
Adams assault against slavery reached as far as the Supreme Court; thanks to modern cinema, the Amistad case is well known, as is Adams’ representation of the Africans who were under threat of being sent into Spanish slavery. What is less well known is how this man, in his seventies, stood up and presented a case for four hours to the Supreme Court, and then did an equally long summation. Justice Joseph Story was impressed and riveted, as Wheelan notes.
Adams’ later years were consumed by the war against slavery. In perhaps the most astonishingly perceptive and progressive outburst of all, he said that if it needed the blood of millions of white men to scrub the nation clean of the curse of slavery, “let it come”. It was not a sentiment held by most at the time.
Adams had robust health right up until the last two years of his life; he collapsed on the House of Representatives after voting, again saying “No”, and died two days later in an ante-room in Congress.
Wheelan’s narrative of this rollercoaster ride of a career never lets the reader’s interest waver for a moment; despite the cold unloveability of Adams’ external demeanour, Wheelan makes it clear it was due to not dissatisfaction with people in general, but a result of a man who was constantly striving to be better and do better, and who could never take a break from the exertion. I ended up liking Adams very much and now consider him foremost among my heroes; it’s difficult to see how anyone could peruse Wheelan’s account and not feel the same.