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John Quincy Adams: An Example for Our Times

by Gregory L. Kaster on Dec 31, 1997

Gregory L. Kaster

History can be instructive and often inspiring.

Take, for example, the case of the nation’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848). A brilliant man, and perhaps the greatest American secretary of state (he was co-author of the Monroe Doctrine with President James Monroe, under whom he served), Adams sought posthumous fame and favor via the monumental diary that testifies to his powerful intellect and ambition.

Now, 150 years after his death, Adams (as played by actor Anthony Hopkins) is being immortalized on screen in “Amistad,” Steven Spielberg’s latest effort at cinematic history-telling. The film ought to inspire Americans to rediscover, and demand of their own leaders, the kind of character and courage that defined Adams’s distinguished post-presidential career as congressman.

Millions of moviegoers will soon discover Adams as the man who in 1841 successfully argued before the Supreme Court the freedom of Cinque, leader of the Amistad slave ship revolt, and his fellow slave mutineers. Given Adams’s hunger for posterity’s approval, he would doubtless be pleased, if also appalled that history is now more viewed than read.

The film’s audiences, however, should also remember that Adams’s defense of the Amistad slaves was but one moment in a larger and even more instructive story of remarkable character and courage.

Today the media tend to reduce character to titillating questions about a public figure’s veracity and private behavior. Did President Clinton do what Paula Corbin Jones alleges and he denies? For Adams, however, character involved more than rectitude in private life, important as that was to him. It demanded a sober sense of virtuous duty based on religious and political convictions–the duty, above all, to effect mental, moral, and national improvement.

Commitment to improvement of self and nation motivated Adams’s courageous opposition to slavery during his seventeen years in the House of Representatives from 1831 until his death, service that began shortly after his unsuccessful one-term presidency. Most notable was his heroic eight-year fight against the “gag rule,” adopted by the House in 1836 to prevent debate of northern antislavery petitions by requiring that they be tabled–that is, not discussed. At issue for Adams, no less than the wrongs of slavery, was the rule’s violation of the constitutional right of petition.

Drawing on his deepening moral outrage over slavery and his related conviction that the South’s “peculiar institution” threatened national progress, Adams fought the gag rule unsparingly through a brilliant combination of nimble eloquence, parliamentary skill, and bold gesture.

Defying both the letter and spirit of the gag, he presented and discussed antislavery petitions (including those signed by disfranchised women and slaves), had the clerk of the House read to members the Declaration of Independence, and denounced defenders of the “sin” of slavery. His challenges aimed to reverse the rule while arousing public indignation against slavery and the political power of southern slaveholders. Adams persisted bravely in the face of threatening opposition, including calls by angry southern House members for his censure, until the gag was finally repealed in 1844.

If only the national conversation–why not, in the spirit of Adams, a national debate?–on race so earnestly sought by President Clinton had the fire and clarity of Adams’s searing attacks on “the slave power.”

What is so striking and anomalous about Adams’s courage from the perspective of our own day is that it was driven by character, principled conviction, and serious study of history, not focus groups or polls. In fighting the gag rule and with it slavery, he unflinchingly and successfully led, rather than simply mirrored, public opinion.

Perhaps equally strange to us, he mixed character and courage with intense political ambition. Adams felt that his election to the presidency “was not half so gratifying” as his election to the House. 

Here is a lesson for President Clinton, who should consider repeating Adams’s rewarding move from executive to legislative branch. Just as Adams went from thwarted president relentlessly opposed by Congress to courageous and effective congressman, so might Clinton following his second term. And who knows, with his Hollywood connections he may not have to wait as long as Adams to be immortalized by the movies.

Meantime, inspired by John Quincy Adams’s on-screen example, citizens could do worse than demand of their leaders even a portion of his real-life character and courage.

Gregory L. Kaster is professor of history at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.