A most remarkable career President: With the release of the movie 'Amistad,' fresh attention is being paid to John Quincy Adams, whose accomplishments went beyond the White House.

December 14, 1997|By Neil A. Grauer

He knew Washington and Lincoln. As a boy, he stood with his mother on a Boston knoll and witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill; later he would serve as a U.S. ambassador to King George III, the monarch against whom we had rebelled.

He had set eyes on Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, victor over Napoleon at Waterloo. He had his portrait painted by John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart - and lived long enough to be photographed by Matthew Brady.

He was acquainted with each of the first 16 presidents of the United States. His father was one of them, and so was he.

And for good measure, he bestowed on Baltimore one of its most enduring accolades. It was at an 1827 banquet here that John Quincy Adams, alluding to our Washington Monument, the nation's first, and the Battle Monument, the country's first war memorial, raised his glass and offered the toast: "Baltimore, the Monumental City - may the days of her safety be as prosperous and happy as the days of her danger have been trying and triumphant."

Dynamically portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in Steven Spielberg's new film, "Amistad," John Quincy Adams had perhaps the most remarkable career of any man who became president. It was not capped by his one term in the White House, which was bleak, but by the extraordinary 17-year tenure he served afterward as a member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts. He was the only former president ever elected to the House, where he became the embodiment of principle over party.

Adams hated slavery but believed the Constitution allowed it, thus earning him the opprobrium of abolitionists.

But he also engendered the enduring hatred of Southerners. When powerful slave-holding interests forced through a "gag rule" to prevent citizen petitions mentioning slavery, Adams launched a fierce, lonely battle to maintain the Constitutional Right of Petition. He presented petitions - many anti-slavery but some calling for dissolution of the Union - week after week, month after month, session after session, for eight years.

Twice unsuccessful moves were made to censure him. Finally, the House relented and rescinded its gag rule. Almost single-handed, he led the fight that preserved the people's right to petition their government. His colleagues came to call him "Old Man Eloquent."

Adams' eloquence and his abhorrence of slavery were precisely what the defenders of the 39 kidnapped Africans who had slain their captors on the slave ship Amistad needed when he successfully argued the case for their freedom before the Supreme Court in 1841.

Long relegated to history's shadows, that case and Adams' role in it not only is the subject of Spielberg's movie, but of a new opera, "Amistad," that just had its world debut at Chicago's Lyric Opera House. Written by composer Anthony Davis and his cousin, librettist Thulani Davis, it features bass-baritone Stephen West singing the role of Adams.

John Quincy Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Mass., on July 11, 1767, the eldest son of John and Abigail Adams.

He was trained from boyhood to be a statesman and served as ambassador to the Netherlands, Prussia and Great Britain; minister to Russia, and chief of the U.S. delegation that negotiated an end to the War of 1812. In 1817, he became President James Monroe's secretary of state and drafted the Monroe Doctrine.

Adams' election as president sparked controversy that dogged his entire term. In the days before today's political party structure, no fixed procedure existed for nominating presidential candidates. In the election of 1824, five main candidates emerged: Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, William H. Crawford and John C. Calhoun. None received a majority of votes, so the election was turned over to the House of Representatives.

Clay, then speaker of the House, ultimately threw his support to Adams, who squeaked through. Adams, who had clashed with Clay but respected him, then named the Kentuckian his secretary of state. Immediately, his foes cried "Corrupt bargain!" - a taunt that infuriated and frustrated the impeccably honest Adams.

The next four years were a series of contentious political skirmishes pointing toward the election of 1828, in which Jackson trounced Adams to claim the office he had felt cheated of four years earlier. In 1830, to Adams' delight, the people of Plymouth overwhelmingly elected him to the House. "My election as President of the United States was not half so gratifying to my inmost soul," he wrote in his diary.

Adams was nearing the end of his life when the young Abraham Lincoln was elected to his one term in the House in 1846 and the two men became colleagues. Although Adams' voluminous diary does not refer to Lincoln, the freshman from Illinois was an opponent of President James K. Polk's Mexican War, as was Adams. Among Lincoln's first acts in Congress was to demand that Polk specify exactly what spot on American soil had been violated by the Mexicans and thus prompted the declaration of war. This challenge drew down immense partisan wrath on Lincoln.

On Feb. 21, 1848, Adams was at his desk in the House when he was stricken with a stroke. He was carried to the speaker's office comatose, but later rallied enough to whisper: "This is the end of Earth, but I am composed." Adams, the last direct link to the Founding Fathers, died two days later.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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