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Mad Old Man From Massachusetts
How gnarled, upright ex-President John Quincy Adams broke the South’s gag rule in Congress and at last won popular applause
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
After his defeat for re-election to the Presidency in 1828, John Quincy Adams cloistered himself in his Quincy, Massachusetts, home and wrote in anguish, “I have no plausible motive for wishing to live when everything that I foresee and believe of futurity makes death desirable, and when I have the clearest indications that it is near at hand.” Bitterly, Adams resigned himself to the political graveyard, complaining, “My whole life has been a succession of disappointments. I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success to anything that I ever undertook.”
Short, paunchy, and almost completely bald, Adams was old before his time. Infirmities overwhelmed him. His hand shook almost uncontrollably when he wrote. He complained about his “smarting, bloodshot eyes,” so weak and inflamed that rheumy tears often trickled from the corners. His voice, always shrill, tended to crack. He slept little and badly, and his diary was filled with continual laments of “disturbed, unquiet sleep—full of tossings.” His temper was increasingly short: “Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell,” Andrew Johnson described it. And Adams admitted in his diary, “I have need of a perpetual control over passion.”
When a group of devoted friends, National Republicans, convinced him to run for Congress in 1830, Adams felt as if he had been born anew. He was sixtythree, a retired President, son of the second President, and one of the nation’s last firm links with the Revolution, for Adams as a boy had watched the cannonsmoke roll over Bunker Hill. But it was unprecedented, and remains so today, for a former President to return to the brawling forum of the House. Adams won his election and entered Congress; there he would serve for the next eighteen years, until the end of his life. Instead of the bucolic solitude sought by Washington and other ex-Presidents, Adams would carve out a radical new career. Though he had carefully dodged the slavery issue in the White House, he would now plunge into it almost recklessly, drawing a whirlwind of controversy around his head. No other former President would suffer such abuse, newspapers even branding him the “Mad Man from Massachusetts.” And yet, the old Puritan war horse, so aloof as a President, would become the foremost champion of popular liberty, surrounded by a warmth and devotion that had never come to him in the White House.
From birth, John Quincy Adams was steeped in the Puritan’s tortuous devotion to principle, devoured by the preoccupation with good and evil, molded by his father for public service whose ultimate target was the Presidency. At twenty-six he was appointed Minister to the Netherlands, and nine years later elected to the United States Senate. Madison made him Minister to Russia. Monroe made him his Secretary of State, a position he filled brilliantly from 1817 to 1824, when he won the Presidency from Andrew Jackson in a bitterly fought contest that had to be decided in the House of Representatives. Old John Adams lived to see the family destiny completed, his son in the White House. He died on July 4, 1826, the same day as Jefferson, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
It was the end of an epoch. Only one congressional elector had voted against Monroe in 1820, but John Quincy Adams was a minority President, struggling to hold the National Republicans together. Finally, in 1828, a combination of southern planters and northern Republicans behind Jackson and Calhoun crushed the two northern candidates, Adams and Richard Rush. Slavery was already the hidden issue.
No man had condemned slavery in more blistering words than Adams—“the great and foul stain upon the North American Union!” No man had better gauged the tragic consequences of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. “Oh, if but one man could arise … to lay bare in all its nakedness that outrage upon the goodness of God, human slavery,” he wrote that year, “now is the time, and this is the occasion, upon which such a man would perform the duties of an angel upon earth!”
It would be sixteen years before Adams would attempt these duties—and even then, inadvertently. In his maiden speech to Congress in 1831, he presented fifteen petitions from citizens of Pennsylvania, praying for abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the nation’s capital. Although the petitions caused a bedlam of southern protests, few congressmen, and not even Adams, foresaw the consequences.
By 1834, the petition to Congress, a right guaranteed by the Constitution, had become the major weapon in a well-organized campaign by the American Antislavery Society. As petitions poured upon his desk, Adams presented them in increasing numbers to the House. For all his hatred of slavery, he was still far from an abolitionist. But he doggedly defended the right of petition, and each petition from towns and villages all over New England stirred new debate. Adams and his petitions would soon turn the House into an inferno.