February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
Edward Heath, Britain’s prime minister from 1970 to 1974, recently announced that he intended to retire from the House of Commons after serving there for more than 50 years, half of them after he was prime minister. Such lingering is unheard of these days in the United States, and no doubt the departure of William Jefferson Clinton from the White House will evoke continuing editorial lamentations about how we, as a nation, tend to squander the experience and sagacity of our former Presidents (as well as lamentations from the other side about any political involvement he does maintain). The fact is, though, that men who have run the greatest power in the world like to be in charge, not merely whispering advice.
No, in recent years the accepted procedure for former Presidents has been to retire to the archives their friends, their admirers, and the American taxpayers help them construct and there compose memoirs justifying what they have done in office. We can expect Bill Clinton to do the same—provided, of course, that he escapes indictment.
Presidents writing their memoirs is a relatively new habit. For a Chief Executive to defend himself was long considered unseemly. The first President who tried it was James Buchanan, who in 1866 published an attempt to excuse the unholy mess he had helped make of the nation. The most outstanding presidential memoirs are those of Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote them while he was dying of throat cancer. It was a last, courageous act from a courageous man, designed to leave his family with some money after he had been swindled by an unscrupulous business partner. Even while giving orders during the Civil War, Grant displayed a talent for clear, succinct prose, and it helped that his editor and collaborator was Mark Twain. Few Presidents have been so fortunate.
Of course, many Presidents have found things to do in their retirements besides explain themselves. Back when being President was supposed to be an act of selfless public service, several Chief Executives spent their last years fighting off bankruptcy. Thomas Jefferson, for one, left the White House in 1809 some $24,000 in debt, a staggering sum for the time. He was able to recoup for a while by selling his 6,487-volume book collection to the nation for nearly that whole amount, to form the core of the new Library of Congress. But the incorrigibly public-minded Jefferson soon returned to philanthropic—and uncompensated—endeavors, founding the University of Virginia a few miles from his estate at Monticello. He not only designed and supervised the construction of the university’s beautiful buildings and campus but also set the curriculum, selected the faculty, and served for a time as rector.
Unfortunately, this relapse into civic-spiritedness left Jefferson deep in debt again. At his death, on July 4, 1826, his estate was some $100,000 in hock, forcing his surviving daughter, Martha, to put Monticello up for sale.
Jefferson’s death, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, coincided with that of John Adams, hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts. When the messengers bearing the news subsequently met in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, many Americans took this as a sign of the divinely ordained role they saw for their country. But Jefferson and Adams were not the only former Presidents and Founding Fathers to expire on the Fourth. Exactly five years later, our fifth President, James Monroe, died in a house that still stands on Prince Street in New York City, where Monroe, a Virginian, had been hounded by creditors, all the while remonstrating with Congress to compensate him for some of the $75,000 in debts he had run up on official business. Forced to give up his plantation, he lived in a few modest rooms where his end was almost certainly made more difficult by the cacophony of a Manhattan Fourth of July celebration.
Not all former presidents have limited their later years to staving off the bailiff or writing their apologias, of course. Jimmy Carter has led a notably worthwhile existence after the Oval Office, building housing for the poor and mediating political disputes around the world. Herbert Hoover, after producing a particularly sad and obsessive memoir of his own, returned to an already distinguished career of public service in the private sector, eventually helping alleviate hunger in a war-devastated Europe, just as he had 30 years earlier. William Howard Taft went back to his first love, the judiciary, becoming the only man to serve as both President and Chief Justice of the United States. Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt all made concerted efforts, under one banner or another, to regain the White House. Only Cleveland succeeded.
Yet American politicians have rarely even considered returning to daily politics in our national legislature, à la Mr. Heath. Andrew Johnson did manage to make it back into the U.S. Senate, albeit mostly to give one final, vindictive speech against the forces that had nearly driven him from the Presidency. And then there is John Quincy Adams, the man who surely put together the most worthy post-Presidency of all.
After he was trounced by Andrew Jackson in their 1828 electoral rematch, one might have expected Adams to return happily to his diverse interests outside politics. These included fine wines, domesticating wild plants, writing poetry and history, shooting pool, and taking vigorous nude swims in the Potomac. Instead, within two years he got himself elected to the House of Representatives from his old hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts. Relieved of any greater duty than serving his conscience and his constituents, he would again and again establish himself as what Thoreau would call “a majority of one.”
In no area did Adams give more brilliant meaning to this phrase than in his truly tireless campaign against slavery. Moviegoers may be familiar with his successful argument before the Supreme Court in 1841 to win freedom for the slaves who had seized the ship Amistad . Yet still more dramatic in its way—and occasionally hilarious—was his years-long fight against the “gag rule.”
In early 1836, Southerners in Congress, increasingly agitated by constant petitions for the outlawing or at least limitation of slavery, pushed through a House rule that automatically tabled any such appeals. Confronted with this refutation of a basic tenet of our democratic system, Adams responded by reading out as many of the antislavery petitions as his constituents —or anyone else from the North—would send him.
On February 6, 1837, well into another tumultuous debate about the gag rule, Adams announced that he had a petition purporting to be from 22 slaves. Was it within the House rules, he asked the Speaker, to present such a petition? This was too much. One after another, the Southern representatives rose to demand that he be punished. A representative from South Carolina named Waddy Thompson moved to censure him and was immediately supported by the Alabama representative Lewis Dixon, who added, “by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen, [Adams] directly incites the slave population to insurrection. . . .”
Adams patiently let the debate build before rising to make his defense. He easily deflected the charge that he had permitted a petition from slaves to be presented; rather, he had asked if it could be presented. Then he added, “If the House should choose to read the petition… they would find it … the reverse from that which the resolution states it to be. My crime has been for attempting to introduce the petition of slaves that slavery should not be abolished.”
Pandemonium! Now the Southern representatives put together a new motion of censure against Adams, for having “trifled with the House.” Waddy Thompson proclaimed, “Does the gentleman know that there are laws in all the slave states and here, for the punishment of those who incite insurrection? I can tell him that … he may yet be made amen- able to another tribunal, and we may yet see an incendiary brought to condign punishment.”
On February 9, Adams rose to make his reply. “If that, sir, is the law of South Carolina,” he said, “I thank God I am not a citizen of South Carolina!” Then he added, “Let that gentleman, let every member of this House, ask his own heart with what confidence, with what boldness, with what freedom, with what firmness, he would give utterance to his opinions on this floor, if, for every word, for a mere question asked of the Speaker, involving a question belonging to human freedom, to the rights of man, he was liable to be tried as a felon or an incendiary, and sent to the penitentiary!”
He went on: “Did the gentleman think he could frighten me from my purpose by the threat of a Grand Jury? If that was his object, let me tell him he mistook his man. I am not to be frightened from the discharge of a duty by the indignation of the gentleman from South Carolina, nor by all the Grand Juries in the universe.”
All remaining attempts to censure Adams quickly collapsed. His speech was reported throughout the nation, and the Southerners found to their chagrin that the very issues they had been trying to suppress were now being more widely debated than ever. Adams, nearly 70, would continue his campaign against the gag rule until it was finally repealed in 1844, and he himself would go on until February 21, 1848, when he suffered a massive stroke and collapsed over his House desk.
Carried into the Speaker’s room, his right side paralyzed, Adams murmured, “I am composed,” or perhaps “I am content.” Either was perfectly appropriate. Maintaining his composure all his life under the harshest pressures, he could rest content in the service he had done his country. One can only hope that Bill Clinton, or any former President, may ever again find a way to be so effective.