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The Life And Times Of Congressman John Quincy Adams

May 2024
1min read


by Leonard L. Richards; Oxford University Press; 245 pages, $19.95.

No one has ever been quite sure why John Quincy Adams agreed to become a congressman from Massachusetts after being defeated for réélection as President. His son Charles Francis, who regarded his father as a man “whose feelings I could not penetrate almost always,” felt that it was a dishonor for an ex-President to accept such a lowly job. His wife, Louisa, hated Washington politics and felt she had already put up with enough of it. Adams’s own explanation was that it was his patriotic duty, a sentiment that his family considered pure humbug.

The most probable reason for Adams’s decision to go back to Washington, Leonard Richards feels, is that he had an insatiable passion for politics and that the “calm of retirement” seemed to him, in Louisa’s words, like a “total extinction of life.”

Whatever the motive, Adams took his seat in 1831, a few years after the end of his Presidency, and served in the House for seventeen years, until his death in 1848. Those years are the subject of this fine narrative. In following the issues that particularly concerned Adams, the book is a spirited study of how nineteenth-century politics worked.

Hatred of slavery was Adams’s primary passion, and his stands against the peculiar institution caused Southerners to label him the “madman from Massachusetts” and Northerners to laud him as the “conscience of New England.” His last battle was against “Mr. Folk’s War” with Mexico, and he was in his House seat when he suffered a stroke on February 21 and slipped into a coma. He died two days later. Although Adams might have regarded the praise heaped on his grave with some skepticism, the effusive funeral orations from both friends and foes would also have gratified the tough, abrasive old man.

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