Skip to main content

The Life And Times Of Congressman John Quincy Adams

March 2023
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.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "April 1987"

Authored by: Otto Friedrich

From Fort Ticonderoga to the Plaza Hotel, from Appomattox Courthouse to Bugsy Siegel’s weird rose garden in Las Vegas, the present-day scene is enriched by knowledge of the American past

Authored by: Geoffrey C. Ward

A biographer who knows it well tours Franklin Roosevelt’s home on the Hudson and finds it was not so much the President’s castle as it was his formidable mother’s.

Authored by: Alfred Kazin

A journey through a wide and spellbinding land, and a look at the civilization along its edges.

Authored by: Shirley Abbott

In the quiet luxury of the historic district, a unique form of house plan—which goes back two hundred years—is a beguiling surprise for a visitor

In the blustery days of late fall, the traveler still can find the sparseness and solitude that so greatly pleased the Concord naturalist in 1849

Authored by: Brian Dunning

Within the city’s best-known landmarks and down its least-visited lanes stand surprisingly vivid mementos of our own national history

Authored by: Selma Rattner

Every town you pass through has felt the impact of the modern historic-preservation movement. Now a founder of that movement discusses what is real and what is fake in preservation efforts.

Authored by: Richard Reinhardt

No city has more energetically obliterated the remnants of its past. And yet no city has a greater sense of its history.

Featured Articles

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.