John Quincy Adams (1825 – 1829): The Sixth Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Thus far, the Secretary of State has been a stepping stone to the presidency as Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all served in the position before assuming office. In 1824, John Quincy Adams stood to follow, but he was in a runoff with Secretary of Treasury William Crawford, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and rising national hero, the tremendously popular Andrew Jackson.
John Quincy Adams denounced slavery more strongly than did any other early American president, calling slavery “a sin before the sight of God,” an “outrage upon the goodness of God,” and “the great and foul stain upon the North American Union.”
In an especially eloquent statement, Adams wrote:
It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice: for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?
Unfortunately, most of these statements were confined to Adams’ personal diary. Adams was never officially an abolitionist, and he never publicly condemned slavery while serving as Secretary of State, candidate for President, or President.
Indeed, as a U.S. Senator, Adams opposed efforts to bar slavery and the importation of slaves in the Louisiana Territory, arguing that “Slavery in a moral sense is an evil; but as connected with commerce it has important uses.” Adams also assisted slaveholders in recovering slaves who had escaped to Canada, and in the 1830s he wrote that the goal of abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia was “utterly impractical” (a view he later changed).
Adams’ record on slavery was further tarnished by his belief in the cultural and moral superiority of the White race, by his view that the “general treatment of slaves is mild and moderate,” and by his perception that there was nothing he could do to end slavery. Explaining his inaction, Adams wrote in 1833:
I believe that the spirit of the age and the course of events is tending to universal emancipation …. But bound as I am by the Constitution of the United States, I am not at liberty to take a part in promoting it. The remedy must arise in the seat of the evil [the South
The election of 1824 was the first where states began to count the popular vote in national elections. This meant that a national candidate could accurately measure his popularity with the common man. While the popular vote overwhelmingly resided with Andrew Jackson, the electoral college was too close to call. Jackson was first, Adams was second, Secretary of War and Treasury William Crawford was third, and Secretary of State Henry Clay was fourth, but Jackson did not get the majority of the votes. According to the Constitution, the top three candidates (Jackson, Adams and Crawford) go to the House of Representatives to be voted upon.
To the surprise of many, the House elected John Quincy Adams over rival Andrew Jackson. It was widely believed that Clay, the Speaker of the House, convinced Congress to elect Adams, who then made Clay his Secretary of State. Jackson’s supporters denounced this as a “corrupt bargain.” The “corrupt bargain” that placed Adams in the White House and Clay in the State Department launched a four-year campaign of revenge by the friends of Andrew Jackson.
Claiming that the people had been cheated of their choice, Jacksonians attacked the Adams administration at every turn as illegitimate and tainted by aristocracy and corruption. Adams aided his own defeat by failing to rein in the pork barrel frenzy sparked by the General Survey Act. Jackson’s attack on the national blueprint put forward by Adams and Clay won support from Old Republicans and market liberals, the latter of which increasingly argued that Congressional involvement in internal improvements was an open invitation to special interests and political logrolling.
A 1998 analysis using game theory mathematics argued that contrary to the assertions of Jackson, his supporters, and countless later historians, the results of the election were consistent with so-called “sincere voting”, that is, those Members of the House of Representatives who were unable to cast votes for their most-favored candidate apparently voted for their second- (or third-) most-favored candidate.
Tariff of 1828
The Tariff of 1828 was a very high protective tariff that became law in the United States in May 1828. It was a bill designed to not pass Congress because it hurt both industry and farming, but surprisingly it passed. The bill was vehemently denounced in the South and escalated to a threat of civil war in the Nullification crisis of 1832-1833. The tariff was replaced in 1833 and the crisis ended.
It was called “Tariff of Abominations” by its Southern detractors because of the effects it had on the Southern economy. It set a 38% tax on some imported goods and a 45% tax on certain imported raw materials.
The manufacturing-based economy in the Northeastern states was suffering from low-priced imported manufactured items from Britain. The major goal of the tariff was to protect the factories by taxing imports from Europe.
Southerners from the cotton belt, particularly those from South Carolina, felt they were harmed directly by having to pay more for imports from Europe. Allegedly, the South was also harmed indirectly because reducing the exportation of British goods to the U.S. would make it difficult for the British to pay for the cotton they imported from the South. The reaction in the South, particularly in South Carolina, led to the Nullification Crisis.
Election of 1828
Adams and Jackson ran one of the dirtiest campaigns in American history. The Adams camp alluded to Jackson as a gambler, military tyrant, and barbarian. They attacked Jackson’s wife as a bigamist, for he married her before she was able to obtain a legal divorce. The Jackson camp claimed Adams lived with his wife before they were married, provided American virgins for the Russian czar, installed a pool table for gambling in the White House, and broke the Sabbath. Issues concerning government were ignored, and campaign rhetoric revolved around the personal lives and character flaws of the candidates. The character of the person in the White House became the issue. For what it’s worth, Adams said true things about Jackson while Jackson mainly lied, but the truth hardly mattered. Jackson won in a land slide.
John Quincy Adams
Similar to George W. Bush some 170 years later, J.Q. Adams wanted to exercise his father’s political demons and retrieve a lost presidency. After he lost in 1828, he was elected to the House of Representatives making him the only former U.S. President to do so. He would be an outspoken Congressional leader in the fight against slavery. This would become his legacy, for his presidency was an unmitigated disaster.
For those who say the popular vote and not the electoral college should determine the presidency, it started with Adams, as Jackson was incredibly popular. This will be the first of many deals that we see for political positioning. It’s not new; nor are we currently at unprecedented levels of “non-opposition” between the parties. Similarly, the obstructionism that is bemoaned nowadays existed to the same degree if not worse 180 years ago. Again, there is nothing historically good or bad about a “do nothing” Congress, a phrase coined by Harry Truman whom we will discuss later. It’s all apart of the game. Substantive political debate has been stymied and often trumped by the politics of personal destruction for the better part of 190 years now.
- The 1824 presidential election and the “Corrupt bargain”. (2020, September 25). Pieces of History. https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2020/10/22/the-1824-presidential-election-and-the-corrupt-bargain/
- Definition of tariff of 1828 in U.S. history. (n.d.). RACHEL. https://kolibri.teacherinabox.org.au/modules/en-boundless/www.boundless.com/u-s-history/definition/tariff-of-1828/index.html
- Henry clay – People – Department history – Office of the historian. (n.d.). Office of the Historian. https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/clay-henry
- History from home – Corrupt bargain | The Hermitage. (2020, July 13). The Hermitage. https://thehermitage.com/history-from-home-corrupt-bargain/
- WETA. (2017, January 13). The election of 1828: It’s always been ugly. Boundary Stones: WETA’s Washington DC History Blog. https://boundarystones.weta.org/2017/01/13/election-1828-its-always-been-ugly
- Map of the cotton belt route. (n.d.). The Bullock Texas State History Museum. https://www.thestoryoftexas.com/discover/artifacts/map-of-the-cotton-belt-route
- William Crawford. (n.d.). todayingeorgiahistory.org/. https://www.todayingeorgiahistory.org/content/william-crawford
Andrew Jackson (1829 – 1837) would follow John Quincy Adams
James Monroe (1817 – 1825) preceded John Quincy Adams
It all started with George Washington 1789 – 1797).
Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.