John Quincy Adams: The 6th 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)
Next In Line
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.
Popular vs. Electoral Vote
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 Jackson, the electoral college was too close to call. Jackson was first, Adams was second, Crawford was third, and 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.
Clay is dropped, but is an x-factor because he is the Speaker of the House. Crawford has a stroke so it becomes Adams versus Jackson with Clay presiding. The House chooses J.Q. Adams who immediately picks Clay as his Secretary of State. Jacksonians call it a “corrupt bargain” and J.Q. Adams enters the presidency under a cloud of suspiscion, scandal, and controversy.
Ill Fated Presidency
John Quincy Adams had lofty goals which included exploration of the western territories, funding public education, scientific advancement and discovery. Additionally, he wanted to prioritize infrastructure improvement including the construction of roads and canals. However, the politics of the time are rancid and J.Q. Adams is unable to overcome them. Congress began thwarting everything he wanted to do as Jacksonians literally waged a war of obstructionism.
J.Q. Adams always thought he could rise above the perceived “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay. He never worried about himself being perceived as corrupt. He also refused to play the patronage game, meaning he neither hired people who spoke in his favor, nor did he fire people who spoke out against him. Not only was this bad optics, this was terrible politics. Adams endured nothing but relentless attacks from Jacksonians for four years of his presidency, with seemingly no one in Washington on his side.
Election of 1828
Adams and Jackson ran the dirtiest campaign 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 bitch about how 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. Bitching about that is 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.
Andrew Jackson would follow John Quincy Adams
James Monroe preceded John Quincy Adams
It all started with George Washington.