Study Guide

John Quincy Adams in Proclamation Regarding Nullification

By Andrew Jackson

John Quincy Adams

If anyone ever had their life script written for them, it was John Quincy Adams. Son of a president, Adams lived in Europe for much of his boyhood and played with the children of princes and prime ministers. In 1767, he sat on a hill above his family's farm and watched the Battle of Bunker Hill going on down below. In 1783, JQ returned to Paris, acting as his father's secretary in the drafting of the terms of the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War.

After graduating from Harvard, Adams held a bunch of diplomatic posts in Europe and was elected to the Senate in 1802. He served as Secretary of State under James Monroe from 1817-1825, a post that was generally considered a lock as the stepping stone to the presidency. Adams' successes as Secretary of State cemented his reputation as a skilled negotiator and accomplished statesman.

In 1824, Adams followed the next inevitable step and ran for the presidency. It was supposed to be a shoo-in—with his pedigree and accomplishments who could doubt it?

Plenty of people, it turned out.

The plurality of the popular and electoral votes in the four-way contest went to the Hero of New Orleans, which threw the election to the House of Representatives, but you already knew that. Henry Clay withdrew from the race and put his support behind Adams, who was elected president by a single vote in the House. When Adams (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) named Clay as his Secretary of State, that put him on a collision course with Andrew Jackson.

Jackson maneuvered from the get-go to make Adams a one-term president. They opposed his nationalistic policies at every turn. He and his supporters concocted the Tariff of Abominations, which Adams eventually signed, and by doing so, sealed his fate. In the 1828 presidential race, Jackson defeated Adams by a landslide. Much of the mud in that landslide was slung by Jackson supporters, who characterized Adams as an elite dynast, out of touch with the common people. They even accused him of having "European" morals because of the time he spent there, and spread rumors that he pimped out his chambermaid to the Czar when he was in Russia.

Jackson was busy hosting rallies and barbecues and creating grassroots support around the country, but Adams wasn't a schmoozer. Smiling and kissing babies wasn't his thing. He thought campaigning was beneath the dignity of the office of the president. When he did reluctantly show up to give a speech or attend a public event, he was clearly out of his element, with an unfortunate tendency to quote Voltaire or some other figure and leaving the crowd turned off and confused. (Source)

Even without the tariff, Adams knew he'd probably lose to Jackson. He wrote in his diary, "[I]n a popularity contest, in a political contest, no man could stand against the Hero of New Orleans" (source).

The Last Laugh

Adams' best years were ahead of him. In 1830, he went back to serve nine consecutive terms in the House of Representatives. He promised his constituents that he'd never campaign and would always follow his conscience. He led a successful fight to end Jackson's "gag rule" about discussion of slavery in Congress, and gave eloquent speeches opposing that "peculiar institution."

In 1840, Adams agreed to represent fifty-three Africans who had mutinied on the Spanish ship The Amistad after being kidnapped in Sierra Leone and taken for sale in Cuba by Spanish slave traders. The ship appeared off the coast of New York, and the men were taken into custody by a U.S. Naval vessel. They were sent to Connecticut, where a court would decide their fate. Spain claimed the men were their property, but since the U.S. made international slave trading illegal in 1808, abolitionists claimed the men were free.

Two district courts ruled in favor of the abolitionists, but President Van Buren, not wanting to alienate the south, appealed to the Supreme Court. Who better to represent the Africans than the "Old Man Eloquent" abolitionist John Quincy Adams?

In a pivotal moment in the trial, John Q dramatically pointed to a copy of the Declaration of Independence (which his father had helped draft, btw) hanging on the wall of the courtroom. "[I know] no law, statute or constitution, no code, no treaty, except that law…which [is] forever before the eyes of your Honors" (source). It was possibly Adams' finest hour.

The Supremes ruled in favor of the Africans but didn't provide funds for their return. The survivors were eventually able to go home with money raised by Black abolitionists.

If you love primary source documents as much as Shmoop does, check out this letter from Adams agreeing to take the Amistad case. You'll get goosebumps.

Steven Spielberg sure did. If you haven't seen his film Amistad, stop reading this and do so immediately.

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