John Quincy Adams – The Viaduct (Updated)

How many people can go to work and sit on a sofa where a former President died?
How many people can go to work and sit on a sofa where a former President died?

In 1846, the thirty-seven year old Abraham Lincoln was elected to the Congressional District of Illinois 7. This relatively unknown Whig congressman from Illinois, served with the only President, who, following his years at the helm, became a Congressman.  John Quincy Adams (JQA) is one of the only men who worked directly with the Framers and Abraham Lincoln (JQA served as ministers to foreign countries in the Washington, Adams, and Madison administrations and Secretary of State in the Monroe administration), making him a viaduct between the American War of Independence and the American Civil War.

JQA, son of the Second President of the United States John Adams, was one of the most well traveled men of his day.  He spent his teenage years traveling through France, the Netherlands, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and various other regions of Central and Eastern Europe, all before he was enrolled in university.  In 1785, he sailed back across the Atlantic to the United States to prepare for his interview with President of Harvard College, Joseph Willard.  It took JQA another year of private tutoring before he gained admittance to Harvard.  He graduated from Harvard undergraduate in 1787 and then graduate school in 1790, and then began to practice law in Boston.  In the next three decades, JQA served in many administrations and had a starred-studded career as a foreign diplomat.

Intellectually, the Adams’ had a general disdain for slavery.  Though his father’s actions were neutral towards the issue, one must understand the sensitivity this issue had.  Keeping the Union intact was of great importance, and naturally this influenced John Adams’ public polices.  During his single term as the sixth President of the United States of America, JQA was similar to his father regarding the slave issue.  In 1829, JQA lost to Andrew Jackson (in a political campaign where the Adams team made crude remarks against Jackson and his wife Rachel that rivals modern day politics). Then in a heterodox matter, he ran for the 11th Massachusetts Congressional District, and won.  During his seventeen year tenure in the House of Representatives, JQA was known as a fierce warrior against the southern Democrats-thus making the former President at intellectual and political odds with slavery. One historian explained that, “Before being elected President, Adams wrote in his diary that ‘slavery in a moral sense is evil, but as connected with commerce, it has its uses.’  Later, after leaving the presidency, Adams noted that there was, misapprehension and much prejudice’ about the treatment of southern slaves.”.  Three major articles that stand out in the discourse of JQA as a dissenter of slavery; his split in ideology with his Vice President about the slave question, opposition of the ‘gag rule’, and him standing before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) in U.S. v. Amistad.

JQA and his Vice President, John C. Calhoun, had major disagreement about slavery and it’s impact on the Union.  In The Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795-1848, JQA understands that a temporary dissolution of the the Union could be good, in that, following dissolution, universal emancipation would come to fruition.  Calhoun viewed slavery as a moral good and a strong sense of racial superiority.  Calhoun also argued that if the Union dissolved the South would likely seek alliances in Western Europe.  Dichotomies appeared between JQA and his V.P.  Interestingly, the debate of slavery continued between them when both men return to Congress (JQA to the House and Calhoun to the Senate).

The ‘gag rule’ was a resolution passed by both houses of Congress as a way to bar all talk and petitioning against slavery.  When the ‘gag rule’ was initially passed only a small number of Congressmen openly objected to the resolution.  In 1837, Congressman Adams motioned to present a petition from 22 slaves (JQA “had suspicions that [it]…came really from the hand of a master, who had prevailed upon his slaves to sign it).  This shocked Speaker James K. Polk, who refused the former President’s motion.  Over the next few years, new congressional resolutions tightened the ‘gag rule’ to a point of even preventing the petitions to reach the floor for motion.  On 3 December 1844, the ‘gag rule’ was revoked.  In the final 4 years of JQA’s tenure in the House, the slave issue moved to the Invasion of Mexico.  James K. Polk, now President of the United States, pushed to annex Texas and invade Mexico.  JQA and other Whigs opposed these actions, contending that the Mexican Cession and the Annexation of Texas would ameliorate Democrat power and slavery in the country.

The other anti-slavery action that JQA was involved in was his engagement in oral arguments in front of SCOTUS in the United States v. Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad40 U.S. 518 (1841).  The background of the case was that a shipment of slaves in Cuba, who were to be transferred to another port in Cuba on a four-day sailing journey, escaped, killed most of the crew, and forced the navigators to sail the ship to Africa.  Low on rations and in need of help, the ship’s navigators anchored off the shores of Long Island, New York.  Once anchored, a couple of the Africans went to shore.  Once ashore, Lieutenant Thomas Gedney of the U.S.S. Washington captured the Africans and salvaged the ship according to Maritime law.  JQA argued that Gedney had legal rights over the ship’s goods, but not the slaves because they were never slaves under US law and the banning of the international slave trade disfavored Gedney’s claim.  SCOTUS ruled 7-1-1 in favor of the Africans.

Alexis DeToqueville in his landmark work Democracy in America, writes “Slavery is understood; but how to imagine the existence of several million citizens eternally bent down by infamy and given over to hereditary miseries?” During his travels, DeToqueville spent a good deal of time talking to JQA, which influenced his view on slavery. Contemporaries of JQA  grew up in this system, in this way of life.  I would assert that JQA should be in the same category as a Ben Franklin; a man torn by his own intellectual honesty and the party politics of his day.  Reminiscent of Franklin in his later years, JQA became a staunch opponent of slavery (one of Franklin’s last acts was sending Congress a petition from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, which demanded the end of the international slave trade and slavery in the United States) and publicly fought against the institution of slavery.  John Quincy Adams died on 23 February 1848 on a sofa in the Speaker of the House chambers.

The sofa that he died on is now located in the Chief Justice’s chambers.  I think it’s a nice tribute to the man who turned down a nomination to SCOTUS in 1811.  Posthumously, John Quincy Adams will now always be linked with each of the three branches of the United States’ government.



Robert A. East, John Quincy Adams: The Critical Years

Paul C. Negal, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life

Alexis DeTocqueville, Democracy in America

 John Quincy Adams, The Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795-1848


The Antislavery Views of President John Quincy Adams Source: The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 18 (Winter, 1997-1998), pg. 102



“John Quincy Adams on the ‘gag rule’”,


“John Quincy Adams: Second Career in Congress”, Encyclopedia Britannica,

“Benjamin Franklin Petitions Congress”, National Archives,


“Chief Justice John Roberts at seventh annual Barbara Olson Lecture”,

Legal Briefs

U.S. v. Amistad- Opinion of the Court


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s