The Gagged President – John Quincy Adams

Awhile back, I took a break from my goal of reading all the presidents’ biographies because I was getting burned out with white men politics and I knew you guys were yearning for more variety. It’s been a few months since my last presidential post and with this season of Independence upon us, I decided to return to my mission.  The next president on my list was John Quincy Adams and I picked up his biography by Harlow Giles Unger. I was excited to read about the son of John Adams because I enjoyed learning about the elder statesmen and his family through David McCullough. John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, in Braintree, Massachusetts. He accompanied his father to France in 1778 and from there went to Russia as a secretary assistant to the ambassador – he was only 14 years old. John Quincy was a precocious student steeped in classical education and was more worldly in his 20s than elder ambassadors at the time.

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Excelling at diplomacy and statesmanship, his career accomplishments are staggering: American minister to six European countries; negotiated the end of the War of 1812; freed African prisoners on the slave ship Amistad; served 16 years in the House of Representatives; restored free speech in Congress; led the anti-slavery movement, and was the 6th president of the United States. John Quincy Adams’s actual time in the presidential office was not very successful because he appeared too aristocratic; his past-times included reading Tacitus and writing poetry – the opposite interests of Andrew Jackson who usurped him after one term. I want to focus however on Adam’s post-presidency accomplishments – accomplishments which changed the course of American history.

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John Quincy’s later life is a lesson on how to respond to hardship. After losing reelection in 1828 and burying his son who committed suicide, he felt dejected and considered leaving political life forever. A flame of hope flickered for him when his local district in Massachusetts approached him to run for the House of Representatives. He became the first ex-president to sit in Congress and became a man on fire in the new role. For the past 30 years, slavery was a topic seldom discussed in government. It was such a hot-button issue that politicians didn’t even speak a word of it on the floor of the House or Senate. This changed however with the addition of the slave state Missouri and the ever-expanding Western boundary of the nation. New states were trying to come into the Union – with each addition, the balance of power between the south and north shifted.

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John Quincy had always been an abolitionist, but it wasn’t until his time as a Representative that he pushed this mission into politics. He stood on the floor and spoke the unmentionable words – Southern politicians denounced him and his “traitorous” rhetoric. He wrote in his journal during this time…

“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?”

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He would bring up the issue of slavery so often that the Southern politicians created a “gag rule” which would table any mention of the subject. The “gag rule” prevented any debate or discussion and whenever John Quincy tried to talk he was screamed at by Southerners until he was forced to sit down. After countless petitions and arguments, John Quincy was able to argue for his case – at one point he held the floor for two straight weeks. All of his excessive arguing against censorship and slavery led to him being a national hero and beloved member of Congress for those in the north. His driving force would lead to laws that reversed the “gag rule.” His later debates on abolition would influence a young representative from Illinois – Abraham Lincoln. John Quincy was the political matchstick which ignited the fuse leading to the Civil War. The sixth president died in 1848 two days after collapsing in the House of Representatives. His life was filled with education, service, failure, and accomplishments. More than anything, John Quincy Adams, bounced back after defeat and led the country as one of the most preeminent moral leaders. Failure is never the end – it is just the catalyst for a better beginning.

The Last Founding Father vs. Donald Trump

It seems to be another hectic week for our President – Donald Trump. A government shut down never looks good for the leader of the government. I heard this news from my Dad who was quite upset – not at Donald Trump – but at Democrats. See, my Dad is not an anomaly. Whenever our views are attacked, our elephant instincts kick in. We “react” first and “rationalize” later – usually, that rationalization is far from sensical. My Dad and I like to bump chests politically, but in the end, we always just sit on the couch and watch sports. However, our discussions about politics are not zero-sum gains. Trying to understand another person’s views takes time, patience, and empathy. My Dad and I have learned a lot from each other and our conversations keep getting more civil – our tandem elephants are becoming more docile.

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As an extension of last week’s post about James Madison, I am going to further question what it means to be “presidential.” Time will tell how Trump does over the next years but how can we truly judge his performance? We need to know how other Presidents have done in the past so we can have rationale conversations into the future. To achieve this goal, I am reading every US President’s biography and writing about them for your enjoyment – here is a list of all the previous posts: George Washington, John Adams (coming next week), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover. This week I read about America’s fifth president – James Monroe – The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger.

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James Monroe was the last founding father to be President and was actually born shortly before the American Revolution in 1758. Monroe was raised in Virginia, but unlike Washington, Jefferson, or Madison he did not own substantial plantation property. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was actually with Washington in the Battle of Trenton when the famous crossing of the Deleware River occurred; he was wounded in the battle but eventually recovered. The military at the time had a glut of officers, so Monroe was never able to receive a position of command. Upon National Independence, he took up law to begin supporting himself and his wife, Elizabeth Monroe.

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Throughout this time, Monroe was mentored by a fellow Virginian – Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson pushed Monroe to join him in politics and Monroe initially split his time between law and the Virginian House of Delegates. He would go on to serve in the Congress of the Confederation and help ratify Virginia’s Constitution. His political career took off when he became Ambassador to France during the French Revolution, Ambassador to Britain and Minister to Spain – negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, land treaties, and peace negotiations while overseas. He would go on to be the Governor of Virgina for four terms, US Secretary of State, and US Secretary of War. While Secretary of War, he virtually ran the government because Madison was inept during that period of conflict. He would go on to be the most popular President since George Washington.

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Monroe committed over 40 years of his life to public service and served in more public posts than any American in history. While President, he pushed for Western expansion and acquired more land from the Spanish in modern-day Florida. He protected American interests at a time in history when European powers could quickly take advantage of the young country. The Monroe Doctrine was a masterpiece of diplomacy for the Western Hemisphere and allowed independence for myriad nations in Central and South America. Monroe was described by friends and foes alike as having plain and gentle manners. He was a bold and robust leader in times of war and peace and fought for the Bill of Rights and against secrecy rules in Congress – opening the halls of Government for the first time in history.

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Monroe established the first state-supported public schools and pushed the development of public roads and canals to further commerce. Monroe was secretly an excellent President who accomplished more than I had ever thought. He transformed a fragile nation into a glorious empire – by making the United States impregnable to attack and rich in natural resources. He allowed Americans to expand westward and gain a democratic vote through the ownership of land; his Presidency saw the largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of history. Monroe was so popular that there were no political parties during his presidency; he was able to bring people together and put his country first. James Monroe indeed achieved “presidential” status during his Presidency – unfortunately, Trump is nowhere close to his level at this point…but I’m hoping he will pull through.