Cynthia

Let’s celebrate president’s Day and John Quincy Adams.

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We’re coming up on President’s Day next week. President’s day was established because we have two presidents who were born in February. Washington, who was considered the father of our country, and then Lincoln, who was very important during the Civil War. Washington was a gentleman farmer who was elected to the Continental Congress. When they began to talk about fighting, he showed up with a uniform on, volunteering to be the commander of the military. Congress asked him to do that. Of course, he became our first president. It’s also about Lincoln, who was a pioneer. He learned to chop down trees when he was eight years old.

 

Cynthia

Lincoln educated himself. Both of these people are worth remembering. But Congress decided we would just celebrate all the presidents on President’s Day. Today I have Rebecca Price Janney, and she is an award-winning author and historian. She’s going to tell us some fun stories about presidents today. Welcome.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

Thank you, Cynthia. It’s a pleasure to be here again.

 

Cynthia

Well, what story do you have for us today?

 

Rebecca Price Janney

I’ve been very interested lately in two of our more obscure presidents, and those would be Calvin Coolidge and John Quincy Adams. I came today prepared to talk about John Quincy Adams, and I’ve been reading about him and his wife in recent months. He lived one of the most fascinating lives of any of our presidents. But he lived in his father’s shadow. Of course, John Adams was our second president, and John Quincy Adams was our 6th. He was the last link to that founding generation. I think that his character was so strong that it’s worth remembering him on this president’s day.

 

Cynthia

Well, what fun stories can you tell us about him?

 

Rebecca Price Janney

John Quincy Adams entered the diplomatic arena as a teenager when John Adams was first representing the new United States in Europe. He took his son John Quincy with him.  John spoke several languages and learned how diplomacy was done in Europe. He had the training to step into the White House because of his broad expanse of knowledge of other countries as well as his own country. Furthermore, he is one of the most moral presidents that we have ever produced. Adams believed very strongly that God had a special plan for America. Most of his career people highly respected him, but they didn’t feel affection for him. Adams wasn’t a glad-handing sort of politician. He didn’t shake hands or kiss babies. John Quincy Adams was always more reserved than that.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

Sometimes people mistook that reserve for snobbery. But he preferred getting to know people one-on-one rather than large crowds. We think of a president who can ‘work a room.’ John Quincy Adams didn’t do that. However, he could work diplomacy and get laws passed. And for that reason, I think he was one of our strongest presidents. He was a man of wisdom. In 1819, he was the secretary of state. People celebrated a treaty he passed giving the United States a border to the Pacific Ocean. John Quincy Adams believed America had an important mission given to it by God.

 

Cynthia

There is a story that I have heard about his wife, Louisa, in the early part of their marriage. Before he realized his father had such a good relationship with Abigail Adams. Women were using makeup at the time, and she said something about marriage is similar to being hung. And I think that it was said in the context of her wearing makeup. However, their relationship got better later as their parents aged, and he read his father’s letters. I think he realized how valuable the wife could be.

 

Cynthia

But I thought that was an interesting little comment. I can understand how John Quincy might dislike her makeup. I don’t know if you ever heard that story.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

I have not heard that story, but I’m aware that their relationship was not always a peaceful one. However, they were very well suited to each other. While they were in the diplomatic corps, they became very close. The conditions that they endured there were just awful. There was a lot of strain on the marriage because she was required to leave some of her children at home. She had hoped they would only be gone for a very short time. It turned out to be years instead of months. In those days in Russia, after October came, travel became impossible. She was stuck there. In the end, they turned out to be a very inspiring sort of couple.

 

Cynthia

Yeah, I understand later in marriage, they did do a lot better.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

Yes.

 

Cynthia

I’ve been reading about the presidents, too, myself, so I find those stories so fascinating.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

John Quincy was involved in the first seriously contentious presidential election in our history. We look back to 2016 and 2020 and how contentious those elections were. In my memory and probably in yours, the 2000 election was also very stressful, but they weren’t unique. In the election of 1828, John Quincy was running for his second term, and he was running against Andrew Jackson. For the first time in presidential politics, it became a duel of personalities. People on both sides became vicious towards the other side and very personal. Things were said that were just slanderous and most often false. For example, for Andrew Jackson, growing up on the frontier was old, and rough. He was a military man. Feisty.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

John Quincy Adams was this urbane, well-taught, well-spoken man, the son of John Adams. They couldn’t have been more different in their personalities. Someone discovered Andrew Jackson was married to a woman who hadn’t been divorced from her first husband. Now, she thought she was. She fully believed that the divorce had been decreed. But life on the frontier did have an efficient mail service. They didn’t have instant communication like we do. And sometimes mail didn’t get through.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

Anyway, through all of that, it turned out that she hadn’t been divorced from her first husband. When the facts came to light, Rachel and Andrew Jackson made it right. They were remarried. But the opposition said Rachel Jackson was a bigamist, and Andrew Jackson was an adulterer.  Jackson’s side accused John Quincy of being a pimp when he was in Russia. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but I think you get the idea of how contentious it was. Of course, John Quincy lost the election, and he and Louisa went home to Massachusetts. They were devastated and looked forward to a quiet life.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

But on the plus side, they were going to live at home again and be at peace with their books, their farm, and their family. Except that duty called once again when the district of Plymouth elected Adams to serve in the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams began that service in 1831. He was and remains the only president who went on after his term to serve in the US House. During that time, it was the build-up, to the Civil War. The sides were drawn in the 1830s. Abolitionism and the antislavery movement were just beginning to gain respectability. Certain congressmen passed what was known as the gag rule.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

From 1836 to 1840 any petitions discussing slavery that were brought before the House of Representatives were gagged by the pro-slavery congressmen. Nobody was allowed to bring a petition or even discuss slavery in the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams spoke out against it and said, this is anti-American. If our constituents want to discuss anything, they should be able to bring it to their representatives. Through his outspokenness, he began to create enemies on both sides of the issue. Naturally, the pro-slavery people wanted him to be quiet. Even some of those who were against slavery thought that it was just opening a can of worms. They thought it would just open this huge wound that was already divisive in our country, and the union might not last. John Quincy Adams begged to differ. He continued to speak out against it and made incredible enemies.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

During that time, his only friends were his wife and Joshua Giddings from Ohio, who was one of his colleagues. Finally, through the work of Adams and Giddings, the gag rule was repealed in 1844. I would say during that time, he was an exile in his own country. Hated pretty much.

 

Cynthia

I think it’s good for us to hear these stories. We think there’s never been a time when we didn’t have free speech. That was a time when people squashed free speech.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

Absolutely, yes. Good point.

 

Cynthia

They started dividing up into parties even after Washington, didn’t they? Wasn’t there friction between some of the early founding fathers early on?

 

Rebecca Price Janney

Parties were not necessarily solidified. By the election of 1828, you had clear party lines. That was another reason why it was a very important election. You had the true foundation of the two-party system. We’ve had that ever since. Of course, President Washington did not like parties.

 

Cynthia

I know Washington didn’t like parties.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

Yes. The story about the gag rule that stood out to me about John Quincy Adams. He was so courageous even though he was making enemies. But he was a man of such strong convictions. During this time, he dared to stand up for what he believed was right, even when very few people agreed with him. I love that. By 1848, the tide had turned, and he was becoming a beloved elder statesman in our country. And at the age of 80, he was the oldest serving member of the House of Representatives.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

And he was clearly slowing down. On the morning of February 21, 1848, he suffered what was probably a stroke when he was in the house chambers. The activity came to an abrupt halt. Five of the members, who were also physicians, began to attend to him. They put him on a sofa, and they took him outside to get some fresh air. It was so cold outside that they brought him right back in. Looking back, that probably didn’t do him any good at all. But they moved him into the speaker’s room, and that’s where he lay for the next 36 hours. The proceedings continued. However, the atmosphere was very hushed. People walked by very slowly and said prayers for him.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

Louisa was with him when he said his last words, “This is the last of earth. I am content.”

Right after he said that, he slipped into a coma. Louisa and Joshua Giddings maintained a vigil with him throughout that day and into the night. The following day was George Washington’s birthday, February 22. People had planned a celebration. They canceled out of respect for the 6th president, John Quincy Adams. Members of the house quietly came and went. The mood was very subdued that day. John Quincy Adams died the next day, the day after Washington’s birthday, February 23. I loved reading about the tolling of bells throughout the land. Not just in the north, where he was a very antislavery, outspoken opponent of slavery, but even in the south.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

And I read that one of the southern newspapers that had savaged him regularly in the press draped its columns in black.

 

Cynthia

Wow.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

In mourning out of respect for him. I take away from that was this man of tremendous conviction, of strong morals, who would not bend to the Times even though they would have made him a popular man. But he believed what he believed, and he stood up for it. In the end. It gained him respect.

 

Cynthia

It did. Can you bring that into today’s society? Because now there are certain things you can’t say.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

It’s very pertinent to today. Those of us who do have strong morals, who do have strong convictions, need to be willing to speak out. We must be willing to accept the caterwauling of those who oppose what we believe. Someone once said that the best way for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. That has to do with speaking as well. And we’re in times that demand that those of us who believe things need to hold to those convictions. I’m preaching to myself.

 

Cynthia

That’s right. We need to keep talking and giving the truth. Because that’s what democracy is all about.

 

Rebecca Price Janney

Yes.

 

Cynthia

Work out problems when you face them. You don’t just bury them under something. Victoria, Queen Victoria, wanted to do that. She thought that the way not to have any conflict in marriage was to never bring up a problem.

 

Cynthia

Her husband, who was Prince Albert, had to convince her that they needed to talk through things.

Rebecca Price Janney

It is. It is very true. In the end, John Quincy Adams was not only vindicated, but he was also loved. People who opposed him ended up loving him and respecting him for what he believed.

 

Cynthia

Okay, well, thank you. We can discover ways to handle today’s world from this story. Thank you for sharing Presidents Day: John Quincy Adams.

 

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