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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life In Congress by Joseph Wheelan

I have found a new hero from history

I've known about John Quincy Adams's post-Presidential career ever since I read Profiles In Courage by JFK many, many years ago. However, what I most remember about that description of him was that that he argued against slavery in the Congress when he could have just coasted along in a comfortable political semi-retirement.

Joseph Wheelan does us all a favor by elaborating on John Quincy Adams's amazing career in this well-written, informative book. Wheelan briefly covers John Quincy Adams's early career in the first 65 pages. As a teenager, John Quincy Adams was an assistant to his father while he was an ambassador to Europe during the Revolutionary War. He served as ambassador to several European countries after the War and also as Secretary of State (the Monroe Doctrine is as much his as Monroe's) and finally President.

Oddly enough, that amazing career was only a prelude to his final post - Representative from Massachusetts in the U.S. Congress. He reports to Congress at age 64. Adams was vaguely opposed to slavery but was very much in favor of the rights to free speech and petition. The Congress was avoiding any discussion of the topic of slavery, including ignoring all petitions to end slavery in Washington, D.C. (Congress administers the District of Columbia so it could have outlawed slavery within it by simple passage of a law).

Adams was indignant that a basic part of the Bill of Rights was being ignored so he began to read the petitions on the floor. He was told to stand down but he kept on reading. He was shouted it, threatened and shunned but he kept on reading. He began to investigate slavery, discovered he loathed it and was motivated to read even more petitions. In fact, the conservative "Adams had become the de facto chief spokesman for many of those denied a voice in government - abolitionists silenced by the Gag Rule, slaves, Indians and finally, women." (p. 150)

Finally, after years of these struggles, Adams was censured by Congress for treason for presenting "a petition espousing the dissolution of the United States because of the 'peculiar institution' that the South so desperately wished not to discuss." (p. 196) Adams was previously known to be a poor public speaker but in this cause he found his voice. He was put on trial in the Congress and he defended himself for nine days. He spoke with soaring words, withering sarcasm, humor and anger. Ralph Waldo Emerson described him as a "bruiser" (p. 197) when discussing his political speech-making skills and he was not wrong. The charges were dropped but Adams's speeches destroyed the political careers of some of those who brought the charges of treason against him. He found his voice and he used it to full effect everywhere he went.

A daguerreotype of Adams (1767-1848) taken  in 1843
The unpopular president who could not seem to connect with the common man on any level became a sort of folk hero - the man who stands against the crowd and fights the fight that he knows is right despite the odds - and wins!

Adams's role in the establishment of the Smithsonian is also well-covered in the text as well as plenty of details about his personal life.

Adams was sitting at his seat in the House when he suddenly collapsed. Two days later he died in the Capitol building. His funeral procession was the most elaborate until Lincoln's 17 years later. with his death, most felt that their last living connection with the Revolutionary War era had ended - the youngest of that generation had passed.

Well-written, informative and inspiring - this book is highly recommended.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Mr. Adams's Last Crusade.

Reviewed on January 16, 2010.

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