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Relics of the Past




Reading and writing about Greene, Washington and other important folks of the founding era, also made me think of another famous person who bookended his life with the Revolution on one end and the Civil War on the other. He doesn't get much credit for anything outside of scholarly circles in my view, and that is why I decided to write another book, this time on John Quincy Adams and his tangled relationship with slavery throughout his life. To most, Adams was a failed one-term president and he just disappears into the mists of time. But, Adams was far more than that. He was also considered in his own time as someone who had one foot in the eighteenth century and one foot in the nineteenth as well. As it turns out, as a Secretary of State he was one of the most accomplished in the history of our country. As the only ex-president ever to serve in Congress, his battles with Southern slaveholders over slavery and the right to petition were legendary. Throughout his professional life, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the two most important documents ever to be written. During the trial of the Amistad captives at the Supreme Court, he actually quoted from the Declaration during his oral argument. As a politician, he certainly was lacking in the early part of his career, especially as president. Politics were changing dramatically in the 1820s and 1830s, but Adams stayed true to his principles. He wanted to be man of the whole nation, not just his constituents. Shameless self-promotion was not his style. He stood firmly for republican virtue, a disinterested public servant which seemed like a quaint relic from the past by the time he reached the end of his term. But, he never wavered. He did, however pay a price for his principles.

Although never firmly in the abolitionist camp, he firmly believed in freedom for all. The question was how to get there. His incessant presentation of antislavery petitions in Congress prompted a gag rule in 1836, and it wasn't until 1844 that it was eliminated. In the intervening years, Adams fought hard to preserve the First Amendment right of petition and he eventually won. He was brought up for censure twice, and surgically disposed of his opponents in Congress both times. One of the most well-read and scholarly of any public servant, no one other than George H. W. Bush had better credentials for the office. Although flawed in many ways, Adams was a mover and a shaker of the first half of the nineteenth century, and perhaps its most famous until Abraham Lincoln. As we contemplate the leaders of today, perhaps it would be refreshing to think back about those who moved mountains, who stood firmly on principle, never wavered and thought first about what was best for the country. Unfortunately for us, the founding generation are gone. Who will take their places?

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