The last New Englander

The last New Englander

Now, what do I mean by calling John Quincy Adams the last New Englander in the White House? It isn’t strictly true geographically, for among his successors are Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire  and Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. But the New England values he embodied were being overwhelmed by others. His entire presidential term was a conflict between a man loyal to his upbringing and a country changing into something unrecognizable.

What historians call the First Party System (Federalists, following Alexander Hamilton versus Democratic Republicans, following Thomas Jefferson) had broken down by 1824, as the Federalists all but disappeared. That didn’t mean that all was love and light, any more than usual. It meant merely that the partners in the new square dance hadn’t yet quite found each other. So the nominating process in 1824 was a bit confused.

Back in 1824, presidents were still nominated by caucus, with multi-party races decided among the top three vote getters. Adams’ public record commended him to New England. The West was divided between the supporters of the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, and ex-War Hawk and long-time Congressional leader Henry Clay of Kentucky. The fourth candidate (not counting John Calhoun of South Carolina, who entered the race, then dropped out) was William Crawford of Georgia, Secretary of the Treasury. Crawford was popular and had support from Madison and Jefferson, but in 1823 he suffered a paralytic stroke, and was still in recovery at the time of the election.

The electoral vote was Jackson 99, Adams 84, William Crawford 41, Henry Clay 37. Nobody had the 131 votes needed to win, so the Twelfth Amendment threw the election to the House of Representatives, where each state had one vote. Clay, having come in fourth, was excluded. Crawford was too ill to be seriously considered. So it was between Jackson and Adams, and when Speaker of the House Clay endorsed Adams, Adams was elected by 13 states to seven for Jackson (and four for Crawford).. There was nothing wrong with Clay endorsing Adams. He disliked Jackson, and his and Adams’ views on tariffs and internal improvements were similar. But when Adams then appointed Clay his Secretary of State, he was accused of having made a corrupt bargain for Clay’s support. (In those days, to be Secretary of State was tantamount to being next in line for a presidential nomination.)

An Adams, in a corrupt bargain? Conscience-ridden John Quincy Adams? The idea is ridiculous on the face of it. Yet Jackson believed it, and his supporters believed it, and never tired of repeating the accusation, and the charge overshadowed Adams’ entire term and probably led to his loss to Jackson in 1828.

Adams was a thoroughly modern man, with activist views that would appeal to later generations, but which were too much too soon for his own time. On the one hand he reduced the national debt by more than two thirds, finding it at $16 million and leaving it at just $5 million. On the other hand, in an era of rapid technological change, he wanted to help the country modernize, and he saw a proactive role for the federal government. He proposed a national university, and federal support for the arts and sciences, and an extensive program of “internal improvements” to build roads and canals, and improve harbors, all behind a wall of tariffs designed to protect nascent American industry from foreign competition. This was Henry Clay’s American System, and within a few years would become Whig orthodoxy.

But other than internal improvements, his policies might as well have been designed to alienate the west. Neither the national bank, nor the high tariff, nor restrictions on the sale of public land appealed to the country beyond the Appalachians. And he got no political credit for such policies of his that were popular in the West, such as the extension of the National Road into Ohio, and various canal projects in the west and south. Jackson’s supporters saw to that.

The long and the short of it is, it didn’t matter what his vision was. Jacksonians regarded him as having attained office illegitimately, and opposed anything he proposed to do. Jackson, of course, had no doubts, and fought with no quarter, as always. Adams, as always, refused to play politics according to the rules, allowing his conscience to hobble him in seeking political support. The result was predictable. Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, in the process creating the modern Democratic Party (which led, in short order, to creation of the countervailing Whig Party opposing “King Andrew.”)

Jackson, armored as always in his invincible certainties, refused to pay the traditional courtesy call on the outgoing president whom he still regarded as having served illegitimately. Adams, in turn, did not attend Jackson’s inauguration, and it is hard to blame him.

Stubborn, intelligent, upright John Quincy Adams. Like his father, his own man, driven by his conscience, isolated by the malice, suspicion and slander of his enemies, and his own inability to generate warm emotional support among his supporters or keep them in line by using the party apparatus. Like his father, a one-term president, repudiated by his contemporaries and vindicated by historians. But when old John Adams left the White House in 1801, he was finished with politics and statecraft, and glad of it. His son, leaving office in 1829, probably thought that he too had come to the end of his distinguished public career, not suspecting that he was less than two years away from the opening of a very satisfying third act.

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