The Death of John Quincy Adams

Daguerrotype of John Quincy Adams.

One of the most outspoken Representatives in the House of Representatives, John Quincy Adams, had opposed the declaration of war on Mexico and fought President James Polk’s policies for the duration of his presidency.

During the course of the Mexican-American War, Adams wrote to Albert Gallatin: “The most important conclusion from all this, in my mind, is the failure of that provision in the Constitution of the United States, that the power of declaring War, is given exclusively to Congress.” John Quincy Adams to Albert Gallatin, Dec. 26, 1847, quoted in Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York, 1956), 500.

In February of 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo went to Congress for ratification, the Speaker of the House called for those opposed to the Treaty, at which point Adams launched out of his seat and shouted “No!” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 812.

Adams’ “face reddened, and suddenly he fell into the arms of a colleague,” prompting a member to call out “Mr. Adams is dying!” Id. Before lapsing into unconsciousness, he said, “This is the end of earth, but I am composed.” See id. He died on February 23, 1848.

Adams, the former president and the Representative from Massachusetts, “had stood in favor of public education, freedom of expression, government support for science, industry, and transportation, nonpartisanship in federal employment, justice to the Native Americans, legal rights for women and blacks, cordial relations with the Latin American Republics, and undoubtedly, a firm foreign policy that protected the national interest.” Id.

During the time of the Missouri Controversy, Adams had a prophecy that slavery would provoke a civil war, after which: “The Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation. This object is vast in its compass, awful in its prospects, sublime and beautiful in its issue. A life devoted to it would be nobly spent or sacrificed.” John Quincy Adams, diary entry for Feb. 24, 1820, in his Memoirs, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia, 1874-79), IV, 531.

So long a fixture of American politics, Adams had left not only an extraordinary legacy but a hope that even with an extraordinary conflict, the Union could be preserved. A young Whig colleague in the House, Abraham Lincoln, would be the one who ultimately kept the Union together just a matter of years later.

For many Americans, Andrew Jackson has come to define the decades of the early 1800s, with his massive influence on the Democratic Party. However, Adams, through his time as president and member of Congress, showed that he was on the right side of history. While the Democrats were holding on to slavery and other antiquated policies, Adams was showing the country how it should move forward. Finally, after the Civil War, America would come to the place that Adams predicted and hoped.


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