Following his father’s advice, John Quincy Adams started a diary at age 12 and kept it up for the rest of his life. The result is a treasure trove of historical insight and wit and a fascinating window into 70 years worth of Adams’s private thoughts.
To commemorate the notorious JQA’s 250th anniversary this July, Library of America just put out a beautiful brand new two-volume selected edition of his diary, which I immediately ordered. It arrived last night and immediately sucked me in. I found myself tearing through the pages of his life from the age of 12 through 22, astounded at how precocious and utterly relatable he was.
Then I got to one particular passage that struck me as incredibly pithy and prophetic. It was from 1789, when John Quincy was a 22-year-old fresh-out-of-Harvard lawyer-in-training with zero political ambitions. His father had just been sworn in as the United States’ first vice-president a few months earlier, and John Quincy was in New York City watching a debate in the House of Representatives.
He was not impressed:
September 7, 1789
I attended this morning in the gallery of the house of representatives; to hear the debates. They were upon the judiciary bill. Mr. Gerry, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Burke, Mr. Stone, Mr. Lee, Mr. Maddison, & Mr. Benson all took a part in this debate. But I confess, I did not perceive any extraordinary powers of oratory display’d by any of these gentlemen. The subject had been already so much discussed, that little could be said of further importance. The eloquence had all been exhausted, but the spirit of contention still remained.
And that last sentence… “The eloquence had all been exhausted, but the spirit of contention still remained.” (Such lovely prose flowing from his young, smug pen!) As contentious as people think Congress is now, it’s both comforting and depressing to see complaints about their useless bickering going back to the very beginning. Seriously, not six months into this new American experiment and JQA was over it.
What struck me most about this diary entry is how prophetic Adams’s words were when it came to his own life. In the next entry he observed Congress’s “difficulty of adjusting the opposing sentiments which direct the conduct of men living in different climates and used to very different modes of living.” That different climate was the South, and that mode of living was owning slaves. John Quincy was bemoaning two problems in Congress – a lack of eloquence and (more importantly) the institution of slavery – two issues he had no idea he would someday be leading the charge against.
After a long career as a diplomat in Europe, a senator, the secretary of state, and the president, John Quincy Adams refused to retire quietly. Or at all. At 64, he joined the House of Representatives where Virginia representative Henry A. Wise called him “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”
One of JQA’s greatest victories in the House was against the freedom of speech-violating “gag rule” – a rule that effectively prevented any discussion of slavery in the House chamber. Nevertheless, he persisted.
The ornery Adams once purposely brought up a petition to dissolve the Union just so he could get himself formally accused of treason by his southern enemies. They fell into his trap, not realizing that such an accusation would give him the right to speak in his own defense – for as long as he wanted. He spoke for two weeks, and instead of defending himself, he delivered an unrelenting indictment of southerners and their desecration of American values. The resolution censuring Adams was overturned, and (after two more years of fighting) so was the gag rule.
My favorite thing about this diary entry is that the unimpressed kid who said Congress’s “eloquence had all been exhausted” went on to become such an impressive speaker in Congress that he earned the nickname “Old Man Eloquent.”
Even though Old Man Eloquent (or “The Madman from Massachusetts,” as his detractors called him) didn’t live long enough to see the end of slavery in the United States, his spirit of dissension inspired others to pick up the fight.
One man who picked up the fight – perhaps the most eloquent and anti-slavery of them all – was there in the House chamber with Adams on his final day. A freshman representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was in the room when the 80-year-old Adams suffered a fatal stroke at his desk on February 21, 1848. Lincoln also served on the committee to plan Adams’s funeral and was one of his honorary pall bearers.
Though the spirit of contention Adams wrote about remains, his example gives me hope that eloquence may not be completely exhausted.
The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: 1779 – 1848 (Library of America)
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel