John Quincy Adams as a Freshman Congressman

(January 1830 to December 1834: Washington, D.C., and Quincy)

On 1 November 1830 John Quincy Adams (JQA) went from being a retired, former president to an elected member of the United States House of Representatives. He was chosen to represent the Plymouth district of Massachusetts for the 22d Congress and took his seat in the House in December 1831. Thus, Adams is the only former president to subsequently serve in the House of Representatives, a position he held until his death in 1848. Both his wife Louisa Catherine Adams (LCA) and youngest son Charles Francis Adams (CFA) disapproved of his return to public office, but JQA relished his new position. His diary records in detail his fascination with the mechanics of congressional politics and the inner workings of the House.

John Quincy Adams spent the first part of 1830 in fitful retirement, believing his tenure as a public servant had ended yet unsure how to spend his days. On 11 July—his birthday—he lamented: “My grand climacteric is turned, and I enter upon the sixty-fourth year of my age. In turning back to the notice of the last year’s anniversary, the thought presses upon me of how little has since been effected of that preparation which even then formed an essential part of my duty.” JQA decided to write a biography of his father, John Adams (JA), a task which, though never completed, led him to organize his father’s papers. He filled his time reading Cicero and the Bible and researching and writing articles on the Russo-Turkish war and on Great Britain for the American Annual Register.

On 17 September 1830 JQA learned that the incumbent candidate for the congressional district in which his hometown of Quincy was located would not seek reelection. Congressman Edward Everett approached Adams to ask if he would stand for office. JQA pondered in his diary how he should respond: “To say that I would accept, would be so near to asking for a vote, that I did not feel disposed to go so far— I wished the People to act spontaneously; at their own discretion.” When he learned of his election, JQA noted his delight with the new position. “This call upon me by the People of the District in which I reside, to represent them in Congress, has been spontaneous . . . I have received nearly three votes in four, throughout the district. My Election as President of the United States was not half so gratifying to my inmost Soul— No election or appointment conferred upon me ever gave me so much pleasure.”

The first session of the 22d Congress convened on 5 December 1831. Adams attended nearly every subsequent session until his death in 1848, missing only sessions in the winter of 1846–1847 when he was ill. His diary during these years served as the perfect outlet for his detailed reminiscences of each day’s debate, noting the petitions and resolutions submitted, the votes taken, and their tallies. He particularly commented on the various speakers and the merits of their oratorical skills.

View of the Capitol of the United States, by Joseph Andrews, 1834View of the Capitol of the United States, by Joseph Andrews, 1834

In 1831 Adams became chairman of the House Committee on Manufactures, a position he held until 1841, and his diary recounts the minutiae of these committee meetings. When President Andrew Jackson called for a reduction of the tariff in his annual address to Congress, JQA, in his position as chairman, worked with Secretary of the Treasury Louis McLane to compose a compromise bill calling for an end to the national debt, tariff concessions for southern states, and a system of internal improvements. The compromise tariff bill that emerged from JQA’s committee became law on 14 July 1832. South Carolina subsequently declared the 1832 tariff unconstitutional and refused to collect the funds. President Jackson and his congressional allies responded with the Force Bill (which JQA supported), signed into law on 1 March 1833, which authorized the president to use whatever means he deemed necessary to enforce federal tariffs.

Another national issue with which JQA was closely involved was the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. JQA supported the bank and its president, Nicholas Biddle, believing that it provided a necessary source of funding for internal improvements and American businesses. In 1832 the bank applied for a new charter, and from 22 March to 17 April JQA traveled to Philadelphia as part of a House committee to inquire into its affairs. When the committee issued a majority report against the Bank, JQA produced a minority report on 14 May in its support. Congress eventually rechartered the bank in July 1833, but President Jackson vetoed the measure. That September he tapped Roger Brooke Taney to be the new Secretary of the Treasury and oversee the removal of the bank’s deposits to state banks. In April 1834, JQA tried to present a resolution opposing Taney’s actions, but Speaker of the House Andrew Stevenson prevented him from taking the floor. JQA subsequently published his intended speech defending both Biddle and the Bank.

During these years John Quincy Adams became increasingly interested in the burgeoning Anti-Masonic political party. He believed that Freemasonry was an antisocial and exclusive order whose secret oaths were anathema to contemporary American society. In May 1831 he attended the Massachusetts Anti-Masonic convention and was briefly considered as their candidate for the 1832 presidential election. He was the party’s choice for gubernatorial candidate in 1833. On 12 September he accepted the nomination, “which casts me again upon the stormy ocean of political electioneering when I hoped and believed I was snug in the Port.” JQA finished second behind his House colleague John Davis of Worcester, the National Republican candidate

His return to national political service meant JQA once again spent most winters in Washington, D.C., and summers in Quincy. During these years Adams began traveling by train, considerably shortening the time required for the trip compared to previous routes by boat and stage. These trips up and down the eastern seaboard were not, however, without peril. On 8 November 1833, while a passenger on the Camden and Amboy Railway, JQA witnessed the Hightstown train wreck—the earliest recorded railroad accident involving the death of a passenger. While no one in JQA’s car was hurt, one passenger in the second car died and several others were severely injured. The scene brought forth “a trial of feeling, to which I had never before been called,” recorded Adams.

The first years of the 1830s brought significant changes for the Adams family. JQA and LCA welcomed three more grandchildren, bringing the total to four. Georgeanna Frances Adams, the second daughter of John Adams (JA2) and Mary Catherine Hellen Adams (MCHA), was born on 10 September 1830; and Louisa Catherine Adams (LCA2) and John Quincy Adams (JQA2), the children of CFA and Abigail Brown Brooks Adams (ABA), were born on 13 August 1831 and 23 September 1833, respectively. JQA took a particular interest in his eldest grandchild, Mary Louisa Adams (born 1828), also the daughter of JA2 and MCHA. He tried to teach her the alphabet. “After repetitions almost numberless of pointing out the same Letter or the same Syllable to a child, it forgets them,” the frustrated grandfather confessed to his diary, noting, “it seems as if the more pains you take the more the memory of the child recalcitrates against the admission of the idea into the mind.” Yet when JQA felt “exasperated at my Scholar’s dulness of apprehension,” he reminded himself that he had been trying to learn the Hebrew alphabet for “some forty odd years.”

 Silhouette of John Adams 2d (1803–1834) Silhouette of John Adams 2d (1803–1834)

JQA also mourned the death of his brother Thomas Boylston Adams (TBA), who died on 13 March 1832, and subsequently took a special interest in the care and support of TBA’s widow, Ann Harrod Adams (AHA), and their six children. In the fall of 1834 JQA received an even deeper blow. He learned that his son JA2 was in declining health. The young man was in Washington, D.C., overseeing his father’s investment in the Columbian Mills. He had suffered from a variety of health problems for several years, likely stemming from alcoholism. JQA rushed from Quincy to Washington, arriving on 22 October. The following day JQA recounted his son’s deathbed in his diary: “At half past four I rose . . . and going into the bed-chamber where my Son lay, found” his uncle Nathaniel Frye “closing his eyes— He had just ceased to breathe. . . . Of the day from that time I have no distinct recollection— In a state between stupefaction, and a nervous irritation aggravated by the exertion to suppress it, the effort of my Soul was a deep, and earnest and unceasing supplication to God, for the Spirit and the will to fulfil all the duties devolving upon me, by this event.” After JA2’s death MCHA and her two daughters lived with LCA and JQA, who became the children’s legal guardian. Thus, JQA’s financial difficulties multiplied during this period, from both the failing Columbian Mills and his pecuniary duties toward TBA’s and JA2’s families.

Since graduating in 1787, JQA had maintained close ties with Harvard, and in 1830 he was elected to its Board of Overseers. He regularly attended meetings of the board when he was in Massachusetts. JQA refused, however, to take part in the conferring of an honorary degree on Andrew Jackson in 1833 during the president’s visit to Massachusetts, noting in his diary: “as myself an affectionate child of our alma Mater, I would not be present to witness her disgrace in conferring her highest Literary honours upon a barbarian, who could not write a sentence of Grammar, and hardly could spell his own name.”

Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), engraving by J. B. Longacre.Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), engraving by J. B. Longacre.

In his leisure time, JQA continued his lifelong regimen of walking and swimming and spent hours in his garden. On 27 November 1830 he marveled that his land in Quincy was “now pregnant with at least ten thousand seeds of fruit and forest, mostly planted by my hand, and in a century from this day may bear timber for the floating Castles of my Country, and fruit for the subsistence health and comfort of my descendants.” From February to April 1831, still at loose ends before taking his congressional seat, JQA composed “Dermot MacMorrogh, or The Conquest of Ireland” while taking walks around Washington, D.C. The 2,000-line poem, first published in late 1832, met with lukewarm reception from reviewers.

JQA’s diary also records two vacations he took during these years: a ten-day trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire in the late summer of 1833, and a short excursion to Harper’s Ferry in May 1834, traveling by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal with several other congressmen. JQA noted that he had “been much urged by my family to make” such trips “for change of air and Scene, to improve my health.” His age was catching up with him; after spending a day making visits in Boston and Quincy in June 1833, the 66-year-old “came home excessively wearied . . . Old age is stiffening my limbs, and fatigue is attended with lassitude, of which in youth I scarcely knew any thing but the name.” And yet his dedication to the nation continued. After being elected to his third term in Congress in November 1834, JQA began 1835 knowing his life in service would continue at least through the sitting of the 24th Congress.

Selected Bibliography for Further Reading

John Quincy Adams, Dermot MacMorrogh, or the Conquest of Ireland; an Historical Tale of the Twelfth Century. In Four Cantos, Boston, 1832.

Bank of the United States: May 14, 1832: Report of Mr. Adams, Washington, D.C., 1832.

Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union, New York, 1956.

Charles N. Edel, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic, Cambridge, 2016.

Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848, Oxford, 2007.

David Waldstreicher, A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Malden, Massachusetts, 2013.

Speech [Suppressed by the Previous Question] of Mr. John Quincy Adams, of Massachusetts, on the Removal of the Public Deposites, and its Reasons, Washington, D.C., 1834