I have written before that if John Quincy Adams’ presidency had been as notable as his career in public service before and after he was president, he likely would have been on Mt. Rushmore. He was, arguably, America’s greatest secretary of state — in that position he, not President Monroe, wrote the Monroe Doctrine that gave America primacy in the Western Hemisphere, and he engineered several treaties that brilliantly, and peacefully, gained America increased territory and prestige.
He was also among the greatest politicians ever to serve in Congress, which he did after he was president, entering the House of Representatives in 1831. There “Old Man Eloquent,” as he was called, led the opposition to slavery, working tirelessly, and ultimately successfully, to end the so-called “gag rule,” which had allowed Congress to “table” — to put aside without debate or vote — the many petitions Congress was receiving demanding slavery’s end.
And in 1848 he passionately opposed then-President James Polk’s war with Mexico, which Polk had provoked in order to gain the Mexican-held California and New Mexico territories, thereby completing America’s continental expansion to the Pacific. Adams supported America becoming a continental nation, but he also knew that these territories, forcibly taken, would exacerbate the conflict over slavery as southerners and northerners argued over whether the new states that would eventually be created from these territories would be free or slave states. Adams also objected to Polk’s outmaneuvering Congress to start the war, clearly violating Congress’s exclusive constitutional war-declaration authority.
Which is why Adams yelled “No!” when, in February of 1848, the Speaker of the House called for a vote to honor the U.S. officers who had waged the war. Rising to explain his vote, Adams suddenly collapsed from a stroke. He died two days later, on February 23, 1848.
The upshot of which was that “No” was the last word Adams uttered in public even though, as a proud Whig, he was a positive progressive. Like all Whigs he called for an activist government that supported “internal improvements,” meaning funding for new roads, bridges and canals to better move goods and services across the country. He also advocated government support for science, education and industry, as well as legal recognition of rights for Indians, blacks and women.
Interestingly, Adams’ views on all of these issues were shared by another proud Whig who, in 1848, was also a member of the House of Representatives. Abraham Lincoln was his name and unlike Adams his congressional career was undistinguished — he served just one term. Then again, unlike Adams, his presidency from 1861 to 1865 was the most notable in our history. So notable, in fact, that it made him a shoo-in for Mt. Rushmore.