Editor’s Note: This is the last of four biweekly guest posts by Sara Georgini. — Ben Alpers
Rain hammered his manuscript. Ink pooled over the words that a weary John Quincy Adams, 76, had polished at four o’clock in the morning for his Cincinnati crowd. In a lifetime of travel, this had been a particularly tough trip for the ex-president to make. Leaving Boston in late fall, Adams looped west through Albany and Buffalo. Snow crusted the rails near Utica. Hail kicked at his train window. Icy wheels skidded along the patches of newish track; he ticked off miles in his omnipresent diary as they jerked and skated past. Pausing at a Cleveland barbershop, the elderly Adams was mobbed, in mid-shave, by a corps of western well-wishers.
In Dayton and Columbus, more throngs came out to greet the Massachusetts Congressman and celebrated defender of the Amistad captives. It was a worthy but tiring tour, Adams thought. Yesterday–and yesterday was 8 November 1843–he gave another welcome address on the fly. The “Old Man Eloquent” felt exhausted, off his game. A raw winter’s cough had scuffed up his voice. But to Adams’s surprise, his “confused, incoherent and muddy” remarks only stirred “new shouts of welcome.” The next day, he climbed into a barouche and paraded, gingerly, through Cincinnati streets swollen by gusty “torrents.” His horses staggered and strained to ascend a nearby hilltop, site of the dedication ceremony for the new Cincinnati Observatory. From the center dais, Adams searched for eye contact and met a wall of umbrellas shielding his view. Now, his precious text bubbled and slid off the page, “so defaced by the rain, that it was scarcely legible.” Adams stood resolute, as the western downpour battered his last public address.
In a political career that spanned two continents and 51 diary volumes, President John Quincy Adams never quit easily, or gracefully. And he held back little from history. His diary opens new doors to the early American mind, and glories in its growing pains. Adams’s Cincinnati tale fires up some familiar motors of nineteenth-century thought: the communication/transportation revolution that broadened intellectual exchange; the political desire to suture western interests to the American union; and the rise of national scientific and cultural institutions. But there is a deeper story of antebellum selfhood and statehood here, and it’s (mostly) saved for us to read in the realms of his capacious diary.
John Quincy Adams, a less-loved leader of the fractious American republic, went west during a late and dramatic surge in his popularity. Crossing into Ohio, Adams was taken aback to learn that people liked him enough to attend his talks—and even to cheer. He inspired odes. He led city processions, and kissed at least one line of lady admirers. Baptist, Presbyterian, and Unitarian congregations turned out in small towns to worship with him. In the newspaper scrapbook that the family compiled of his western sojourn, John Quincy Adams’s crowds hailed the “child of the Revolution” as their patriarch. As one panegyric ran: “We come the FRIEND OF MAN to greet / The Hero who hath stood / Undaunted—scorning to retreat— / When slavery threatened blood.” A Christian soldier of Congress who tipped his words with flattery for the west’s “unparalleled growth and prosperity,” Adams savored his welcome/farewell tour. Scion of what was arguably the most famous family in America, the founder’s son finally seemed at ease in his birthright. When the rain blotted out his hard-won words, Adams winged it, and to wild applause.
Diary entries and press clips tell us something of Adams’s state of mind and self, but his encounters on the road likely say more about the moral landscapes that he saw. Given the 1841 Amistad decision’s notoriety, and his continued assault on overturning the gag rule in Congress, Adams became a familiar face to a nationful of strangers. In New York state, and again in Ohio, he attracted special notice for his antislavery stance. Early one morning at Columbus, David Jenkins visited Adams to “return the thanks of the coloured people of this city for my exertions in defence of their rights.” Jenkins had traded ideas and letters with the former president in spring 1841. Jenkins’s eloquence, then much in the same vein, clearly registered with the famed New Englander. “I hope and trust that the day is not far remote when Justice will be universally considered as the common right of all,” Adams replied to Jenkins, “unconfined by an unjust and oppressive distinction of colour or complexion…I am with respect, your friend & fellow Citizen.”
Tracking north, south, east, and west, the family archive captures flashes of American thought in motion. Often, when teaching history straight from the archive, I use John Quincy and the Adamses as cultural weather vanes, to decode the turns of American life from seventeenth century to present: feisty, expressive, glad to spin in new directions. Famous or infamous, who are your cultural weather vanes, and what makes you chase their “turn”? For, even in an archive as generous as these family papers, we must miss out on some moments (dinner table chatter, a few state secrets), as the best manuscript harvest cannot gather all. That talk at dawn, between John Quincy Adams and David Jenkins, is one more exchange to wonder at. It’s a few lines in a president’s diary, yes. But it points to the great growth of Adams’s mind, stretching from the plight of African captives to perceive the unfolding experience of African-American life in the west. Questions of race and justice threaded through every part of Adams’s latter life, and sealed his civic legacy. Adams’s meeting in Columbus stands as proof of the early American conscience hard at work—but not his words there, because we cannot have those words. Only David Jenkins can.