»OF THE PUBLIC HISTORY of Mr. Monroe's administration,« John Quincy Adams wrote immodestly to his wife in 1822, »all that will be worth telling to posterity hitherto has been transacted through the Department of State.« James Monroe had been reelected in 1820 without significant opposition, receiving every electoral vote but one. Former Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire, his colleague from the old Embargo days, cast his vote for Adams, much to the latter's embarrassment.
Monroe and his two predecessors, Jefferson and Madison, had each served as Secretary of State at some point prior to becoming President, and all were aware that Adams might stand to benefit from this tradition. Notwithstanding the confusion over the Transcontinental Treaty, he had made no major errors, had not been involved in any political scandal, had supervised the improvement of relations with Great Britain, had acquired Florida, extended the American boundary to the Pacific, developed a moderately progressive policy toward Latin America, and had gained the confidence of the President more than any other member of the cabinet.
Yet when Adams had been appointed in 1817, his mixed political background, his regional affiliation, and his own personality were assumed to be serious handicaps, if not disqualifications, in any presidential effort. »It is thought here that J. Q. Adams will not be a successful candidate,« wrote Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, who admired him. »It seems that the great objection to him is, that he is retiring and unobtrusive, studious, cool, and reflecting; that he does nothing to excite attention, or to gain friendships.« Stratford Canning, who as Minister from Great Britain crossed verbal swords with Adams more than once, remembered him as »more commanding than attractive in personal appearance, much above par in general ability, but having the air of a scholar rather than a statesman.« Adams' own diary and letters are scattered with self-descriptions like »dogmatical,« »peremptory,« »cold,« »overbearing« and »harsh.« Yet he also wrote that »with a knowledge of the actual defect in my character, I have not the pliability to reform it.« The world would have to take him as he was. »I well know that I never was and never shall be what is commonly termed a popular man,« he told his wife.
The maneuvering to succeed Monroe began as soon as he took office. Henry Clay hoped to succeed him by leading the opposition in Congress, particularly against the foreign policies of John Quincy Adams. Treasury Secretary Crawford was biding his time, quietly using the enormous patronage of the Treasury Department to build his own following in Congress and the federal bureaucracy, such as it was. And if it was true that the last three presidents had served as Secretary of State, it was also true that they also had been native Virginians. So too were Clay and Crawford. Secretary of War Calhoun was also a candidate, with a surprisingly strong following in the North. Andrew Jackson was occasionally mentioned, but the General professed no great interest in the presidency.
For his part, Adams was well aware of the situation. »This Government is, indeed,« he wrote after a little more than a year in Washington, »assuming daily more and more a character of cabal, and preparation, not for the next Presidential election, but for the one after...« He had not been in Washington six months before he was approached by Alexander Everett, the ambitious Harvard graduate whom he had taken with him to St. Petersburg, and who had become something of an adopted son. Was Adams going to do anything to promote his chances of succeeding Monroe? »I should do absolutely nothing,« Adams told Everett. Others would not be so scrupulous, Everett replied. »I told him that was not my fault - my business was to serve the public to the best of my abilities in the station assigned to me, and not to intrigue for further advancement, I never, by the most distant hint to any one, expressed a wish for public office, and I should not now begin to ask for that which of all others ought to be most freely and spontaneously bestowed.« One of his friends, Judge Joseph Hopkinson of Philadelphia, jokingly called Adams's approach to office the »MacBeth policy«, citing MacBeth's declaration that »If chance would have me king, why chance may crown me, without my stir.« Adams, the Shakespeare expert, agreed, reminding Hopkinson of Macbeth's ultimate destruction after he began to conspire for the office. His friends in Philadelphia, Adams told his wife, »send me kind messages to inform me that unless I mend my manners, I shall never be President. Well, and what then? There will be candidates enough for the Presidency without me.« Regardless of what the future held, Adams professed to be ready for retirement from public life.
Yet Adams never said that he did not want the presidency, or that he was unqualified for it. That he was destined for greatness had been in the minds of his parents since he was old enough to read. The hope continued to burn brightly in the mind of his father, still turning out letter after letter from Quincy, although he was approaching his ninetieth year. In fact, John Quincy Adams wanted very much to be President, but he wanted the office on his own terms. »If my country wishes for my services,« he told a friend, »she must ask for them.«
His behavior was consistent with the norms of the deferential society into which he had been born. His models were George Washington and his own father, neither of whom had publicly maneuvered or conspired for the presidency. The people should recognize and reward their leaders for their achievements without encouragement or manipulation by the leaders themselves. For the candidate to try to affect the result by intrigue or »electioneering,« he wrote to a well-wisher, was like moving the hands on a defective watch. »If your watch has no main-spring, you will not keep time by turning round the minute-hand.« If the office was to be »the prize of cabal and intrigue, of purchasing newspapers, bribing by appointments, or bargaining with foreign missions,« he declared unctuously »I had no ticket in that lottery.« Andrew Jackson, born in the same year as Adams, felt the same way. »I have no desire, nor do I expect ever to be called to fill the Presidential chair,« he said, »but should this be the case, contrary to my wishes or expectations, I am determined that it shall be without any exertion on my part.«
In the absence of organized political parties, Adams expected that a deserving candidate would emerge through an almost mystical form of political spontaneous generation, as Washington had years before. Although he could not admit it, he hoped to be that candidate. Any other result amounted to a vote of »no confidence« in his service as Secretary of State, indeed his entire career. Thus, while he remained aloof, he had more at stake emotionally in the outcome of the election of 1824 than any other candidate.
As the election approached, Adams began to distinguish between the active conniving for the office practiced by most of his potential rivals, which he condemned, and seeing to it that the public had a clear understanding of his own record, which was not only justified but necessary if the public were to make an informed decision. He refused to encourage his friends, but he would not allow his enemies to distort or undermine his achievements.
He twice fired warning shots at those considering an attack on his reputation or his record. In 1822 his former colleague at the Ghent negotiations, Jonathan Russell, thought he might advance the prospects of his friend Henry Clay by authoring an election tract claiming that Adams in 1814 had truckled to the British on the questions of the fisheries and the control of the Mississippi. Adams was furious. He swooped down on the unfortunate Russell, and spent the entire summer writing a book-length document demonstrating that Russell's evidence was not only inaccurate, but forged. Some of his friends, including his wife, thought that in the case of Russell he engaged in overkill, but Adams persisted. Nothing was ever heard again of Russell or his charges. In the following year a Virginia Congressman attacked Adams for the »Publicola« letters, his vote against crepe-wearing in 1803, his alleged opposition to the Louisiana Purchase, and a host of other errors. Adams was happy to set the record straight, which he did in a lengthy letter to the National Intelligencer, later published as a pamphlet.
Then there was the matter of the Monroe Doctrine. Adams knew that the Republican party had always appealed to American Anglophobia, and that no one claiming to be a Republican could afford to be accused of being »soft« on Great Britain. Hence the denunciation of the Mother Country in his address of July, 1821. It was perhaps no accident that Adams was the only member of Monroe's Cabinet to argue against the alliance with Britain in December, 1823. Had he gone along with the majority and supported the alliance with Britain, Adams, the ex-Federalist from Massachusetts, would have been vulnerable to critics seeking soft spots in his record.
Finally, he did not overlook any opportunity to remove his rivals from the scene. At various times he suggested to President Monroe that Clay, Calhoun, or Jackson be appointed to a ministerial post abroad, either in Europe or Latin America. Nothing came of these gambits. So while Adams had the greatest personal and psychological stake in the outcome of the election in 1824, he pursued his goals in a way different from the others, but no less effective.
The election of 1824 produced the only occasion in which the House of Representatives chose the president from among the three leading candidates as provided for in the Constitution of 1787 as revised by the Twelfth Amendment. It remains also the only contested election in which there were no national political parties.
Absence of parties meant absence of issues. Further complicating matters was the fact that in 1824 there was no agreed-upon way of determining nominees. In the past, when there had been discrete political parties, Congressmen and Senators from each had gathered in separate caucuses and chosen the nominees. But with all potential candidates calling themselves Republicans, this method could no longer work, for without Federalist opposition, the Republican nominee would automatically become President.
Instead, the »friends« of candidates Adams, Clay, Calhoun, Crawford, and Jackson organized on the state level and attempted to influence legislatures or voters through unofficial »conventions« of supporters. Specially created (and very temporary) newspapers cropped up in 1824, trumpeting the virtues of their man. There was no standard time or method for choosing the presidential electors in the various states. Some were elected at-large on a statewide slate, others were chosen by district, still others were appointed by the state legislature. All of these activities were carried on at different times. The decline of parties, far from restoring national unity, had resulted in political chaos.
With five candidates in the field, it was recognized from the start that in all probability the House of Representatives would choose the President. This in turn meant that no one of the five would be chosen without help from at least one of the other four. Supporters of the candidates therefore had to be circumspect in what they said about the opposition, since today's enemy might be tomorrow's ally. The least likely alliances, however, would be among men from the same region. Hence the competition between westerners Clay and Jackson, and southerners Calhoun and Crawford, was particularly fierce. Adams, the only northern candidate, was in a strong position, since only he, if he chose, could ally himself with any of the other four.
The candidate for whom Adams had the greatest respect was Andrew Jackson. Adams not only supported the General in 1818 but backed him again in 1821 when Jackson got himself in trouble as Governor of the Florida Territory. Jackson and the Spanish ex-Governor had managed to insult each other over a minor legal matter, resulting in the latter's arrest by Jackson. Once again Adams was Jackson's only advocate in Monroe's cabinet. After reading Adams`s defense of his conduct, Jackson praised his »bold, manly and dignified refutation of falsehood.« Unless Secretary Calhoun (of whose condemnation of the Florida invasion Jackson was still unaware) were to be a candidate, the Secretary of State was his own choice as Monroe`s successor. »You know my opinion of Mr. Adams Talents, virtues, and integrity...,« the General told a friend in 1821, »I think him a man of the first rate mind of any in America as a civilian and scholar, and I have never doubted of his attachment to our republican Government.« For his part, Adams was critical of those whom he thought were seeking »to put down poor old Hickory,« and told his diary that »General Jackson has rendered such services to this Nation, that it is impossible for me to contemplate his character or conduct without veneration.«
Adams associated with Jackson privately as well. In the midst of Jackson`s difficulties with Congress over the Florida invasion he invited the Tennessean to dinner with a small number of friends. »Our hero looked depressed and dejected,« Louisa wrote to old John Adams. According to William Plumer, Jr., Adams preferred Jackson to any of the other candidates. In January, 1824, a few weeks after the General arrived in Washington as Tennessee's new Senator, John Quincy and Louisa Adams honored him with a magnificent ball at their home on the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans. Adams then let it be known he would not be opposed to Jackson's serving with him as Vice President. Were Jackson to accept the vice presidency, Adams wrote condescendingly, it would »afford an easy and dignified retirement to his old age.«
Adams was one of the first to sense Jackson's political strength, but Jackson did not rise to the bait. If he had, and the Adams-Jackson coalition prevailed, the political history of the United States in the second quarter of the nineteenth century would have been quite different. But Jackson and his advisors were well aware of his appeal to the voters at large, aware that he represented a new type of candidate whose appeal transcended sectional lines and who therefore could still win the presidency on his own. Jackson was different from the other four. His political experience was minimal, but that did not seem to matter. His achievements lay elsewhere.
Another who realized Jackson's strength was Calhoun. Badly defeated by the General in a Pennsylvania convention in 1823, he suddenly withdrew, and announced that he would gladly serve as Vice President under either Adams or Jackson. The forty-one-year-old Calhoun could afford to wait. Almost at the same time it became evident that the candidacy of Crawford was in trouble. The Treasury Secretary had suffered a partial cerebral stroke, which had been complicated by an overdose of medication. Slow to recover, he was unable to generate the strength expected of him by his numerous friends in Congress.
By the summer of 1824, the continued uncertainty of Crawford's health and Calhoun's withdrawal effectively reduced the field to three: Adams, Clay, and Jackson. But when the returns were finally in, Crawford's supporters were strong enough to prevent the Speaker from placing among the top three candidates. The Twelfth Amendment - which John Quincy Adams had opposed in 1804 - reduced the number of finalists from five to three, thus eliminating Clay. Had he been a candidate, the probability of his selection by his Congressional colleagues would have been great indeed. As expected, noone received a majority of the electoral votes, with Jackson receiving 99, Adams 84, and Crawford 41. The state of Crawford's health now effectively reduced the choice to two: Adams or Jackson.
Partisans of Jackson, then and since, have pointed to the fact that their candidate received 153,000 popular votes as opposed to Adams' 114,000, and thus was the popular choice and should have been elected by the House in 1825. In response, partisans of Adams have pointed to the fact that their candidate's support came from many states where electors were not chosen by the voters, and had there been direct elections in all the states, the popular vote margin would have been much smaller. Moreover, the additional electoral votes generated by the non-voting slave population in the South inflated Jackson's electoral count, just as it had Jefferson's in 1800.
Nevertheless, those who wrote the Constitution did not believe the people should choose the president by popular vote. That was why they created the Electoral College in the first place, and why they provided for the selection by the House of Representatives in the event that no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes. Under the procedure, the House votes by states, not by members, with each state having one vote as determined by the majority of each delegation. There were twenty-four states, making thirteen necessary to elect. If no candidate could gain that number by March 4, then the new Vice President, John C. Calhoun, would become President.
As Congress assembled that winter, the leanings of each member were scrutinized, analyzed, and recorded over and over again. Daniel Webster later recalled that there were those who claimed to be able to predict a man's vote simply by the way he put on his hat. As he scanned the list of states and votes, Adams knew he could count on the six New England states. He had narrowly carried Maryland against Jackson, but this was no guarantee that its Congressmen would vote for him. New York, thanks to some crafty maneuvering by his supporters of which Adams was blissfully ignorant, had given him most of its electoral votes, but there were many New York Congressmen who favored Jackson or Crawford. New England, New York, and Maryland made up eight states: he was still five short. But then so too were Jackson and Crawford. Adams told his friends to stand pat and await developments.
Then, in the early weeks of 1825, as the day for the selection of the President approached, Washington saw a new John Quincy Adams. Throwing off his objections to socializing, he suddenly turned up at banquets, called on key Congressmen, and answered all sorts of questions on a variety of issues. No, he told the handful of Federalists still left in Congress, he did not bear a grudge against them for ending his Senate career in 1808. Yes, he told Republicans, he still regarded himself as one of them, although he wanted at the same time to rise above parties. »Conciliation, not collision,« he said, was his principal aim.
In the meantime, all eyes were on Henry Clay, the man who could not be President, but whose personal influence as Speaker of the House controlled the outcome. Enjoying his role, the Kentuckian listened courteously to the cases put to him by the friends of his former rivals. Actually, he had already made up his mind. Crawford was out of the question because of his physical condition. As for Jackson, against whom he had led the unsuccessful censure movement in 1818, relations between the two were such that they could never trust one another. Besides, Clay had genuine doubts about military men in high office, especially when they came from his own part of the country. That left Adams, with whom he had quarrelled at Ghent, whose subsequent diplomacy he had criticized, and who had been libelled by his feckless friend Jonathan Russell.
But by 1825 foreign policy had faded as a national issue. The Anglo-French war had been over for a decade, all important issues had been resolved with Spain and Great Britain, and the Latin American republics had been recognized, although not as quickly as Clay would have liked. On domestic matters, Clay and Adams had similar views on the need for an active, rather than a passive, federal government, one that assumed responsibility for economic development by means of a protective tariff, a national bank, and internal improvements. Anticipated by Adams in his resolution back in 1807, Clay had dubbed this ambitious approach »The American System.«
It was markedly different from the states-rights and limited government principles of the »Old Republicans« that were flourishing in Virginia and South Carolina. Thus, both temperamentally and philosophically, Clay was pushed away from Jackson and Crawford, and drawn toward Adams. There was one other factor. If the new President were to come from the East, that might increase the chances of his successor coming from the West, and vice versa. To temperament and philosophy, Clay could add self-interest.
On New Year's Day, 1825, Clay casually asked if he might see Adams soon, privately. Eight days later they came together in Adams's study in a meeting that would not only determine each of their political futures, but which would also influence the nature of American politics for the next thirty years. Clay pledged his support to Adams and said he would advise his friends to support him. This meant his own state of Kentucky, plus Ohio and Missouri, maybe more. Adams listened but made no commitments. He left a blank space in his diary, intended for an account of the conversation, but never filled it in. »Incedo super ignes« he had written in his diary: »I walk over fires.« A week before the House vote, Adams told President Monroe that Jackson's election was »more probable« than his own.
The House met on February 9, 1825, with Clay in the Speaker's chair. It was high political drama matched only once or twice in the nation's history. The Speaker first announced that no candidate had received the necessary majority of electoral votes, and then directed the House to proceed immediately to its vote. The roll was called, as was the custom in those days, from North to South. There were no surprises when the New England states lined up with Adams, when Georgia and Virginia stuck with Crawford, and when Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey supported Jackson. But the strength of Henry Clay was felt when Kentucky, Ohio, Louisiana, and Missouri voted for Adams, to which were added the votes of New York, Maryland, and Illinois. Adams had his thirteen states on the first ballot, and was President-elect of the United States.
Upon learning of the result, Adams quickly penned a note to his father in Quincy. The expectations of his parents had been fulfilled. »I can only offer you my congratulations and ask your blessings,« he wrote. The years of preparation and education, of financial, social, and marital sacrifice, had been recognized and rewarded. But at what price? In his recent actions, Adams had violated his own rules, which for him was a far greater consideration. Public office was like death, he had once said, never to be sought, never to be avoided. Had he lived up to that maxim? He conceded that perhaps two-thirds of the country was opposed to the result. Had Adams really changed from the aloof and unbending statesman to the clever and unscrupulous politician? Many believed they had their answer when he announced that Henry Clay was his choice for Secretary of State.
In the opinion of most historians and biographers, the so-called »corrupt bargain« between Adams and Clay, which »stole« the presidency from Andrew Jackson, blighted Adams's presidency from the start. It was not Clay's support of Adams - he had to support someone, and few could have expected him to go for Crawford or Jackson - but his acceptance of the »reward« that was the major blunder of Clay's career, tied to him, as one historian has written, like a tin can to a dog's tail, for the rest of his life. For Adams, it created a situation which he forever had to dodge the charge that he bought the presidency with the appointment of his long-time rival and critic.
Yet, as Adams prepared to become sixth President of the United States, the forces had not yet gathered that would limit his administration, like that of his father, to one term. His presidency was by no means doomed. How he conducted himself as President, the proposals and measures he advocated, and how he responded to the evolution of American politics away from the era in which he grew up, would also play roles in his fate.
From a legal or constitutional standpoint there was nothing improper in House election: if the Constitution required the leading popular vote-getter to be chosen, it would have said so. But he was about to become President partly as a result of his own good luck in being the only northern candidate, but also because of his »electioneering,« his courtship of key people in Washington, including Henry Clay. This was hardly the »MacBeth Policy.« The people had not come to him and asked him to be President in recognition of a life of service. He knew that Andrew Jackson and his friends felt cheated by the result. He was also aware that many regarded him as an elitist who had never really shed the Federalism of his earlier days. Nor was he helped by his status as the son of a President. Already there were complaints about the monarchist »House of Braintree,« and the dangers of making the presidency an hereditary office. Adams hoped to use his inauguration to pacify these critics, and heal whatever wounds had been created.
On March 4, Adams left his home, accompanied by companies of militiamen, and proceeded to the Capitol. There, in the presence of Congress, President Monroe, Vice President Calhoun, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and other friends and rivals, he delivered his Inaugural Address. To those who doubted his commitment to popular government he affirmed his political creed, »that the will of the people is the source, and the happiness of the people the end of all legitimate government....« Thomas Jefferson himself could not have put it better. But Adams went even further than Jefferson, describing the United States as a »representative democracy.« No President before him had ever used the word »democracy« in a public address. Once it had been a term of opprobrium; now he helped it gain respectability, at the same time hoping to strengthen his standing as a believer in the popular will.
He then turned to the recent election. There was danger, he said, when partisanship was mixed with sectionalism. He hoped that Congress would lay aside these considerations in favor of »the sentiments of mutual respect, the habits of social intercourse, and the ties of personal friendship.« And then, while Andrew Jackson stared stonily ahead, Adams plunged on. »Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors,« he conceded, »I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence.« After the speech, he took the oath of office from Chief Justice Marshall. Jackson stepped forward and shook his hand, for the last time.
Congress stayed in session long enough to approve of Adams' cabinet nominations. He tried to retain as much of Monroe's cabinet as he could. Treasury Secretary Crawford declined to continue, and so was replaced by Richard Bush, the American Minister to Great Britain, in whom Adams had great confidence. John C. Calhoun having advanced to the vice presidency, Adams first thought of Andrew Jackson as Secretary of War, but decided against it. The prospect of Clay and Jackson in the same room, let alone the same cabinet, was enough to discourage that. He offered it instead to James Barbour, a Crawfordite and former Governor of Virginia. Barbour accepted. Monroe's Navy Secretary, Samuel Southard, and Attorney General William Wirt agreed to stay on. With Clay replacing Adams as Secretary of State, his official family was complete. The only Senate opposition came against Clay, with fifteen Senators, including Jackson, opposed. After approving the cabinet, Congress adjourned and its members scattered to their respective states and districts. A new Congress would take office in December. Adams had nine months in which to set an agenda for his Administration and to build on the conciliatory approach of his Inaugural Address.
In 1825 the Executive Office of the President consisted of exactly two people: the President and his secretary. Its powers were extremely limited in comparison with later years. Indeed, for most Americans not only the presidency, but the federal government was, to use Alexander Hamilton's words, »at a distance and out of sight.« Most of the functions performed by the federal government in the twentieth century were performed by the states or localities, or not at all. The Washington establishment, including Congress, numbered approximately 600 people, not counting the military. With some exceptions, most Americans were content with this. The heritage of the American Revolution had taught them to be suspicious of remote, centralized power.
As for the President, there were no national media to confront or manipulate. There were comparatively few appointive offices to dangle before potential supporters, nor were there, at this time, nationally-organized political parties to rally in his support. There were few ceremonial trappings to the office, and no concern whatever for personal security. When Adams travelled between Washington and Quincy, he usually went by private coach or bought stagecoach tickets like anyone else. He continued his early morning »races« around the Capitol square (the fifty-nine-year-old Adams claimed he could make it from the White House to the Capitol and back in an hour flat), and his summertime swims in the Potomac. He had a favorite rock on which he would leave his clothes before diving in.
As an administrator, Adams differed little from Monroe. The cabinet met sometimes as a group; more often Adams met with each secretary individually. When they did meet in common, each member was invited to discuss all matters before them, whether or not they lay in his particular area of responsibility. When not meeting with officials, Adams was available to virtually any citizen who stopped by. The rest of Adams's regimen remained as it had been for several years: early risings, study of the Bible, exercise in the morning, letter-writing and catching up with his diary in the late evenings. Actually, he found that he often had more free time as President than he had as Secretary of State. Naturally, this bothered him. He accused himself of spending too much time »wasted in idleness or at the billiard table.«
Much of the summer of 1825 was taken up by what turned out to be an interminable Farewell Visit by America's favorite Frenchman, the Marquis de La Fayette. There were not many of his old revolutionary comrades left, but the Marquis managed to visit the aged John Adams at Quincy and the aged Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and ex-Presidents Madison and Monroe in Virginia. He also travelled to New Orleans, and visited Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage near Nashville. There were many ceremonies and pageants, but after reluctantly crossing the Potomac with La Fayette on his visit to Monroe, Adams recorded that he took »no pleasure in such scenes.« Large gatherings of people disturbed him, even when they were friendly. After taking leave of La Fayette with a moving farewell speech in September, Adams departed to Quincy for his annual vacation. He spent two months visiting with his father, now ninety and almost blind, but mentally as sharp as ever. He returned to Washington in late October.
By then it was clear that Jackson and his followers had not been mollified by Adams' attempt at conciliation. Old Hickory, originally confining his anger to Henry Clay, had returned to Tennessee in high dudgeon, and his feelings became stronger the closer he came to his home in Nashville. In due course, and with the active encouragement of his Tennessee friends, his ire expanded to include Adams, his former benefactor. He had resisted the idea that Adams had bargained with Clay, he told a correspondent, but when Clay was actually appointed, he could no longer doubt that Adams was »a participant in the disgraceful traffic of Congressional votes for executive office. From that moment I withdrew all intercourse with him.« In that same month the Tennessee legislature, with only three dissenting votes, nominated Jackson for President in the next election - three years in advance.
Adams' major task upon his return to Washington that fall was the composing of his first Annual Message - what in a later age would be called the »State of the Union« address. In it, he hoped to persuade Congress and the nation of two things: first, that the time had come for the United States to play a leading role in inter-American affairs, and second, of the need for the federal government to undertake an ambitious program of economic, educational, technological, and social improvement.
The Old World powers - Spain, France, Britain, and Russia - had already been given notice by the Monroe Doctrine not to make plans for further colonization in the New World. The United States was expanding from sea to sea to control the North American continent in the name of »representative democracy.« Now it was time to follow up on these successes, and Adams knew, or thought he knew, just how to do it. Several Latin American republics had called for an inter-American conference in Panama, to discuss, among other things, the questions of neutral rights in time of war (a long-held goal of American diplomacy) and the suppression of the international slave trade (which Congress was on record as favoring). To make its interest and influence clear, Adams believed the United States should be represented.
Although a child of the American Revolution, Adams had never imbibed its hostility toward power that for many had been its basic heritage. As »Publicola« in 1791, Adams dismissed the »imaginary apprehension« that an elected government would over-extend itself. Ever since his 1807 resolution as a Senator, Adams was committed to the idea of federally-supported internal improvements. He elaborated his position as Secretary of State, and presidential candidate: »The question of the power of Congress to authorize the making of internal improvements,« he said, was simply one of whether the American people, in setting up their government, had been »so ineffably stupid as to deny themselves the means for bettering their own condition. I have too much respect for the intellect of my own country to believe it.« Freedom did not mean weak government. Unfortunately, however, the »prevailing doctrine« prevented the federal government from »discharging the first duty of a nation, that of bettering its own condition by internal improvement.« Adams believed not only in the responsibility of the federal government for economic improvement but of intellectual and moral improvement as well. He recognized that this too was against the »prevailing doctrine,« but intended to use his first Annual Message to make his plea nonetheless. He acknowledged that it was a »perilous experiment.«
His cabinet agreed, and counselled against it. They either doubted the constitutionality of some of his proposals, or, given Adams's precarious political position, objected to the timing of them. He listened to their comments, but he went ahead with his original plan. In his Annual Message Adams reasserted his belief that »the great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of the condition of those who are parties to the social compact.« To this end he proposed a package of measures that included an accelerated program of road and canal construction, the establishment of a new Department of the Interior, the creation of a national university, the building of a national astronomical observatory, the financing of scientific expeditions of exploration and research, the creation of a new Naval Academy, the passage of a national bankruptcy law, and the establishment of a uniform system of weights and measures. »The spirit of improvement is upon the earth,« he told Congress. There was no need to be obsessed by the old eighteenth-century conflict between liberty and power:
»Let us not be unmindful that liberty is power; that the nation blessed with the largest portion of liberty must in proportion to its numbers be the most powerful nation upon earth, and that the tenure of power by man is, in the moral purposes of his Creator, upon condition that it shall be exercised to the ends of beneficence, to improve the condition of himself and his fellow-man.«
How ironic it would be, he concluded, if while the Old World monarchies were moving ahead in improving themselves, Americans »were to slumber in indolence or fold up our arms and proclaim to the world that we are palsied by the will of our constituents.«
The twentieth-century reader of Adams's Annual Message will note that nearly everything he advocated eventually came to pass. But his cabinet had been right in suggesting caution in 1825. Already there was increased hostility to further extension of Congressional power in the slaveholding South in the wake of the Missouri debates. His suggestion that Congress not be »palsied by the will of their constituents« was especially unfortunate, since there were many who thought their will had already been »palsied« by the outcome of the recent presidential election. It made it possible to portray Adams as one who cared little for popular government or public opinion. His suggestion that America imitate Europe in scientific and intellectual improvement enabled his critics to accuse him of a sneaking admiration for the effete and corrupt societies of the Old World in which he had spent much of his life. His injection of literary metaphors into the message - as when he called his astronomical observatories »lighthouses of the skies« - brought only laughter.