Against the Odds: The Odds of Being John Quincy Adams

Modern Americans are familiar with the Kennedy and Bush dynasties, but the first American political dynasty was the Adams family. John Quincy Adams, son of the 2nd president of the United States, was the first presidential offspring to be elected to the office—despite the fact that his mother Abigail declared she would rather see her son “thrown as a log on the fire than see him president of the United States.” The odds that a US president is the son of a former president are 1 in 21.5.

John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the United States, holds several records in American history:

  • He is the only president to lose both the popular vote and the Electoral College vote and have the presidency conferred by the House of Representatives.
  • He had the most foreign policy experience of any president, serving as America’s ambassador to Holland, Prussia, Portugal, Russia, and England before serving as Secretary of State
  • His wife, Louisa, was the only foreign-born First Lady. She was born in Britain of an American father and English mother.
  • He was the only president to later serve in the US House of Representatives.
  • He is the only member of Congress to die in the Capitol.

Adams also established a number of “firsts”:

  • First president to wear long pants instead of knee breeches
  • First president to be photographed
  • First president to have a toilet installed in the White House, causing flush toilets to be called “Quincy’s”

Adams does have several things in common with members of political dynasties who followed him. George W. Bush—the only other son of a president to take the office himself—also lost the popular vote.

He hailed from Massachusetts, like the Kennedys, and attended Harvard, as many members of the Kennedy family would, including John Kennedy and a member of another American political family, Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom became president. The odds that a president attended Harvard are 1 in 5.38. The Bushes favored Yale, but George W. Bush did receive a graduate degree from Harvard. Also included in the odds are Rutherford B. Hayes and our current president, Barack Obama, who both attended Harvard Law School.

Twenty US presidents did not have second terms in office. Adams was defeated in 1828. “I have no plausible motive for wishing to live,” he wrote. His melancholy was increased when his son, George Washington Adams, killed himself rather than face his father to explain an illegitimate child. However, he decided to take what most presidents would consider a demotion, and for the last 17 years of his life, he served Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. There “Old Man Eloquent” found the great cause of his life, fighting against the “gag rule,” the practice of tabling anti-slavery petitions without discussion. Galvanized by this connection between slavery and the suppression of civil liberties, abolitionists began flooding Congress with petitions, believing that “every name signed to a petition is a nail driven into the coffin of slavery.” In 1835 alone, 300,000 petitions flooded Congress. Adams believed that the right of petition was a basic human right, and for the eight years it took to overthrow the gag rule he was as “fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell.”

In 1841, JQA defended the Amistad slaves before the Supreme Court. Led by Cinque, the slaves had taken possession of the Spanish ship carrying them to slavery and “were cast upon our coast in a condition perhaps as calamitous as could befall human beings.” Adams abandoned legal arguments and argued natural rights; the Amistad mutineers were freed and allowed to return to Africa.

In February, 1848, 80-year-old John Quincy Adams suffered a stroke on the floor of the Congress after denouncing the Mexican War, a conflict he correctly believed would extend the reach of slavery in the territories acquired. Two days later, he died in the office of the Speaker of the House. “This is the last of life,” he said. “I am content.”

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