Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

“Planting Laws and Institutions”: The Election of Representative John Quincy Adams

"The Old House"/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-OldHouse_loc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Affectionately termed “The Old House,” the Adams family estate in Quincy, Massachusetts, is today part of the Adams National Park.
On November 6, 1830, former United States President John Quincy Adams spent the day at his family’s farm near Quincy, Massachusetts, planting trees. On the edge of what would become the orchard, he laid out five rows of chestnuts, oaks, and shagbark hickories.

Adams ate lunch at home and went back to the farm “to lay out the ground for the Orchard,” all the while debating what else he would plant there. Toward the end of the day he read the evening newspapers and nonchalantly noted in his diary that the news had “brought the last returns of the Congressional Election for the District of Plymouth. Twenty-two Towns gave 2565 votes, of which 1817 were for John Quincy Adams, 373 for Arad Thompson (Jacksonite), 279 for William Baylies (federal), and 96 scattering votes.” The final line in Adams’s diary that day: “I am a member elect of the twenty-second Congress.”

Adams’s casual mention of his victory downplayed what was otherwise a remarkable occasion: For the first time in American history, a former President had won election to the United States House of Representatives. Adams remains the only person to ever do so.

John Quincy Adams/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-JQAportrait-2002_47.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This 2002 portrait by Ed Ahlstrom replaced the House's original portrait of Adams which had been lost in an 1851 fire.

Gardener-Statesmen

For Adams, farming and planting—the physical act of working the soil—had long been an escape from the pressures of public life. And few Americans had ever felt those pressures more keenly than John Quincy Adams.

By the fall of 1830, Adams had served at more levels of government than anyone else of his era, or of any era: He held diplomatic posts across Europe, won a seat in the Senate from Massachusetts, served as Secretary of State, and been elected the sixth President of the United States, serving from 1825 to 1829.

Adams descended from a line of proud Massachusetts farmers, and he inherited a life-long fascination with the pastoral world. While living in the White House, for instance, Adams collected seeds, planted a variety of flora, read treatises about gardening, raised saplings, and often visited his garden. “I examine my three flower Pots almost every hour of the day to witness the process of vegetation,” he noted in June 1827.

Despite the demands of the presidency—or perhaps because of them—the White House grounds had been an endless source of wonderment for Adams. “In this small garden, of less than two Acres, there are forest- and fruit-trees, shrubs, hedges, esculent vegetables, kitchen and Medicinal herbs, hot-house plants, flowers, and weeds, to the amount I conjecture of at least one thousand,” he marveled. “One-half of them perhaps are common weeds, most of which have none but the botanical name. I ask the name of every plant I see. Ousley the Gardener knows almost all of them.”

When Adams lost his presidential re-election in 1828, he returned home and began tending to his ancestral gardens in Massachusetts. “My leisure is now imposed upon me by the will of higher powers, to which I cheerfully submit, and I plant trees for the benefit of the next age, and of which my own eyes will never behold a berry,” he confided in his diary in August 1830.

For a perceptive horticulturist like Adams, he couldn’t help but notice a similarity between his time in public office and his time in the garden: Like the “diligent husbandman” who plants trees for a future he would never see, “shall not a great man plant laws, institutions, a Commonwealth?” he asked. “I have had my share in planting Laws and Institutions, according to the measure of my ability and opportunities,” Adams remarked of his long career in public office. “I would willingly have had more.”

In fact, the gardener-statesman would soon have more.

Interior of the House of Representatives/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-1830Interior-2005_041_000-6.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This 1830s print of the old House Chamber not only features a view of the House as it appeared during Adams's service, but also highlights democratic symbolism and imagery along the edges of the frame.

Oak Trees and “the Representative Character”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the circumstances of Adams’s election to the House began with him focused on apples and acorns. On a Saturday in mid-September 1830, while the former President worked in his nursery planting a variety of fruit trees, an acquaintance named John B. Davis stopped by Adams’s house to discuss a legal matter. As Adams shared his opinion on the issue, his local congressman, two-term Representative Joseph Richardson, also stopped by to chat. Richardson had decided to retire from the House, and he asked Adams if he would run for his seat. Adams replied that he had seen rumors about his possible nomination, but thought it had been a joke. Richardson quickly corrected him, and predicted that if Adams ran he would win, and win big.

In the House, Richardson had supported Adams as President, and the two had a mutual foe: Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. Adams had defeated Jackson for President in 1824, but Jackson had defeated Adams in 1828; the two seemed to disagree on just about every policy of the day. Richardson feared that if Adams did not run for the House a flood of anti-Jackson candidates would enter the election, split the vote, and give the seat to a pro-Jackson candidate.

Adams listened to Richardson before confessing that he “had not the slightest desire to be elected to Congress — and could not consent to be a candidate for Election.” But by habit Adams hid his actual intentions so closely that even his own son once said he wore an “Iron Mask” that left nearly everyone guessing. Adams feigned that there were too many unknowns, too many “Circumstances,” he called them, which would prohibit him from serving. Adams said he could not predict “how the Election would turn,” worried he was too old, and wondered about his health. (This was also a charade. Adams was fit beyond his 63 years. While serving as President, Adams often swam against the current in the Potomac River, and still went for long swims along the brisk Massachusetts coast in retirement.) Adams also said he did not want to serve if there was a high “degree of opposition” to his candidacy.

Richardson had earlier mentioned “that the service in the House of Representatives of an Ex-President of the United States, instead of degrading the individual, would elevate the Representative Character.” Adams took no issue there. “No person could be degraded by serving the people as a Representative in Congress,” he said. “Nor in my opinion would an Ex-President of the United States be degraded by serving as a Selectman of his town, if elected thereto by the People.”

By the end of their conversation, Adams had not agreed to run, but he had not declined either. “Mr. Richardson,” Adams wrote in his diary, “said this was sufficient and he would go to work” on behalf of Adams’s candidacy. John B. Davis, who had listened to their whole conversation, was sworn to secrecy by Richardson before he left.

Later that evening Adams and his wife met an old family friend at Penn’s Hill in Quincy. While there Adams “Gathered a few Acorns from a White Oak Tree on the summit . . . which I propose to plant, and call Cap white Oak.”

The U.S. Capitol in the 1830s/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-Capitol-2010_114_001.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The Capitol in the 1830s looked out onto a pastoral scene, the National Mall still forested.

Member-Elect Adams

As was the custom for someone of Adams’s stature at the time, he let others campaign for him. By mid-October 1830 Adams had mostly accepted the fact that he was going to be a candidate. “I should acquiesce entirely in the course taken by the People of the District,” Adams told Richardson three weeks before the general election. To his diary, however, Adams had written, almost mournfully, “And so I am launched again upon the faithless Wave of Politics.” In the meantime, Adams worked out his nervous energy by meticulously preparing his orchard and writing in his diary. In the evenings “the fine autumnal weather invites me out to walk over the Hills, in search of Nuts and Acorns.”

As the election approached and the planting season wound down, Adams seemed to focus less on politics and more on New England’s kaleidoscope of fall colors. On Election Day he seemed particularly attuned to his arboreal surroundings, writing in his diary: “On this first day of November I observe the foliage of the trees. The leaves have fallen almost entirely from the Elms — They have changed colour upon all the Oaks, but a great part of those on the English Oaks are yet green — Those of the Peach trees, are of a dirty crimson and brown — Many of the young Apple trees yet retain their leaves, and some of them are still green. Those of the young Catalpa, are parched by the frost.”

In his diary, Adams barely mentioned the election, but on November 7, the day after he learned he had become the Member-elect from Massachusetts, he grew introspective, “reflecting upon this new incident which has drifted me back again amidst the Breakers of the Political Ocean.”

Adams saw his election as both “a novelty in the history of the Country” and as something entirely unremarkable. It was simply a fact of life that American Presidents were going to live beyond their time in the White House. “That as individuals they will take part in public affairs, and that they will sometimes solicit, and sometimes be elected to subordinate Offices.” True, some people—including most of Adams’s family—thought that his decision to serve in the House was “a derogatory descent” from the presidency. “This is a mere prejudice,” Adams wrote. He took substantial pride in the fact that “the People of my native region” had elected him to represent their interests on Capitol Hill. To turn down a seat in Congress simply because he had once been President would have been the height of “Arrogance,” he wrote, and would “have exposed myself to ridicule.”

There was a downside to his election, he noted. “So far as concerns myself I consider this new Call to the public Service as a misfortune; inasmuch as it takes from me the last hope of an old age of quiet and leisure.” In other words, the gardens and orchards he had so lovingly cultivated would have to wait. “But this call upon me by the People of the District in which I reside, to represent them in Congress, has been spontaneous,” he reminded himself. “And although counteracted by a double opposition . . . 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.”

Sources: Digital scans of John Quincy Adams’s original diaries, all 51 volumes, are available online through the Massachusetts Historical Society: https://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/php/. For a reader friendly, abridged collection of his diaries, see John Quincy Adams: Diaries, 2 vols., ed. David Waldstreicher (New York: Library of America, 2017). In the 1870s, Adams’s son, Charles Francis Adams, edited his father’s diaries into 12 volumes. The Library of Congress has links to each volume here: https://lccn.loc.gov/04020138. See also, Fred Kaplan, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (New York: HarperCollins, 2014); Leonard L. Richards, The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).