Tony Vagneur: Perspective through the lens of American history
He was accused of stealing the U.S. presidential election by nefarious means, precisely because no one won a majority of electoral votes and the House of Representatives fulfilled its constitutional duty by determining John Quincy Adams the winner.
This only after Adams appointed Henry Clay as his secretary of state, a move declared to be underhanded by the opposition. Adams’ opponent, Andrew Jackson, had received more popular votes, but the House declared Adams the winner. Sound familiar?
Adams also was unpopular partially because his supporters gossiped scandal about Jackson’s wife, Rachel Donelson Jackson, who was accused of bigamy. Most of Adam’s presidential initiatives were effectively blocked by “other,” unhappy parties in a contentious Congress, and in the end, given the messy affair it all was, his was a one-term, ill-considered presidency.
We’re talking history here, of course, not the current state of politics, although the circumstances of then somehow have a familiar ring of today’s political world. Back then, perhaps, it was more complicated than it is today, given that much of the U.S. was unsettled, recognized territories were not yet states, and considering that the issue of slavery was written large across the American landscape, there was a growing cancer in the land of Thomas Jefferson’s liberty and freedom.
Bigamous marriages and secretary of state choices don’t seem to add up to much today, especially compared to the issue of slavery, but then some of the political matters we grapple with today will undoubtedly seem inconsequential when viewed in the historical context some years down the road.
John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams (second president of the U.S.), and sixth president himself (1825 to 1829), throws an interesting light on the world today. John Quincy, a man who did not believe in strict party loyalty, made efforts to govern on a basis of meritocracy, appointing what he perceived to be the best person for the job, even though some of those appointments held views diametrically opposed to his own.
That, coupled with his questionable election and the continuing spread of rumors about Andrew Jackson’s wife by John Quincy supporters, opened him up to vile insults and egregious statements of misinformation.
We hear from presidents, each administration a bit different, such themes as “shovel ready” projects or “fixing infrastructure.” John Quincy had his own version of such, referred to as “internal improvements.” Remember, Adams was president (1848 to 1852) at a time when such improvements likely looked decidedly different than today, but somehow still have an eerie resonance to them. Most of Adam’s upgrades and enhancements were rejected by the Congress, still convinced his election was the result of a “corrupt bargain.”
It should be mentioned that even though he was the president of the U.S., his most celebrated role was that of secretary of state (1817 to 1825), a role many historians suggest was brilliant and that perhaps he has been the most effective secretary of state, before or since, including the modern era.
Early on in his public service career, which began when Adams was 14, he was opposed to the idea of slavery and spent the majority of his career trying to end the practice. At the time of his death in 1848, 16 years before the commencement of the Civil War, Adams wrote in his diary that he considered his public life a failure because he had failed to end slavery in the U.S.
John Quincy was a big supporter of western expansion, one of his beliefs being that this expansion would help to quell the practice of slavery. His theory was that as civilization moved westward, the economy would grow and as technological and commercial progress expanded, new territories and states would reject slavery, keeping the practice limited to the Southern states, eventually dying out.
John Quincy had other issues to deal with over the course of his career, such as the Florida property dispute with Spain, the Mexican War, the northern border dispute with Britain and other such matters, which Adams, in his position of secretary of state or other positions, was quite effective.
Some testimonials live for posterity through the ages, and in a statement defining his foreign policy, Adams said, “But she (the United States) goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Regrettably, the Truman Doctrine of 1947 (giving U.S. support to countries threatened by Soviet forces or communist insurrection) breached that vision and started the Cold War. Since then we’ve entered into a period of unwinnable wars, such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Now Iran is on our horizon. What have we learned, if anything?
Perhaps an occasional review of history would be beneficial, if nothing else, to lessen the bewilderment some of us feel about the way things are in Washington today.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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