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Joseph Wheelan, Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress.

Joseph Wheelan, Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress (Public Affairs, 2008), $26.95 cloth.

In Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress, Joseph Wheelan presents a biography that treats Adams' presidency and early career as the prelude to a career as the only former president to serve as a Congressman. The figure that emerges from Wheelan's study is less a portrait of an eighteenth-century civic republican trying to reclaim his public stature after being pole-axed by the Jacksonian machine, and more a portrait of a figure whose career as a diplomat and president created a persona of unique ideological independence. Wheelan grounds Adams' identity in eighteenth-century virtues--principled independence over partisan loyalty, acute sensitivity to reputation, and a drive to "improve" every hour with productive work. But rather than presenting him as a man out of his time, John Quincy Adams becomes a vigorous defender of federal authority and of first amendment rights.

Though Wheelan devotes fully a third of the book to Adams' pre-Congressional career, the book is largely focused on Adams' defense of the right to petition Congress against the gag rule that the House of Representatives implemented in 1836 and did not lift until the very end of 1844. Wheelan supplements his careful analysis of Adams' journals with excerpts from correspondence among his adversaries to describe a tireless and obstinate, principled and vain advocate who answered to the higher angels of his nature but who also loved the bare-knuckled confrontation of congressional debate. In his defense of the right to petition Congress, Adams followed an intellectual trajectory that is familiar to students of other major figures in antebellum New England. Like Emerson, Thoreau, and others, Adams always tended toward an antislavery position, but moved incrementally toward radicalism as he became convinced that the defenders of slavery would corrupt all representative institutions to keep the facts of slaveholding behind a veil of public ignorance.

In integrating Adams into this narrative, Wheelan adds a significant new story to the history of antislavery. Adams served in Congress from 1831 until his death in 1848. His Congressional career spans the period between William Lloyd Garrison's founding of The Liberator and the Mexican War, but it ends before passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Just as Garrison kept antislavery in the public mind during the 1830s, Adams almost inadvertently became the point of access for antislavery discourse in the House of Representatives--despite his personal opposition to the abolition of slavery even in Washington D.C. The evolution of Adams' antislavery from the gag rule through the Amistad trial dramatizes a very significant narrative of antislavery sentiment emerging inside the official institutions of power rather than through the grass-roots reform associated with the Garrisonians.

Mr. Adams's Last Crusade also details Adams' role in founding the Smithsonian Institution. What is now the largest and most diverse museum in the world emerged out of a $500,000 girl from an English chemist who left cryptic instructions that it be used to promote "the increase and diffusion" of knowledge. Though it would enhance Wheelan's book somewhat if this section was more fully integrated into the chronology of Adams' congressional career, Wheelan presents the birth of the Smithsonian as a sharp ideological struggle between Jacksonian populists who wanted to develop lecture programs for mechanics, and those who wanted to use the money to develop an advanced research institution. This story not only dramatizes Adams' role in founding a major national institution but it thoroughly presents a relatively obscure event that is fascinating in its own right.

As Wheelan indicates, recent books on John Quincy Adams tend to treat his congressional career almost as a post-script. Wheelan mines Adams' journals from the Congressional period more fully than recent biographies by Lynn Parsons, Paul Nagel, or Robert Remini. Also, unlike Leonard L. Richards' 1986 book on Congressman John Quincy Adams, Wheelan strives to illuminate a psychology in addition to analyzing his importance as a public man. Mr. Adams's Last Crusade is accessible and vivid, and is often given added interest by Wheelan's inclusion of Adams' caustic, ungenerous, and occasionally downright embarrassing assessments of contemporaries ranging from President Tyler through Emerson and the Transcendentalists.

T. Gregory Garvey

SUNY Brockport
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Author:Garvey, T. Gregory
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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