Happy President’s Day! The highest executive office in the United States of America has been occupied by 44 men since 1789 and has seen some interesting scenarios over the course of two plus centuries. For example, Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms with Benjamin Harrison’s term sandwiched between them, so Cleveland is counted as both the 22nd and 24th president. Additionally, there is the Curse of Tippecanoe, also called Tecumseh’s Curse, that is the folksy title given to the grim coincidence that saw every president who was elected or reelected in a year that ended in zero die in office. The frightening trend began with William Henry Harrison and continued through John F. Kennedy, before ending with the failed assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan. This seemed to let George W. Bush off the hook, but there was actually an odd assassination attempt against his life back in 2006 (and no, I’m not talking about the pretzel). While in Georgia (the country), a man threw a grenade at President Bush and the Georgian President! Crazy!
Today, I am focusing on one of the unique relationships between a pair of presidents, and how these men have been portrayed in two of my favorite films based in American history. The presidents in the spotlight today are the second and sixth, John Adams and John Quincy Adams. In the case of many a political figure, president included, it has been said that so-and-so would have gotten nowhere without such-and-such, but in the case of the Adams’ it is absolutely true that John Quincy Adams would have gotten nowhere without John Adams. In fact, it is not even hyperbole to say that JQA would not even exist without JA for the plain and simple reason that he physically could not. Even if you are not from the US or slept through all your history classes, you can easily piece together that John Adams is the father of John Quincy Adams, but that is not where it ends, for you could just as easily say that John Adams is the father of America. Okay, that is starting to get into hyperbole, but John Adams is certainly one of the fathers of America, and he is frequently called such as he was one of the most prominent of Founding Fathers who helped to form this country from rebellious British colonies to the United States of America.
John Adams served as the first Vice President, aiding first President George Washington over the course of two terms, before taking up the task of Commander-in-Chief for himself. His attempt at reelection would be thwarted by his close friend Thomas Jefferson. Adams returned to his home in Massachusetts feeling more than a little sour about the whole thing, but eventually he and Jefferson got back in touch and were friendly for their final years. In fact, both men died on the same day, mere hours apart. Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” a comfort to himself that the country still had one of its greatest leaders. Unfortunately, he was wrong as Jefferson preceded him in death, however short it may have been. The appropriate coincidences do not end there though, as the day both men died on was July 4, 1826 – 50 years to the day the Declaration of Independence both men worked so hard to draft and ratify, was signed into effect.
If you’re looking for an entertaining film about the birth of America that features the efforts of Adams and Jefferson in uniting their compatriots in creating a new nation, than look no further than 1776 (1972). Originally a Broadway musical in 1969, the film retains its key actors, including William Daniels as John Adams (funnily enough, his first TV role was as John Quincy Adams!). Adams is the chief protagonist, and he is delightfully annoying to the other delegates in the first Continental Congress. Look, or I should say, listen no further than my favorite song from the show where Adams is trying to get someone to write the Declaration of Independence: “But, Mr. Adams”.
In addition to future Presidents Adams and Jefferson, the film showcases one of the greatest Founding Fathers who never sought that office, Benjamin Franklin, who in the film, as he did in life, often steals the show. Look, or, well yeah, look and listen no further than this scene where Adams is trying to win over a crucial vote for independence from Maryland:
We need a musical about that OGFF (Original Gangsta Founding Father). Hip-hop, rock and roll, you pick the genre, but I’m looking at you Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Now let’s look at the man John Adams actually fathered, John Quincy Adams. Where his father is best remembered for his actions prior to being president, Quincy Adams is best remembered for what he did after his presidency. He served for the final 17 years of his life in the US House of Representatives representing Massachusetts. He became an especially loud voice in the opposition of slavery, despite the derision he received from the South for it. His intellect and cleverness served him well when arguing against slavery, even when the there was a “gag rule” in place in the House that prevented the issue from being spoken about during proceedings. In 1836, Adams brought forth a petition from a man in Georgia (the state). In it, the man called for a “disunion” because the South was pro-slavery and the North was not. Essentially, this was the era of grumblings that 25 years later would escalate into civil war, and this Georgia man was not alone in wishing for a separation at the time. Many southern representatives shared these wishes for disunion, but Adams did not. He merely presented the letter as bait that his frustrated fellows would jump on. Quincy done triggered those fools. They took the bait and moved to censure the issue of disunion; Congress at the time was very much a “we’ll talk about this later” kind of place (kind of like today!). This move allowed Adams to offer his rebuttal where he was able to rail into the evils of slavery as much as he wanted without having to worry about the gag rule.
Five years later, Adams would get a chance to directly take a stand against slavery. While it may not have been a full on emancipation (that was still eight Presidents away), Adams was able to argue for the freedoms of illegally obtained slaves who revolted against their captors. The Africans broke free onboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad and demanded to be returned to their homeland. During the day the ship, which had been near Cuba where it was going to sell the men and women, sailed east toward the sun and their native continent, but at night the crew turned north, and eventually the ship made landfall near New York. This nightly deception led to a series of convoluted court cases, but sense was made of it and the African men and women were granted freedom, until incumbent President Martin Van Buren pushed the case to the Supreme Court because of pressure from southern supporters. Van Buren was not a fan of slavery, and certainly neither was the senior Adams who did not seek to discuss slavery much during his time as president for the same reason Van Buren did not: they feared for conflict arising between North and South. I do not know if either anticipated the full-scale war that would eventually break out, but they were wary on the subject on the national scale. The younger Adams was not during his time as a representative, and when the Amistad case was brought before the Supreme Court, he spoke for four hours on behalf of the Africans who had been stolen from their homes. The court agreed with him and upheld the lower court rulings granting the Africans their freedom.
There is a great film made about the Amistad revolt and court cases called Amistad (1997). Directed by Steven Spielberg, it is often overlooked because of the success of his other films, especially similar themed films like Schindler’s List (1993) and The Color Purple (1985), not to mention he released Saving Private Ryan the next year. Amistad is more than worth a watch though, and Anthony Hopkins is terrific as John Quincy Adams. The movie is certainly played up for dramatic effect at times, including many of Adams’ scenes, but I love the depiction of him as a man who has always been in the shadow of his father, making the most of it while others around him laugh at how he can never measure up to him. The key moment for him is when he is speaking with Cinque, the leader of the Africans played by an equally great Djimon Hounsou, whose respect for Adams is as assured as his knowledge that his ancestors will be with him in his hour of need because he is “the whole reason they have existed at all.” Adams realizes that he too, like all others, is the greatest creation of his parents and those before them because he is the one carrying on their legacy now. He uses this insight in his speech to the Supreme Court, calling upon the Founding Fathers for advice, because “who we are is who we were.” His father may have helped create America, but it is up to John Quincy Adams and those residing in it in his day to continue improving it and make it the idyllic country the Founding Fathers laid the foundation for. For America is also a child of these men who made it, and they will always be invoked for help in guiding this nation in the right direction.
This is the American pursuit we all have a responsibility to strive for, for as grand as this country has been, it can always be better and we must always do what we can to protect the ideals that allow America to grant the freedom and justice that all on this Earth deserve.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoy your President’s Day and that you’ll return here next week. Direct any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stars and Stripes Forever,