Adams, John Quincy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Presidential Roles
A glimpse at the life of the former president, highlighting his passion in the constitution as seen in the "Gag Rule" and the Amistad Case, a milestone in the long struggle against slavery and for the establishment of basic civil rights.

Biographical Highlights

Some of the milestones in his career are as follows:  (Remini 2002)

1767     Born in Braintree, Massachusetts, son of John Adams, the
              second president of the United States.
1794     Appointed minister resident to the Netherlands
1797     Appointed minister plenipotentiary to Prussia
1802     Elected to Massachusetts legislature; elected to U.S. Senate
1809     Appointed minister to Russia
1812     Appointed to head peace commission (war of 1812)
1817     Appointed Secretary of State under President Monroe
1825     Elected President of the United States
1828     Defeated for reelection
1830     Elected to House of Representatives from Quincy,
1835-1844  Fights gag resolution
1841     Argues Amistad before Supreme Court
1844     Gag resolution rescinded
1848     Dies in Capitol, two days after collapsing at his seat in the

Historic Roots

John Quincy Adams (JQA) was born in 1767 in Braintree, Massachusetts, the son of John Adams, the second president of the United States.  He spent his entire life in public service, starting at the age of fourteen.  In 1780, Francis Dana had been appointed minister to Russia, hoping to persuade Catherine the Great to recognize American independence. JQA had been living in Europe with his father and was fluent in French, the language of the Russian Court.  Since Francis Dana was lacking this skill, the young Adams accompanied him.  This assignment lasted for fourteen months, after which he continued his education, gaining a degree from Harvard followed by the study of law.  (Nagel 1997)

His first appointment in Washington was as Secretary of State under President James Monroe.  The most pressing problem was the question of Florida.  He negotiated brilliantly, resulting in a treaty with Spain ceding Florida to the United States.  The post of Secretary of State was considered the stepping-stone to nomination for the presidency, and JQA was indeed elected to the presidency in a hotly contested election with General Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay as his opponents.  Four years later General Jackson was elected in a bitter race. JQA retired to the family home in Quincy, but was persuaded to run for congressman from his district.  He served in the House of Representatives until his death.  He stated “labor I shall not refuse so long as my hands, my eyes and my brain do not desert me”.  (Adams, 1930).  


The “gag rule” fight:

John Quincy Adams abhorred slavery, but he was not an abolitionist.  He felt that the radical abolitionists were a threat to the Union, and that disunion would be a disaster for civilization’s experiment with democracy. (Nagel 1997)  He was passionate in his belief in the constitution as an instrument of freedom.  In 1836, the southern contingent demanded not only a pledge of congressional immunity to antislavery action, but that all petitions challenging slavery be laid on the table without further consideration. (Filler 1960)  Adams opposed this “gag rule”, but it passed, and JQA began his battle. Gradually he built support.  Finally, in 1844 JQA presented his usual resolution in the House for the rescinding of the “gag rule” and it passed by 108-80. (Miller 1998)  In 1842 a manufacturer in Meriden, Connecticut, presented JQA with an ivory cane with an inscription translated from Latin  “A man just and tenacious in purpose”.  Adams added the line “Right of Petition Triumphant” and the date when the gag rule was abolished.  As a result of this action, discussions about slavery and proposals about slavery could be deliberated in the House of Representatives.

The Amistad case

In 1839 the importation of slaves into Cuba was illegal: however, the institution itself was legal on the island.  (Jones 1987)  Since there was a demand for young, recently imported Africans, the slave owners found ways to continue the trade.  Two Spanish dons, Ruiz and Montes had purchased 53 Africans in Havana and engaged the Amistad to transport them to plantations in Puerto Principe on the northwest coast of Cuba.  In defiance of the current law, these individuals had recently arrived from Africa.  Under the leadership of Joseph Cinque, the Africans took control of the ship, killing the captain. Ruiz and Montes were spared, since they had sailing skills, and Cinque wanted the ship to return to Africa.  Montes and Ruiz had no intention of going to Africa, and they sailed for about two months until the ship was taken into custody by the American revenue cutter, the USS Washington, off the coast of Long Island. 

The American abolitionists decided to use the mutiny in their campaign against slavery.  Lewis Tappan was a Christian abolitionist who professed a hope to establish a virtuous nation based on the principles of Christian morality.  He was a wealthy businessman who had the financial resources to support his cause.  The essential issue throughout the affair was the conflict between human rights and property rights.  As the case made its way through the circuit and district courts, Lewis Tappan induced John Quincy Adams to advise the defense team.  When the case reached the Supreme Court, Tappan and others turned to John Quincy Adams in order to have a nationally known figure argue the case.  At this point in his life JQA was in his seventies and had not argued a case for over three decades.  But he accepted because of his passionate support of fundamental liberties for all.  He presented his case in two speeches, each lasting almost four hours, and reminding the Court of its duty to human rights.  The court voted in favor of the Africans, with only one dissent.  In delivering the decision, Justice Story declared that the Africans were not slaves.  They were “natives of Africa, kidnapped and unlawfully transported to Cuba”.  The Amistad decision was a milestone in the long struggle against slavery and for the establishment of basic civil rights

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

In addition to his influence on the human rights cause, John Quincy Adams participated in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, the result of one of the most incredible examples of philanthropy in American history. (Burleigh 2003)  James Smithson, an Englishman who had never set foot in the United States left his entire estate to the “United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men” (School of Library and Information Science). This estate amounted to about a half a million U.S. dollars.  A very large national gift from an unknown Englishman was certain to provoke controversy, and President Jackson had other problems to deal with.  Jackson formally notified Congress about the bequest in December 1835. Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina led the fight against accepting the money, because he was concerned, as were many southerners, about the expansion of federal power. JQA fought tirelessly to prevent the money from being used simply to enrich a politician’s power base.     

JQA saw the money as an opportunity to create an American scientific community, and he was appointed to head a committee on the bequest.  He served as head of the committee for seven years, but the bill creating the institution was not passed until 1846, eleven years after word of Smithson’s bequest reached America.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • James Smithson (1765-1829) was the illegitimate son of Sir Hugh Smithson and a wealthy widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Macie.  Upon his mother’s death, he inherited the bulk of her estate, which he bequeathed to the United States of America to found the Smithsonian Institution.
  • Lewis Tappan (1788-1873) was one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society.  He was instrumental in convincing John Quincy Adams to advise the defense team in the Amistad case and subsequently argue the case before the Supreme Court.
  • Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams (1775-1852) was the wife of John Quincy Adams.  She was the only foreign-born First Lady, having been born in London to an American father and British mother.  She and JQA were married in London in 1797, and went immediately to Berlin, Prussia, where JQA was serving as a diplomat.  Louisa was supportive of her husband during all of his many career changes and was a gracious hostess in Washington, D.C.
  • John Adams (1735-1826) was the father of John Quincy Adams.  He served in the Continental Congress and was one of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence.  He served as the first Vice-President and the second President of the United States.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • American Anti-slavery Group ( was founded in 1994 as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious group dedicated to the abolition of contemporary slavery. The S.T.O.P. (Slavery that Oppresses People) Program educates students from grades 4-12.  The web site is
  • Anti-Slavery International was founded in 1839 and is the world’s oldest international human rights organization.  The work is divided into three teams:  Program, Communication and Information.  One recent success was a new law passed against slavery in Niger. The web site is
  • Free the Slaves was founded in 2001 and is the sister organization to Anti-Slavery International in the United States. The web site is This site contains a report on modern slavery in the United States. 

Bibliography and Internet Resources

  • Adams, James Truslow.  The Adams Family.  New York: The Literary Guild, 1930.
  • Burleigh, Nina.  The Stranger and the Statesman, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003.  ISBN:  0-06000241-7.
  • Filler, Louis.  The Crusade against Slavery.  New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1960.
  • Jones, Howard.  Mutiny on the Amistad.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.  ISBN: 0-19-503828-2.
  • Miller, William L.  Arguing about Slavery.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1998. ISBN:  0-679-76844-0.
  • Nagel, Paul C.  John Quincy Adams:  A Public Life, A Private Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. ISBN:  0-679-40444-9.
  • Remini, Robert V. John Quincy Adams.  New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002. ISBN:  0-8050-6939-9.
  • School of Library and Information Science (The). Museums of the Smithsonian. webguides/MuseumsoftheSmithsonian.html

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.