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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Picture of John Quincy Adams

By John Torrey Morse, Jr. (1840–1937)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1840. Died in Needham, Mass., 1937. John Quincy Adams. 1882.]

IN his conscientious way he was faithful and industrious to a rare degree. He was never absent and seldom late; he bore unflinchingly the burden of severe committee work, and shirked no toil on the plea of age or infirmity. He attended closely to all the business of the House; carefully formed his opinions on every question; never failed to vote except for cause; and always had a sufficient reason independent of party allegiance to sustain his vote. Living in the age of oratory, he earned the name of “the old man eloquent.” Yet he was not an orator in the sense in which Webster, Clay, and Calhoun were orators. He was not a rhetorician; he had neither grace of manner nor a fine presence, neither an imposing delivery, nor even pleasing tones. On the contrary, he was exceptionally lacking in all these qualities. He was short, rotund, and bald; about the time when he entered Congress, complaints become frequent in his Diary of weak and inflamed eyes, and soon these organs became so rheumy that the water would trickle down his cheeks; a shaking of the hand grew upon him to such an extent that in time he had to use artificial assistance to steady it for writing; his voice was high, shrill, liable to break, piercing enough to make itself heard, but not agreeable. This hardly seems the picture of an orator; nor was it to any charm of elocution that he owed his influence, but rather to the fact that men soon learned that what he said was always worth hearing. When he entered Congress he had been for much more than a third of a century zealously gathering knowledge in public affairs, and during his career in that body every year swelled the already vast accumulation. Moreover, listeners were always sure to get a bold and an honest utterance and often pretty keen words from him, and he never spoke to an inattentive audience or to a thin house. Whether pleased or incensed by what he said, the Representatives at least always listened to it. He was by nature a hard fighter, and by the circumstances of his course in Congress this quality was stimulated to such a degree that parliamentary history does not show his equal as a gladiator. His power of invective was extraordinary, and he was untiring and merciless in his use of it. Theoretically he disapproved of sarcasm, but practically he could not refrain from it. Men winced and cowered before his milder attacks, became sometimes dumb, sometimes furious with mad rage before his fiercer assaults. Such struggles evidently gave him pleasure, and there was scarce a back in Congress that did not at one time or another feel the score of his cutting lash; though it was the Southerners and the Northern allies of Southerners whom chiefly he singled out for torture. He was irritable and quick to wrath; he himself constantly speaks of the infirmity of his temper, and in his many conflicts his principal concern was to keep it in control. His enemies often referred to it and twitted him with it. Of alliances he was careless, and friendships he had almost none. But in the creation of enmities he was terribly successful. Not so much at first, but increasingly as years went on, a state of ceaseless, vigilant hostility became his normal condition. From the time when he fairly entered upon the long struggle against slavery, he enjoyed few peaceful days in the House. But he seemed to thrive upon the warfare, and to be never so well pleased as when he was bandying hot words with slave-holders and the Northern supporters of slave-holders. When the air of the House was thick with crimination and abuse he seemed to suck in fresh vigor and spirit from the hate-laden atmosphere. When invective fell around him in showers, he screamed back his retaliation with untiring rapidity and marvellous dexterity of aim. No odds could appall him. With his back set firm against a solid moral principle, it was his joy to strike out at a multitude of foes. They lost their heads as well as their tempers, but in the extremest moments of excitement and anger Mr. Adams’s brain seemed to work with machine-like coolness and accuracy. With flushed face, streaming eyes, animated gesticulation, and cracking voice, he always retained perfect mastery of all his intellectual faculties. He thus became a terrible antagonist, whom all feared, yet fearing could not refrain from attacking, so bitterly and incessantly did he choose to exert his wonderful power of exasperation. Few men could throw an opponent into wild blind fury with such speed and certainty as he could; and he does not conceal the malicious gratification which such feats brought to him. A leader of such fighting capacity, so courageous, with such a magazine of experience and information, and with a character so irreproachable, could have won brilliant victories in public life at the head of even a small band of devoted followers. But Mr. Adams never had and apparently never wanted followers. Other prominent public men were brought not only into collision but into comparison with their contemporaries. But Mr. Adams’s individuality was so strong that he can be compared with no one. It was not an individuality of genius nor to any remarkable extent of mental qualities; but rather an individuality of character. To this fact is probably to be attributed his peculiar solitariness. Men touch each other for purposes of attachment through their characters much more than through their minds. But few men, even in agreeing with Mr. Adams, felt themselves in sympathy with him. Occasionally conscience, or invincible logic, or even policy and self-interest, might compel one or another politician to stand beside him in debate or in voting; but no current of fellow-feeling ever passed between such temporary comrades and him. It was the cold connection of duty or of business. The first instinct of nearly every one was opposition towards him; coalition might be forced by circumstances but never came by volition. For the purpose of winning immediate successes this was of course a most unfortunate condition of relationships. Yet it had some compensations: it left such influence as Mr. Adams could exert by steadfastness and argument entirely unweakened by suspicion of hidden motives or personal ends. He had the weight and enjoyed the respect which a sincerity beyond distrust must always command in the long run.