On this day in 1848, former President John Quincy Adams suffers a stroke while speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives. He passed away a few days later.
One suspects that, if Adams could have chosen a way to leave this earth, he would have opted to go in exactly this fashion.
Adams was the only former President to serve as a congressman. His family didn’t want him to run for Congress after the presidency, but he had been a public figure all his life. He probably didn’t even know how to quit. So he allowed his hat to be thrown into the ring, with two caveats: First, he would never ask anyone to vote for him. Second, he would always vote his conscience.
His election as a congressman gave him tremendous satisfaction. He wrote in his diary: “My election as President of the United States was not half so gratifying to my inmost soul. No election or appointment conferred upon me ever gave me so much pleasure.”
He lived up to his promise to vote his conscience. For one thing, he repeatedly challenged the “gag rule” that prohibited slavery discussions on the House floor. Instead, he was constantly working to read anti-slavery petitions into the record. He was so insistent (and perhaps so effective?) that he even began receiving death threats. By 1839, he was receiving about a dozen death threats per month, according to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. Eventually, the gag rule was repealed because of his efforts.
You can also thank Adams for doing his part to establish the Smithsonian Institution. The funds for the institution came from the estate of an English scientist, but Adams was the one who shepherded the proposal through Congress. It was no small feat, as it took about a decade of debate before Congress finally approved the measure.
Adams had served in Congress for a little over 16 years when he suffered his stroke on February 21, 1848. The Speaker of the House, Robert Winthrop, described the scene that day:
“Prayers had been offered by the chaplain. The Yeas and Nays had been called by the clerk, and I was proceeding to make some announcement or to put some formal question, when Mr. Adams rose impulsively—I had almost said impetuously—with a paper in his outstretched hand, exclaiming, with more than his usual earnestness and emphasis: ‘Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!’ The reiteration rings again in my ears as I write these words. But before he could explain his object, or add another syllable, his hand fell to his side, and he sank upon the arm of his chair, only saved from dropping to the floor by being caught by the member nearest to him. An exclamation was almost instantly heard—‘Mr. Adams is dying.’”
Following these events, Adams was carried into the Speaker’s chamber. He passed away two days later.
Speaker Robert Winthrop formally announced the former President’s death the next day: “A voice has been hushed forever in this hall, to which all ears have been wont to listen with profound reverence.”
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Harlow Giles Unger, John Quincy Adams (2012)
James Smithson’s Legacy: The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum (Smithsonian magazine; September 2003)
John Quincy Adams’ Congressional Career, U.S. Capitol Historical Society
John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams: Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848 (1876) (Volume 8)
Robert C. Winthrop, Historic Moments: The Death of John Quincy Adams in the U.S. Capitol (reprinted in Scribners’ Magazine)
Smithsonian Institution website: General History