John Quincy Adams’s struggle to save the Constitution
President Thomas Jefferson shocked the nation in 1803 by pressuring the House of Representatives to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase for sedition and treason—both of them “high crimes and misdemeanors” and constitutional grounds for removal from office.
An appointee of President George Washington in 1796, Chase had infuriated Jefferson by criticizing Jefferson’s closing of some lower federal courts and forcing removal of judges whose views differed from Jefferson’s. The maneuver violated constitutional guarantees of lifetime appointments for judges “during good behavior.” Now, he sought to remove Supreme Court justices as well.
Calling Jefferson’s assault on Chase a blatant power grab that violated independence of the judiciary and constitutional guarantees of free speech, an outraged freshman senator from Massachusetts—John Quincy Adams—jumped to his feet to defend Chase.
“High crimes and misdemeanors,” Adams thundered, referred to indictable criminal acts—not political statements. “This is a party prosecution,” Adams charged. “The attack on Mr. Chase is a systematic attempt upon the independence and powers of the Judicial Department.”
The Senate agreed. In what proved the earliest significant defense of the First Amendment, Adams won Chase’s acquittal and prevented an American President from criminalizing political dissent.
For John Quincy Adams, victory in the Chase trial marked but one of many precedent-setting legal victories, including the Supreme Court decision that freed the African prisoners on the slave ship Amistad and gave impetus to the abolition movement.
Adams proposed an entirely new legal approach to emancipation, arguing that the Africans were freemen who had been kidnapped and that killing the captain and mate of the Amistad had been a legitimate act of self-defense against their kidnappers.
John Quincy Adams lived to be 80, witnessing the formative years of American history from the dawn of the American Revolution to the eve of the Civil War.
As a public figure, he served under President George Washington and with Abraham Lincoln. He was American ambassador to six European countries, negotiated the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812, served eight years as secretary of state, engineered the annexation of Florida, and wrote the core provision of the Monroe Doctrine warning Europeans never again to try to colonize the western world.
Son of the redoubtable John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams was a graduate of Harvard, became a Harvard professor, and was a phenomenal scholar who read and spoke classical Latin and Greek and six modern languages. Elected sixth President of the United States in 1824, he was the only son of a Founding Father to become President, but lost his bid for re-election in 1828.
The people of his home town of Quincy, Massachusetts, however, sent him back to Washington as their representative in the House, where he served eight successive terms—sixteen years—and died making a motion to end the Mexican War.
Deeply interested in science, he ensured the founding of the Smithsonian Institution and became father of space exploration in America, spurring construction of a network of astronomical observatories across the nation—so-called “lighthouses of the sky”—to study the heavens.
John Quincy Adams was the first House member to champion abolition and emancipation. His courage facing attacks by southerners and their congressmen earned him designation as the most courageous congressman in American history in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles of Courage.
Harlow Giles Unger is the author of more than 20 books, including eight biographies of the Founding Fathers and, most recently, the biography John Quincy Adams. For more information, go to http://www.harlowgilesunger.com/ .