Adams Family History Shows How Fate Can Be Generous, Cruel

A Liverpool Creamware Pitcher showing President John Adams sold for $6,875 at a December 2016 Heritage auction. Liverpool pitchers were produced for the nation’s first four presidents, with examples picturing Adams among the rarest.

By Jim O’Neal

Abigail “Nabby” Adams (1765-1813) was the first presidential child in American history.

Nabby had a difficult personal life, despite having both a father and brother become president of the United States. Her marriage to William Stephens Smith was rocky, not made any better by Smith’s financial difficulties due to poor investments and business ventures.

In 1810, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, tantamount to a death sentence in those primitive medical times. Her treatment started with a mastectomy (without anesthesia) with typical 19th-century surgical tools: a large fork, a pair of six-inch prongs, a wood-handled razor, and a thick iron spatula heated in a small oven.

Within 2½ years, she was dead as the malignant cells left behind spread throughout her body, rendering her inoperable.

She had three younger brothers. John Quincy Adams is arguably the greatest of all presidential children. Charles Adams was a bright, engaging lawyer who died an alcoholic at age 30. Thomas Adams – also a lawyer – drank excessively and died in debt.

John Quincy Adams’ story is legendary. He would become the sixth president of the United States and, until George W. Bush, the only president’s son to become president himself.

His 1778 voyage to France with his father proved to be a defining event in both their lives. An important bond filled the emotional needs of an adolescent boy, and he became indispensable to his famous father. Fellow commissioner to France Benjamin Franklin was fluent in French, but often too busy to offer help. In a foreign country and ignorant of the native tongue, the future president had only his son to alleviate the striking boredom.

It developed into a strong intellectual, emotional and spiritual relationship, clearly evident in their correspondence for the remainder of their lives. Writing to wife Abigail, John Adams declared their son “is respected wherever he goes, for his vigor and vitality, both of mind and body. His rapid progress in French and general knowledge is highly unusual for a boy of his age.”

John Quincy Adams

When their work in France was done, father and son returned to America. But Congress dispatched Adams back to France, and then to the Netherlands with JQA in tow. Then fate struck again. When he was 14 years old, John Quincy Adams was asked to join a diplomatic mission in Russia to obtain recognition for the new United States.

In 1794, JQA was appointed by President Washington as Minister to the Netherlands, an assignment that would take him all the way to the White House. At various times, he also served as ambassador to Prussia, England and Russia. He would help negotiate the end of the War of 1812 and find time to squeeze in service as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. Like father, like (some) sons.

In 1789, John Adams learned that son Charles was bankrupt, an alcoholic and faithless. The Founding Father, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and second president of the United States, renounced him. He died a hopeless alcoholic, just days before John Adams learned he had lost the 1800 presidential election.

Fate can be a cruel master and Lady Luck a fickle companion.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Death has Taken Eight Presidents, Yet Nation has Survived

Few items were produced to honor John Tyler’s presidency. This Tyler presidential silk ribbon sold for $6,250 at a May 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Tyler was the first person to become president of the United States without being elected to that office. He had been elected vice president in 1840 and when President William Henry Harrison died 31 days after being inaugurated, Tyler became president. However, it was not without controversy, since the Constitution was not explicit on the transition of powers in the event of death.

President Harrison’s Cabinet had met one hour after his death and determined that Tyler would be “vice president acting president.” Others, like former President John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, argued the vice president should become a caretaker until the next election under the title “acting president.”

Even Tyler’s selection as vice president had not been broadly popular, but the office was considered so inconsequential that there was not much interest. All of the previous nine presidents had served their entire terms of office. Perhaps New York newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed summed it up best: “Tyler was finally selected since no one else would take it.”

However, Tyler moved quickly and arranged to take the presidential oath of office in his hotel room and then simply asserted his legal right to be president. This maneuver worked, but his time in office was rocky and generally unproductive. His entire Cabinet resigned (except Secretary of State Daniel Webster). The Congressional Whigs booted him out of the party and overrode one of his vetoes (a historical first). A man without a party, he went home when his term ended in 1845, turning the keys over to James Polk.

The idea of “one heartbeat away from the presidency” became a factor in future vice president selections, although in 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ignored it when he chose Henry Agard Wallace for his running mate. This caused an uproar at the Democratic Convention and the boos and catcalls were so prevalent that Wallace decided not to make the traditional acceptance speech. He relied on FDR to ram his nomination through by making veiled threats not to run a third time.

Fortunately, in 1944, FDR dropped Wallace from the Democratic ticket and replaced him with Harry S. Truman. Eighty-two days later, FDR was dead and Vice President Truman took his place. Most historians agree that the post-war period would have turned out significantly different had this mundane change not occurred.

The presidency has changed eight times due to the death of a president and so far, we are still the most remarkable country in the history of the world!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Despite Being a Talented Diplomat, President Adams was Abrupt, Stuffy, ‘Kingly’

john-quincy-adams-important-miniature-portrait-on-ivory-by-noted-artist-edward-dalton-marchant
This miniature portrait of John Quincy Adams (measuring 2.25 x 3 inches) by Edward Dalton Marchant sold for $8,365 at a March 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In the 1820s, the American people felt more independent than ever before. Although Europe’s monarchical systems had been reintroduced, democracy prevailed in the United States. The war had loosened most of the chains that had bound the ideology and economy to England.

War had also turned American businessmen from importing to domestic production. It helped limit foreign competition, and now manufacturing was a conspicuous special interest group, wielding power to seek government protection and special allowances. One acute need was for transportation and this put extra pressure on the government for roads and canals.

These circumstances helped to put Washington in the national focus. The spirit of nationalism was nearly universal and the challenge was to strengthen the country so that independence would be perpetual. Virtually all political factions were in agreement.

President James Monroe’s successor was John Quincy Adams, a member of the second generation of leadership, son of a Founding Father. However, many deep hatreds grew out of the election of 1824 and JQA could only hope they would be temporary. He shared Monroe’s belief that the party system would never return to plague the political system. His daily diary entries reveal much uncertainty, but he nevertheless believed it was possible to heal the divisions. He knew his duty was to foster nationalist goals and create institutions that would ensure a continuation of the “Era of Good Feelings.”

In reality, the majority probably did favor him at first, but he lost his hold very soon, failing in his policies and public performance. Despite being a talented diplomat, his manner was abrupt, stuffy and chilly, leading to deadly epithets by his enemies as “kingly” and “monarchical.” This reputation was exacerbated by his patrician wife, Louisa, who remains the only first lady born on foreign soil.

The result was a failed one-term presidency, just as his father experienced, and neither of their lives were particularly happy during their time as president. Without attending the inauguration of his successor, Andrew Jackson, he returned home for an expected retirement. However, politics was in Adams’ DNA and he was soon back in Washington in the House of Representatives, the only former president to do so. He had a remarkable career in the House that lasted 17 years.

On Nov. 20, 1846, he suffered a mild stroke, recovered and resumed his Congressional duties. On Feb. 21, 1848, in the middle of a heated debate, he had a massive cerebral hemorrhage and slumped over his desk. He was carried to a sofa in the Speaker’s Room, slipped into a coma and died two days later.

He was 80 years old.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

1824 Presidential Election Among Strangest in History

Henry Clay Folk Art Campaign Painting
Henry Clay was among the presidential candidates in 1824. This folk art campaign portrait of Clay sold for $9,375 in May 2016.

By Jim O’Neal

The 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was added to clear up some fuzzy rules for presidential elections that popped up in both 1796 and 1800.

In addition to requiring separate votes for president and vice president, it added procedures for the House of Representatives if no candidate received a majority of votes. The Amendment was proposed by Congress in 1803 and then ratified by the requisite three-fourths of states in June 1804. It was easier to gain consensus in those early days.

For the next 20 years, things went smoothly as Virginians continued to occupy the White House. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe all served two terms with no controversies, at least regarding elections.

Then came 1824.

To begin, all the candidates were from the same party … the Democratic-Republican. Tennessee nominated Andrew Jackson (born in North Carolina). Kentucky chose Henry Clay. William Crawford got a nomination from Georgia, albeit from a splinter group. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina ignored state officials and nominated himself. And finally, John Quincy Adams (the eventual winner) was the conventional “favorite son” from Massachusetts following in his father’s footsteps.

Then the fun started.

First, Calhoun quickly realized he didn’t have broad support and withdrew from the presidential race. However, in a twist, he nominated himself for vice president for both Jackson and Adams, which ensured him a victory.

Crawford suffered a stroke, but remained in the race, finishing in third place. Adams finished a disappointing second in both the popular and electoral votes.

Jackson had the highest number of popular votes and ended up with the most electoral votes. However, since the votes were split four ways, he did not have a majority (more than 50 percent).

The new rules threw the election into the House of Representatives, except Clay was eliminated since only the three top electoral vote-getters were eligible for the runoff. A great controversy then erupted when Clay, who was Speaker of the House, switched Kentucky’s vote from Jackson to Adams, giving him the office … thus making Andrew Jackson the only person to win both the popular and electoral votes and lose the election.

Then John Q. Adams made Henry Clay the Secretary of State in what has become known as the infamous “corrupt bargain.” No proof has ever surfaced of this quid pro quo, but Andrew Jackson certainly believed it … so much so that he resigned from the Senate and spent the next three years plotting against Adams.

It apparently worked, since he vanquished JQA in 1828 and then won again in 1832.

If this year’s nominating process and campaigns seem to border on the bizarre, you would be right. Just consider how 1824 would compare if they had been cursed with 24/7 cable TV.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Today’s Political Schisms Would Not Surprise George Washington

George Washington Jeremiah Paul Historical Painting
A painting by Jeremiah Paul Jr. (d. 1820) depicting George Washington taking leave of his family as he assumes command of U.S. forces during the “quasi-war” with France in 1798, realized $47,500 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

George Washington was a staunch opponent of political parties due to the corrosive effect he (strongly) believed they would have on all levels of government.

As president, Washington worked hard to maintain a non-partisan political agenda, despite significant differences that existed right in his cabinet.

His 1796 farewell address was replete with advice to the country, and by extension, to future leaders. One prominent warning was to avoid the formation of political factions that would pose a danger to the effectiveness of government (think gridlock in Washington, D.C.). A second peril was entanglements with foreign governments, since they inevitably lead to war. The examples here start with the War of 1812, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and end with the Russian threats to NATO, the China Sea and the remarkably complex situation in the Middle East and North Korea.

After Washington’s retirement, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton ignored his sage advice and wasted little time confronting the Democratic-Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Adams became the first (and last) Federalist president. He was easily defeated in 1800, after one term, by Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Adams finished a dismal third and the Federalists gradually faded into irrelevance.

The Democratic-Republicans put together a nice run of three Virginia presidents – Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe – however, the party lacked a strong center and split four ways. Next was an alliance between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay of the National Republican Party, which only won a single election in 1824 that required the House to settle. When Andrew Jackson defeated Clay in 1832, the party was absorbed into the Whigs … a diverse group of anti-Jackson politicos.

Then the Whig Party fell apart in the 1850s over the issue of the expansion of slavery in the new territories. In fact, after the 1854 election, the largest party in the House of Representatives was the Opposition Party, with 100 members, followed by 83 Democrats and 51 American Party members (the Know Nothings).

These parties never seem to last long (thankfully).

Next it was the New Republican Party’s turn (the Party of Lincoln) until another major kerfuffle occurred in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft managed to divide the Republican Party enough to let Democrat Woodrow Wilson win the White House … until he had a stroke and his wife took over.

A century later, we appear to be in another political schism, with a socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders, on the Democrat Party side and on the other, Donald “The Wall” Trump, who claims to have part of the Republican Party supporting him. It is not clear which part.

Only one thing seems certain. Thanks to President Washington, we were warned!

P.S. As history teaches … this too shall pass.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Jackson, Calhoun Divided in Office, United on Currency

Illustrious and Vibrant $1000 Montgomery Note-The Newman-Colonel Green Collection Note
The Confederate States T1 $1000 Montgomery Issue note, showing John C. Calhoun on left and Andrew Jackson on right, is an iconic rarity in the American paper money canon. This example realized $76,375 at an October 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“Posterity will condemn me more because I was persuaded not to hang John C. Calhoun as a traitor than for any other act in my life.” – Andrew Jackson in his final days before death

Such was the relationship of President Jackson and his Vice President John Caldwell Calhoun. Calhoun had also served as vice president in the previous administration of John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and then won reelection in 1828 as he wisely switched to the more popular Jackson.

He thus became the second vice president to serve under two presidents, following in the footsteps of George Clinton (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison).

However, a series of disagreements between Jackson and Calhoun totally destroyed their tenuous relationship and Calhoun resigned in late 1832 before completing his term. This was a first for the vice presidency that would not be repeated until much later when Spiro Agnew was forced out over criminal actions.

One small irony is that Jackson/Calhoun are the only president/vice president to be featured together on currency printed in the United States. In 1861, the Confederate States of America issued a series of $1,000 bank notes with portraits of the two men featured prominently.

And there they shall remain together for a long time.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].