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Sons Who Followed Fathers Into US Presidency Draws Parallels Between George W. Bush, John Quincy Adams - 2003-08-06


By this point, most people in the world probably know that America's 43rd president, George W. Bush, is the son of America's 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush. But what many people may not know is that the current president isn't the first son to be elected to the executive office formerly held by his father. It's happened before, in 1824, when John Quincy Adams became America's sixth president. His father, John Adams, had been the nation's second president, holding the office from 1797 to 1801. Neither Adams was very popular with the public in his own time. But the pair has been enjoying a surge in popularity lately.

It's not just that America once again has a presidential son in the nation's highest political office, though that is one reason interest in the Adams family is on the rise.

There's also the acclaimed Hollywood movie, Amistad, which was released six years ago and features well-known British actor Anthony Hopkins in the role of John Quincy Adams. The film is set in 1839, 11 years after the second President Adams was voted out of office. It's about how the former president, who was also an attorney, successfully prevented a group of Africans from being thrown in jail for the murder of a man who intended to enslave them.

Then, in 2001, just a few months after George W. Bush assumed the presidency, what turned out to be a wildly popular biography of the first John Adams was released.

Sue Horgan of Ojai, California, says that book is the reason she and her family made a special trip to the Adams' family homestead in Quincy, Massachusetts. "Reading history books is not one of my pastimes, but I found that one to be exceedingly interesting. I thought this tour was wonderful," she said. "The fact that this is all being preserved as it has is fantastic. And I do think that that book will have a major impact on how future generations view this family and those presidents."

So then how, exactly, has this family been viewed? And are there any parallels between the first father-son presidential pair, and the second? Well, to begin with, both of the fathers served for just one term. Voters replaced John Adams with Thomas Jefferson. And they replaced George Herbert Walker Bush with Bill Clinton. But that's not the only parallel. John Stanwich is a historian at the Adams National Historic Site, which has seen the number of visitors go up by more than 200 percent since the controversial election of 2000 that gave George W. Bush the presidency.

And Mr. Stanwich says the fact that that election was controversial is something the two presidential sons have in common. "In the election of 1824, John Quincy Adams stood in that election with Andrew Jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay. So there were really four candidates for that election, and ultimately, no one of those four gained a majority of the popular or the electoral vote," he says. "Andrew Jackson did gain more in both categories, but because he did not gain a majority of the vote, the election went to the House of Representatives."

And in a decision that would come to be known as "The Corrupt Bargain," the House of Representatives gave the presidency to John Quincy Adams, even though more Americans had voted for Andrew Jackson.

In 2000, more Americans voted for Al Gore.

But John Stanwich says that's where the similarities between America's 41st president and its sixth end. While George W. Bush's popularity has waned a bit these past few months, the fact remains his simple, "common man" demeanor has proven to be quite appealing to many Americans. The public never really did warm up to John Quincy Adams, a man who was fluent in seven languages, and who began his career in public service at the age of 14, as a translator for the U.S. Ambassador to Russia.

"John Qunicy Adams was very much thought of as being almost too bookish. That he was more comfortable in his library reading his books than he was really going out and meeting the people and really working as a politician," Mr. Stanwich said. "And his misfortune was that he was sort of on the cusp of the period when people really started to campaign, to go out and seek support and really be in the public image."

By the time John Quincy Adams ran for re-election in 1828, every state had gotten rid of its property and education requirements for voting. For the first time ever, all white, male citizens were allowed to vote for president. And in 1828, they voted not for a man who spoke seven languages, but for a man who reminded them of themselves, Andrew Jackson, the person who'd been denied the presidency by the House of Representatives just four years earlier.

Historian John Stanwich says John Quincy Adams, and to an extent, his father, too, have gone down in history as detached, even pompous figures. But he also says more and more people are looking beyond that centuries-old public image and that the popular view of the Adams family is changing. "I think what has made it more noteworthy recently is the election of George W. Bush, and there being another, present-day 'father and son' presidency, and the parallels of George Bush being a one-term president, and is George W. Bush going to be a one term president, like John Adams and John Quincy were? You know, whether history will repeat itself in that way," he said.

It would take more than just a loss for George W. Bush in next year's presidential election for history truly to repeat itself. John Quincy Adams may have served as president for just four, short years, but his influence over American politics and culture continued well beyond his presidency. The second President Adams has the distinction of being the only president to serve in the House of Representatives after leaving the executive office.

There he became a staunch opponent of slavery and successfully fought against a gag rule that prevented abolitionists from sending anti-slavery petitions to Congress. He was also instrumental in establishing a national museum that's now as much a part of life in Washington, D.C. as the White House and the Capitol building are, the world-famous Smithsonian Institution.