In 1846, John Quincy Adams suffered a stroke walking through the streets of Boston with a friend. He recovered shortly but remained a bit wobbly for the rest of his life.
Presidents’ Day 1848: February 21st, a Monday.
WASHINGTON, DC: By this point, John Quincy Adams, after serving generally admirably as Secretary to the Minister to Russia; Minister to the Netherlands; Minister to Prussia; Massachusetts State Senator; US Senator; US Minister to Russia; US Minister to Great Britain; Secretary of State; President of the United States; and US Representative for Massachusetts, has been tinkering about not even remotely as admirably in the field of amateur poetry for fifty-odd years. He told his diary a secret in 1816, having passed just over half of the 67 years his career in public service spanned, stating his preference for poetry over politics: “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I should have made myself a great poet.”
Evenings at the Adams’ home in London during John Quincy’s tenure as Minister to Great Britain often involved dinner with the family of Dr. William Nicholas, headmaster of the boarding school the Adams children attended. This was followed by singalongs and poetry readings, where John Quincy’s pre-presidential poetry pieces were praised with pomp. This inspired him to start really bearing down on this whole poetry thing, and to share as much of it as he could with whoever had functioning ears and a few minutes to spare. He was very excited about poetry.
Too bad, John Quincy Adams! The aptitudes his upbringing drilled into him laid almost entirely in the arenas of statesmanship and politics. None of his poems were particularly well-received by the critics – one typical review in the December 1832 issue of The New-England Magazine said of Adams’ entrance into epic poetry, Dermot Mac Morrogh, or the Conquest of Ireland ; an Historical Tale of the Twelfth Century In Four Cantos:
“This work consists of three parts, each very remarkable in its way. These parts are, first, the Title Page; second, the Dedication and Preface; and, third, Four Cantos of Rhyme. The most noticeable part of the title-page is the announcement of the author’s name. Indeed, it is by that short sentence of four words – ‘By John Quincy Adams,” – to which Dermot Mac Morrogh will be solely indebted for all the attention it will receive. Were it not for this magic sentence, we doubt if many readers would get further than the middle of the first Canto; and we are quite certain that none would ever reach the end of the second.”
Despite having his poetry persistently pilloried in the press, John Quincy persevered, never permitting the haters to quell his poet’s spirit. He wrote incessantly, noting in his diary of doing so while sitting for portraits, pretending to pay attention to sermons he considered droll, and during long bouts of insomnia. He wrote of his fondness for the writing time he gained from the many hours of travel made necessary by the levels of position he held compared to the slow travel technology of his era. While he resigned himself to the belief that he was “spell bound in the circle of mediocrity,” he happily dashed off mediocre poems in tribute to his friends, love poems to his wife, and since he was there and everything, a translation of the German epic Oberon. Nerd.
On Presidents’ Day 1848, John Quincy Adams spends the afternoon replying to letters in his office, and responds to an autograph request with a few stanzas he’d written as a note to Carlo Franzoni’s The Car of History, a marble sculpture overlooking the Floor of the House of Representatives. This sculpture depicts Clio, the Greek Muse of History, riding in the chariot of Time and recording the events unfolding before her. Adams’ poem is an invitation for Clio to come alive and join everyone on the Floor in debate, then to collect everyone’s autographs. The portion included in the aforementioned letter only mentions autograph collecting:
TO THE MUSE OF HISTORY
Perched on her rock-wheeled and winged car over the front door of the Hall of the House of Representatives of the United States.
Muse; quit thy car! come down upon the floor,
And with thee bring that volume in thy hand,
Rap thy marble knuckles at the door,
And take at a reporter’s desk thy stand,
Send round thy album, and collect a store,
Of autographs from rulers of the land;
Invite each Solon to inscribe his name,
A self-recorded candidate for fame.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS
As far as I’ve researched this, no documents suggest that this poem was written while the House was in session and Adams was bored enough to write a poem to the statue in the room. After excerpting, he then stuffs the letter in a drawer and makes his final walk from his office to the House Floor, a place he knew well. A few years in, he’d figured out a quirk in the architecture of the dome which enabled him to eavesdrop on conversations from across the room. Here, he’d saved the Smithsonian Institution from existing only on paper and spoke out against the exploitation of Industrial Revolution factory workers. The Hall was where he’d been one of the nation’s loudest voices for abolition, speaking out in defiance of a ban on slavery debates forced on Northern states by the South – he did so frequently enough for the House to consider censuring him. Adams conducted a nine-year battle from his desk here, defending his stance against the Gag Rule at such length and ferocity that he earned the nickname of “Old Man Eloquent.”
Minutes after shouting what was by all accounts a rather loud “No!” against a proposition to decorate certain generals who were serving in what he saw as a pro-slavery Mexican War, Adams began to rise from his seat to defend his vote, got angry enough to have a massive stroke, which he then did, and crumpled into the arms of his deskmate. Laid out on a sofa, he was carried out of the Hall to the Speaker of the House’s private chamber. By the time he was in the room, he was fully paralyzed on his right side, and Louisa was immediately sent for. Realizing his condition, Adams said “This is the end of Earth,” and depending on whose account you take, added “…but I am content,” or “…but I am composed.” Whichever you prefer, they were his last words. Louisa got there in time to briefly see her husband in a delirium and unable to recognize her before he went into a coma. For two days in the Speaker’s room, the House Doctor attended him alongside the four Congressmen who were also doctors, to no avail. With his wife and son by his side, the absurdly brilliant John Quincy Adams died as he lived, with an amount of blood flowing to his brain that would kill just about anybody.
Some time later, the Speaker’s room became The Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room, where a bust of Adams is displayed. The Hall of Representatives was moved to a larger chamber as more states and a rising population demanded more members, and the Old Hall where Adams struck out on Presidents’ Day became the National Statuary Hall. Clio is still writing.