Missions Without Mansions

What a Congressman Taught us About Leadership
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John Quincy Adams lived through a very impressive resume, which came as a result of his very privileged lifestyle. The son of President John Adams, Quincy Adams was basically groomed from childhood to reach the peak of public life in the 1820s, which he did when he became president in 1825.

Welcome to the other Adams Administration

His controversial election in 1824, which his main opponent Andrew Jackson labeled a “Corrupt Bargain,” ended the period in American history known as the Era of Good Feelings, highlighted by national unity and a new robust American economy. Under his watch, the Democratic-Republican Party splintered into two groups: the National Republican Party, which Adams supported, and the Democratic Party, led by Jackson. When he took office in 1825, Adams’s ambitious agenda included more federal investment into infrastructure, a national university, and greater engagement with the newly independent nations of Latin America. Unfortunately, most of his initiatives were defeated by Congress, underscoring the divisive politics that would lead to the Second Party System. In 1828, Adams faced yet another tough election with Jackson, and lost the Electoral College and popular votes decisively.

It is unusual for one-term presidents to find political success in other offices following their presidency. John Quincy Adams was one of those exceptions. His heart for public service was not tied to a seat in the presidential mansion. Rather, Adams had a mission that he sought to pursue regardless of his title.

Adams in the House

Quickly becoming bored with retirement, Adams ran for the House of Representatives in 1830. When all was said and done, he served from 1831 until his death in 1848. It was in his post-presidential life where Adams earned his stripes as a leader. Though most of Adams’ leadership took shape as an opposition voice against various Democratic administrations, his advocacy for issues such as the abolition of slavery helped him stand taller than his peers (even with his 5’7″ frame).

In 1839, a rebellion of Africans occurred on the Spanish ship La Amistad. After the takeover, the kidnapped Africans forced the remaining Spanish crew members to sail them back to Africa. At night, the crew members sailed north instead of east, and the ship was apprehended off the coast of Long Island, New York. A series of court battles pitted abolitionists — who argued that the Africans should be freed since their capture broke various international trade agreements — and pro-slavery advocates — who argued that the Africans should be returned to Spanish custody (and likely punishment by death or at the very least a lifetime of enslavement) since an offense had taken place aboard a Spanish ship.

The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States and, at the request of a pair of abolitionist lawyers, Adams joined the case in defense of the Amistad Africans. He spoke for four hours before the justices, and with his help, the Africans were declared free and returned to their home.


Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad dramatizes the Africans’ journey, and includes part of John Quincy Adams’s arguments:

In that scene, a former president-turned-congressman provided clear references to the nation’s founding and ideals. It was also notable that no one sitting on that bench was an Adams appointee (Robert Trimble, the lone Supreme Court appointee made during the Adams presidency died about thirteen years prior to this case); so, Adams was arguing his case without the clout that may have existed had one of his appointees been listening in.

Nonetheless, the former president, who was now in a position shared by hundreds of others in the Congress, turned himself into a defense attorney once again. It was a position well below someone with his leadership-laden resume; but he put it to good use.

Leadership is not about the title. That’s what John Quincy Adams understood. Rather, it is a process of social influence which maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a greater good.

  • It stems from social influence, not authority or power.
  • It requires others, not necessarily people who work under you.
  • It has many styles, and therefore anyone can be a leader.
  • It includes a greater good.

The Tether

John Quincy Adams was not a very effective president. After his presidency though, he became a more effective leader.

Leadership titles do not translate into good leadership. Much like Congressmen, who are not in the line of succession to the presidency, there are many employees working in the lower rungs who are born leaders. Some waste time trying to propel themselves into leadership.

If that describes you, it’s best to follow John Quincy Adams’s example. Do not wait for the leadership title. The mission is more impactful than the time spent in a proverbial leadership mansion.

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