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The Senate of John Quincy Adams

October 21, 1803

Image of John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams is best remembered for his service in the White House and the House of Representatives, where he gained the label "Old Man Eloquent" (pictured right), but he began his public career in October 1803 as a member of the U.S. Senate. Here, from his diary, are four insights on the life of a United States senator nearly two centuries ago.

On leisure-time activities: Entertainment opportunities were severely limited in the rustic new capital city. Although the official Senate Journal in 1803 attributed a three-day-recess to necessary repairs for the Chamber's leaky roof, Adams records that "another motive, not mentioned, might be that the annual horse races of the city are held this week."

On protocol: When the Senate directed its members to wear black armbands for a month of mourning for three recently deceased American patriots, including John Quincy's kinsman Sam Adams, the Massachusetts senator wondered if the Senate had the right to issue such an order. The ensuing debate tied up the Senate for three hours before it voted 21 to 10 to follow that custom. Adams voted no.

On the presiding officer: Adams particularly disliked Vice President George Clinton, whom he criticized for his poor judgment and ignorance of basic Senate procedure. The Massachusetts senator ridiculed Clinton for asking senators to warn him when they planned to make a long speech so that he could turn over the duties of presiding to someone else and "take the opportunity to warm himself by the fire."

On Adams's abilities as a speechmaker: "My defects of elocution are incurable and amidst so many better speakers, I never speak without mortification." Adams candidly explained that it took him a few moments to translate a thought into words. In speaking, he said, "I often begin a thought with spirit and finish it with nonsense. The chain of my argument often escapes me, and when lost can seldom be retrieved. These faults are so overpowering," he said, "that I should sink into perpetual silence were it not that sometimes in ardor of debate, when my feelings are wound up to a high tone, elocution pours itself along with unusual rapidity, and I have passages which would not shame a good speaker; this is the only thing that makes me tolerable to others or to myself."