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–by Ronald M. Johnson

This blog post is about a shocking moment in time, an event for those who experienced it that must have remained with them for years to come. The story is so moving that today a plaque marks the spot where it occurred, the location noted by each tour guide as they lead visitors through the old House chamber in the United States Capitol. We are referring to February 21, 1848, when in the midst of debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, John Quincy Adams suffered a stroke and collapsed. His colleagues carefully moved him to the nearby Speaker’s room, where he remained for two days, passing away in the early evening hours of February 23. Three days later, the former United States Senator, Secretary of State, President of the United States, and nine-term member of the House was honored with a state funeral and temporarily buried in Congressional Cemetery, then serving as the national burial ground.

Recounted many times by his biographers and historians, the event still resonates as if it had happened yesterday. In recently published commentary, historian Harlow Giles Unger reflected on the death of Adams and his remarkable career as a statesman. Also one of Adams’ many biographers, Unger wrote in The Wall Street Journal on September 26, 2012 that “John Quincy Adams died on the floor of the House of Representatives fighting for the rights of his countrymen, and, in a universal outpouring of grief, Americans mourned as they had not done since the deaths of Washington and Franklin.”

At the time, newspaper accounts and later the famous Currier & Ives lithograph of the dying Adams, surrounded by stunned House members, provided riveting text and imagery to the American public. In the February 22, 1848 issue of The National Intelligencer, the event was vividly described. Apparently in good health upon arrival at the Capitol that morning, Adams had just voted “in an unusually distinct and emphatic manner” when a colleague shouted “Mr. Adams is dying!”  The account continued with the testimony of an unidentified witness: “Turning our eyes to the spot, we beheld the venerable man in the act of falling over the left arm of his chair, while his right arm was extended, grasping his desk for support.”

Currier & Ives depiction of death of John Quincy Adams. Library of Congress

Currier & Ives depiction of death of John Quincy Adams. (Library of Congress)

Taken to the small room used by the Speaker, Adams recovered enough to utter “This is the end of earth: I am composed,” though the exact wording remains in dispute. He died, having never been moved, the next day just after 7:00 pm. The Currier & Ives lithograph (above), now in the public domain and accessible for viewing online at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, circulated widely in the months that followed.

The dramatic scene of Adams collapsing at his desk remains the most remembered death in the halls of Congress, but it is far from the only such event, as noted by politicalgraveyard.com in “Politicians: Death in the U.S. Capitol Building.” Adams was the third member of Congress to die at the Capitol, following Senator Francis Malbone in 1809 and Congressman Thomas Tyler Bouldin in 1834. Since 1848, thirteen other members of Congress have died in the building, the most recent being Hjalmar Carl Nygaard, a Congressman from North Dakota, in 1963. None of the other deaths, tragic as any such death is, involved an individual of the stature of Adams or engendered a similarly enormous public response.

The state funeral and temporary burial of Adams at Congressional Cemetery is yet another part of what happened during these dark days of February 1848. The context for the funeral, held in the House, and the procession to the burial ground was part of a larger ceremonial development that stretched back to the death and burial of George Washington. We’ll examine this part of the story in a separate piece on February 26.

Works Cited:

1. Harlow Giles Unger, “What John Quincy Adams Tells Us About One-Term Presidents,” The Wall Street Journal (September 26, 2013), on-line version accessible at http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/09/26/what-john-quincy-adams-tells-us-about-one-term-presidents/  Unger is also the author of John Quincy Adams (Da Capo Press, 2012), the most recently published biography of Adams.

2. Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Maberry Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol: Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation (New Academia Publishing, 2012), p. 84.

3. Information on all sixteen members of Congress who died in the United States Capitol can be accessed at http://politicalgraveyard.com/death/us-capitol.html At this time, the list remains incomplete, leaving open the possibility that others may be added in the future.