(Click for Part 1 of this post.)
–by Ronald M. Johnson
The death of John Quincy Adams occurred just as the first telegraph links between major Eastern cities had been established. Word of his collapse on the floor of the House of Representatives, and his death two days later, spread rapidly throughout this section of the nation and along the first lines just opened to the west. The new technology helped produce, as Harlow Giles Unger observed, “a universal outpouring of grief” and broadened the immediate sense of mourning Americans felt over a loss of a great national figure. Fittingly, a former President who had always sponsored the scientific advance of knowledge was now honored in death through the use of an invention that dramatically had expanded public awareness of events as they occurred throughout the nation.
The state funeral staged in memory of Adams and then the procession to Congressional Cemetery took place on 26 February 1848. The events of that day were both “solemn” and “imposing,” as recalled by William Henry Seward, later a U.S. senator from New York and biographer of Adams. The parade to the graveyard, which commenced upon conclusion of the midday service in the House of Representatives, had special resonance given Adams’ prior visits to the cemetery. During his long years of service in the U.S. government, he had participated in many processions to Congressional Cemetery. It was appropriate that he was remembered in an elaborate parade to the same site, even if it was only to be a temporary stay.
The procession had many remarkable features, complete with military units, members of the House and Senate, President Polk and his cabinet, the Supreme Court, representatives of civil organizations, and the general public. At the center of the procession was the catafalque with the body of Adams, accompanied by twelve pallbearers. Perhaps the most intriguing pair of pallbearers was John Calhoun and Thomas Benton. Calhoun, a slave owner, had long been on the opposite aisle in Congress from Adams, but the two had remained friends. Calhoun must have had complicated emotions as he accompanied the body of John Adams to the graveyard. As for Thomas Benton, a moderate on the issue of slavery, opposing both its abolition or extension, he had stressed preserving the union among states. Like Calhoun, he was a long-time political opponent of the deceased. He had agreed, however, to deliver a speech seconding a motion in the Senate to honor Adams but later recalled his personal struggle in praising a politician he had so consistently opposed.
Upon reaching Congressional Cemetery, the body of John Quincy Adams was placed in the Public Vault, where it stayed for approximately one week. On 5 March 1848, the Adams family and a select group of Congressmen oversaw the delivery of Adams’ remains to the train station located on the mall just west of the Capitol, and then accompanied the body of the former president on a five-day, five-hundred-mile journey to Quincy for burial there. The train stopped at both large and small towns along the way, where waiting crowds paid their final respects. In the countryside, the cortege passed through long lines of people standing silently with bowed heads.
The state funeral of John Quincy Adams was staged by Congress as part of an evolving tradition that stretched back to the death George Washington. The first U.S. President had been buried on the grounds of Mt. Vernon after a private funeral conducted according to Masonic rites. The format of private funerals for his successors continued through the 1830s. Earlier, however, in 1812 and 1814, Congress had held state funerals and processions for Vice Presidents George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry. Those two ceremonies created a model that would be in place in 1841 for the funeral and burial of William Henry Harrison and, seven years later, Adams. In 1850, Congress held a similar state funeral and burial for Zachary Taylor. Thus, fifteen years before the greatest of all presidential funerals following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Congress had established a tradition of state funerals and processions that remains in place today.
1. Information on the founding of the telegraph and the role Congress played in advancing its development can be accessed on-line at http://inventors.about.com/od/tstartinventions/a/telegraph.htm
2. For more details of the Adams funeral and procession see Lynn Hudson Parsons, “The ‘Splendid Pageant’: Observations on the Death of John Quincy Adams,” The New England Quarterly 53 (December 1980), 464-482.
3. The history of U. S. presidential funeral processions is most recently studied in 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), 80-94.
Congressional Cemetery’s website includes a page with collected newspaper accounts of Adams’ stroke, death, and funeral procession.