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John Quincy Adams's tenure as James Monroe's secretary of state ranks among the most productive in the history of that office. But Adams's often tactless ways were ill-suited for the presidency, and when his vision for such items as a comprehensive national transportation system met with hostility in Congress, he would not compromise. As a result, his administration's accomplishments were meager.

But Adams was not through with political life. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1830, he served there until his death. In his prolonged and successful struggle defending the antislavery movement's right to petition Congress, "Old Man Eloquent" had gained a circle of admirers that extended well beyond his Massachusetts constituency.

When Adams sat for this portrait, he doubted that artist George Caleb Bingham could produce "a strong likeness." But Bingham did just that, and the portrait's vitality seems to echo Ralph Waldo Emerson's comment that the aging Adams was "like one of those old cardinals, who as quick as he is chosen Pope, throws away his crutches and his crookedness, and is as straight as a boy."

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