Salute to America’s Senior Statesmen: Ronald Reagan and John Quincy Adams

Although Ronald Reagan and John Quincy Adams died in very different ways, the national reaction was very similar. Adams collapsed after casting a vote at the House of Representatives and died two days later on February 23, 1848 at the age of 81. Reagan died at the age of 93 after enduring the ravages of Alzheimer’s for a decade. The death of both men evoked a tremendous outpouring of grief and a remarkable celebration of their achievements.

Adams’ dramatic death was one of the first media events in American history. The newly invented railroad and telegraph enabled millions of citizens to read about his death or see his casket. During the more than two weeks between his death and burial, hundreds of thousands saw Adams’ glass-covered coffin in the House of Representatives or as a train slowly carried it to Quincy, Massachusetts, stopping in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and several towns en route. Thanks to almost nonstop television coverage and the automobile, millions of Americans were able to view Reagan’s casket in Simi Valley or Washington. Television, radio, and print media have thoroughly reassessed Reagan’s life and lauded his legacy.

Reagan and Adams had radically different backgrounds and experiences as president.

Born almost 150 years apart, Adams was the son of a highly revered founding father and the nation’s second president while Reagan was the son an alcoholic shoe salesman. Educated in Europe and at Harvard, Adams served as a U. S. Senator, a diplomat in Holland, England, Germany, and Russia, Secretary of State, and, after his presidency, as a U.S. Congressman for seventeen years.

Prior to becoming the nation’s oldest president, Reagan was a radio sports announcer, a movie star, the president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, the host for the General Electric Theater television show, and the governor of California. Reagan was elected president twice in landslides. The House of Representatives selected Adams as president in 1824 after he finished second among four candidates in the popular and electoral vote to Andrew Jackson who soundly defeated him in the next election. By many measures, Reagan’s presidency was a resounding success, and he was a tremendously popular chief executive. Adams achieved almost none of his objectives during his four years in the White House. Fluent in five languages and very knowledgeable about history, science, and literature, Adams was widely esteemed as one of America’s most erudite presidents. By contrast, some questioned Reagan’s intellect and grasp of issues.

Nevertheless, in many other ways their lives were quite similar. They both had religiously devout mothers who helped instill within them a strong faith. Both attended church regularly (although Reagan did not while he was president). Adams was raised as a Congregationalist, but most of his life he alternated between attending Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Unitarian congregations (he could never decide for sure what to believe about the Trinity). Reagan worshipped in Disciple of Christ congregations until the 1960s and in Presbyterian ones thereafter. Both read the Bible faithfully and praised its teachings. Adams served as the president of the American Bible Society and wrote a series of letters to one of his sons about the importance of studying the Scriptures. Reagan served as an honorary chairperson of the Laymen’s National Bible Week from 1981 to 1985 and repeatedly urged Americans to read God’s word. Both strongly valued prayer and insisted frequently that God directed history and guided their lives. Adams and Reagan both argued that God had chosen America to play a special role in history. Both used religious rhetoric extensively in their speeches and called for spiritual and moral renewal.

The impact of their faith can be seen in the policies they pursued as president. In Reagan’s case, it is evident in his opposition to abortion, his support of school prayer, his efforts to promote volunteerism, and his battle against the Soviet Union. Adams’ faith helped shape his policies on internal improvements, Native Americans, slavery, and the United States’ relationship with Latin America. Both strongly emphasized and worked to further democracy and freedom around the world.

Although Adams, unlike Reagan, was not a popular president, by the time he died he was widely admired as “Old Man Eloquent.” Many Americans heralded him as the defense attorney in the Amistad case and as a staunch opponent of slavery and the Mexican War of 1846-48. Stricken while serving the country he loved, Adams was the last link with the founders of the United States. His death marked the end of an era. Reagan has been widely extolled for restoring America’s confidence and optimism, revitalizing its economy, and helping topple communism in the Soviet Union and end the Cold War. Eulogists have used the death of both presidents as a vehicle for reaffirming America’s heritage in a time of war and praising the superiority of American political institutions. Both men served God and their nation faithfully and effectively as they labored to make America “a shining city on a hill.”