Most of our Presidents gained early political experience while serving in Congress. Of our 42 Presidents (remember, Cleveland served twice), all but 18 served in at least one house of Congress. Eleven of them served in both houses of Congress.
James Madison was the first President to have Congressional experience (under the Constitution). Often called “The Father of the Constitution,” Madison had been largely responsible for establishing a strong central government. He was one of the principal authors of the Federalist Papers, encouraging voters to support ratification of the new Constitution. He was elected to the House of Representatives in the first four Congresses, being elected to his fourth term as a member of the newly organized Democratic-Republican Party. Although he started favoring a strong central government, Madison came to agree with Jefferson that it was taking too much power unto itself, and he opposed Hamilton’s economic program.
The district from which Madison was elected to the House of Representatives was also the home district of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. In fact, Madison was elected to his first term in the House by defeating James Monroe. Shortly after the election, Madison was elected to the Senate by the Virginia legislature (Senators were elected by the state legislatures of their state until the 17th Amendment changed the method of election in time for the 1914 election), but declined. Madison, who as the principal author of the Constitution knew the Congress well, decided that as a young man with a political future, he would rather serve in the House than accept “honorable retirement” to the Senate. He fully expected the real power to be in the House rather than the Senate. Madison went on to serve as Secretary of State and then President following Thomas Jefferson.
When James Madison declined to accept election to the Senate, the legislature then elected James Monroe to the seat. Monroe accepted. Monroe was actually elected to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Senator William Grayson. Monroe was elected to a full term of his own in 1791. He served from November 9, 1790 until he resigned his seat on May 27, 1794, when he was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to France. He later served as both Secretary of State and Secretary of War before being elected to succeed James Madison as President.
John Quincy Adams was the first President to serve in both houses of Congress. Son of our second President, John Adams, John Quincy Adams was elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 36. He almost immediately established his independent stance by siding with the man who defeated his father, Thomas Jefferson, and the hated Embargo Act. Adams felt that the Embargo Act, while harmful to New England’s economy, was the best thing for the nation. For this act of perfidy, the Massachusetts legislature elected his replacement six months early. Adams then resigned from the Senate. He then served in a number of positions, mainly in the diplomatic service. Secretary of State under James Monroe, Adams was elected to succeed Monroe as President. His election was by the House Representatives, as provided in the Constitution, when the Electoral College failed to name a winner. He was defeated for re-election to a second term (it seemed to run in the family) by Andrew Jackson.
After his resounding defeat for re-election to the White House, Adams returned to his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. The next year, the people of Quincy asked him to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. Adams agreed to run on two conditions: 1) that he never be expected to promote himself as a candidate and ask for votes and 2) that it be understood he would pursue a course in Congress independent of any party and the people who elected him. Under those terms, he was elected and held his seat in the House until he died in 1848, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. After his first election to the House, he wrote in his diary, “I am a member-elect of the Twenty-Second Congress. No election or appointment conferred upon me ever gave me so much pleasure. My election as President of the United States was not half so gratifying to my inmost soul.” As a member of the House of Representatives, John Quincy Adams often found himself in the minority on major issues. He supported the continuation of the Bank of the United States, opposed the annexation of Texas, and voted against the declaration of war with Mexico in 1846. His greatest victory was his successful struggle against the Gag Rule. In 1836, the House had voted to automatically table without debate any petition critical of slavery. Adams felt this violated the constitutional right of petition and fought against the rule for eight years. Finally, in 1844, the House voted to repeal the Gag Rule. During his long tenure in the House, Adams earned the nickname of Old Man Eloquent. He suffered a serious stroke in 1848, and was carried to the Speakers chambers, where he died several days later. John Quincy Adams remains the only President to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives after his term in the White House.
Andrew Jackson, who succeeded John Quincy Adams as President, had also served in both houses of Congress. After serving in a number of offices in Tennessee, Jackson was elected to the fourth and fifth Congresses, serving from December 5, 1796 until he resigned in September 1797, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He served in the Senate from September 26, 1797 until he resigned in April 1798, when he became a judge of the Tennessee Supreme Court. After his successful military exploits in the War of 1812, Jackson was again elected to the Senate, serving from March 4, 1823 until October 14, 1825 when he resigned. During this time, he served as Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. His resignation was in protest of the “corrupt bargain” that elected his opponent, John Quincy Adams, to the Presidency. Jackson then spent the next several years organizing his next, and ultimately successful, campaign for the White House.
In the next article, we will look at the Presidents prior to the Civil War and see how their time in Congress shaped their Presidential administrations.