We read a great deal about what a President does while he is in the White House, but very little is written about what he does after he leaves office. Most of our Presidents have continued to serve their country in a number of ways.
George Washington had no precedent to follow in retirement, any more than he did in office. He happily returned to his estate, Mount Vernon. As the tension with France increased after the X-Y-Z Affair, President John Adams decided to prepare the army for a possible war. Adams appointed Washington “Lieutenant General and Commander in Chief of the armies raised or to be raised.” Washington accepted the commission on July 4, 1798 on the condition that he would only take the field in case of invasion and that he had approval rights over the composition of the general staff. Washington spent a few weeks traveling and establishing his plans in case of war, and then waited at home at Mount Vernon for the call to arms. The war never came, and Washington resigned his commission. He died the next year. Washington remains the only President to serve on active military duty after his term as President.
John Adams lived for twenty-five years after leaving the White House. He never again served in office, but did renew his friendship with Thomas Jefferson. Their correspondence covered politics, religion, philosophy, current events, and much more. They both died on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years to the day after the approval of the Declaration of Independence. Adams’ last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” But Jefferson had died several hours earlier in Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson accomplished more after retiring than most people do in their entire career. In addition to his renewed correspondence with John Adams and many others, he founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia and served as its first rector, or president. Jefferson wanted to create a university “ based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.” He designed the building, supervised the construction, hired the faculty and determined the curriculum. He also instituted the system of academic electives. The University of Virginia, called Mr. Jefferson’s University by the students and faculty, continues today as one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the country.
James Madison spent his retirement years tending to his estate. Poor crops and his son’s gambling debts left him with little cash. In 1829, Madison represented Orange County at the Virginia Constitutional Convention.
At the convention, Madison was drawn into the debate over nullification. Southerners supporting the right of a state to declare a federal law null and void within their respective states cited as precedents the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Madison publicly repudiated the Nullification movement, stating that it had never been his intention to grant the states the power to nullify a law or dissolve the Union. He denounced the doctrines of Nullification and Secession as “twin heresies.”
Believing that slavery was undermining the Union, Madison favored a gradual abolition of slaves and resettlement of freed blacks in Africa. In 1819, he helped organize the American Colonization Society, which founded the nation of Liberia as a colony for former American slaves.
Madison helped Thomas Jefferson create the University of Virginia, and served on the Board of Regents. In 1826, he succeeded Jefferson as Rector of the University. He, in turn, was succeeded by James Monroe.
James Monroe retired to his estate, Oak Hill, near Leesburg, Virginia. At the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829, he represented the Loudoun-Fairfax region and was elected president of the convention. After the death of his wife the next year, Monroe sold Oak Hill and moved to New York City to live with one of his daughters and her husband. Monroe died there on July 4, 1831, the third President to die on that date.
Probably the greatest ex-President of all times was John Quincy Adams. After his resounding defeat for re-election to the White House, he 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.” Having been during his long career a member of the Federalist, Democratic-Republican and National Republican parties, he was elected to the House as an Anti-Mason and later as a Whig.
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.
In the next article, we will continue examining the lives and careers of the Presidents after they left the White House.