Monumentally Speaking . . .
Christopher T. George

John Quincy Adams and "The Monumental City"

P resident John Quincy Adams, brilliantly portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins in the recent film Amistad, is the man responsible for designating Baltimore as "The Monumental City." When Adams visited the city in fall 1827, work had been completed on the Battle Monument celebrating the city's defensive victory in the War of 1812 on the site of the old court house. Construction was also well under way on the first major memorial to George Washington on land given by Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard on a rise in "Howard's Woods," the area we know today as Mount Vernon. No wonder Adams gave the city its "monumental" designation. Yet, as we will discuss, perhaps his calling Baltimore by this famous name had as much to do with a lesser known Baltimore County monument as with these two more famous city monuments.

     John Quincy Adams, the son of our second president, John Adams, was a starchy and religious Bostonian. In his diary, in fact, he described himself as "a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners." Besides being the only son of a president to achieve himself the highest office in the land, he was the only president to be married to a foreign-born wife. In 1797, while serving as a diplomat in Europe, at the age of thirty, he had married English-born Louisa Catherine Johnson, aged twenty-two. According to authors Jess Brallier and Sally Chabert in their recommended Presidential Wit and Wisdom (Penguin Books, 1996), Mrs. Adams "eventually became reclusive and depressed" and "regretted ever having married into the Adams family, the men of which she found cold and insensitive." Compounding the coldness she felt from her husband and his family, the authors noted that Mrs. Adams' depression was heightened by the untimely death of the couple's two eldest sons.

    Classing himself "a gloomy misanthrope," Adams may have wondered what type of reception he might receive in Baltimore, which had largely voted against him in the election of 1824--as had the rest of the nation, which gave the popular vote narrowly to Andrew Jackson. Only a vote of Congress gave Adams the presidency.

    Adams arrived in Baltimore by boat from the north on the afternoon of October 14, 1827. He noted in his diary that he was transported to Barnum's Hotel, where he laid his head down and slept until sunrise. On waking, he was told of the sudden death of General John Eager Howard and was asked if he would stay an additional day in the city to attend the hero's funeral. Adams agreed to do so, even though he and the general's eldest son had been political rivals. The following day, he went by carriage to Belvidere, Howard's residence, and "took a last view of his lifeless face before the procession moved from his house." He described the procession to Old St. Paul's Cemetery as being "very long" and including the "militia of the city in military array." He remarked that seemingly the whole population of Baltimore either was in the procession or watching from the curb or the windows of houses along the route.

    In the afternoon, he received visitors from three to four o'clock in the great hall at Barnum's Hotel, then had dinner with a committee of citizens at which he made a toast to the "living and the dead"--to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, and John Eager Howard, the hero of the Battle of Cowpens. Then, from seven until ten o'clock, he met around 2,000 citizens of the city.

     Some conception of the demands on a president can be gained by his description of the event. "They came in a continual unceasing stream," he wrote. "I shook hands with them all, and among them all there were not twenty whom I had seen before." A few of the men were drunk. "One [man] very much in liquor, while shaking my hand, said, 'Mr. President, I hope the Constitution may never be broken.' I answered, 'I concur heartily with you in that wish, and hope also that your constitution may never be broken.'" It no doubt cheered him that although so many of the Baltimoreans were politically opposed to him, "many told me they hoped I should be re-elected."

     The affair finally ended about ten o'clock when the hall was nearly empty. Adams recorded that he "retired, somewhat exhausted, to bed."

    The following morning, he went in a procession of War of 1812 veterans out to the battleground of North Point, thus becoming the only sitting U.S. President to visit the battlefield where Baltimore's militia made a stand against the might of the British army, striking an important blow and killing the British commander, Major General Robert Ross. Adams remarked, "The distance is about nine miles from the town, over a barren country, covered great part of the way with forest-trees, now undressing for the winter." He was taken to see the Aquila Randall monument, erected by the First Mechanical Volunteers of the Fifth Regiment of Maryland militia in memory of a member of their company killed September 12, 1814 in a skirmish preceding the battle. As recorded on one side of the monument, in the same skirmish in which Private Randall died, British General Ross "received his mortal wound."

    Adams described the monument as "a pyramid of white stone, about four feet high, resting on a pedestal, with suitable inscriptions on its four sides." We know that this small monument made an impact on Adams because he took particular care to note that "These inscriptions, with an account of the erection of the monument on the 28th of July, 1817, and the address of Captain B. C. Howard, commander of the company at the time, are contained in Niles' Register of the 2nd of August of that year--vol. xii, p. 367."

    Although the Aquila Randall monument is in present-day Baltimore County, in 1827 Baltimore City and County were one jurisdiction. So in all probability this monument, along with its more well-known brothers, the Battle Monument and the Washington Monument, inspired Adams at dinner that evening to describe Baltimore as "The Monumental City."

     Adams stated that there were "no other traces" of the battle, though he was shown "an oak-tree in which, [it was] said, more than twenty of the enemy's musket-balls had lodged." Adams noted, "I picked up under the wounded tree half a dozen white-oak acorns to plant them in Washington." Thus, perhaps then some of the trees at the White House are descendants of that Baltimore County oak tree. A subject perhaps of further research.

    Adams dined that evening with the committee and "a party of about thirty persons, consisting of members of the [Society of the] Cincinnati [comprising Revolutionary War veterans] and of the persons wounded at the battle of North Point." On his right hand, sat the commander of Baltimore during the great battle, Major General Samuel Smith, and on his left, the Collector of the Port of Baltimore, James H. McCulloh. Adams said the dinner was short. The local committee proposed a toast to their distinguished guest, "The United States of America--may other countries learn from them that the easy access of the people to their rulers is the means of confidence on the one side, and of right government on the other." In response, the President offered two toasts. "Ebony and topaz--General Ross's posthumous coat of arms, and the republican militiamen who gave it." He then thanked the committee and the citizens of Baltimore "for the kindness of the reception they had given me." And he proposed a final toast: "Baltimore, the Monumental City--may the days of her safety be as prosperous and happy as the days of her danger have been trying and triumphant!"

[Device] Christopher T. George is a local free-lance writer and poet and the author of the recent picture book on our city, Baltimore Close Up, from Arcadia Publishers, on sale at local bookstores.

Questions or comments about this article for Mr. George.

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