Once Upon a Time in Quincy: Furniture witnessed birth of America's political parties

Posted: Sep. 1, 2011 3:39 pm Updated: Jan. 30, 2015 3:52 pm


Aside from the notable quality of their craftsmanship and beauty in their polished mahogany finishes, two pieces of furniture in the Gov. John Wood Mansion may get little more notice than the other 19th century furnishings there.

But these are pieces that are especially interesting in their historical significance, not only to the history of Quincy and Adams County but of the nation, as well: They attended the birth of the nation's political parties. And they are part of the collection of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.

In the Mansion's first floor parlor is an imposing mahogany sideboard, as big and as bold as the man who used it during his eight years in the White House. Like its owner President Andrew Jackson, it stands heroic in appearance. It served the president and his guests in the White House dining room from 1829 to 1837, a silent witness to the Age of Jackson.

It would have taken several Jackson commoners to move the bulky piece of furniture. Six feet long and nearly as tall, it is two feet deep and large enough to have held dozens of settings of presidential china and silver sets. A thick, beveled mirror and two mirrored insets rise above an inch-thick, Italian marble top framed by two deep drawers, each with filigreed brass pulls. Typical of American Federal-style furniture of the period, it has four unengaged columns, each topped by carved ionic capitals on either side of two side cupboards.

This sideboard was a silent witness to the turbulent history of the Jackson presidency. It would have been privy to the so-called Peggy Eaton controversy, an affair of loose morals involving Jackson's Secretary of War John Eaton and the promiscuous daughter of Washington innkeeper William O'Neale. Wives of most of Jackson's cabinet, led by the vice president's wife, Floride Calhoun, stirred the controversy, which took more of Jackson's attention than almost any other issue of his first year in office. It was substantially the reason Jackson turned to his "kitchen cabinet" for advice, ignoring and ultimately jettisoning his official cabinet.

The sideboard stood steadfast during some of Jackson's famous tirades against the Bank of the United States and its powerful president. Nicholas Biddle. It felt the warmth of increasingly heated debates over the right of states to annul federal laws. And it stood like a silent sentry before arguments over the issue that disturbed the sensitivities of the nation's sections -- the matter of slavery.

Mrs. Hazel M. Adams gave the Jackson sideboard to the Historical Society in 1991 in memory of her husband Carl N. Adams. The society's documentation indicates that after Jackson left office, the sideboard traveled from the White House to Philadelphia, where Charles R. Hurst, a prominent Springfield dry goods merchant, bought it in the 1840s. It became the property of Hurst's daughter, Mrs. Georgeine Hurst Starne of Springfield. The society's records do not indicate how the Adamses acquired the piece.

Another of the oldest and most prized pieces in the Historical Society's collection is a desk that belonged to President John Quincy Adams, Jackson's predecessor. Austere in appearance and utilitarian in design, the desk today is situated in a boy's bedroom on the second-floor of the Gov. John Wood Mansion. For all its understated qualities, the Adams desk had a significant role in chronicling American history by a man who made it. It was at this desk that Adams composed substantial portions of one of his most important legacies to history, his monumental diary, which he began keeping at the age of 11. He also did some of his five-times-daily Bible readings at the desk.

In 1825, the Illinois Legislature honored Adams, who was president at the time, by giving the state's westernmost county the Adams surname and the village that would serve as the county seat Adams's middle name. Had locals pronounced the name as Adams did, the city would be known as QUIN-zee.

The Adams desk was a gift to the Historical Society by Mrs. E.J. Parker in the first few years of the 20th century. An early Quincy newspaper of the time reported that the desk was discovered in Duxbury, Mass., with documents confirming its ownership by President Adams.

The desk is in the federal style, a common design during the early to mid-1800s. Like the man who used it, the desk is unassuming in appearance and character. Its writing area, which stretches across the width of the desk, is divided into three leather-covered sections. Each slopes slightly from back to front, and each has a top that lifts to reveal shallow storage compartments.

There are four drawers with brass knobs on either side of the knee hole. The upper section has two ledger cupboards over two small drawers and a space between them for books and other reference materials.

The connection of the Adams desk and Jackson sideboard to Quincy is related to the origin of party politics and famous Quincyans who took sides.

Men like Orville Hickman Browning, Abraham Jonas and John Wood adopted principles of John Quincy Adams and the "National Republican Party" (later Whig, then Republican).

At about the same time, Andrew Jackson and followers were creating the "Democratic Republican Party," shortened to the Democratic Party, which attracted the likes of Isaac N. Morris, James Singleton and Stephen A. Douglas. His political career launched from Quincy in 1843, Douglas by 1858 would be the most powerful Democrat in the nation.

Reg Ankrom is executive director of the Historical Society and a local historian. He is a member of several history-related organizations, the author of a history of Stephen A. Douglas and a frequent speaker on pre-Civil War history.


"Accession Record of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, Illinois." Accession No. F11, undated.

Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Quincy Optic. dates unknown.

Remini, Robert V. John Quincy Adams. New York: Times Books, 2002.

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