Given the – I’ll say “controversial” – behavior of the recent president-elect, and the rage it has been inciting all across the internet, now might be the perfect time to reflect on the history of the nation’s highest office, with a special focus its bizarro tendency toward strange personal projects of those who inhabit it. Without any sort of partisan leanings, one can easily say that the presidency can attract some eccentric figures. It would have to. What sort of egomaniac has the gumption to declare they have a right to have a say in all laws and policies?
Looking back over all of this country’s presidents reveals a whole slew of leaders with weird habits. Some were great, some were awful, but all of them were American citizens with enough conceit to think they can do the job the best; They are the ones who can propose the best laws; They are the only ones who have the courage and the know-how to protect us from the encroaching army of mole people that live deep within the Earth.
That’s what John Quincy Adams felt, anyway. In the early 1820s, before Adams had taken office, he decided to curry favor with voters by approving an expedition to the center of the hollow Earth in order to explore the enormous subterranean world inside, and to meet the people that may live down there. Trump’s wall along the Mexican border seems downright quaint in comparison.
In the 1820s, there were popular scientific theories being floated that the Earth may actually be hollow. According to the hollow-Earth theorists, there were giant chasms at both the North and South Pole that opened into an entire planet inside our planet. The inside shell of the Earth’s crust was, according to some theories, sustained by a miniature sun that hung where the planet’s core should be and that shone on the entire interior of the planet 24 hours a day. Given that model, it was easy to extrapolate that life had “evolved” (to use an anachronistic term; “evolution” wasn’t to be part of the conversation for a few more decades) inside the Earth, and that entire civilizations, cut off from the surface, were thriving down there.
Although it’s easy to disprove all of this (although there are still Hollow Earth Societies in operation to this very day), it wasn’t common knowledge in the 1820s. Many citizens wanted to know more about the planet, and expeditions were needed to explore all of these hollow Earth theories. The theories were being promoted by a ex-soldier named John Cleves Symmes, Jr., and it was Symmes who initially approached congress about obtaining a government grant to lead an expedition.
The theories were a joke to the scientific communities, of course, and Symmes was laughed at everywhere. Nonetheless, he pursued this expedition for years. Eventually, he found the perfect match in John Quincy Adams.
John Quincy Adams, the son of a president, was elected by unconventional means. In 1824, faith in the political system was at an all-time low, and candidates were dropping like flies. One of Adams’ political rivals, Andrew Jackson – a divisive figure at best – actually received more votes than Adams, but didn’t secure the electoral college. Adams, indeed, received a very low number of popular votes, leaving a very unclear winner of the election. Under such circumstances, the 12th amendment comes into play, letting the House of Representatives select the best president. Jackson was too controversial, and Adams ended up making a few deals with other politicians, essentially making it into office on bargains and technicalities. It was a hotly contested time.
Adams only served one term, by the way. Jackson succeeded him.
But in order to prove that he was a decisive candidate, Adams had to start communicating with the people in new ways, reaching out to his constituents, and listening to proposals being made in the house. When John Celeves Symmes, Jr. came to the government asking for help, Adams’ ears perked up.
Adams was a big fan of the sciences and of natural philosophy. He often wrote about the glories of the natural world and talked about it in near-religious terms. Adams wrote in his diary: “I saw the sun rise and set, clear, from Charles’ house on the hill. The pleasure that I take in witnessing these magnificent phenomena of physical nature never tires; it is a part of my own nature, unintelligible to others…. The sensations which affect me at the rising and setting sun are first, adoration to the power and goodness of the Creator…mingled in the morning with thanksgiving…and in the evening with sadness…and with humble supplication for forgiveness of my own errors and infirmities.”
So any exploration of the planet was a good idea to Adams, even if it was as bonkers as going to the middle of the Earth to meet the mole men. Symmes’ proposal was largely mocked by Washington, and no one would back the expedition, but Adams was ready to go forth. By backing the expedition, and – oddly – braving the waters of being unpopular, Adams managed to pursue his interests and prove himself to be decisive all at once.
It’s clear that Adams was using Symmes as political leverage, of course, but Adams was also legitimately interested in what Symmes was saying. Part of Symmes’ proposal was to conduct trade with the people living in the middle of the planet, so Adams was, perhaps, hoping that this new untapped resource of mole men and their wares would be a boon to his presidency. At the very least, Adams could be the one behind an expedition to the North Pole, an unexplored region, hoping to map out more of the planet.
Fast forward a few years, and the new president, Jackson, immediately put the kibosh on Adams’ quest to meet the mole people, and it was never to be. Adams still managed to reduce debt, and his interest in the sciences led to the circumstances that could create the Smithsonian institute. He only served one term, however, taking his dreams of inner-Earth exploration to whatever personal level he wanted.
No president has proposed a hollow Earth expedition since.
At least as far as the public knows.