In keeping up with my long term goal of reading a biography on every president (you can read a previous post which contains a list on the books I have read so far by clicking here), I recently finished reading this book on our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. In reading the book, I have gained quite a bit of respect for our little known 6th president.
John Quincy Adams grew up the oldest son of John and Abigail Adams. Growing up in the tumultuous revolutionary years of our country, seeing the way in which his father labored for the country and was so maligned despite the sacrifices he made to help establish America, it is a wonder that he pursued a life of a politician. He was a man very much beholden to duty; a characteristic instilled from a very young age. Sent on his first diplomatic mission at the age of 14-15 as the aid to the US minister to Russia, he demonstrated a capacity for languages and for diplomacy. However, upon returning to America, John Quincy tried to follow his own path as much as his father would let him. He graduated from Harvard and began to pursue a career as a lawyer. It was a pursuit that would be interrupted by the call of duty, the call to serve his country. The call to serve was made harder to turn down as it came from the first president and revolutionary war hero, George Washington. Washington tapped the younger Adams (27 at the time) as minister to the Netherlands in 1794. It was in this diplomatic post that John Quincy would flourish in many ways. I wonder if being out from his father’s shadow had anything to do with the growth of John Quincy. I do know that the distance across the pond encouraged some boldness in finding a wife on the part of Adams. Having his plans dashed earlier in life by his meddling parents, Adams moved quickly in securing the hand of his wife Louisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of Joshua Johnson, the US Consul to Britain. To give credence to Adams’ short courtship, one must understand the meddling of his parents. John and Abigail had very strong opinions on the shape the future should take for their children, and when Abigail found out about her son’s intentions she wrote him, “Time will trim the luster of the eye, and wither the bloom of the face.” Abigail further encouraged John Quincy to “seek a more lasting union of friendship.” With the Atlantic separating them, John Quincy boldly replied back to his mother’s annoying meddling by writing that if he waited to find a woman that would suit her, “I would be doomed to perpetual celibacy.”
Adams’ successful life as a diplomat would open doors for Adams throughout his career, but upon the election of Jefferson and the animosity that grew between Adams father and the current president, it was apparent that Adams diplomatic life would be over for the time being. Adams returned to Massachusetts and was soon elected to the State legislature. Shortly after, he was appointed by the Massachusetts legislature to the US Senate to fill a vacant seat. While in the Senate, Adams proved to be his own man, not a party politician (imagine that) but a statesman who served for the good of the country as a whole and not just his party’s or his region’s best interests. This obviously alienated Adams from everyone and his first and only term as a US Senator ended abruptly as he was essentially forced to resign just months before his term was to expire. Things looked bleak for Adams at this time, but he didn’t stay unemployed long as new President James Madison called on Adams to be minister to Russia in recognition of Adams non-partisan work during the previous election.
Adams would make the most of his years abroad and it was during these 8 years that he would really make a name for himself as a diplomat and statesman. He would serve with great distinction and be among the chief architects of the Treaty of Ghent which officially ended the War of 1812. Adams made such a name for himself diplomatically that our 5th president, James Monroe would name John Quincy as secretary of state, a post with presidential aspirations if not implications as the 3rd, 4th, and 5th presidents all served at this post before becoming president. It would serve the same purpose for Adams as he would follow Monroe to the White House. However, it was probably in this realm of diplomacy and foreign policy that he really was at his best. In fact the well-known Monroe Doctrine that would police the Western Hemisphere for decades could just as simply been called the Adams Doctrine had he been in the White House at the time.
Elected the 6th president of the United States, Adams came to office amidst great turmoil. The election of 1824 ended with no candidate receiving enough electoral votes to be declared the winner. The popular vote definitely favored Andrew Jackson, but the Constitution called for the election to be decided by the House of Representatives. Henry Clay (Kentucky’s honored son) was the speaker of the House and also out of the election having not garnered enough votes to be considered by the House. Clay wielded a great amount of influence and power as he could shift his weight where ever he wanted. Striking a supposed “bargain” with John Quincy Adams, Clay through his support behind the secretary of state and favored son of the revolution. With the support of the speaker Adams was declared the winner in the house and became the 6th President of the United States. It was definitely a bittersweet time for Adams. While he celebrated victory and relished in the fact that his father lived to see the day, his opponents were crying foul and whispering of a “corrupt bargain” as Adams would name Henry Clay the next secretary of state. Jackson spent the next four years building up his election machine to ensure that Adams would be defeated.
John Quincy Adams was a man well ahead of his times and as a result was viewed by many to have had a less than spectacular presidential career. A great part of this comes from the propaganda campaign that Jackson successfully waged against his predecessor, but there was also Adams failings to grapple with reality. Many of his ideas were still just that for the time being, ahead of their time and the Adamsonian stubbornness would not allow him to relent on what he hoped to accomplish. With his presidential career over at the age of 61 (the same age his father became president), Adams believed his political career to be over and understandably so. Yet retirement would not fit Adams well, and just three years later he would accept a nomination as candidate for the US House of Representatives. Breaking with tradition, John Quincy Adams became the first president to return to public service after having served in the nation’s highest office.
The book I read is largely about Adams time as a congressman, a time that encompassed the last 17 years of his life. It was his “last crusade.” Adams was elected in 1831 and served in the House all the way up to his death in 1848, collapsing on the House floor and dying two days later in the speaker’s chamber. Adams last crusade was very much like the rest of his life, full of ups and downs. Adams would be lauded by those on both sides for the courageous stands he would take and vilified by both sides at the same time, to the point of facing censure. Adams was a man of no party, the ultimate statesman. Serving till his death and posting 50 years of service to his country, Adams endeared the greatest outpouring of grief since the passing of the legendary and iconic George Washington. The historical coincidence is uncanny as he collapsed on the birthday of Washington. The then speaker of the house captured well the luster that the passing of John Quincy Adams bore. Despite the fact that he never really won any political allies or seemed to enjoy the support of many, Adams was the last connection with the revolutionary era so endeared by the current generation. Speaker Winthrop said, “He was privileged to die at his post, to fall while in the discharge of his duties; to expire beneath the roof of the Capitol; and to have his last scene associated forever…with the birthday of that illustrious Patriot [Washington], whose just discernment brought him first into the service of his country.” While I have said more than I intended, I did so to jog your memory to one of, if not the greatest statesman our country has ever had. John Quincy Adams is a biography worth your time and attention. I particularly commend this one by Joseph Wheelan, Mr. Adam’s Last Crusade. Capturing very succinctly and effectively, Joseph Wheelan ably brings to life this great patriot and in my opinion, the last of the founding fathers. Let me leave you with the words of John Quincy’s son, Charles Francis in the epitaph he wrote for his father,
“Near this place reposes all that could die of John Quincy Adams son of John and Abigail [Smith] Adams sixth President of the United States, born 11 July, 1767, amidst the storms of Civil Commotion, he nursed the vigor which nerves a Statesman and a Patriot, and the Faith which inspires a Christian. For more than half a century, whenever his country called for his Labors, in either hemisphere or in any Capacity, he never spared them in her Cause. On the Twenty-fourth of December 1814, He signed our second Treaty with Great Britain, which restored peace within our borders; on the Twenty-third of February, 1848, he closed sixteen years of eloquent Defence of the Lessons of his Youth, by dying at his Post, in her Great National council. A son. worth of his Father, a Citizen, shedding glory on his Country, a Scholar ambitious to advance mankind, this Christian sought to walk humbly in the sight of God.”