My Take on John Quincy Adams……..Paul Nagel’s Biography of the 6th President

“It may confound some readers that a biography of any American president should devote only a single chapter to his administration.  Nevertheless, such brevity seems appropriate for John Quincy Adams.  His four years in the White House were misery for him and his wife.  All that he hoped to accomplish was thwarted by a hostile Congress.  His opponents continually assailed him with what he claimed was the foulest slander.  Consequently, when Adams sought reelection in 1828, he did so mostly from stubborn pride, and he actually looked impatiently toward his certain defeat by Andrew Jackson.  For the remaining twenty years of his life, he reflected on his presidency with distaste, convinced that he had been the victim of evildoers. His administration was a hapless failure and best forgotten, save for the personal anguish it cost him.”

So, it appears that Barack Obama is not the first president whose agenda has been stopped by a hostile Congress, and certainly not the first to be the victim of “the foulest slander”.  John Quincy Adams could say “Been there, faced that”.

Taking  the conclusion of Paul Nagel (author of “John Quincy Adams: a Public Life, a Private Life”) as accurate, it must be said that J.Q. Adams’ failure as a president was a shame, because his policies were good ones – he wanted to limit the spread of slavery, he wanted to build a strong infrastructure of roads and canals, he wanted to use his extensive foreign policy experience to settle final boundaries and reach accommodation with the powers of the world on trade and navigation matters.  But he could not do it.

One of the reasons he was so unsuccessful as a president is that the country was then, as it is now, divided on many issues (and that the divisions could not be pressed too hard because, less than 50 years since the founding of the United States, the country was not yet a firm political entity.  But it also was a result of John Quincy Adams’ personality, which was the opposite of “hale fellow, well met”.  Adams was testy, outspoken, aloof, and very sure of himself and his positions.  Not the kind of personality to be flexible enough to lead a diverse country.

Nagel’s well written biography covers the 80 years of Adams’ life in about 400 pages.  This means that each year gets an average of 5 pages, not very much for an American, son of the country’s second president, who spent over 60 years of his life in public service.  Nagel responded to this challenge by writing a biography that focused not only on the big events of Adams’ life, but on his feelings as time went on, ignoring some of the details of his public work.  A good choice, especially because Adams was a rather compulsive journalist (as was his wife), so that there is much material to work from.  But it also meant that, having finished the book, I thought it might be interesting to read a different account of John Quincy Adams’ presidency, looking at more of the daily details, things that Nagel glosses over.

John Adams, J.Q.’s father, was also a difficult public personality, leaving the presidency after one term, with great bitterness.  In the case of his son, the apple did not fall far from the tree, but the difficulties of J.Q.’s presidency should not turn one away from his accomplishments during the remaining 50+ years of his career.

Having traveled extensively in Europe when his father represented the young country abroad, and gained experience that enabled him to be a successful ambassador to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia and England during which time he also acted as agent of the United States in working out relationships with revolutionary France and helped negotiate the Jay Treaty (officially ending the tensions remaining after the Revolutionary War) and the Treaty of Ghent (ending the War of 1812).  He also served a term as a United States Senator from Massachusetts, and became James Monroe’s Secretary of State, where he was at least as central as the president in establishing what became known as the Monroe Doctrine.

Yet, Adams was always ambiguous about public service, expressing the desire to devote himself to intellectual pursuits, literature poetry and history, which he believed to be a higher calling.  He wrote throughout his life (although he was better at starting projects than seeing them to completion – a fact which he rued his whole life), and for a while taught at Harvard.  He was very hard on himself, sensitive to criticism yet unwilling to compromise principals, and as I said, willing and sometimes even anxious to attract enemies as well as friends.  He liked the battle.  He thought the principles important.

Even after his loss of the presidency to Jackson, Adams did not walk away from politics, but instead was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served for seventeen years, jousting with his enemies, working with his friends, taking strong stands against slavery, and for the economic development of the country. He also took time to represent the Amistad defendants before the Supreme Court.

Through all of this time, he was bolstered by his marriage of more than 50 years to Louisa Johnson, and by his good relationship with his father.  His relationship with his mother Abigail, a stern and demanding mother, was much more fraught.

The Adams’ had three sons.  One, Charles, continued the Adams dynasty, having a large family including historians Henry and Charles Francis Adams.  His other two sons, George and John were both quite troubled and gravely disappointing to their father. George committed suicide and John died of illness at the age of 31.

Throughout his life, he faced periods of depression, but he soldiered on. Particularly in his later years, he suffered from a variety of diseases, but he continued to push himself.  He was never satisfied that he had accomplished enough to make his life worthwhile.

I recommend Nagel’s book highly.  Having it read it, I feel like John Quincy Adams is an old friend whom I know well.  What more can you ask from a biography?

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