Book Review: John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams (American Profiles (Madison House Paperback))John Quincy Adams (American Profiles) by Lynn Hudson Parsons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hit the first road block in my Presidential Reading Project when it came time to find a biography on the sixth U.S. President. The selection at the library was slim; the few books they had were either massive tomes or simplified editions for the school-age set. A little digging revealed this book by Parsons and I’m glad it did. I went from thinking John Quincy would be a dull entry in my presidential project to believing that John Adam’s eldest son is one of the more unappreciated statesmen in U.S. history.

What a fascinating life John Quincy had, spending a good deal of his youth and early diplomatic career in Europe, first with his father and later as minister to the Netherlands, (at the appointment of President George Washington), Russia, and England. His foreign service culminated in a term as Secretary of State, one of the finest in U.S. history. John Quincy spoke multiple languages and was a quick study, mastering policy and rules of order, skills that served him well as Secretary of State (during Monroe’s term) and then as a Congressman in the 1830s and ‘40s.

Adams was a witness to and participant in many a momentous event in early U.S. history: he was the son of one of the most famous and influential Founding Fathers; he drafted and negotiated the Treaty of Ghent (which ended the War of 1812); he drafted treaties dealing with the acquisition of Florida, disputes over the borders between U.S and British territory to the north and Spanish territory to the south; he was the author of the Monroe Doctrine, was instrumental in the founding of the Smithsonian Institute, argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court, was a leading voice in the anti-slavery movement, was sensitive to the issues of Native Americans who were being expelled from their lands, and participated in a bitter Presidential election (against Andrew Jackson) that forever shaped the course of modern political races.

Adams followed in the senior Adams’ footsteps, devoting his life to the service of his country and forging his own impressive career. And, like father, like son, his turn as President was also a disappointing single term in office. The reasons for that are as interesting as Adams’ successes.

John Quincy Adams is chock full of insight and information, a pleasure to read and never dull. Every stage of this impressive statesman’s life touches on great moments in his generation’s history. It’s unfortunate that he’s not better remembered today.

Interesting items I noted while reading this book:

  • During the War of 1812, there were grumblings in Massachusetts to have New England split off to maintain trading ties with England. I’m continually surprised to read how many times in early U.S. history different sections of the country threatened to succeed long before the Civil War.
  • Just as John Adams had a famous bitter political battle with Thomas Jefferson for the Presidency, followed by a long falling-out by the once close friends, so did his son with rival (and one-time ally) Andrew Jackson; theirs was a bitter hatred that would last forever.
  • The election of 1824, in which John Quincy succeeded as President, has been the only time in U.S. history in which the House of Representatives chose the leading candidates and the only election in which there were no national parties.
  • Politics, especially for a man like JQA, was a totally different game. According to Parsons, “the third factor contributing to the Administration’s downfall was President Adams’ refusal to promote his own ideas, to protect himself from his enemies, and to reward through his appointive power those who believed in him.” How far we have come.
  • During the election of 1828 (incumbent Adams vs. war hero Jackson), it was New York Senator Martin Van Buren who ushered in a new wave of political parties and partisanship. The election also marked a new low as presidential candidates and their families were attacked and defamed in speeches, campaigning and print.
  • JQA met with great resistance, both as President and later Congressman, fighting for his belief that government should be an “engine of improvement,” building infrastructure (bridges, canals, roads) to support the common good.
  • JQA earned the nickname “Old Man Eloquent” for his stirring oratory as a Congressman.
  • After the death of Revolutionary War hero Marquis de La Fayette in 1834, John Quincy (who was one of the few men alive who had known the French war hero during his heyday) was asked to give the eulogy before a gathering of the House and Senate. It lasted for three hours.
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