John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams at age 29 by John Singleton Copley. JOHN HAD HAIR!
I don’t know if there has ever been a better son in the history of sons of famous people. His mother Abigail was always worried about his immortal soul. He knew exactly the right things to say to reassure her, especially when he was in that den of iniquity (Europe). His father John Adams, second President of the United States, was a man of passions, often feeling untolerated and intolerable. He made enemies easier than friends and would never toe the party line. To be his son, his eldest son especially, it must have been like being born in a tea kettle on full burn. JQA spent long hours every day working at his studies because his father wanted him to. He was supplied with tutors and never did attend regular public school.
Somehow he handled his father when others found him impossible.
When John Adams is dispatched to Europe to help negotiate treaties and try to convince foreign powers to lend the burgeoning United States money, 11 year old JQA accompanied him. JQA went to France, Netherlands, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. He spent very few of his formative years in America. It was funny, but he made a note of the pretty girls of Sweden who made his heart go pitter patter. When I say he made a note, what I really mean is he made a journal entry. In 1779, he started keeping a journal and kept adding his daily observations until right up just before he died in 1843. This journal is 50 volumes of pure gold to researchers not only about his life, but also about the times he lived in.
He picked up languages very quickly and became a scholar of Latin and Greek. He translated Juvenal for fun, even though it was a bit racy for him. He also later read Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which made me laugh out loud because I’m sure there was plenty of squirming in his seat and tsk tsks muttering from his moralistically bent mind. I have to believe the way that he sought works like this out over the space of his life that he may doth protest their inappropriateness a bit too much.
JQA was a poet. ”A man who writes so well in prose perhaps should have no need to be a poet. But Adams did.” Here is an example of him having fun when a servant girl is found to be with child...well after she has the baby.
Poor Betsey was a maiden pure
Declined in years, but so demure
That Man was her aversion;
And night by night her door she barred
With treble bolts, her fame to guard
From Slander’s foul aspersion.
When lo! all in the dead of Night
Came Mary, breathless with a affright
Wringing her hands and crying
“Oh! Mistress! Mistress! Rouse! Awake!
To Betsey come, for Heaven’s sweet sake!
Poor Betsey!--She’s a dying!”
The Lady, tender and humane,
Starts from her bed, and flies amain,
The wonder to unravel.--
Flies to where Betsey lays and moans
And straight perceives what caused her groans
--Poor Betsey!--was--in travel!!
JQA had the soul of a poet, and if he had been a different man’s son, he may have been a poet, but if there was ever a man born and bred to be a politician, it was John Quincy Adams. Here is his version of a European tour.
He is nominated to go to the Netherlands as a diplomat by George Washington from 1794-1797.
He married Louisa Johnson in 1797. She is the daughter of an American merchant with dubious financial difficulties. She will later become the only foreign born first lady of the United States.
He is nominated to go to Prussia by his father and then president John Adams from 1797-1801. They accused the Adam’s family of nepotism, of course, but frankly there wasn’t a better qualified person in America than JQA to represent us overseas.
He is nominated to go to Russia by James Madison from 1809-1814, then to London from 1814-1817.
He was a man that desperately wanted to come home.
John Quincy Adams looking a bit more portly and bookish.
From 1817-1825, he was Secretary of State for Monroe. He is considered by most historians as the greatest Secretary of State in the history of that office. In what will be only one of a long list of important documents that he will be entrusted to compose in his lifetime, his most long reaching one was when he wrote the Monroe Doctrine. “It became a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States and one of its longest-standing tenets, and would be invoked by many U.S. statesmen and several U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and others.”
John Quincy Adams White House Portrait by GPA Healy.
It is a good thing that the 1824 Presidential election was not decided in the boxing ring, or by pistols at dawn, or by the flashing of clashing sabers for John Quincy Adams was pitted against the fiery, strong willed, strong armed, hero of New Orleans, made of Old Hickory, the one and only Andrew Jackson.
Jackson won the popular vote and the electoral vote helped by the three-fifths compromise which boosted Southern seats in Congress by counting each slave as three-fifths of a man. Jackson was measuring the oval office for drapes and rugs and looking for the best place to keep his drubbing cane near to hand. He did not win the majority of electoral votes so the decision is passed to the House of Representatives. They were to choose between the top three candidates Adams, Jackson, and Crawford. Now Henry Clay came in fourth and was not allowed to be on the ballot, but as speaker of the house, he was “clothed in immense power.” (Okay I stole that from the Lincoln movie, but man I love that line.) Clay swung the vote to Adams, and Adams promptly nominated him for Secretary of State which in those days was saying this is the next President of the United States.
Jacksonites went berserk. Jackson probably spent more than a few nights howling at the moon between furious bouts of scribbling out his enemies list in blood. It was in many ways a stolen election, and even though I like Jackson, despite my disagreements with many of his policies, I couldn’t help but feel vindication for the 5’7” scholar from Massachusetts.
Maybe good, old dad said: “Son, I’m so proud that you finally made something of yourself.” *Sigh*.
One point I really want to make about this situation: Jackson was wildly popular and certainly could have initiated a coup, justifiable in his mind by thinking it is really just a coup for a coup. It didn’t happen. When things were hinky with the Rutherford B. Hayes election...no coup attempt. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 and was, in my opinion, denied his rights to a recount in Florida. He conceded (best speech of your life Al) with grace and dignity. New Hampshire, don’t think I’m not still casting a disappointed look at you over those 2000 election results. There were angry people over the results, but no armed insurrection (and believe me, here in the states we are armed to the teeth). Somehow, even when we know things aren’t right with our political system, we still trust that it will all work out eventually.
Well, JQA, being the practical man he is, decided to stop the practice of patronage with government positions. He wanted people judged by their ability not their political affiliation. Both he and his father were becoming less than enamoured with political parties.
”There is not a party in this country with which an honest man can act without blushing, and I feel myself rather more strongly attached to my principles than to the ambition of any place or power in the gift of this Country.”
That was senior saying that, but for reelection in 1828 JQA would need all the help he could get. He certainly would have increased his chances if he had packed all the government jobs with his own loyal following, but more than likely, Jackson would have still won.
Speaking of political affiliations, JQA did struggle mightily with party politics. He started out life as a Federalist, like his father, until 1808. From 1808-1830, he was a Democratic-Republican. From 1830-1834, he was a National Republican. From 1834-1838, he was Anti-Masonic. He ended his career a Whig. Talk about a guy finding it hard to find a political home. I really identified with this part of his nature because I have always found it hard to join any organization.
A couple of comments on his presidency. He is ranked anywhere from 11th to 25th (really WSJ?) on presidential rankings, and with averaging out all the 18 polls he came out 17th. He cut the national debt from $16 million down to $5 million which allowed his successor Jackson to completely eliminate the National Debt. He was a proponent of government led research and education that would benefit all. He also passed the 1828 Tariff Bill which almost started the Civil War early. There was this problematic state...hmmm...let me remember which one...oh yes...SOUTH CAROLINA who passed a bill choosing to ignore the Federal Tariff law and decided to negotiate their own terms with foreign nations. They also arrested black sailors from British ships because they didn’t want any free black people walking around their state.
We always talk about the great work that Jimmy Carter has done after his presidency, but few people know that JQA did something no other president has done. He continued to serve in public office. He served a stint as a Senator, but then found a better place for himself in the raucous halls of the House of Representatives. His remaining son Charles was mortified. It was unseemly. It was frustrating for JQA, but also invigorating. He was a great writer and orator. He gave all party affiliates, including his own of the moment, more trouble than they wanted.
He also famously took on the Amistad case after several high profile lawyers found themselves too busy to participate. JQA had become a more and more outspoken abolitionist as he aged. Even though he felt he was a little past his prime in 1841, he spoke for four hours in the defense of the free blacks and won the case.
As if I didn’t like him enough, JQA also was a tree guy. He would extort every ambassador going abroad to bring him back seeds of local trees. He planted over two hundred trees at the White House and devoted hundreds of his acres in Quincy to hardwoods. I have had to settle with more modest goals. I do have a corner lot and have managed to sandwich 15 trees onto my property. JQA was a reader, not a socializer. He continued to devote large amounts of time to learning throughout his lifetime. He was too practical and too much his own man to ever be a great politician.
JQA in 1843.
He suffered substantial tragedy with two younger brothers consumed by alcohol, debt, and shortened lives. He and Louisa had numerous miscarriages and two dear sons, George and John, perish as young men. He had several genetic eye complaints which were excruciating for him because they took him away from his books and writing. He hurt his hand in a pistol accident and couldn’t use it to write until it healed. Louisa had to, during his recovery, record his journal entries and wrote down his latest thoughts of the current political situation. His work ethic was remarkable, even putting my own to shame. He served his country to the end, dying on the job at the House of Representatives at the age of 80.
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