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on 30 January 2013
If the name of John Quincy Adams means anything to readers it is usually that he was an early President of the USA (the sixth) and that he and his father John Adams (Founding Father and second president) were the first father and son pair to hold the post until the Bushes almost two centuries later. If people remember more it's often that he wasn't a very distinguished president, which is true but does the man and his career a great injustice.

JQA's life falls into three distinct phases. The first was as a brilliant diplomatic career leading to his being appointed Secretary of State by President James Monroe. The second was his single term as Monroe's successor in the White House. The third was when he was elected to Congress and became not so much an elder statesman as an elderly firebrand, and a thorn in the side of the "slavocrats" of the South who exerted so much power in US politics at the time. The phases are so different, and man at the centre of them so altered, that they are more like three different lives.

Adams began his diplomatic career assisting his father in his overseas postings trying to secure recognition for the new nation, and quickly showed himself very good at it, so that within a few years he was called to ambassadorial service in his own right. His skills, gift for languages, and ability to settle in to other cultures and make friends with their rulers stood him in good stead, and their recognition led to his becoming Secretary of State and a very good one. In this first phase of his career Adams secured a network of treaties and trade agreements that was of great use to the USA, including the first international reorganisation of America's rights to a Pacific coast , and the framing of what became the Monroe doctrine.

He seemed a natural successor to Monroe but was challenged for the Presidency by Andrew Jackson. Adams loathed and despised Jackson and was convinced he was not fit to be the nation's leader, and the way a hard-fought and nasty election campaign led to a disputed outcome convinced each side that the other was corrupt. Adams started his term in the White House in a very weak position. Unfortunately he was not a skilful political operator while Jackson, popular in the country, was backed by a team that was, and by what became America's first party political machine organised along modern lines. Adams' refusal to "play the game", his insistence on standing aloof from political manoeuvres, his accident-proneness when he did try, and the Congressional power of his enemies ensured he would serve only one term.

Having tried to slip into post-Presidential retirement conducting his profession as a lawyer, and finding he really did not like it, JQA readily accepted a suggestion he run for Congress. His service in the House was nothing outstanding, however, until he found a cause that set him on fire. He did not support slavery, the hot political topic f the time, but neither was he an active abolitionist. However when the representatives from the slave states of the South gagged the opposition by securing resolutions that the House would not receive or discuss petitions, motions, submissions etc on the subject he was furious. Such a silencing of was anathema to him as a lawyer, an elected representative, and the son of a man who had so prominently devoted his life liberty and the rejection of any sort of tyranny. He became an ardent spokesman for those seeking to overturn the gagging motions, a struggle that extended over years before victory was won. In the course of this he became more fiery, a man who had been an uninspiring public speaker found an eloquent (and very sharp) tongue, and he became increasingly linked to the anti-slavery cause. He foresaw that the issue might come to civil war, and one of his addresses on the subject, about the way that the US could not continue indefinitely as a nation while some states practised slavery, prefigures closely the famous later "House Divided" speech of Abraham Lincoln.

There are similarities between the two Adamses, father and son. Both were driven by patriotism, public service, and a hatred of injustice, both were undoubtedly brilliant but also difficult, neither was much bothered about developing people skills and playing the political game. Perhaps for that reason both served only one term as president, and both have often been denied their just recognition, both in their own time and by posterity. The father has been the subject of some very good recent writing and a TV mini-series, and while Remini's book is not on the same scale it does a good job of reminding readers why the son deserves more recognition.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 January 2014
Robert Remini's brief study of John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) is part of the American Presidency Series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The series has the commendable aim of introducing the reader to each of the Presidents in a volume of short scope. The broader aim, I think, is to reawaken an appreciation of the history of our country and to stimulate reflection on the American experience. Thus, each volume tries to present a story of a life and also to explain briefly what is unique about each President and makes him worthy to be remembered.

Remini gives an excellent discussion of John Quincy Adams's service to the United States, both during his Presidency and before and after it. The aspect of JQA's public service that stands out, both in his Presidency and otherwise, is his commitment to American Nationalism. By this I mean a devotion to creating a strong, united nation for all the people to promote the public welfare. JQA worked diligently to advance the interests of the entire American people, as he saw these interests, rather than to be a tool of any faction or party or momentary passion. Much of the time, he succeeded.

As President, JQA advocated the creation of public works and improvements to link the country together. He was a strong supporter of education, scientific advancement, and learning. He wanted the Federal government to play an active role in supporting these ends and worked towards the creation of an American university. (After his Presidency he was a strong advocate for the creation of the Smithsonian Institution.)

Before he assumed the Presidency, Adams served as the Secretary of State under James Monroe. He worked for the goal of American Nationalism by expanding the boundaries of the United States through a skillful exercise of diplomacy until they extended to the Pacific Ocean. JQA also was instrumental in the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Following his presidency. JQA served as a Congressman from Massachusetts. He distinguished himself in working for the anti-slavery cause and, specifically, by his tireless opposition to the "gag rule" which aimed to prevent critical discussion of slavery-related issues in the halls of Congress.

Remini presents his material in a way that focuses on this theme of JQA's public service and on its nationalistic aspirations . He also points out how and why JQA failed to realize many of his goals, particularly during his term as the sixth President (1825-1828) Adams was named President by the House of Representatives following a highly contested election. It was alleged that he struck a "corrupt bargain" with Henry Clay, who became Adams's Secretary of State. This "corrupt bargain" doomed the Adams Presidency and tarnished both Adams's and Clay's careers.

Adams was also highly opinionated and stuffy and gave the impression of aloofness. He was not a good politician and lacked a certain ability to compromise or to work cooperatively with others. At one point Remini writes (p. 110): "It is really impossible to think of any other president quite like John Quincy Adams. He seemed intent on destroying himself and his administration. By the same token, it is difficult to think of a president with greater personal integrity." JQA was defeated for a second term by Andrew Jackson in a bitterly fought campaign. Among other things, Jackson possessed abundant popular appeal and charisma, in sharp contrast to JQA's aloof, intellectual character.

While Adams's Presidency failed, his goals and ideals were good. They lived on and deserve studying and remembering.

Remini also gives a good summary of Adams's personal life, adopting some of the psychohistory of JQA's recent biographers. He points out the stresses that Adams endured from his famous father and mother and the pressures placed upon him and his brothers for high achievement. JQA also imposed these pressures and expectations, alas, on his own children. There is a good discussion of Adams's failed love affair as a young man --probably the one passion of his life -- and of his subsequent marriage to Louisa Johnson. Remini describes JQAs extensive intellectual interests, his tendencies to anger and to depression and he links these traits in a sensible way to the failings of Adams's Presidency.

This is an excellent study of JQA which captures in short compass the essence and character of his contribution to the United States. Readers who want to learn more about JQA -- with a focus on his service as Secretary of State and as Congressman from Massachusetts may wish to read the two-volume study by Samuel Flagg Bemis: "John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy" (1949) and "John Quincy Adams and the Union" (1956).

Robin Friedman
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on 16 September 2015
By all accounts a poor President, though it would appear to be mainly due to his high moral standing of not wishing to get into mud slinging which would demean the office (oh how times have changed) but most excellent at not being President.

A nice little bio on one of the lesser admired presidents.

A worthwhile purchase
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