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.