|The first President ever photographed--John Quincy Adams in 1843 when he was serving in the House of Representatives.|
At the end of his long life John Quincy Adams was revered as Old Man Eloquent by opponents of slavery and reviled in equal measure as a Yankee mad man by the Southern slave holding aristocracy. As a boy and young man he lived in his famous father’s shadow, an errand boy and gopher for the great man on his famously cantankerous diplomatic postings for the infant American republic.
In between he lived an eventful life, full of public service, accomplishment, and occasional respect all the while battling what is now evident as severe depression and self-doubt.
The younger Adams was born on July11, 1767 at the family home in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts to John and Abigail Adams. His mother’s family were prominent local gentry and his father a rising lawyer with political aspirations who was soon prominent among Patriot leaders including his cousin Samuel Adams, merchant John Hancock, and fellow lawyer James Otis.
In his early childhood the boy’s father was often busy with his law practice and politics in near-by Boston or away from home for extended periods of time as a delegate to the Continental Congress. His mother constantly reminded him of how important a man his father was. One summer day in 1777 he learned about the Declaration of Independence, which his father had done so much to bring about, from a letter read to him by his mother.
Just a year later he packed his bags to accompany his father on a critical diplomatic mission to France where he joined Benjamin Franklin in the delicate negotiations to obtain French support for the war effort. The boy was from the beginning more than a companion, he was something of a cross between a domestic servant to his father and eventually a secretary. He absorbed the details of the intrigue around him, including his father’s prickly relationship with the famous and beloved Franklin and learned from the older man’s sometimes curt bluster how not to conduct diplomacy. While on this trip John Quincy began keeping the diary he would maintain for more than 40 years, giving later scholars a priceless insider account of early America and its politics.
In 1780 he again accompanied his father when he was made Minister to the Netherlands. On this trip the boy’s duties were more substantial. He also got an education, matriculating at Leiden University in 1781. At the tender age of 14 he was considered competent enough to be loaned to another American diplomat, Francis Dana, who he served as official secretary for the mission to the Court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia. He also traveled in the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Sweden, and Denmark.
During his years abroad he became fluent in French—the court language of much of Europe—and Dutch as well as passable in German and other languages.
When Quincy returned to the now independent United States, he was already one of the most experienced diplomats the country had despite not being out of his teens. He enrolled, of course, at his father’s alma mater Harvard and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1787. The same year his father became the first Vice President under George Washington.
From 1787 to ’89 Young Adams read law with Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport, Massachusetts then returned to Harvard to win a Master of Arts degree in 1790. He passed the Bar in 1791 and began to practice law in Boston.
Despite his notable achievements his mother constantly compared him to her husband and found him wanting. He loved and admired his often distant father, but came to fear the dominating Abigail, who he blamed for his frequent bouts of melancholia.
Young Adams first came to public notice—and earned the esteem and admiration of the President—for penning a series of polemics in support Washington’s refusal to be drawn into the wars swirling around the French Revolution, despite a treaty of alliance. It was Washington, not his father, who insisted that the 26 year old take up duties as Minister to the Netherlands. But the young man did not want to take the job. He feared he would never get out from under his father’s shadow if he pursued a career of public service. His father convinced him that it was his patriotic duty to do so.
In addition to his duties in Holland, Adams also carried papers and instruction to John Jay who was trying to negotiate a treaty with Britain clearing up many points of contention in the post-revolutionary period. He also consulted with Jay and shuttled back and forth between capitals. When Jay concluded his controversial treaty which many considered far too favorable to the British, Adams wrote to his father urging him to support it as the best possible deal. The elder shared it with the President who incorporated points from the letter in his Farewell Address.
Washington kept the young man in service, appointing him Minister to Portugal and then Legate to Berlin. Washington was uncharacteristically effusive in his praise calling Adams “the most valuable of America’s officials abroad.”
When his father became President, it again was Washington who urged him to name his son Minister to Prussia despite the inevitable charges of nepotism. He served from 1797 to 1801, his father’s whole single term as President. He secured a renewal of the Prussian-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce on very liberal terms.
Before returning to the United States he married Louisa Catherine Johnson, the British born daughter of an American merchant in London.
When he returned to Massachusetts with his new wife, he secured an appointment as Commissioner of Monetary Affairs in Boston by a Federal District Judge. But that sinecure fell victim to the deep personal animosity between two erstwhile old friends and comrades—the elder Adams and newly elected President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wasted no time rescinding the nomination, a slap in the face that did not go unnoticed.
In the end, the offense propelled John Quincy to enter electoral politics as a Federalist, another foot step in his father’s path he has sworn never to undertake. He was elected a member of the Massachusetts State Senate in April 1802 and that fall ran for the United States House of Representatives and lost. But in March of the next year the Massachusetts General Court elected him to the U.S. Senate where he quickly became a leading voice of the Federalist minority.
But it was during that period when John Quincy engaged in one of the most embarrassing acts of his career. He penned a series of six satiric ballads in the style common to Harvard undergraduates mocking the Democratic-Republicans and Jefferson. They were not printed but circulated hand to hand and read with great mirth at Washington taverns where the political elite gathered. Although written anonymously, it quickly became apparent that they were written by Adams. One of them, Dusky Sally a famously lurid ballad about Jefferson’s dalliance with his slave Sally Hemmings was written in 1803 but published anonymously in 1807. Jefferson was naturally furious. Some Adams apologists dismiss the work as a school boy prank. It was not. It was a political dirty trick propagated by highly sophisticated 40 year old sitting U.S. Senator.
Despite his service in the Senate, Adams’s expertise in foreign policy and relations caused him to abandon other Federalists and support the President’s Louisiana Purchase and the Embargo Act. Both of these acts were particularly loathed by Massachusetts Federalists who saw a plot to create permanent Southern dominance via new states carved out of the vast land acquisition and whose merchants were badly hurt by the Embargo, a measure meant to keep the U.S. out of world war between France and Britain. The General Court met early and stripped Adams of his Senate seat in 1708. Adams promptly resigned the party of his father and joined his former enemies, the Democratic Republicans.
His new party did not entirely trust its convert. Instead of seeking a new elected post or political appointment, Adams took the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. From his lofty perch he wrote extensively promoting a neo-classical, Ciceronian ideal of disinterested public discourse based on reason and illuminated by rhetoric. Despite his best efforts, public discourse in the US was taking a vastly different direction. Still, he would happily have remained in the academy had not duty called once again.
President James Madison called on him to take the critical diplomatic post of Minister to Russia in 1709. His wife Louisa and their youngest son Charles Francis Adams accompanied him to the Tsarist court. After reporting the fall of Moscow to Napoleon and his subsequent disastrous winter retreat, Adams was dispatched to Ghent to serve as to serve as chief negotiator of the U.S. commission to negotiate a treat to end the War of 1812. Louisa and Charles had to make a harrowing winter coach ride across war torn Europe, always in danger of being caught up in battle or attacked by roving bands of brigands and deserters to join her husband.
The peace commission succeeded in gaining a remarkably lenient treaty, mostly restoring the status quo ante bellum despite the fact that at the time it was negotiated, the British had dominated the war and humiliated American armies. But the European wars had left the mother country bleeding, exhausted, and broke and Adams knew that they had little appetite for an extended war in North America. America’s biggest victory, which might have justified even better terms, came after the treaty was signed when Andrew Jackson smashed and destroyed a British Army attacking New Orleans.
John Quincy Adams was thus absent from the actual conflicts of his country’s two first wars, making his personal experience vastly different than most other Americans.
After the treaty was concluded, a grateful Madison named Adams Minister to The Court of St. James, the country’s most distinguished diplomatic post. He served in London from 1814-17.
On his return home from eight years abroad, newly elected President James Monroe named him Secretary of State, a post for which he was manifestly qualified and widely regarded as the natural stepping stone to the Presidency. He stood at the President’s side for two terms, his most trusted advisor and master of foreign policy.
Adams racked up impressive achievement after impressive achievement while at the State Department. First he had to address the thorny problem of Florida, which was only tenuously held by Spain, weekend by the Napoleonic wars on its soil and a mere shadow of a once mighty empire. Southerners had long had ambitions in Florida and various plots and filibustering schemes were constantly afoot. The British had agents on the ground in Florida—either actually in service to the Crown or merchant/traders functioning de facto—and seemed to have its own plans to snatch the province and hem in expansionist America to the south. Florida, and particularly the large and powerful Seminole tribe that dominated its interior, was also a haven for escaped slaves. Large number of Creek warriors, defeated by Andrew Jackson’s western army had also fled into the arms of the Seminole.
Monroe, undoubtedly with the approval of Adams, ordered Jackson to pursue the fugitive Creek into Florida. The Hero of New Orleans did so with his customary enthusiasm and ruthlessness. In the process he captured and hanged two British subjects he suspected of arming the Indians, precipitating an international crisis. Monroe’s Cabinet was unanimous in the opinion that Jackson had exceeded his orders and should be court martialed and removed from command. Adams alone supported the General, arguing that if the Spanish could not police her territories, the United States had the right to do so in self-defense. His argument carried the day with Monroe, who only issued a reprimand to Jackson. But the touchy Jackson assumed that Adams was responsible for the “rebuke to my honor,” thus beginning the bad blood between the two.
Adams skillfully advanced the same arguments to injured Britain and Spain. In the Adams–Onís Treaty Spain ceded Florida to the U.S. and the boundary between the Louisiana Territory and Spanish Tejas (Texas) was cleared up.
At the same time, Adams had to clear up several post-war issues with Britain, including the final evacuation of frontier posts still held by the British on American soil and clearly defining a western boundary. The terms of the Treaty of Paris which had ended the Revolutionary War had assumed that the Mississippi River extended north to Lake-in-The-Woods from which point a line would be drawn to the pacific coast. The issue had come to a head in the Oregon country were the British Hudson Bay Company and John Jacob Astor’s American Fir Company were in fierce completion for the highly lucrative fur trade.
Adams could build on the work of his Richard Rush, temporary Secretary of State until Adams could come to Washington. The Rush–Bagot Treaty agreed to in early 1817 demilitarized the border between the US and British North America was including naval disarmament on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain—the traditional invasion routes that had been used by both sides. The US and Britain also agreed to joint control over the Oregon Territory. Adams successfully helped sheppard the treaty through Senate ratification in 1818 and used it as a springboard for more talks.
The Treaty of 1818, negotiated Albert Gallatain and Richard Rush under Adams personal supervision, secured a favorable border for the United States along the 49th Parallel including a sizable chunk of Oregon and deep-water ports from which to ship the valuable furs. Use of the Oregon Territory remained open to both nations and mutual freedom of navigation was guaranteed. In addition the treaty formalized the rights of Americans to their traditional fisheries in the Grand Banks off shore from Newfoundland and Labrador. The result was the longest undefended border in the world and an end to hostility between the two English speaking powers.
Of course the Hudson Bay Company would continue to run roughshod over American fur traders for some time, building to a demand by expansionists to seize all of the Oregon territory and the cry of Fifty-Four-Forty or Fight! Almost brought the two nations to war again until the Oregon Treaty of 1846 confirmed the 49th Parallel as the boundary and gave American complete jurisdiction of every thing south of that line.
Of course Adam’s biggest accomplishment was enunciating what became known as the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. This was a response to Spain’s crumbling new world empire. Several countries had declared independence. Spain was making noises about sending armies to reconquer some of what they had lost and other European powers, particularly the British, French, and Russians were making noises about moving in the void.
Many Americans wanted the US to intervene actively on behalf of the newly independent Republics, some dreamed of a Pan American union, Southern interests were looking for areas into which to expand their plantation and slave culture and carve out new states. With an audience in Europe in mind Adams delivered a speech on Independence Day 1821 declaring that while the United States supports the new republics, it would not intervene militarily on their behalf, declaring that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
From this nugget grew an official state paper which was presented to Congress on December 2, 1823 declaring that it is the policy of the United States that further efforts by European powers to colonize land or interfere with states in the Americas would be viewed as acts of aggression requiring U.S. intervention. The Monroe Doctrine became the basis of American foreign policy and remains in force to this day.
The years of the Monroe Administration were already being called the Era of Good Feelings because following the War of 1812 the Federalists had all but disappeared making the Democratic Republicans the single major political party. But it was now unwieldy and had lost the ideological cohesion of the heady days of the Revolution of 1800 when Jefferson and the party had swept into office, crushing John Adam’s hopes for a second term.
The orderly system of party caucus which anointed the favorite of the sitting President had broken down and the run of Revolutionary era Founders had run out. Despite the advantage of being Monroe’s obvious choice and a distinguished eight years as Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams found himself no more than a regional choice of the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. Other regionally backed candidates emerged to challenge him—John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, William H. Crawford of Georgia, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Andrew Jackson of Tennessee.
Each also represented a nuanced political difference. Calhoun was a fierce nationalist in those days, Clay was the leader of a faction that wanted western expansion and Federally funded internal improvements like canals and roads. Crawford was the choice of former Presidents Jefferson and Madison as the logical defender of traditional Republicanism. And the bellicose Jackson ran as an old conservative favoring limited Federal authority on one hand and western populism on the other. Adams was left as what we would call today a technocrat who had no independent patronage base.
With no unseemly public campaigning by any of the candidates, the race devolved into complicated jockeying for position in the background. Calhoun dropped out of the race, presumably in favor of Jackson, but possibly also to benefit his fellow Unitarian Adams—the two were among the co-founders of Washington’s All Souls Church. At any rate, both Adams and Jackson named him their vice-presidential running mate. Crawford, with strong support across the old south, fell ill and for a while looked like he might also have to drop out. The popular Jackson swamped Clay in the west.
After the November election there was no clear Electoral College winner. Adams had carried 7 states with 84 Electoral Votes. Jackson had done even better—12 states with 99 votes, but not enough to carry the day. Crawford lagged far behind with 2 states and 41 votes. With the race destined to go to the House of Representatives odd man out Clay, who had carried three states but one only 37 states despite besting Crawford in the popular vote, threw his considerable support in the House to Adams insuring a victory in that body. Clay’s national program was clearly closer to Adams than any other candidate and he personally distrusted his regional rival Jackson.
Jackson, the leader in both electoral and popular votes was outraged. That outrage grew when Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State. Jackson furiously charged that the election had been stolen from him by a corrupt bargain between Adams and Clay. He immediately launched what amounted to a four year campaign to build a political organization to crush Adams in 1832 and win the Presidency and vindication.
Adams, a stickler for separation of Church and state became the only man to be sworn into the Presidency with his hand on a copy of the Constitution not the Bible.
With most pressing foreign policy issues laid to rest by his own successful eight years as head of the State Department, Adams concentrated on domestic issues, at first with some success. With the support of Clay, now his most trusted advisor, the President pushed an aggressive program of internal improvements and won funding for such projects as the extension of the Cumberland Road into Ohio, the beginning of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the construction of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and the Louisville and Portland Canal around the falls of the Ohio, the connection of the Great Lakes to the Ohio River system in Ohio and Indiana; and the enlargement and rebuilding of the Dismal Swamp Canal in North Carolina.
He also supported a high protective tariff, popular both in industrializing New England and Mid-Atlantic states and which was a keystone of Clay’s American System. But as maneuvering for a new, higher tariff bill went forward, Adams’s supporters in Congress, now known as National Republicans, lost control to Jackson’s supporters, now known as Democrats. In tricky and duplicitous maneuvering designed by Vice President Calhoun, tariffs on raw materials thought to be obnoxious to New England were added to the bill in the hope that many representatives of that region would be forced to abandon their support. Then the Southern Democrats who had put forth the program, would withdraw their support, dooming the tariff. But it did not work out that way. A substantial minority of New Englanders in Congress supported the Tariff as best for the whole nation. When not enough of them turned against it, the Tariff of 1828 passed.
Adams signed it in the face of voracious opposition from the South which labeled it the Tariff of Abominations because of the hardships it imposed on the Planter class, which was dependent on cheap imported manufactured goods. Adams knew it was probably the end of his presidency.
In the election of 1828 the careful plans of Jackson and his new Democratic Party came to fruition. Adams, like his father, was swept out of office by a virtual bloodless revolution. Jackson conducted the first real popular election campaign for president while Adams sat traditionally above the fray and reluctant to engage in retail politics to shore up support.
Jackson, with Calhoun once again his running mate, won 15 states, 178 Electoral College votes, and carried a landslide 56% of the popular vote. Adams and new running mate Richard Rush could only garner 83 Electoral votes from 9 states. Despite not caring much for the job, the rejection stung. Like his father before him Adams left town before his enemy’s inauguration.
Adams decided to do what no other former President had ever done and none has done since—run for election to the House of Representatives. He was handily elected as a National Republican in 1840 and would go on to be returned to the House seven more times until he literally died in his traces.
In his early years in the House he led opposition to Jackson’s popular Indian Removal policies and defended the Bank of America, the main target of Jackson’s wrath.
A run for Governor of Massachusetts in 1834 failed when he lost to a Democrat. But he kept his house seat.
Adams became increasingly concerned with rising sectionalism, and particularly the issue of the expansion of slavery. He felt that slavery would either destroy the union or be ended by a blood bath slave insurrection.
In 1836 the House voted in the so-called Gag Rule which immediately tabled any petitions about slavery, banning discussion or debate of the slavery issue. The crafty Adams found a way to bring the discussion to the fore anyway. He lay a petition from a Georgia man calling for disunion to support slavery in the South. Although he did not support the petition, he did so because it violated the Gag Rule. Infuriated Southerners called for his censure. But in his defense in a trial before the House, Adams was able to bring up the topics of slavery and the dangers to democracy by the Gag Rule. He wielded control of the debate for two solid weeks, gaining national attention. When the Democratic majority realized that they had been trapped, they tried to withdraw the charges. But Adams would not let them. He insisted on an up and down vote on the charges. Which he won.
Adams would challenge the Gag Rule again and again, proud to “be obnoxious to the faction.”
If he was obnoxious before, he doubled down during the Amistad Case. A shipload of chained slaves destined for sale in the Caribbean managed to take control of their Spanish slave ship, La Amistad in 1839, killing many of the crew and forcing the survivors to return them to Africa. The crew tricked the mutineers and instead sailed north into American waters where the ship was intercepted by a Revenue Cutter off the shores of New York.
The slaves were taken into custody and the Spanish government demanded the return of its “rightful property.” A Federal District Court, however, ruled that under the terms of a treaty between Great Britain and the United States which outlawed the Slave Trade, Spain had no claim on the men. Moreover, it ruled that they had properly taken action to free themselves from what amounted to an illegal kidnapping.
The decision outraged Southerners and set up a major diplomatic crisis with the Spanish. President Martin Van Buren ordered the Justice Department to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. Congressman Adams offered his assistance in arguing the case before the court. After Roger Sherman Baldwin, they young lawyer who had represented the slaves from the beginning opened with two days of argument, Adams stood before the Court on his own on February 24, 1841.
He boldly attacked President Van Buren for inappropriately assuming unconstitutional powers in the case by ordering intervention. Then as the most experienced diplomat in American history and the actual author of some of the Treaties sited by Attorney General Gilpin personally arguing the case for the government, Adams skillfully demolished claims that the treaties demanded the return of the men to Spain. Adams argued for eight and a half hours during which time Justice Philip Barbour died. After a recess for the funeral, he concluded his arguments on March 1.
The Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling on March 9 with Justice Joseph Story citing many of Adams’s arguments in the ruling that free the rebels.
Adams became a hero of the cause of anti-slavery and more of a villain than ever to the South.
Back in Congress he continued to oppose slavery in any way possible and continued his attacks on the Gag Rule. He led opposition to the Annexation of Texas as a slave state.
His other major contributions in congress include authoring a compromise on the Tariff of 1828 that he himself had signed ending the Nullification Crisis and the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution with the funds bequeathed to the United States by English millionaire James Smithson for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” A lot of hands were out for a slice of that pie, but Adams insisted on the creation of a national academy. When the bequest was unwisely invested in shaky bonds, Adams argued to immediately accept the money with repayment of the losses. Congress decided to accept the legacy bequeathed to the nation and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust on July 1, 1836.
Indefatigably, Adams plugged on despite deteriorating health and age. But on February 28, 1848 Adams rose to speak against a resolution honoring officers who served in the Mexican War, which he had voraciously opposed. With opponents trying to shout him down, Adams suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage while standing at his desk and collapsed. He was carried to the Speaker’s Room off the floor of the House where two days later he died after whispering to his wife and son Charles Francis, “This is the last of earth. I am content.”
After a brief internment in the Capitol crypt, his remains were returned to Quincy where he was first laid to rest in the church yard of First Parish Church. Later his remains were moved to a crypt inside the church next to his mother and father. The resting place can still be viewed at the Unitarian church that came to be called the “Church of the Presidents.”