John Quincy Adams

William Lee Miller

[A profile taken from Arguing About Slavery by William Lee Miller,
published by Albert A. Knopf, 1996, pp.153-178]

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS was not just another congressman. He had been, among many other distinctions, president of the United States, the sixth president, and the second of his family to serve in that office. But beyond that he was a living link to the nation's founders.

Washington had no children; Jefferson had no sons who survived; Madison had no children of his own, although by marrying Dolley he acquired stepchildren. Hamilton was survived by seven children, none of whom reflected the brilliance of their father; Franklin's only son went over to the other side in the Revolution. Were there no politically active, able, republican direct male descendants of the great founders of the late eighteenth century? There was John Quincy Adams.

Very few human beings can have had an upbringing in a nation's ideal comparable to his. He had spent his boyhood imbibing the meaning of the American Revolution from his extraordinary parents, at the center of the action. He had spent his adult career defining the role of the new American republic on the world scene.

He had been born in July of 1767, not too long after the repeal of the Stamp Act Surely in his parents' homes in Boston and in Braintree he heard from his first breath discussions about the contest with Great Britain, and about the republican ideals of the United States, even before there was a United States.

His father had set out for Philadelphia in September of 1774, in John Hancock's coach, with the others in the Massachusetts delegation, to attend what would come to be called the First Continental Congress -- the older Adams's first trip outside New England. Johnny, the oldest son, who stayed home with his mama, was then seven years old. For the remainder of his youth he would rarely be with both parents at the same time, because they were kept apart by the events of the nation's founding. Much of John Quincy's childhood was spent with his mother, often in some danger, in Boston and Braintree, surrounded by key events of the American Revolution. Much of his later youth he would spend with his father, who was representing the fledgling republic in the capitals of Europe. Always he would be the object of the intense desire of both his energetic, intelligent, virtuous, republican parents that he be educated to the full extent of his considerable talents to carry on what they had begun.

In one of the first of her famous letters to her husband in Philadelphia, Abigail Adams wrote: "I have taken a very great fondness to reading Rollin's ancient History since you left me ... and I have persuaded Johnny to read me a page or two every day, and hope he will from his desire to oblige me entertain a fondness for it." (Her spelling, like everything else about her, had a vigorous individuality.) So there was the mother and her seven-year-old son, with Papa out of town, during the British threat to Boston, curled up on the eighteenth-century equivalent of a sofa, reading about the heroes of the Roman Republic to whom they would all soon be endlessly comparing themselves.

John Quincy's father was a major figure at that Continental Congress for two months in the fall of 1774, and at the Second Congress that began the following May -- one "theater of action," as Abigail, writing to her husband, said. But she and her children were meanwhile living in another theater of action. Massachusetts was the most radical of colonies; Boston was the most radical part of Massachusetts. The "Intolerable Acts," as the American patriots called them, enacted in angry response to the episode of the tea, had been directed primarily at Boston: the Boston Port Bill had closed the port, and two other acts had effectively taken government and the administration of justice out of local hands. British power occupied the city. "Suffering Boston" was the focus of patriots' anger in all of the colonies, and the primary occasion for the coming together of the Congress. As John Quincy's father traveled by coach to Philadelphia in the fall of 1774 he reported by letter to John Quincy's mother the heartwarming support for beleaguered Massachusetts that he encountered along his route.

In the spring of 1775, at just the moment when John Adams was to return for what came to be called the Second Continental Congress there occurred in the family's own neighborhood events that would electrify the colonies and serve forever after as national myths. A lifetime later, John Quincy would write a letter; or a draft of a letter, according to a footnote in The Adams Family Correspondence, "in a faltering hand to an English Quaker" that told from the perspective of many years about the happenings back in the famous month of April 1775.

The year 1775 was the eighth year of my age. Among the first fruits of the War, was the expulsion of my father's family from their peaceful abode in Boston, to take refuge in his and my native town of Braintree. ...For the space of twelve months my mother with her infant children dwelt, liable every hour of the day and of the night to be butchered in cold blood, or taken and carried into Boston as hostages, by any foraging or marauding detachment of men, like that actually sent forth on the 19th. of April to capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams on their way to attend the continental Congress at Philadelphia.

This marauding detachment of British power had been sent forth by the usually somewhat lethargic but now exasperated general commanding the forces around Boston, Thomas Gage, under pressure from London, to try, as John Quincy in his old age recalled and as every American used to know, to snatch two of the ringleaders of the seditionists, Sam Adams and John Hancock, and while they were at it to destroy rebel military supplies they thought were stored in Concord. Gage was rewarded for his pains by "a hurry of hoofs in a village street, a shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark"; by a sleepy gathering of local militia lined up on Lexington Green in the early morning, into which, after a confused beginning, the British regulars fired their muskets, killing eight; by an aroused collection of "embattled farmers" who then after Gage's troops had made a futile visit to Concord met them at the "rude bridge that arched the flood" and fired "the shot heard 'round the world"; by Middlesex farmers who "gave them ball for ball, from behind each fence and farmyard wall, chasing the redcoats down the lane, then crossing the fields to emerge again, under the trees at the turn of the road, and only pausing to fire and load"; by a disorder in the ranks of his own frustrated troops, as they pillaged and looted and attacked civilians on their way back to Cambridge and Charleston; by a disproportionate loss in this curious battle or sequence of battles of 273 casualties to only 95 for the Americans; and, eventually, by not one but two of the best-known poems in the American language, one by Ralph Waldo Emerson and one by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. All in all, it was not one of the better days for General Gage, or for the glory of Britain.


JOHN QUINCY had not one but two extraordinary parents, and the relationship between the two of was extraordinary as well, as the world has learned from their John Adams and the others among the greatest American founders -- Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Hamilton, Franklin -- would each reveal on paper a mind of distinction, and a worthy devotion to the republican cause, as the lengthening shelves of the volumes of the papers of each of them attest. But Adams, uniquely, had a moral companion and intellectual equal at home, a dearest friend who shared to the full those characteristics -- intellectual distinction and moral commitment to republicanism -- with some added sparks of her own. There is no equivalent to Abigail Adams in the households of the other great American founders. And fortunately for the country and the world, she revealed her distinction and her devotion to republican government, all unself-consciously, in "papers" of her own. ...

In response to requests from several states, John Adams wrote an influential document (a letter originally, which when published came to be titled "Thoughts on Government") that anticipated much of the form of the state and federal governments of the United States. His wife, John Quincy's mother, wrote her famous plea on behalf of "the ladies," at this time when her husband was discussing the "new modelling" of the states. "I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors," she wrote in March of 1776, in a letter that would be widely circulated two hundred years later in the time of a renewed feminist movement. She was thinking about the enormous but particular matter of the treatment of women as a part of a still larger matter: the overall shape of new governments -- the new societies -- that would be brought into being in this new world, and the principles upon which they would rest.

Her husband would write, in words that would acquire their own modest fame, in his letter ("Thoughts on Government") to a fellow scate maker: "You and I my dear friend, have been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government for themselves or their children! When ... had three millions of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?"

The world would forget, but the Adamses would not, that John Adams then played an important role in the making of the document that, as fortune would have it, came to be more famous than any of his, or her, own words or deed. As he had nominated George Washington, so as a member of the five-man committee to write a Declaration of Independence he nominated another Virginian, his new young friend Thomas Jefferson, to draft that document, admitting, among the reasons Jefferson should do it, that Jefferson wrote better than he did; another reason was that Jefferson had not been a part of the fights over independence in the Continental Congress and so had not made the enemies that Adams had made.

When the draft produced by Jefferson (and amended by the committee, including Adams) was presented to the Congress on July 2-4, 1776, it was John Quincy's father who defended it on the floor of Congress for two and a half days. Jefferson was generally disinclined to speak in such meetings, and would write many years later that as the principal drafter he "thought it his duty to be a passive auditor of the opinions of other," some of which opinions, he said, "made him writhe a little." Congress went through the document line by line, and Adams, as Jefferson later gratefully wrote, defended it line by line, "fighting fearlessly for every word of it."

When Adams sent a copy of the new Declaradon to Abigail, probably copied in his own hand, she may have mistakenly thought for a time that he was the drafter. In any case, when interpreting John Quincy Adams one should remind oneself that when he was nine years old his mother had, there on the table in their rooms, one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, handwritten by his father, who had fought for it on the floor of Congress.

It is significant to note, for the purposes of the story to be told in these pages, that opposition to slavery was one of the larger topics that John Quincy's mother brought up in her letters, including her response to the Declaration. On July 14 she wrote that she regretted that "some of the most Manly Sentiments in the Declaration are expunged from the printed copy." It may surely be inferred that among these "Manly Sentiments" the expunging of which she regretted, the most important was the biggest cut that the Congress made, the long passage attacking slavery ("cruel war against human nature"), and blaming it, of course, on King George, that Jefferson had drafted, and that the committee including John Adams had retained, and that Adams presumably had defended in the Continental Congress.

That was not Abigail Adams's first reference to race and slavery. Very early, in one of her first letters to her husband after he had gone to Philadelphia, writing from "Boston Garrison" (as she herself signed her dateline), she reported a rumor that a "conspiracy of the negroes" had been quietly suppressed -- we know nothing about this event if it was one, except her report -- and then added the remark: "I wish most sincerely that there was not a slave in the province. It always seemed a most iniquitous scheme to me -- to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have. You know my mind on this subject."

Later, in 1776, raising questions about the effect of tile social system of Virginia on the mind of Massachusetts's Virginia allies, she linked her apprehensions to the slave system, and her rejection of that system to elementary Christian ethics:

"I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow-creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain, that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principle of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us."


THE ADAMS FAMILY was intimately linked not only to the making of the constitutional forms of the new nation and to the expression of its ideals, but also to the grim realities of the actual fighting in the Revolution itself. If the American Revolution is a pageant to us, centuries later, it was not a pageant but a genuine war to many then, much including the Adamses. As we have seen, they lost already in 1775, at Bunker Hill, their doctor, Joseph Warren, and John Quincy and his mother had seen Charleston in ashes (Abigail's father came from Charleston). They lost Abigail's mother and John's brother to the debilitating diseases caused in part by the British occupation, and they suffered in other ways.

But in addition, in June of 1776 John Adams was appointed the head of another committee -- more important in his mind probably than the committee to produce the Declaration -- on the conduct of the war. This committee was given the formidable name Board of War and Ordnance, and Adams was called its "president." He was thus the equivalent, while continuing to serve as delegate to Congress, of what later generations would call secretary of war, and still later; secretary of defense.

Adams served as "president" of this board, an enormous chore, from its inception on June 12, 1776, until he left Congress late in 1777, throughout the early stages of the Revolutionary War. Its work included all that a war department would do: raising, fitting, dispatching, and keeping track of the troops and their officers and all weaponry, and the Care of all prisoners of war, and the carrying on of all official correspondence about the war. So John Quincy's father had knowledge not only of his own war experiences in a Congress being chased about the countryside by British forces (Philadelphia to Baltimore to Philadelphia to Yorktown and back once again to Philadelphia) and the experiences of his wife and children in the hotbed of eastern Massachusetts, and the experiences of friends and of the common knowledge in those two centers, but also the special knowledge that came to him in this official post.

He served in that role, agonizing about the miseries of war, and excoriating the British, through the defeat of Washington's new troops on the fine battles on Long Island; the retreat of the Americans across the Delaware River; Washington's famous crossing and the victories at Princeton and Trenton; General Burgoyne's incursion from Canada through the Hudson Valley, which might have cut off New England from the rest of the colonies and therefore divided Abigail and the children from John; General Howe's baffling strategy of heading not up from New York to meet Burgoyne but out across the farms of Pennsylvania (making patriots along the way, Adams would say, out of Germans and Quakers through whose property his troops passed) to march triumphantly into Philadelphia, and to cause the Congress (including Adams, of course) to, scurry to Yorktown. All of those events and more can be followed in the letters of John Quincy's parents, and as a modern reader follows them that reader might picture the intelligent boy of eight, nine, ten years old who surely is living through all those events as intensely as his parents. Abigail -- generally speaking, a fiercer partisan than her husband -- contributed her own reports of events and her own condemnations of the British and the Tories.

The formal surrender of Burgoyne on October 17, 1777, celebrated fiercely in Abigail's letters, satisfied European powers, particularly France, that the American cause had the possibility of victory, and brought a new chapter in the lives of the Adams family. John Adams was chosen by Congress to be one of the three American ministers to cross the water and negotiate with the French. He came home to Braintree in late December of 1777 to get ready to sail to France, and to provide yet another phase in the education of John Quincy.


HIS PARENTS DECIDED THAT, dangerous though it was, nevertheless Johnny, now eleven years of age, could accompany his father on the latter's very first trip abroad to perform this diplomatic service for the embattled, newly independent country -- independent, that is, if it won. John Adams wrote to his wife as they set out, by sail, on the hazardous wartime voyage "Johnny sends his duty to his mama and his love to his sister and brothers. He behaves like a man."

Johnny had further occasion to "behave like a man" when their ship, six days out to sea, was chased by a British man-of-war. John Adams recounted this event, and the storm that followed, twice: once in the journal he kept, or tried to keep, at the time ("I was constantly so wett, and every Place and thing was so wett, and every Table and Chair so wrecked, that it was impossible to touch a Pen or Paper") and then twenty-eight years later; when he was presumably dry, in an effort to write his autobiography. For this part of it he consulted his journal taking over much of it word for word, so the two accounts are very much alike. And yet the old man's memory expands on the journal entry and adds some touches. He left his native shore in a sailing ship (the Boston) and went out onto the dangerous Atlantic, and his son went with him. It was dangerous not only because of storms and the frailty of the craft but also because the nation or colonies that Adams was commissioned to represent were at war with the mightiest naval power in the world. John Adams and his papers would have been a considerable prize for the British.

On February 19, 1778, the Boston sighted three large ships, At first the crew wanted to sail toward them, thinking they might be British merchant vessels that could be captured for profit. But the captain was fairly sure that they were frigates, and he proved correct: "We were near enough to see they were Frigates and count their Guns, to the Full Satisfaction of every man on Board. No man had an Appetite for fighting three Frigates at once in our feeble state" So they sailed away as fast as the wind allowed, losing two of the British men-of-war, but not the third, which gave chase throughout that day and the next.

"When night approached" -- this is from John Adams's autobiography -- "The Wind died away and We were left rolling and pitching in a Calm, with our Guns all out ... all drawn up and every Way prepared for battle." Adams, the primary passenger, offered his opinion about what they should do. "I said and did all in my power to encourage the Officers and men to fight them to the last Extremity. My motives were more urgent than theirs, for it will easily be believed that it would have been more eligible for me to be killed on board the Boston or sunk to the bottom in her, than to be taken prisoner." And if he had been killed on board or sunk to the bottom or taken prisoner, something like these fates would, presumably, have been shared by his young son.


Safely landed on the opposite shore, John Quincy was placed by his father in one of the best Parisian schools, took French lessons, met diplomats; he returned to Europe with his father again in 1779, this time with his younger brother, and attended good schools again, both in Paris and in Amsterdam and Leyden. He became proficient in French and knowledgeable in other languages, and was a good student. A Massachusetts friend of the Adamses, Francis Dana, chosen by Congress as the new republic's minister to Russia, then invited young John Quincy to accompany him to St Petersburg as his secretary.

What was John Quincy Adams doing when he was fifteen years old? He was not practicing his jump shot every afternoon in the junior high school gym, or hanging around the drive-in hamburger joint every evening; he was not going out to the barn every morning to milk the cows and do the chores; he was not practicing the hup-hup drill with the militia on the village common; he was not covering himself with ink as an apprentice in a print shop; he was not reading college catalogs, wondering which he wanted to attend, or which he could get into; he was not attending his first proms. Lives differ. What John Quincy Adams was doing at age fifteen, in the prime of his adolescence, was translating diplomatic conversations between the American minister to Russia, who had no French, and the French minister to Russia, who had no English, in service of their joint endeavor (not successful) to obtain support from Empress Catherine for the newly independent United States.

While he was a teenager in Europe, John Quincy started his journal. He was an Adams, so he kept a journal. He really kept a journal. At the end of his life he observed that had he been a great writer or thinker it would have been a great work. As it stands it is not insignificant. He kept it up for well over half a century. By the end of his life it would fill a long, long shelf of volumes.

The conscientious John Quincy was given an angle of vision on the United States that no one else has ever had. He spent his childhood imbibing the ideals of the American Revolution -- not secondhand, superficially, and afterward, but from principal participants, directly, and at the time those ideals were being shaped and tested. Then he was taken to the Old World, and had an education in European politics and diplomacy at the highest level, in Paris, Amsterdam, Leyden, St Petersburg, The Hague, London, and other places before he was twenty-one, that very few Americans have had in a lifetime.


John QUINCY ADAMS'S long life story, after that beginning, was a story of Duty, multiplied. Again and again, Duty called. Duty was always calling, and if Duty didn't call, Adams called her, and reversed the charges. It was a quite specific duty, a duty to republicanism and to this republic. When after many years he died, in the Capitol itself, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, for most of their careers an adversary, said in his eulogy: "Death found him at the post of duty; and where else could it have found him?"

Because of his father's appointments abroad, John Quincy spent most of his teen years in Europe, but he returned to the United Shates, by himself, and by his own decision, in 1785, to attend Harvard, and was graduated from Harvard in the important Summer of 1787. He received his degree on July 16, which happened to be quite a memorable day at the Federal Convention down in Philadelphia -- the day the Convention almost fell apart in the dispute between the small and the large states.

John Quincy had come home from Europe in part for this revealing reason: to avoid becoming too completely European. To recover his New England self toward serving his New England destiny. While on July 16 James Madison in Philadelphia was almost despairing of forming a lasting union, the twenty-year-old John Quincy was delivering the senior oration in Cambridge on the subject "The Importance and Necessity of Public Faith to the Well being of a Nation."

At the time when the conventions in the states were considering the ratification of the proposed Constitution, in the following winter, 1787-88, John Quincy Adams was studying law in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in the law offices of a family friend and distinguished lawyer, Theophilus Parsons. But no one with the load of Duty that John Quincy was carrying would be content being just another lawyer. He started out in American politics the way his father had done, by writing political pamphlets; among these was one defending President George Washington's neutral foreign policy with respect to France and England. A grateful President Washington thereupon gave him his first appointment, as minister to the Netherlands. Later he was to be sent to Portugal but when his father succeeded Washington as president, the father shifted the son's appointment from Portugal to Berlin. Both Adams men, father and son, of course were careful to justify these appointments on merit, not connections. When Jefferson defeated Adams in the presidential election of 1800, Adams, before leaving office, recalled his son, and in the tense atmosphere between the Adams family and Jefferson following that election, John Quincy declined the appointment the family's former friend Jefferson would have offered him.

Before too long the Massachusetts Federalists chose him to serve in the Massachusetts Senate, although they knew that like his father he marched to the sound of Duty's different drummer, which meant he was very far from being a party man. Within forty-eight hours of his taking his seat he justified their fears, outraging his own party leaders by proposing that the Jeffersonian minority be given seats in proportional representation in the council or upper house. It was not long thereafter that those same party leaders chose him for the United States Senate -- in part just to get him out of the state and out of their hair.

During his term in the United States Senate, his most important service to Public Faith rather than party or home constituency was the support he offered to President Jefferson's side in the matter of the Louisiana Purchase As a Massachusetts Federalist he was supposed to oppose the infidel Jefferson and all his works, and specifically to oppose this New England-diluting addition of an unimaginably huge new continent of land. But despite his own personal and family disillusionment with Jefferson, and despite the strong objection by his party and his region, he supported it. When many years and many changes later another young U.S. senator from Massachusetts would write a book called Profiles in Courage, featuring independent "courageous" decisions by U.S. senators, the very first chapter would be on John Quincy Adams in the Senate defying Massachusetts Federalists and supporting President Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase.

Senator Adams further offended his fellow Federalists toward the end of his term by supporting a vigorous response to the aggressive acts on the seas by the belligerents in the Napoleonic Wars -- particularly the British. The British stopped and searched American ships at sea, and even "impressed" -- forced into service on their ships -- American sailors. After a particularly outrageous example of this British conduct, the Chesapeake affair, President Jefferson proposed an embargo that prohibited American ships from sailing to foreign ports and foreign ships from taking on cargo in American ports, an action that essentially shut down foreign trade. The Federalists of New England were outraged, because they had commercial interests that would suffer, because they were pro-British (and anti-French and because they were opposed to Jefferson. And what did their man the Massachusetts senator do? He stood by the president both in committee and on the floor.

With Adams's support of Jefferson and of aggressive measures against the British, the Massachusetts Federalist leaders in 1808-09 had had about all the service to Higher Duty from their senator that they could take. The Massachusetts legislature, dominated by Federalists, took the extraordinary step of electing a successor to Adams nine months before his term was up. Adams thereupon dutifully, and perhaps haughtily as well, resigned his Senate seat.

Jefferson's successor as president, James Madison, appointed John Quincy Adams minister to Russia, lifting him out of range of the revenge of the New England Federalists and setting in motion again his diplomatic career, which would take him to a string of major European capitals. He subsequently supported president Madison, even though Madison came from that other party -- the Adamses never believed much in parties, and this was a period when the nation's first set of parties were fading -- and he supported president Monroe, whom he served as secretary of state. Later, nearer the time of our story he would on some matters even support President Jackson, who had defeated him in a bitter contest for reelection and whom by that time he did not like and who certainly came from what would prove in the new dispensation to be another party from that of the Adamses. And he supported subsequent presidents, none of whom he respected, on union-preserving issues, as well. He did so in part because he was an early believer that politics stops at the water's edge and partly because he was an experienced and well-read diplomat with a knowledge of European politics vastly superior to that of his colleagues. And, of course, from Duty. He would be a main figure in the early development of America's understanding of her place in the world; some would say even yet that he is the nation's greatest diplomatist.

After he had served, with great distinction, for eight years as secretary of state under President Monroe, there lay before him the prospect of the great office his father once had held, and that his parents had trained him from his earliest years to expect that he would one day hold. He was by far the most qualified aspirant; no one could match the positions he had held or the training in world politics he had undergone. Virginia had held the presidency year after year after year -- all of the years since the beginning except for his father's four; surely it was time for Massachusetts (and the North) again. Nevertheless, unfortunately, the office did not come begging to his door, eagerly seeking him. There was a spate of candidates. So he had to make some choices. What was Duty's message now?

THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 1824 was unique in our history. In the aftermath of president Monroe's "Era of Good Feeling," there were, effectively, no political parties; the contest for the presidency was highly personal and somewhat sectional, with no sharply defined issues. When the states had finished selecting their presidential electors late in 1824, the electoral votes were spread across several candidates, with none having a majority. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was not first but second. He got all of the electoral votes of New England and a large majority of those from New York, which were split, but in the South, the border states, and the West, he received only a very light sprinkling (one of three from Delaware, two of five from Louisiana, three of eleven from Maryland, one of three from Illinois, none from any other state).

General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, by contrast, did well in all the states to the West and South, and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well, and had the largest number of electoral votes. But not a majority, as the Constitution requires. The candidate of much of the deep South was a man named William Crawford, the secretary of the treasury, whose constant maneuvering for advantage in the coming presidential contest had provoked Adams to many disgusted outbursts in his journal. Three of the original candidates sat together in President Monroe's cabinet: Crawford; Adams; and John C. Calhoun, the secretary of war, who settled in the end for the vice-presidency, in the separated balloting for that office. In addition, "Prince Hal" the able and popular rogue Henry Clay, then Speaker of the House, made one of his many attempts at the presidency.

When the tallies had rolled in from all the states the electoral vote was Jackson 99, Adams 84, Crawford 41, Clay 37. Because no one had a majority, the election was, as the Constitution provides, "thrown into the House," where the vote is to be taken among the top three candidates. Clay, who finished fourth, was thus eliminated, and the votes that would have gone to him were available for redistribution. The Constitution also specifies -- a very important provision, cleverly inserted in 1787 by the small states led by Roger Sherman of Connecticut -- that the voting in the House shall be by states; thus Delaware and the new states of Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois, with only one congressman apiece, had a vote equal to that of New York, with its thirty-four, and Pennsylvania with its


John Quincy's destiny was fulfilled. Or was it? Life, or history, or duty, or perhaps human ambition, always adds to any accomplishment something more, not yet achieved. One would want not only to be president, but also a president who served the "Well being of a Nation" with outstanding accomplishment. Did Adams do that?

He presented in his messages to Congress, particularly tile first one, which became a rather notable state paper, an unusually ambitious "National" program (he capitalized the N in that way) for which a reader 170 years later might be surprised to have, except for the endorsement of the protective tariff, a certain amount of belated enthusiasm. Adams recommended a National program of "internal improvement" (a key term, and a better one than "infrastructure"), which meant roads and canals and bridges, but more than that; a National university; government support for science and for learning as well as for commerce and industry (Adams would later be the key figure in realizing the possibilities of the bequest that became the Smithsonian Institution); a particular personal goal of Adams, a national observatory; federally supported exploration of the West; a uniform standard of weights and measures (Adams as secretary of state had written an important paper on this matter); a patent law to encourage invention; a naval academy; and the use of the great bounty of the public lands to help, along with the tariff, to support these undertakings. In sum, Adams had a vision of a qualitatively "improved" nation -- "improvement" was a theme -- using the federal government as the "National" instrument.

The attack on this ambitious program was severe, and often had a Southern accent. The "strict construction" of the Constitution was the argument: Adams was said to have proposed a raft of federal actions for which the Constitution provided no authority. He got very little passed. The midterm congressional elections of 1826 returned a heavy majority of Adams's opponents, creating American politics' first experience of "gridlock." The deep South strict constructionists who had supported Crawford were joining the Jackson forces in opposing Adams, and the construction of a new political party was under way.

Adams did not do much to help his program along. That was a different time, with different expectations. It was not yet expected that the president would be a legislative leader, sending up to "the hill" truckloads of "administration" proposals which he would then twist congressional arms to get passed. Adams, in particular, with his antiparty outlook, was not going to do that. He refused, as president, to remove from office officials who had opposed his candidacy for president, or to appoint those who had supported him -- admirable, perhaps, by some antique standard, but the despair of real politicians like his chief cabinet member Secretary of State Henry Clay. And made anachronistic on his defeat by the Jacksonian spoils system.

Hanging over Adams's other limitations and difficulties as president there was the charge that he and Clay had entered into a "corrupt bargain." That charge did not die down or fade away. Supporters of Jackson had said there would be a fierce opposition, especially in the West and South, if Adams inveigled the presidency away from their hero, and they proved to be right. In the presidential election of 1828 they had their revenge. Two Southern slaveholders -- Jackson and, again, Calhoun -- defeated the two nonslaveholding Northerners -- Adams and his Pennsylvania friend Richard Rush -- by 178 electoral votes to 83. As Adams had followed his father into the presidential office, so he followed him also in staying there only one term.

Three points about the Adams presidency bear on the story in these pages. First, the latent issue of slavery ran silently -- usually silently -- underneath almost everything about it. It is very important that Adams himself was, from a slaveholder's perspective, not sound on that question; he was only the second president in American history not to be personally a slaveholder, the other one being his father. The "National" program that he proposed would have enlarged federal power in a way that might one day threaten slavery. The "strict construction" of the Constitution and states' rights that his opponents insisted upon were, in addition to what ever other foundations in sentiment and philosophy they had, barriers of protection against interference with slavery. Both sides felt that his energetic program of federally aided "improvement," commercial, intellectual industrial, scientific, moral, implied a culture at odds with the culture of a slave society (which Adams and his supporters did not believe to be "the highest toned, the purest, best organization of society that has ever existed on the face of the earth"). President Adams's policy toward the Creek nation in Georgia, and other Indians, more nearly just than that of his successor (which was brutal in the extreme), implied a dangerous touch of humanity that might apply to blacks as well. And when, early in his presidential term, he proposed sending U.S. delegates to a Panama conference of newly independent Latin American republics, a conference that might very well discuss such forbidden topics as slavery and the slave trade, and -- worst -- relations with the newly independent black nation of "Hayti," Southern leaders exploded.

His defeat in 1828 had a sharp regional cast.

... Richards wrote in summary: "... the election returns clearly indicated that Jackson was far more popular in 'aristocratic' Virginia than he was in 'democratic' Vermont and that he ran much better in the slave states of the South than the free states of the North."

Which leads to the second point: the historical placement of his presidency accidentally cast Adams as an opponent of "democracy" in a way that is overdone. The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 by new men from the West and South, and by a new alliance of Southern planters with Northern common folk, is a convenient point to make one of the pivots of American history, and "Jacksonian" is a convenient modifier for the broader, more popular democracy developing in the period. Adams was twice the opponent of Andrew Jackson, so Adams must be placed on the other side as the symbol of an opposition that, of course, is supposed to be defeated, ...

But isn't this contrast much too sharply drawn! Is there not some element of historical accident, not only on Adams's side but Jackson's as well! Some new developments -- the ending of property requirements for voting and the broadening of the suffrage -- took place to an extent before, and independent of, Jackson's administration, and others -- the "reform," including the public school movement -- came at least as much from Adams's constituency as from Jackson's. Adams, like his father, did have a complex view of the ingredients of republican government that did not reduce it simply to popular majorities. But was he therefore so much less in tune with the norms for American democracy, which is institutionally complex, after all, than Jackson? At least the contrast between them should not be made as sweeping as has been done.

.... WHEN ADAMS LEFT THE President's House in 1829 he had already served in about as many high public offices as any other person before or since. He had a resume that no American has ever been able to match. He had not only been president of the United States; he had also been secretary of state, a Massachusetts senator, a United States senator, ambassador to Great Britain, and minister to the courts of Russia, Prussia, Holland, Sweden, Portugal and France, and he had negotiated the Treaty of Ghent after the War of 1812. He was named (by President Madison), and confirmed, as a justice of the United States Supreme Court, but he declined the position. He had been appointed to high office by every one of the presidents, starting with George Washington, until he himself was elected president -- every one, that is, except one, and Jefferson would have appointed him if the Adamses had been in a mood to accept. He served in more of his nation's highest positions than any other American has ever done, more even than Jefferson if you count it right, and more than any other American is ever likely to do. He had also been the first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard, and the author of important pamphlets on public issues in the earliest days of the republic. He was the architect, as secretary of state, of the Monroe Doctrine, and a major shaper of the world role of the new United States.

After he had served in all of those positions, and done all those deeds, and been president of the United States, he might have been expected to subside into retirement All of his predecessors -- four Virginians and his own father -- on leaving the president's office had retired to their big (or medium-sized) houses to be sages and exemplars outside and above the battle, with at most occasional forays into current affairs. But John Quincy Adams, at age sixty-three (much older then than now), battered by the fierce attacks of his presidential years apparently swept aside by the currents of the new politics represented by Andrew Jackson. apparently a rejected relic of a departed past, on being offered a chance to go back into current politics at a lowly level -- accepted!


In a post-presidential role unique in American history, ex-president John Quincy Adams ran for and was elected to Congress, in fitting symbolism, from the Plymouth district in Massachusetts. He proceeded to serve in the House of Representatives, arguing energetically all the while, for seventeen years. ...