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John Quincy Adams: A Renaissance Politician and a Miserable Old Sod

The subtitle of Fred Kaplan’s latest book, “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary” is working overtime to celebrate the diplomat, senator, secretary of State, president and member of the House whose long career yielded little that we remember today. What’s a biographer to do but emphasize the farsightedness?

John Quincy Adams was more or less on the right side of the big questions. He also tended to be on the losing side. Because his 80 years from 1767 to 1848 spanned the American Revolution and the approach of the Civil War, the questions were big indeed: How to give the new republic a foothold, adhere to a Constitution tested by those sworn to uphold it and expand the Constitution to new citizens in new territory, save the Union and deal with what Adams called “the pestilence of exotic slavery.”

A “more or less” qualification is deserved. Adams hated slavery but thought mixing races to be a breach of natural law. “Miscegenation, though, was a step too far,” Kaplan writes. Adams’ revulsion at mulatto children in the South may have been about mixing races as well as a slave owners’ abuse of slave women. He abhorred government treatment of Creek and Cherokees, but could justify Puritans taking land from American Indians for agriculture.

The vision included federal support for a transportation system, education and scientific research, and a well-funded military. “From the day of the Peace of Ghent [in 1814] and the final provision made for the extinction of the national debt, internal improvement was at once my conscience and my treasure. It was at once the divine law of our nature, and the inexhaustible mine of our treasure,” he wrote.

The country eventually came to agree — before it still later came to disagree.

Kaplan retells a life that would astonish in the 21st century. Even by 18th and 19th century standards, Adams was one of a kind. He heard the cannon fire at Bunker Hill, travelled to Russia as a 14-year-old and returned as the U.S. minister, represented the United States in London, Berlin and the Hague, negotiated the end of the War of 1812 and helped formulate the Monroe Doctrine. As a young man, he talked history and politics with Thomas Jefferson. As an old man, he sat in the House with Abraham Lincoln.

But, boy, was he a miserable sod. Although they were one of the great families of American history, the Adamses did industrial strength nagging. John and Abigail nagged their children. John Quincy continued the tradition with his offspring. Drinking, gambling and suicide plagued a family in which the children usually failed to live up to the parents’ expectations.

John Quincy’s marriage to Louisa Catherine Johnson began with the bankruptcy of the bride’s father, endured many miscarriages –— six by my count — and difficult births, and long absences between husband and wife, and between parents and children. Letters and diaries talk of love and affection, but the words don’t always convince. “At their best moments, he and Louisa were a happy match,” Kaplan writes, somewhat apologetically.

In John Quincy’s case, the tiger parents left behind loneliness, insecurity and nervousness. And the view that he was obligated and qualified to serve his country and his fellow citizens. “Pen should never be put to paper but for the discharge of some duty to God or man,” he said.

Adams’ obligation to duty is most compelling after he entered the House in 1835, a forcibly retired one-term president. He remained there until he collapsed in his chair in 1848. Knowing he was so often going to lose freed his mind and his tongue. It helped, of course, that the South and slave owners were making increasingly outrageous demands of the country and the Constitution. It also helped to have a series of rogues in the White House.

Members of the House today can draw inspiration from a man who could drive his enemies batty. The House’s foolish attempt to gag him only unleashed his inventiveness at calling attention to its hypocrisy, usually over slavery. “In the drama of his rhetoric, Adams felt himself in the modern role of his Roman hero [Cicero]. He would speak truth to power, to the Southern Caesars who would destroy the republic,” writes Kaplan.

Adams’ great success in these years is itself a measure of what he thought himself up against. He persuaded the Supreme Court that a group of Africans who had seized their liberty from enslavement in Cuba and navigated their way on the Amistad to Connecticut should be free. The victory didn’t boost his spirits much.

“Adams felt relief or at best tempered joy,” Kaplan says. “Justice had been done to the Amistad Africans; their freedom had been sustained. But slavery as a legally protected American institution remained untouchable.”

Adams’ blending of the personal and the public, of the great and the petty, is almost bizarrely encapsulated in a minor act near the end of his life. In 1845, he made a list of his enemies on which he included Jefferson. Jefferson had by then been dead for nearly 20 years. And Adams compiled the list on his 48th wedding anniversary.