Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: John Quincy Adams, by Harlow Giles Unger

The sixth president was a great man, and good at everything except being president.

John Quincy Adams

Da Capo Press, 2012, 364 pages

He fought for Washington, served with Lincoln, witnessed Bunker Hill, and sounded the clarion against slavery on the eve of the Civil War. He negotiated an end to the War of 1812, engineered the annexation of Florida, and won the Supreme Court decision that freed the African captives of La Amistad. He served his nation as minister to six countries, secretary of state, senator, congressman, and president.

John Quincy Adams was all of these things and more. In this masterful biography, award-winning author Harlow Giles Unger reveals Adams as a towering figure in the nation’s formative years and one of the most courageous figures in American history - which is why he ranked first in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

A magisterial biography and a sweeping panorama of American history from the Washington to Lincoln eras, Unger’s John Quincy Adams follows one of America’s most important yet least known figures.

This biography, by Harlow Giles Unger, was on the short side, and it's unabashedly laudatory. John Quincy comes off as a man who's hard not to admire unambiguously; you will have to scrutinize Unger's biography carefully to find any flaws in the man. (His most glaring flaw seems to have been that he was too principled for the presidency.) It took a while for me to warm up to Unger's writing, which for the first half of the book is thorough but neither deep nor particularly opinionated, and read like an extended Wikipedia-level information dump. However, as Unger becomes increasingly admiring, I got caught up in his praise for John Quincy, especially in the final act, where the ex-president returned to Congress (the only former president ever to do so) and gleefully became a gadfly and anti-slavery crusader against the growing power of the South.

When children had to learn shit, and also sometimes dodge cannonballs

John Quincy Adams was the eldest son of second president John Adams, who lived to see John Quincy occupy the White House himself. At the age of 9, he rode as a courier from his home in Braintree, Massachusetts to carry messages to the American revolutionary army. At the age of 10, he was studying Greek and Latin. At the age of 11, he sailed with his father to Europe. While the elder Adams never saw battle, John Quincy saw his father arming himself and preparing to fight to the death as their vessel was nearly intercepted by British warships, who would have hung John senior and impressed John Quincy.

Young John Quincy Adams

(It's kind of crazy how infantilized society is today. Reading all these books about the 18th and 19th centuries really struck me with how much more capable children and teenagers are than we give them credit for. We came from better stock.)

While in London and France, John Quincy spent a lot of time at the home of Thomas Jefferson, and the two of them remained friends even while Jefferson and the senior Adams spent years estranged.

Getting into Harvard has always been hard

John Quincy Adams, by John Singleton Copley

Having spent years in Europe with his father, John Quincy returned to Boston at the age of 17, where he tested for admittance to Harvard.

Even in 1785, Harvard had a tradition of legacy admissions. It turns it out it also already had a tradition of self-important academics who sometimes reveled in the petty power they exercised. John Quincy's suave, European manners and his expectation that admission to Harvard for the son of a VIP alumnus was merely a formality rubbed the president of the college the wrong way, and he summarily declared that the young man was not qualified. Adams was forced to spend a year hitting the books and being tutored some more. When he was examined again, this time before a committee, the president grudgingly admitted him.

If you're looking for flaws in the younger Adams, you can see one of them manifesting here. He just assumed that being educated, highly qualified, and knowing what he was talking about would be recognized and appreciated and earn him his just due. It did not occur to him that some people don't like hoity-toity know-it-alls. This would not be the first time he would make this mistake.

The American ambassador marries a British siren

Louisa Adams

After graduating Harvard, Adams initially avoided politics and opened a law practice. But President Washington asked him to go to the Netherlands as U.S. ambassador. John and Abigail Adams, who were always pushing their son to live up to their considerable expectations for him, talked him into accepting.

They were less pleased when while spending a winter in London, John Quincy spent time with a wealthy American merchant named Joshua Johnson, who had seven daughters he was anxious to marry off. They expected JQ to hook up with the eldest, but instead he proposed to the second daughter, Louisa.

Abigail Adams, upon hearing that her son was engaged, said:

"I would hope, for the love I bear my country, that the siren is at least half blood."

Louisa was born in London and had grown up in England and France, which made her British as far as the Adamses were concerned.

(Louisa would become the first, and until Melania Trump, the only First Lady not to have been born in the United States.)

Abigail's comment probably sounds harsher than was intended, since Abigail, like her husband, had a wry wit that I think often did not come across very well. But reading between the lines (and from what I have gleaned in other biographies), the Adams family might have been warm and personable once you got to know them, but they struck outsiders as humorless Puritan scolds with a stick up their asses, and Louisa definitely started out as an outsider. She had a better relationship with her mother-in-law later in life, but she definitely did not feel as if the family embraced her at first.

It didn't help that immediately after their wedding, John Quincy and Louisa returned home to find angry creditors waiting for them. It turned out that Louisa's father, deeply in debt, had fled the country, leaving his creditors demanding payment from his new son-in-law. Since Adams didn't get his promised dowry, he could have legally annulled the marriage. He didn't, but Louisa felt the humiliation of this incident for the rest of her life.

Nepotism still looks like nepotism even when you're qualified

Then President Washington sent word that John Quincy was to become the new U.S. ambassador to Portugal. No sooner had they packed and shipped off most of their household goods to Lisbon than the newly-elected President Adams sent him to Prussia instead. This was a much more prestigious post, and John Adams almost didn't send his son, because he was strongly against nepotism. However, John Quincy really had been an extremely capable overseas ambassador, both in his negotiations with foreign powers and at his more important job: collecting intelligence which he sent back to America. So George Washington persuaded the senior Adams not to let appearances prevent him from giving his son a job he was very good at.

The result of this was that John Quincy lost a small fortune (getting all your stuff that's been sent to Portugal when you're in Prussia was a little bit trickier in the 18th century) and John Adams senior got smeared in the press for nepotism.

How not to get rid of a troublemaker

After John Adams lost reelection to Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy returned home. Initially he restarted a law practice, but then he was elected to the Massachesetts senate. Here, he began crusading against corruption and being a general pain in the ass. His fellow Massholes decided the best way to get rid of him was to send him to the U.S. Senate instead. This seemed like a good idea because the Senate at the time was mostly useless. They would end up regretting this.

John Quincy Adams, throughout his life, would be honest to a fault and refuse to put loyalty to party or even pragmatism over his principles. In other words, he was a humorless Puritan scold with a stick up his ass. (He did find a "principled" way to read a Constitutional justification for Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase: by changing one line to make it "with the consent and agreement of France," it became a treaty which the President had the authority to sign, rather than a land purchase which he did not.)

Despite being a Northern Federalist, he voted in favor of a British embargo which Southerners supported and Northerners opposed. This was the last straw for his fellow Federalists, who elected his successor before his term was even up. Having been knifed in the back by his own party, Adams resigned from the Senate and returned to Boston where, despite being shunned professionally and socially by Federalists, he became quite successful, and even argued some landmark cases before the Supreme Court.

This would happen again.

Louisa's unhappy life

In 1809, President James Madison asked Adams to go back to Europe, this time as Minister to Russia. He accepted without consulting with his wife first. Louisa was not happy.

In fact, Louisa's life and marriage seems to have been kind of unhappy in general. She spent most of her married life pregnant, and had multiple miscarriages. In St. Petersburg, she gave birth to a little girl, who died at the age of two. John and Louisa had five sons who survived to adulthood, three of whom they would see succumb to alcoholism.

John Quincy and Louisa didn't exactly have a bad marriage, but from letters they both left behind, it's apparent that she frequently felt frustrated, neglected, and taken for granted. She suffered from depression, and her in-laws were, well, humorless Puritan scolds with sticks up their asses.

They did, however, genuinely love each other, and there were some amusing episodes when John Quincy, separated from his wife, sent her erotic poetry. She threatened to publish it. This echoes the flirtatious, teasing love letters John and Abigail Adams used to send each other.

But she helped him become president

Adams was next sent to England, to help negotiate an end to the War of 1812. For months, there was little progress, as both sides would amend their demands depending on how the war was going. Eventually, however, John Quincy helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent.

James Madison also nominated John Quincy Adams to the Supreme Court. He pushed the nomination through, and Adams turned it down. (His parents were not pleased.)

When he returned to the U.S., President Monroe appointed him Secretary of State. John Quincy once again excelled in his role. After Andrew Jackson ran amok in Florida and almost triggered wars with both England and Spain, Adams defended him and negotiated a treaty that essentially expanded the United States almost to its present borders. The Monroe Doctrine was largely penned by Adams.

By now, it was well established that Secretary of State was the usual stepping stone to becoming President. Here, John Quincy frustrated everyone from his party to his wife and his father. He wanted to be president. He thought he deserved to be president. He was sure he'd be a good president. But he refused to run for president.

Adams, taking one of his principled stands that seems charmingly oblivious now and was naive even then, believed that it was unbecoming to seek office. The people were supposed to want you to take office and, essentially, do any necessary campaigning for you. This had also been Washington's stand, more or less, but no one else but John Quincy Adams ever tried that, at least not and became president.

Louisa, realizing that her husband was refusing to do the necessary, took it upon herself to learn the political ropes. A few years earlier, First Lady Dolly Madison had explained a bit about how Washington politics worked to Louisa, when she was having a hard time adjusting. Now, Louisa started throwing parties, inviting other Washington wives over, and doing the behind-the-scenes schmoozing that her husband wouldn't.

This didn't get John Quincy into the White House by itself, but it finally mobilized enough political support that in the election of 1824… well, Adams actually lost both the popular and the electoral vote. Andrew Jackson, to whom Adams had offered the vice presidency, won a plurality, but not enough votes to win outright in a five-way race between Adams, Jackson, William H. Crawford, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Before the run-off election, Adams met with Clay to talk over their issues and come to an agreement.

Whatever the actual terms of their agreement, it had the appearance of a shady deal when Clay threw his support behind Adams, Adams ended up winning the run-off, and then appointed Clay as Secretary of State. (John Calhoun would become his vice president.)

Andrew Jackson called this a "Corrupt Bargain," and pretty much from the moment Adams took office was working to undermine him.

An Adams Family Tradition: The One-Term Presidency

Portrait of John Quincy Adams

It is ironic that one of the shortest sections of Unger's book is about John Quincy's presidency. To hear Unger tell it, the second President Adams basically accomplished almost nothing, being sabotaged and sandbagged by hostile Southerners under the command of Andrew Jackson, and spent much of his time moping. He does, however, point out that much of the damage was self-inflicted. Appointing Henry Clay as Secretary of State (and thus as presumptive heir to the presidency) angered both Andrew Jackson and Vice President Calhoun. Adams' inaugural address, which was full of lofty rhetoric about ambitious public works, was tone deaf and alienating. He would repeatedly throughout his presidency come off as a high-falutin' fancy-speaking aristocrat when talking to ordinary people, which made his grand schemes for the improvement of the country seem more like imperial ambitions than national interest.

John Quincy Adams was far from the worst president in U.S. history, but his administration had little to show for itself when he was soundly beaten by Andrew Jackson in 1828. He limped out of Washington without attending the inauguration.

The congressman we needed, not the congressman we deserved

Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams (1843)

Most ex-presidents retire, hit the speaking circuit, write memoirs, play gold, sit on boards.

John Quincy ran for Congress in 1830, and would hold the office for 8 terms, until his death. As U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, he continued to reject the idea of party loyalty. Instead he turned his sights on slavery.

Unger's descriptions of Adams in Congress over the next 16 years are both entertaining and inspiring. The Southerners had created a "gag rule" which basically forbade the issue of slavery to even be put on the table. Adams defied the gag rule repeatedly, so the Southerners kept amending it until they were pretty much adding provisions to the gag rule specifically to shut Adams up. He would get in yelling matches with the Speaker of the House while all the Southern delegates were hissing and booing at him. At one point, after Congress had forbidden the word "slavery" to even be spoken in chamber, Adams stood up to read " A prayer from a women's religious society among my constituents…."

(Yeah, okay, whatever, think the Southerners)

"... for the abolishment of slavery--"

(outrage and pandemonium ensues)

I loved this part. John Quincy Adams all but put on a mask and a cape, becoming a villain as far the South was concerned (at one point, they almost gathered enough support to expel him from Congress), but a hero to abolitionists throughout the country, who realizing that Adams would stand for them no matter what state they were in, deluged Congress with tens of thousands of petitions. Adams would eventually succeed in getting the gag rule abolished, as the increasing restrictions that were put on him made more congressmen realize that, gosh, those restrictions could be applied to them too.

Besides his relentless opposition to slavery, in which Adams would fight against the Jackson, Van Buren, Tyler, and Polk administrations, he is also pretty much responsible for the Smithsonian as it exists today. A wealthy British scientist left a fortune to the U.S. government for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Naturally Andrew Jackson and his cronies saw this as a windfall for them to plunder. But Adams, who despite being hated on the slavery issue, had also earned respect as a principled and nonpartisan politician on other issues, managed to wrangle the money out of various spoils schemes and created the non-partisan trust that established the Smithsonian Institution.



While not the most singularly important thing he ever did, this might have been the crowning point of Adams' career.

In 1839, a Spanish ship, La Amistad, was carrying a "cargo" of captured Africans off the coast of Cuba when the Africans escaped, killed the captain, and demanded that the surviving crew take them home. The navigators obeyed during the day, but at night, pointed the ship north. It eventually wound up in U.S. waters, and when the Africans were taken prisoner, the Spanish demanded their return, claiming they were "escaped property." In the U.S., they were charged with mutiny and murder. Abolitionists took up their case and claimed that the Africans had been illegally kidnapped, and thus they were exercising their legal right of self defense.

A New York district court ruled in the Africans' favor, but President Van Buren, who was having political troubles with Southerners, demanded the case be appealed. Running out of money, the abolitionists asked John Quincy Adams for help. He argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Unger's book, this moment is like the climax of a novel, and his description of Adams' march into the Supreme Court, where he faced a majority of Southern Justices who were hostile to him, to deliver a closing argument that left tears in their eyes, was, well, worthy of a Spielberg movie. (I have not seen the movie, by the way.)

He went down fighting

Death of John Quincy

As hated as he was by Southerners, John Quincy Adams was a noble enemy they couldn't help respecting. When he returned to Congress after a stroke, everyone applauded him.

In 1848, he fell on the floor of the House, while in the middle of protesting yet another bill. He never left the Capitol Building, and died two days later.

Besides gaining an appreciation for the unfortunate man who, like his father, failed in office and became a one-term president, I learned a lot more about how many states threatened secession and civil war before we had a real secession and civil war, how quickly national fortunes can change (America went from the dog everyone kicked to the mighty ruler of the Western hemisphere everyone wanted to placate and trade with in the space of a few decades), and how corrupt and venal party politics have always been. All these things were already taking shape starting with Washington's administration, but having read presidential biographies in order, you can really trace the evolution until we get to John Quincy Adams, where battle lines between North and South were now becoming entrenched, and like the growing threat on the horizon in an epic fantasy series, you can hear the rumblings of war from decades in the future. It couldn't have been plotted or foreshadowed better by a novelist: one of John Quincy's admirers in his later years, as he becomes an anti-slavery firebrand, is a young freshman congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.

Obviously, I came away quite liking John Quincy Adams. More than I liked his father, in fact. But how was this as a biography? Well, I think Unger's writing was okay. At times -- when he brings us into the House and describes Representative Adams railing against slavery -- it was compelling and brought his subject to life. At other times, it was just a narrative description of events in his life. A few touches of insight into Louisa's feelings, John Quincy's relations with his famous parents, the political machinations of other actors, were welcome but sparse.

There are a number of much larger biographies of John Quincy Adams available, so perhaps this was as complete as it could have been for its length. Unger seems to be a prolific biographer of politicians from this era, so I may read a few more.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, harlow giles unger, history, non-fiction, presidential biographies, reviews

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