Quincy lessons

When I read that the older George Bush was now referring to son George W. as "Quincy," I scurried to bone up a bit on the only other son of a president to attain that high office: John Quincy Adams - our sixth president, 1825-1829.

George W., himself, it seems, has been reading about the life of the younger Adams. He told a New York Times interviewer he was finding it "instructive." I did, too.

The first words of a brief biography by David Jacobs, revised by Robert A. Rutland in the "American Heritage History of the Presidents," informs us quickly that young Mr. Bush is no Adams:

"Few men have been as well-trained for the presidency as John Quincy Adams. Born in the afterglow of the Stamp Act crisis, young Adams was to journey abroad, dine with Thomas Jefferson in Paris as a 12-year-old boy, and serve as the American minister to the Netherlands while still in his twenties.

"Then he was elected to the US Senate and was named President Monroe's secretary of state. What better credentials for a president."

Yes, Bush has that Texas governorship on his political record - the first person to be twice elected by the voters of that state. And, earlier, he did diligent campaign work for his father.

But his record of public service doesn't come up to that of Adams. For that matter, few of our presidential candidates over the years possessed such glowing credentials.

What was Adams like as a person? In his diary he wrote that when attacked from all sides, "the qualities of mind most peculiarly called for are firmness, perseverance, patience, coolness, and forbearance." That's how he saw himself.

The biography depicted Adams in this way: "Reserved, moral, able to labor twice beyond ordinary human exhaustion, vain one day and self-abusive the next, self-righteous, irritable, possessed with a firmness of purpose fluctuating between virtuous determination and stubborn inflexibility - that was the Adams character."

Adams was an outstanding secretary of State. Among his triumphs was the Adams-Noise Treaty of 1819 that added Spanish Florida to the US and laid out the western boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase. Most notably, when President Monroe included in a State of the Union message the key phrase that became the Monroe Doctrine, it was Adams's policy position, word for word.

Bush may have been surprised, I think, to find that Adams also didn't win the popular vote when he became president. He was second to Andrew Jackson in both popular and electoral vote. But since there were four candidates and none gained a majority, the election went to the House of Representatives where Adams won when one candidate, Henry Clay, gave him his support.

This outcome stirred up anger, particularly among the Jackson backers, enough so as to make it very difficult for Adams to get much done. Jackson himself accused Adams of making a deal with Clay. He charged that Adams's selection of Clay as his secretary of State was the "payoff."

So Adams's presidential record was not too notable. Indeed, in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s poll of historians in 1996, John Quincy Adams was given a "low average" ranking. His father, the second president, was viewed as "high average." This conformed with other historians' assessments of both Adamses through the years.

So how should John Quincy's presidency be "instructive" to George W.? Well, it should be clear to him that Adams failed to come up to his potential by not being able to dispel that angry opposition left over by the contentious election.

Bush has said he will bring the country together. He should see that if he does not, he, like John Quincy, could well be a one-term president - like his father was. In 1828, Andrew Jackson beat Adams overwhelmingly in the popular vote and 178 to 83 in the electoral vote.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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