'John Quincy Adams': often forgotten yet highly distinguished

Fred Kaplan's biography of the sixth US president should be required reading inside the Beltway.

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    John Quincy Adams: American Visionary,
    by Fred Kaplan,
    HarperCollins,
    672 pp.
    View Caption

Never mind where Joe DiMaggio has gotten to: Where have you gone, John Quincy Adams? If Jolting Joe was the epitome of class on the baseball diamond, our sixth president – who served one term from 1825 to 1829, wedged between James Monroe and Andrew Jackson – was the embodiment of an American statesman, a subspecies as rare in his time as it so clearly is today.

When called, Adams served, whether as a lowly state senator, as a U.S. Congressman (eight terms after his White House tour), U.S. Senator, Secretary of State (he authored the Monroe Doctrine), diplomat to myriad European courts, War of 1812 peace negotiator, and distinguished advocate before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was 73 in 1841 when he argued successfully for the freedom of the Amistad’s enslaved Africans. Now that’s a resume.

This son of our second president had a quaint view of public service and personal rectitude. He put duty before personal or political considerations. When his conscience and his career were in conflict, he chose the former. He resigned his senate seat in 1808 when he believed his Federalist party was placing its interests above the welfare of the country; he was well aware that his bipartisan advocacy had doomed his reelection chances in an era when state legislatures elected senators. Modern “mavericks” pale in comparison to John Quincy, who would leave the White House poorer than when he had entered it. 

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On the side, he was an accomplished writer of prose and poetry, a dutiful diarist, a devoted if somewhat imperious husband, Harvard professor, fluent in French, passable in several other languages, and a reader of the classics in the original Greek and Latin. Remarkably, he frequently wondered if he was doing all that he could.

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan should be required reading inside the Beltway. The biographer of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Carlyle, and Mark Twain, Kaplan has penned a richly detailed canticle to his subject, who, he points out early on, was one of only two anti-slavery presidents between 1789 and 1861, when Lincoln became the sixteenth. Much has been made of Thomas Jefferson and his slaves, but of America’s first 18 presidents, a dozen had owned slaves, and eight of those did so while serving in the White House.   

Without question, John Quincy Adams was a serious person who lived in serious times. He was seven years old when, on June 17, 1775, he heard the British cannons booming at Bunker Hill, just a few miles from the family homestead. He remembered watching his mother, Abigail, melting down pewter spoons to make bullets for the Massachusetts militia. He was already a serious child: his “children’s books” were written by Shakespeare and Milton.

At 10, he would get his most dramatic lesson in the price of duty. In 1778, his father was named as a representative to France, the rebellious colonies’ only ally against Great Britain. John Quincy would accompany his father overseas, and their ship would be chased by British frigates and struck by lightning, which killed one passenger. Had the British captured his father, they would have hung him as a traitor. After an 18-month stint apart from his mother and siblings, he would soon return again to Europe with his father, this time for a six-year separation.

John Quincy’s early experience with war would affect him for life. He was a patriot who believed America was destined to gain an empire, but he wanted his country to acquire it justly, through diplomacy or purchase. If this could be accomplished, the United States would preside over “the noblest empire of time.” Not surprisingly, he opposed the annexation of Texas and the subsequent war with Mexico. Kaplan writes: “[Adams] was revolted at the degradation of the Constitution. The metaphor that came spontaneously to his pen combined blood and sex. It is, he wrote, ‘a mere menstruous rag, and the Union is sinking into a military monarchy.’” Adams was 77 and less politic than ever.

Kaplan’s narrative is both riveting and brimming with telling details, excerpts from letters and diaries, and moving vignettes. In 1809, John Quincy would follow in his father’s footsteps in accepting a European diplomatic post that would rend his family in half. His wife Louisa expressed her horror at this call to duty: “Every preparation was made without the slightest consultation with me even the disposal of my Children … was fixed without my knowledge until it was too late to Change … Oh this agony of agonies! can ambition repay such sacrifices? Never!!”

Kaplan’s understandable affection for his subject occasionally leads to excess, like quoting from too many of Adams’ poems, chronicling minutia like his battle with “weights and measures,” and casting unwarranted aspersions on his political opponents. The author portrays Jefferson cavalierly as something of a buffoon, at one point accusing him of planning a coup d’état when he was merely angling to become president.

John Quincy Adams, who knew revolution and the Founding Fathers, was 80 and serving in the House of Representatives alongside Abraham Lincoln when he died on February 23, 1848, doing the people’s business in the People’s House.

David Holahan is a Monitor contributor.

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