Two Presidents' Powerful Humanity

The convictions of John Quincy Adams were as firm as New England granite


By Paul C. Nagel

Knopf, 419 pp., $30

No president looked more hard-boiled than John Quincy Adams. The familiar portrait, done late in life, suggests a man whose convictions were as firm as the granite of his native New England. And, indeed, J.Q.A. had an abundance of that rocklike quality.

But he was also a man pursued by self-doubt, capable of writing passionate love letters to his wife, and gripped by a desire to devote his life to literature and his personal muse.

It's this very human, often vulnerable Adams that emerges from Paul Nagel's new biography of the only American politician to succeed his father (28 years later) in the White House, "John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life."

Adams might not have appreciated the label "politician." He spent much of his early life trying to avoid following his father, John Adams, the country's second president, into the political arena. But he had little real choice in the end.

Nagel traces Adams's remarkable youth, accompanying his father on diplomatic missions in Europe and becoming, in his teens, more knowledgeable about the world than most of his compatriots could ever hope to be. He later become ambassador to Russia, then to Britain. And, almost inevitably, he was called to head the State Department under President James Monroe.

But Nagel's narrative isn't really about that succession of high public offices, culminating, ironically, in a thoroughly disappointing four years as president (he was one of only two - the other was Jefferson in 1800 - elected by the House of Representatives after a deadlock in the electoral college). This book is about a complicated, intensely private human being who left a fascinating self-portrait in the journal entries he made throughout his long life.

Adams spent tense early years trying, unenthusiastically, to establish himself as a lawyer - always feeling the emotional lash of his mother, Abigail, who worried incessantly that her oldest son would succumb to the temptations of the world and not realize his potential.

Drawn to books and literature, not the law and not politics, he gave in to the nudgings of family and friends in 1802 and ran for the Massachusetts legislature. He defended the Louisiana Purchase (even though he despised Jefferson, and his fellow federalists were appalled at Jefferson's deal with France). He fought for national transportation and banking systems.

And, during his final, most fulfilling years in politics as "old man eloquent" in the House of Representatives, he tirelessly battled the South's efforts to keep slavery off the national agenda recently portrayed in his successful supreme court defense in the film, Amistad. He maintained an affectionate marriage to Louisa Adams, who cherished her husband's talents and tempered his excesses of pride and zeal. He saw two of his three sons die of alcoholism.

The John Quincy Adams that Nagel introduces us to is someone every American - and anyone interested in the interplay of private and public lives - ought to meet. He was a man always out in front of his times, yet heavily weighed down by personal doubts and family cares. But in the end, he triumphed, achieving, to some degree at least, the almost impossibly high standards he set for himself.

* Keith Henderson is an editorial writer for the Monitor.

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