John Quincy Adams and the Union
Author: Samuel Flagg Bemis
Release Date: 1956
This was the first president I read a multi volume biography on, and the subject matter was certainly expansive enough to warrant it. John Quincy Adams was born and raised to become President, and so his career before entering the White House was impressive enough to earn him (by this biographer) the title of America’s greatest diplomat. After serving as President, he returned the house of representatives for a few more decades in one of the most turbulent times in America’s history leading up to the Civil War. After two very detailed books, here’s my thoughts on our Sixth President.
Born into – Unlike his father, John Quincy Adams was raised by a scholar and a politician. By the time he was a young man, he was already from one of the three most famous families in the United States, and was fortunate enough to be brought along to Europe for peace talks during the Revolutionary War. His father obviously believed he would be a great politician himself, and as such he was groomed for it in terms of education and personal contacts. All of these circumstances make his rise to the Presidency the least remarkable of all the presidents, even surpassing James Madison. 1 out of 5.
Pre-president – Following reading about James Monroe, a man that held more key offices than any other president in U.S. history, it was a tall order for this biographer to impress me more with John Quincy Adams pre-presidency credentials. Overall, I would say he comes about as close to Monroe as possible, via a few of the following accomplishments: Adams wrote the definitive text on weights and measures of any American of his time; his role as Secretary of State for Monroe as the most powerful diplomat in the most important age for diplomacy in the history of the country culminated a career in diplomacy that included trumping Jefferson and Madison in shaping Monroe’s views in the eventual Monroe Doctrine, negotiating the Transcontinental Treaty with Spain (or the Adams-Onis Treaty), considered the greatest victory in American diplomacy, being one of five key diplomats to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, and the first major diplomat in United States/Russian relations. However, I can’t give him full credit for all of his diplomatic accomplishments (as the author tried to do) as there were also many times it was Monroe’s willingness to collaborate with others that allowed John Quincy Adams to flourish. 4 out of 5.
Presidential career – John Quincy Adams won his election that made the Bush/Gore election look downright boring. After losing to Andrew Jackson in every conceivable manner, the arcane rules of the era forced the plurality vote to go to the House of Representatives to determine the president. There, a secret agreement with Henry Clay to withdraw from the race in exchange for a position as Secretary of State allowed John Quincy Adams to slip into the White House fooling nobody in terms of what had happened. Being a man without a party, he was able to accomplish next to nothing of his stated goals of internal improvements. The lame duck President’s least accomplished years of his entire political career seemed to be the four he spent in the White House. 1.5 out of 5.
Vice President – John Calhoun was yet another in the line of political rivals who served as Vice President due to the nature of elections in that era. Calhoun had a long and successful career as a politician and frequent rival of Adams, however as a Vice President he was more detrimental to his President than anything else. 2 out of 5
First Lady – Louisa Adams outlived her aged husband by five years and was also interesting in that she was an English woman he met while serving as a diplomat in Europe. Through two massive biographies however, I can only say her greatest accomplishments as First Lady were encouraging her husband to be less awkward in social settings and in willingness to assist her husband in his continued pursuit of political office until his death . 2.5 out of 5.
Post presidency – I don’t foresee many presidents having the amazing second career that John Quincy Adams had. By far the best part of both volumes was Adams development as a Congressman in the House of Representatives, from a barely elected Massachusetts official to perhaps the preeminent face of the abolition movement, despite never declaring or running as an abolitionist! Where he differed from that party in terms of not openly campaigning for abolition of all slavery in the country, he succeeded as much as any politician in that era in advancing the cause. His eventual victory in overcoming the gag order (which prohibited all discussion of abolition while in session), as well as his greatest accomplishment of securing the right to petition allowed the issue to finally advance past its place as America’s “unfortunate business.” Adams also had an historically significant moment in terms of successfully arguing the Amistad case in front of the Supreme Court and played a major part in the construction of the Smithsonian institute. 5 out of 5.
Book overall – Book one (John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy) read much more like a text book and history of diplomacy than a president biography. I learned a lot from reading it but it was also not exactly a page turner. My favorite anecdote from book one was Adams writing an entire book to bury a political opponent who had faked a copy of a letter from their time together negotiating the Treaty of Ghent. Adams throughout his career would pay to publish any speech he gave that he believed significant or any paper he wrote that took him time to research. After publishing, he would distribute them to all members of congress as well as any paper that would have them. This book also showed Adams willingness to switch parties as needed to get ahead in the world; whereas he attributed it to being above the party system and a man of the people, it more often showed him as an opportunist with shifting ideals (much like Madison). 3/5
Book two (John Quincy Adams and the Union) was surprisingly completely different, with 90% of it being solid detailed biographical reading, with Adams voting records explained and his many rivalries examined. There was still about 10% of the book that was general background history to explain certain issues, but this history was much more specific to Adams than the diplomatic writings of volume one. Overall, John Quincy Adams and the Union was my favorite Presidential biography yet, amazing considering it started at his Presidency and quickly moves past it to his real career as congressman. 5/5