John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger

Takeaway: Bad decisions during one period of your life does not mean your whole life is doomed.

John Quincy Adams may have been one of the most prepared presidents in history, but he was not one of the great presidents in history.

Starting at 10 by accompanying his father on the initial diplomatic missions at the start of the Revolutionary war and then by fifteen being a full member of a diplomatic team apart from his father. Then later serving multiple terms as ambassador to a variety of European countries, and then a term as senator. After arguing before the Supreme Court on many influential cases he was nominated to the Supreme Court (he turned it down) and then served eight years as Secretary of State. By the time he was elected to be the sixth president of the US, there was no one that was more qualified.

Being qualified does not mean that the times will cooperate. John Quincy Adams did not get the most votes, Andrew Jackson did. But the vote was split between four candidates no one had a majority and the decision went to the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, with the lowest number of votes was not eligible to be considered. Clay strongly opposed Jackson and threw his votes behind Adams, giving him enough votes to win the presidency.

From the start there were complaints about how Adams won the presidency, although it was fully within the rules of the time. Adams, despite being a skilled foreign diplomat, seemed unable to be diplomatic within the US. He was marginalized by Congress and from the very beginning was unable to accomplish any of his priorities (infrastructure and educational development primarily). After four years (1824 to 1828) he was frustrated, his marriage was a mess, two of his sons, a brother and uncle were all alcoholics (and was carrying the slack) and he seems to have been depressed.

Still refusing to play the political game, he was elected to the House of Representatives after refusing to run. In spite of eschewing any political party, Adams was an influential, maybe one of the most influential members of the House at the time.

This was not an era of history that I am well versed on. Although this is a short biography, I learned a lot about both the era and the man. I had no idea that Texas left Mexico initially because of international agreements to ban slavery. The Texas residents from the United States were heavily bias toward slave ownership and broke away from Mexico over slavery. Both France and England initially pledged to help Spain fight Texas in order to end slavery, but other political consideration came into play.

Adams was also the preeminent opponent of slavery in the House during his term there (1830 to 1848). Adams repeatedly fought to bring slavery to the forefront of the political discussion, which brought about the Gag Rule which literally was created to keep anyone from mentioning slavery in the House. Adams was brought up for impeachment for repeatedly violating the Gag Rule but survived because of Freedom of Speech considerations.

Despite being the gadfly, he was respected for his honesty and his ability to get things done and during one particularly difficult time he was elected Speaker of the House in order to establish the rules and committees to get the House working. Once the House was working again, he resigned and returned to his role as gadfly.

Adams had a stroke in 1846, but was able to continue his congressional duties until 1848 when he had a cerebral hemorrhage while on the floor of the House and died.

For all of Adams’ political, legal and diplomatic skill he seemed unable to get past some of his notions about how politics was supposed to work (mostly held over from his father’s generation). Those old fashioned notions kept him from being able to accomplish more. That being said, what he did accomplish was incredibly impressive. Under Adams’ diplomatic work the US took its place as a full seat on the international stage. Adams was economically sophisticated and understood the role of transportation, education and commerce. Both positively and negatively Adams was able to create new understandings of the Constitution to justify the Louisiana Purchase, to excuse Andrew Jackson’s war crimes, freed the Amistad African slaves and prevented or slowed the expansion of slavery.

Historically, one of his real contributions was the more than 14,000 pages of diaries that started when he was ten years old and continued until his death.

Adams was clearly flawed but also was just plain unlucky in a number of ways. Timing seemed to always be a problem. His parents, as much as they loved him were not always helpful (as teen he was told by his father that if he did not become the President it was because he had not worked hard enough.) Adams was also repeatedly the target of charges of nepotism, even though he really was fully qualified to serve. The strain of alcoholism in the family continually plagued Adams and he ended up caring not only for the country throughout his career, but nieces, nephews, grandchildren and other relatives that were left widowed or orphaned.

It is hard not to draw parallels with both Carter and Obama. Adams was brilliant, but brilliance does not make a great president. The timing of the presidency matters and Adams was not president at a great time. The House was unmanageable because of political changes during the time of his presidency and while Adams was a member. This era was political mess. As bad as many think politics is now, it was worse prior to the Civil War.

This is not a long biography. There were several places where I wanted more detail. But on the whole the length was probably right for the subject. John Quincy Adams is interesting and you could do a long David McCullough length biography of him. But not every biography needs to be 900 pages long. In this case I really enjoyed 380 pages and probably would not have picked up a 900 page biography of John Quincy.

John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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