John Quincy Adams

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John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, (1767-1848) was the sixth president of the United States (1825-1829), and the son of President John Adams (1797-1801). His presidency was not a success as he lacked political adroitness, popularity or a network of supporters, and ran afoul of politicians eager to undercut him. Adams is best known as a diplomat who shaped American's foreign policy in line with his deeply conservative and ardently nationalist commitment to America's republican values.

Early career

Adams was born at Braintree, now Quincy, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1767. He was the son of John Adams, the second president of the United States, and Abigail Quincy Smith Adams. Abigail Adams proved to be a stern, disapproving mother while John Adams was the warmer, more loving parent. Alcoholism ruined Abigail's brothers (and later her younger son, John Quincy's brother Charles). To ensure her first-born son avoided a similar fate, she delivered a steady barrage of admonitions and criticisms to him throughout his life.[1]. His father could be harsh at times, admonishing the son: "You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. If you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness and Obstinancy."[2]

Much of his early life was spent with his father on diplomatic missions, and he obtained his formal schooling piecemeal in France, Amsterdam, Leiden, and The Hague. Extremely precocious, at the age of 14, Adams became secretary to Francis Dana, the American minister to Russia, and in 1783 acted as secretary to his father during the peace negotiations with Great Britain. When his father was appointed Minister to the Court of St. James (Great Britain) in 1785, Adams returned to Massachusetts and entered Harvard College, where he was graduated in 1787. Thereafter he studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1790, and began practicing in Boston, which bored him.

Early Public Life

At age 24, Adams published anonymously Publicola, a reply to Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man", which was so brilliantly written that it was attributed to his father. By other writings in defense of the Federalist Party's foreign policy, young Adams attracted the attention of President George Washington, who appointed him minister to the Netherlands in 1794. During the next seven years he was stationed at The Hague and at Berlin, but retired from the diplomatic service on the defeat of his father for the presidency by Thomas Jefferson in 1800.

In 1797, Adams married Louisa Catherine Johnson, daughter of a London-based American tobacco merchant from Maryland. Adams entered politics in 1802, running for but being defeated for the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1803, he was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Massachusetts legislature. Like other Federalists, he attacked the Louisiana Purchase as "accomplished by a flagrant violation of the Constitution." Adams soon showed that spirit of political independence which was to characterize his entire career. Crossing party lines, he supported the impeachment of Federalist judges, and, most importantly, Jefferson's Embargo Act, which was strenuously opposed by his constituents. The embargo vote alienated him completely from the Federalists, who denounced him publicly and secured his defeat in the senatorial election in June 1808.


Disowned by the Federalists and not fully accepted by the Republicans, Adams used his Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard as a new base.[3] Adams's devotion to classical rhetoric shaped his response to public issues. He remained inspired by classical rhetorical ideals long after the neo-classicalism and deferential politics of the founding generation had been eclipsed by the commercial ethos and mass democracy of the Jacksonian Era. Many of Adams's idiosyncratic positions were rooted in his abiding devotion to the Ciceronian ideal of the citizen-orator "speaking well" to promote the welfare of the polis.[4]

Adams was influenced by the classical republican ideal of civic eloquence espoused by British philosopher David Hume.[5] Adams adapted these classical republican ideals of public oratory to America, viewing the multilevel political structure as ripe for "the renaissance of Demosthenic eloquence." Adams's Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory (1810) looked at the fate of ancient oratory, the necessity of liberty for it to flourish, and its importance as a unifying element for a new nation of diverse cultures and beliefs. Just as civic eloquence failed to gain popularity in Britain, in the United States interest faded in the second decade of the 18th century as the "public spheres of heated oratory" disappeared in favor of the private sphere.[6]

Secretary of State

While still transitioning between parties, Adams expertise as a foreign minister was again needed. In 1809, President James Madison appointed him minister to Russia, which was then engaged in a monumental war with Napoleon. Madison offered Adams an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1811, which he declined. Adams then served as a peace commissioner for the Treaty of Ghent after the War of 1812, and then as minister to the Court of St. James (Britain). He was generally considered to be one of the ablest American diplomats of his period.

Adams appointment as secretary of state under President James Monroe in 1817 was eloquent testimony to his splendid diplomatic service as well as to his knowledge of European affairs. Few secretaries of state have been more successful. During his eight years in that office Adams succeeded in settling most of the major disputes with Britain, including questions arising over the Great Lakes, Oregon, and fishing rights. He played an important part in the purchase of Florida from Spain, restraining Monroe when the President's actions in regard to Latin America might have jeopardized the purchase. He also contributed greatly to the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 by arguing against joint action with Britain and by suggesting that part of the doctrine which points out the differences between the political systems of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. During the Monroe administration he was a constant advocate of nationalistic measures, Although he did not approve of slavery he supported the Missouri Compromise in 1820.

In 1818 he secured a postponement of the question of the ownership of the vast, unsettled Oregon region (which included modern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Idaho) by an agreement with Britain calling for a joint occupation for ten years.

Relations with Spain

After the Napoleonic wars Spain lost control of most of the American colonies. They revolted and declared independence. Rebels used American ports to equip privateers to attack Spanish ships, a practice defended by Henry Clay, who severely criticized both Monroe and Adams for their more cautious wait-and-see policy. The Floridas, still Spanish territory but with no Spanish presence to speak of, became a refuge for runaway slaves and Indian raiders. Spain was not in charge. Monroe sent in General Andrew Jackson who pushed the Seminole Indians south, executed two British merchants who were supplying weapons, deposed one governor and named another, and left an American garrison in occupation. Jackson thought he had Washington's approval, but the orders were vague. President Monroe and all his cabinet, except Adams, believed Jackson had exceeded his instructions. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun proposed to punish Jackson. Adams argued that since Spain had proved incapable of policing her territories, the United States was obliged to act in self-defense. Adams so ably justified Jackson's conduct as to silence protests either from Spain or Britain. Congress debated the question, with Clay as the leading opponent of Jackson, but it would not disapprove of what Jackson had done.

Adams negotiated the Transcontinental Treaty with Spain in 1819 that turned Florida over to the U.S. and resolved border issues regarding the Louisiana Purchase. The treaty recognized Spanish control of Texas (a claim taken up by Mexico when it declared independence of Spain).

The post of Secretary of State was the normal path to the White House. After 1820 Adams, intent on winning the presidency, was less successful at the State Department. He failed to make key commercial treaties because he feared the necessary American concessions would be used to attack his candidacy. Instead the nation suffered from trade wars that could have been prevented.

Politics 1820-24

The nation became more sectionalized after the economic depression of 1819 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This worked to Adams' advantage in the presidential election of 1824, for the old caucus system collapsed and four Republicans competed on the basis of regional strength. As the only Northeastern candidate, Adams received 84 electoral votes to 99 for Tennessee's Andrew Jackson, 41 for Georgia's William H. Crawford. and 37 for Kentucky's Henry Clay. Since no candidate had a majority, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which chose among the top three. Clay was out, but by opposing Jackson, he secured Adams' election on the first ballot. Adams made Clay the Secretary of State, to the outrage of Jackson who said a corrupt bargain had nullified the will of the people.


Adams' singular intelligence, vast experience, unquestionable integrity, and devotion to his country should have made him a great chief executive. But like his father he lacked political sense and an ability to command public support, and his contentious spirit spelled defeat for him personally and for many of his policies. He proposed a comprehensive program of internal improvements (roads, ports and canals), the creation of a national university, and federal support for the arts and sciences. he favored a high tariff to encourage the building of factories, and restricted land sales to slow the movement west. Opposition from the states' rights faction quickly killed the proposals,

Even more serious was the attack by the followers of Jackson, who accused him of being a partner to a "corrupt bargain" to obtain Clay's support in the election and then appoint him secretary of state. Refusing to play politics, Adams did little or nothing to build up a personal following committed to his re-election. He refused to discharge federal officeholders when they actively joined the opposition, and even considered appointing Jackson to his cabinet. Losing control of Congress in the elections of 1826, he still persisted in his independent policies and thus insured his own overwhelming defeat by Jackson two years later. He was particularly embittered by the unfounded accusations of fraud and extravagance made against him during the campaign by his opponents (not to mention the false accusation that he pimped for the Czar.)

The Adams administration recorded no major legislative, diplomatic, military or administrative achievements. Congress did pass the high Tariff of 1828--the "tariff of abominations" that created a violent outcry especially in South Carolina. Jackson defeated Adams in a landslide in 1828, and created the the modern Democratic party and thus inaugurating the Second Party System.

Fighting against slavery

Adams returned briefly to Braintree, but after two years of retirement was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1831 by his old district and regularly re-elected every two years for the rest of his life.

The "Old Man Eloquent," as he was called, won renewed respect throughout the North as an opponent of slavery. Although never an abolitionist, Adams fought the extension of slavery in the territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 provoked a series of intense debates on slavery between Adams and John C. Calhoun that changed them from admiring friends into bitter enemies. Both men were brilliant students of political philosophy, and both were committed to republicanism. Both recognized the necessity of reconciling republican government with the issues of slavery and race, Adams vilified the practice of slavery as inherently corrupt and un-republican and preached total abolition. Calhoun countered that the right to slavery not only should be protected from interference from the federal government but was fundamental to republican government. The national debate led both men to consider dissolution of the Union as a way of resolving the slavery issue. Their immovable stances signaled the similar uncompromising positions adopted by the North and the South in the decades to follow.[7]

Even more spectacular was his eight-year struggle against the Southern-inspired "gag resolutions," which sought to deny the presentation and the discussion of antislavery petitions in Congress. Repeatedly threatened by irate Southerners with disbarment from Congress, he courageously kept up the struggle and finally won the right of free petition in 1844. His anti-slavery fervor extended to the Supreme Court where he argued the Amistad case in 1841. A staunch Whig, he redefined the nature of the slavery debate.

Adams died in the speaker's room on Feb. 23, 1848.


One of his three sons, Charles Francis Adams Sr. became a distinguished American diplomat.

Regarded by contemporaries as a cold, aloof, and excessively intellectual, John Quincy Adams was deficient in personal warmth, ignored the voters and the his own political supporters, was contentious, and was inclined to suspect the motives of his associates. He was also possessed of a brilliant mind, enormous energy, and abiding devotion to his country. Adams could also be cheerful and engaging, and was widely regarded to be one of his era's most brilliant dinner companions.

He kept one of the most famous diaries in American history, which was edited and partially published by his son, Charles Francis Adams Sr., in 12 volumes, 1874-1877.


  • Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the foundations of American foreign policy, (1950) and John Quincy Adams and the Union (1956), classic two volume scholarly biography; Pulitzer Prize
  • Cunningham, Jr., Noble E. The Presidency of James Monroe (1996)
  • Dangerfield, George. The Awakening of American Nationalism: 1815 - 1828 (1954) excerpt and text search
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (2004) excerpt and text search
  • Hargreaves, Mary W. M. The Presidency of John Quincy Adams (1985), the standard scholarly survey excerpt and text search
  • Hecht, Marie B. John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man (1972), biography by scholar
  • Lewis, James E., Jr. John Quincy Adams: Policymaker for the Union. (2001). 164 pp.
  • Lipsky, George A. John Quincy Adams: His Theory and Ideas (1950). online edition
  • Nagel, Paul C. John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life. (1997) 444pp; emphasis on private life and psychology; ISBN 0-679-40444-9
  • Mattie, Sean. "John Quincy Adams and American Conservatism." Modern Age (2003) 45(4): 305-314. Issn: 0026-7457 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Parsons, Lynn Hudson. John Quincy Adams. (1998). 284 pp. short introduction by scholar
  • Potkay, Adam S. "Theorizing Civic Eloquence in the Early Republic: the Road from David Hume to John Quincy Adams." Early American Literature (1999) 34(2): 147-170. Issn: 0012-8163 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Rathbun, Lyon. "The Ciceronian Rhetoric of John Quincy Adams." Rhetorica (2000) 18(2): 175-215. Issn: 0734-8584
  • Wood, Gary V. Heir to the Fathers: John Quincy Adams and the Spirit of Constitutional Government (2004) 356pp

Primary sources

  • Adams, John Quincy. Diary of John Quincy Adams [November 1779-December 1788]. Ed. David Grayson Allen et al. (1981). 2 vols.
  • Adams, John Quincy. The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794-1845: American Political, Social and Intellectual Life from Washington to Polk ," ed, by Allan Nevins, (1929), a well-chosen selection
  • LaFeber, Walter, ed. John Quincy Adams and the American Continental Empire (1965), contains Adams' letters, papers, and speeches.

See also


  1. When her health failed and she died in 1818, Secretary of State Adams said he was too busy to return to her bedside or attend the funeral.
  2. John Adams quoted in Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1997), 76.
  3. He was appointed to the chair in 1805, after turning down the presidency of Harvard.
  4. Lyon Rathbun, "The Ciceronian Rhetoric of John Quincy Adams," Rhetorica (2000) 18(2): 175-215.
  5. See David Hume, "Of Eloquence," in Essays, Political and Moral *1742)
  6. Adam S. Potkay, "Theorizing Civic Eloquence in the Early Republic: The Road from David Hume to John Quincy Adams," Early American Literature (1999) 34(2): 147-170.
  7. Chandra Miller, "'Title Page to a Great Tragic Volume': the Impact of the Missouri Crisis on Slavery, Race, and Republicanism in the Thought of John C. Calhoun and John Quincy Adams." Missouri Historical Review (2000) 94(4): 365-388. Issn: 0026-6582