Pablo J. Davis
Program Director, South Atlantic Humanities Center
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities
John Quincy Adams: A Forgotten President Offers Timeless Advice
He was born 237 years ago on July 11, but the birthday of the sixth
president passed without mention. He was a brilliant diplomat, one of
our most important secretaries of state, and unsurpassed in the rigor
and valor of his post-presidential political career.
Yet John Quincy Adams is unjustly forgotten. If remembered, it’s for that part of his record that today seems expansionist: articulating what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, warning Europe to keep her hands off the Americas. But there’s more to his legacy – not all of it such an easy fit with recent patterns of U.S. policy.
In one sense, there is little mystery to “J.Q.A.’s” near-oblivion. After all, the early republic’s other presidents cast some pretty long shadows. The revered George Washington and Thomas Jefferson constituted, together with James Madison and James Monroe, a Virginia planter dynasty that held the presidency for 32 of its first 40 years. Adams’ own father, John Adams, was one of the Founders and second president.
J.Q.A.’s nemesis, Andrew Jackson, looms larger still. The Carolina-born Tennessean had out-polled him in the wild, four-way race of 1824, decided in Adams’ favor in the House of Representatives. Allegations of a “corrupt bargain” (in the House, Henry Clay threw his support to J.Q.A., who then made him secretary of state), fanned relentlessly by the Jacksonians, dogged him throughout his term.
Defeat came in 1828 after a Jackson campaign prefiguring the next century’s Sunbelt Republicans, with his “frontier,” “outsider” posture, a rough-hewn candidate of the common man (and an actual war hero) pillorying the incumbent as an elitist New England “aristocrat.” What Adams scorned, Jackson embraced – a new politics of the common touch, patronage, and a recognizably modern party system. J.Q.A. belonged to an era already past, or at least passing.
His personality, too, contributed to his obscurity. The face that stares back at us from portraits (he was the first U.S. president to be photographed), its hawk-like New England features framed by those long, sail-like sideburns, makes the mocking contemporary description, “a chip off the old iceberg,” believable. Adams himself didn’t disagree, once describing his own manner as “reserved, cold, austere and forbidding...”
Clearly, not many people would be tempted to choose J.Q.A. as a drinking companion. But there is something inspiring, even dazzling, in the courage and originality of the political life he lived – and in the power of his belief in public service.
Scion of a great political family, accomplished in several languages, he was appointed at age 14 as diplomatic secretary of the U.S. emissary to Russia (where, decades later, he would serve as minister). At 27, Washington made him minister to Holland, and three years later Jefferson posted him to Prussia.
He reached the Senate in 1803, a Federalist who supported the Louisiana Purchase and other Jeffersonian policies. Finding him too independent-minded, the Federalists eventually removed him from office. For eight years (1817-25) he was Monroe’s formidable secretary of state, acquiring Florida from Spain, laying important groundwork for expansion to the Pacific, and enunciating the famous diplomatic doctrine.
Adams’ retirement from public life after the presidency was brief. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts in 1830, he served nine terms. In doing so, he set a standard of humility in public service matched by few in our history. He scoffed at the frequent claim that congressional office was beneath an ex-president’s dignity – holding, memorably, that not even serving as town selectman would degrade a former president “if elevated thereto by the people.”
In Congress, J.Q.A. waged exhausting, often lonely battle against the “gag rule,” instituted in 1836 to prohibit any congressional debate over slavery. After nearly a decade’s crusade, he got it overturned. He opposed, unsuccessfully, Jackson’s Indian Removal policy – which culminated most notoriously in the catastrophic westward expulsion of the Cherokee.
In 1839, he magisterially represented the African captives of the ship Amistad in court, successfully defending their claim to freedom. (Anthony Hopkins played him in the 1997 movie.) In his legal arguments, as in Congress, Adams’ vast learning and peerless oratory inspired awe.
Later opposing James Polk’s invasion of Mexico, as did a young colleague named Lincoln, Adams stood fast against presidential deception and recklessness. He was far-seeing on the perils of unchecked executive war-making power.
Adams suffered a fatal stroke on the House floor in February 1848. Their simple majesty and satisfaction make his last words believable: “This is the last of Earth. I am content.”
As secretary of state, Adams once said that, while lending our moral support to freedom and independence “wherever their banners are unfurled,” we ought not “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Doing so, he argued, would gradually change the “fundamental maxims of [our] policy . . . from liberty to force.” This country’s recent experience abroad lends considerable power to those words.
Our current leader (the only other president’s son to attain the office) would serve himself, and all of us, well by paying attention to the words and deeds of the great and neglected J.Q.A.
Pablo Davis, a historian of modern Latin America with a strong interest in comparative history of the Americas, is the program director of the South Atlantic Humanitics Center for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanitie.
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