Adams, John Quincy
Source: Library of Congress(1)
John Quincy Adams may have been the brightest president of
the United States history but he was not successful at it; instead, he was
probably the best diplomat the United States has ever had and an ardent
anti-slavery fighter. His upbringing was unusual for he not only was born into a
prominent family but lived and was educated in several different countries as
his father served the nation as its envoy in European capitals before becoming
President of the United States. John Quincy Adams was born July 11, 1767 in Braintree [now Quincy] , Massachusetts, the son of John
Adams, a remarkable leader in the American Revolution and second
president of the United States, and Abigail Adams, a remarkable woman who was
bright and resilient. The Adams family raised John Quincy to lead, having him
tutored and making sure that he knew important people from whom he could learn. He was well educated, studying a classical curriculum and
modern languages, but also studying diplomacy and what and why men acted as they
did. He studied in Paris, Amsterdam, Leyden, and the Hague before returning to
the United States where he studied at Harvard College, finishing in two years in
1787. Adams studied law for two years with Theophilus Parsons. Long before he
became a lawyer, he had started working for the US government. His life was one
of public service from the age of 14 until his death in 1848. Along the way he was a diplomat, Secretary of
State, interpreter, President of the United States, state senator, US senator,
and Member of the House.
His was not the typical
childhood even in elite families. His family criss-crossed the Atlantic Ocean in
sailing ships when a one-way trip would take five weeks and was dangerous. They
were as comfortable in the embassies and palaces of Europe as they were in
Massachusetts. At age 10, in 1778, he accompanied his father to France
and the Netherlands where he stayed until 1786, learning Dutch, German, and
French. In 1781, at age 14, he served as translator and secretary to Francis Dana, US envoy to Russia.
French was the language of diplomacy in Europe, including Russia. In 1783,
he returned to The Hague. His father had help negotiate the Treaty of Paris
(1783) ending the Revolutionary War and he was one of the witnesses to its
signing. Then, in 1785, he moved to London where father was the US diplomatic representative.
In 1786, he went home to Massachusetts to attend Harvard College.
Although he enjoyed the practice of
law, the challenge of politics soon led him back into government service. His
father had become Vice President of the United States in 1789, so he was
never far from the family enterprise. When President George Washington issued
his Neutrality Proclamation in 1793, trying to avoid participation in the Wars
of the French Revolution in spite of European depredations on US shipping, many
important people criticized him, including members of his own political party,
the Federalists. John Quincy Adams supported Washington's decision in a series
of articles written under the pseudonym, "Publicola." The articles
were instrumental to gaining support for Washington's decision. Before
long, the President discovered who had written the articles and was so impressed
with the ability of John Quincy Adams that he appointed diplomatic representative to the Netherlands.
It was while he was visiting London in 1794 that he met Louisa Catherine Johnson, daughter of the US consul in
London and an English woman. They were married in 1797.
His father, now president, sent him as diplomatic envoy to Prussia in 1797. A
diarist, he found that he had plenty of time to write about the French
Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars sweeping across northern Germany, for there
was not much to do. They stayed until 1801 when they returned to Massachusetts.
Rather quickly he was involved in
Massachusetts and national politics while his wife had to adjust to the United
States, her country of citizenship but in which she had not lived until then.
Her husband was a public man even though devoted to his family. He accepted the
call in 1802 and was elected to the state senate. The next year, 1803, the
Massachusetts legislature elected him
as US Senator. Adams tried to represent his state effectively but he was a
nationalist and promoted the national interest. Whereas New England was opposed
to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, fearing, rightly, that it would diminish the
power of the region and of conservatives, Adams voted in favor of ratification,
the only New England senator to do so. He believed that the nation needed to
expand. Many in the Massachusetts legislature were unhappy with his vote but his
support of Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act in 1807, which banned all US trade
with Europe and threw New England into a depression. In 1808, the Massachusetts legislature elected a man to replace him two years
before his term would end. Adams
He re-entered a diplomatic career,
one at which he excelled. From 1808 to 1813, he was Minister to Russia. In 1814,
he headed the US delegation of Henry Clay, J. A. Bayard, Jonathan Russell, and
Albert Gallatin, to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain to end the War of
1812. They got nothing that the US requested but won a victory only in that the
US did not lose any territory. The British did not want French expansion on the
continent which might result if the US was too weak. In other words, it got
nothing for which it went to war. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in December,
1814. Adams said it was only a truce. President James Madison rewarded him by
sending him as the US envoy to Great Britain, a post he held until James Monroe
named him Secretary of State in 1817. This position was the stepping stone to
Adams enjoyed great success as
Secretary of State, always supporting a national instead of a regional view. He
wanted the US to be strong and to expand. He worked hard to accomplish those goals. In 1817, Spanish Florida was a source of trouble as runaway
slaves, outlaws, and Seminoles raided into the United States and then withdrew
back into Spanish territory. Spain had few troops and they were stationed only
in Pensacola, Saint Marks, and Saint Augustine, so Spain was unable to prevent
these raids. US troops invaded Florida and killed some people in a Seminole
village. The Seminoles retaliated by ambushing a US hospital
ship and killing 42. General Andrew Jackson, believing that President Monroe had
authorized it, conducted a raid into Florida, occupying
Saint Marks and Pensacola. He executed two British subjects.
Britain and Spain protested strongly. Members of Monroe's Cabinet, with John C.
Calhoun leading the pack, wanted Jackson punished. Adams, however, supported Jackson,
arguing that he was justified. Adams argued to Spain and others that Spain was
incapable of policing Florida and that it should yield the territory to the
United States. Spain needed its resources to try to stop the wars of
independence occurring in its New World colonies. After lengthy negotiations in
which the US and Spain had to find a way for Spain to save face, the two signed
the Adams-Onís Treaty [Transcontinental Treaty] in 1819. Spain gave Florida
to the US; US agreed to assume debts from claims by US citizens
against Spain. Thus, Spanish rulers could never be accused of selling national
territory! Adams, on his own, got more. He got Spain to agree that the boundary
between the Louisiana Territory and New Spain stretched
all the way to the Pacific, going along the Sabine River,
northwest to the 42nd parallel, and then to the Pacific Ocean. He then looked to Cuba, saying in 1822, that it was like a ripe apple soon to fall from the tree.
By 1823, the Spanish Empire in the
New World was almost defunct as colony after colony rebelled against the
conservative rule of the Bourbon kings of Spain. Ferdinand VII had been forced
to adopt the Constitution of 1812, a liberal document which established a
constitutional monarchy but he sought help from other conservative European
powers to help him reconquer his Latin American colonies. Great Britain, which
controlled the seas, wanted no competition in the New World. Weak,
newly-independent Latin American nations would be more amenable to British
trade. The British foreign secretary, George Canning, approached Adams with the
proposition that both countries issue a proclamation to the Holy Alliance
(France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia) that they not interfere in America. From
Adams point of view, the issue was more complicated. Russia had already
established a colonies on the North American continent in Alaska and around San
Francisco Bay, which was in Mexico. Although the Russians had not entered US
territory, Adams and other expansionists hoped that US territory would
expand to those areas and they did not want to face a European great power. So
Adams had warned the Russians by 1822 that the US was opposed to its expansion onto the continent. As he
considered Canning's proposal, Adams advised Monroe that the US should make an
independent declaration for its interests and those of Britain were not exactly
the same. Monroe agreed and in his December, 1823 State of the Union address
made statements that are known as the Monroe
Monroe stated that the political
systems of the Old World and New World were different and that each should
stay out of each other's affairs. He said that the US would not interfere
with any existing European colony in the New World but the hemisphere was closed
to further colonization. Few paid much attention to this nationalistic statement
because they realized that the US could not enforce the doctrine or, as some wag
out it, the doctrine was the American cock-boat in the wake of a British man of
When the presidential election of
1824 came, Adams was the logical choice, for the Secretary of State was
traditionally selected to be president; Adams was but only after much
controversy. By 1824, sectionalism had become the driving force in US politics
as the country suffered from a national economic depression. Sections as well as
the Congressional caucus, nominated candidate. Adams represented New
England and New York; Henry Clay represented the West; the war hero General
Andrew Jackson was nominated by Pennsylvanians but his support was in the South
and West. William Crawford was nominated by the Congressional caucus but
he had a stroke and was not a factor. No one got a majority in the Electoral
College, where US presidents are actually elected. Andrew Jackson had gotten
more popular votes and more electoral votes than anyone else but no majority. As
the Constitution dictated, the election went to the House of Representatives
with each state having one vote. Clay, as the fourth highest vote getter was
excluded. As he considered the candidates, Crawford could not serve because of
health and Adams' political views were closest to his. He supported Adams, who
was then elected. Adams wanted a popular
election so he would have a clear mandate but the Constitution made no provision
for this so he agreed to serve the 1825-29 as President of the United States.
His presidency was not successful for
his opponents, particularly the Jacksonians, worked hard to make him fail. He
did not help his friends, the emerging National Republicans, for he appointed people to office based on abilities not patronage.
That meant he
appointed political enemies as well. He named Henry Clay as Secretary of State,
but the Jacksonians argued for four years that it was a "corrupt
bargain," that Adams had sold the office and, thus the presidency in
1829-33 to Clay for his support. The Jacksonians argued that Adams was ignoring
the will of the people and that, Andrew Jackson, was a man of the people.
Jackson, of course, was an aristocrat from Tennessee, not a common man, but the
In first message to Congress, Adams argued for a national program to bind the country together
by national funding for building national roads, canals, and harbor improvements,
a proposition that the South opposed because it die not believe it would
benefit. Adams wanted a stronger navy and the creation of military schools in addition
to the US Military Academy at West Point.
Adams argued that there should be a national university; he obviously wanted to have
an elite with a common education. When he suggested the ideas of
promoting the arts and sciences by funding scientific research and
building an astronomical observatory, his detractors hooted.
In 1828, he broke ground for the 185-mile Chesapeake & 0hio Canal.
Adams wanted to accept the invitation issued in 1825 by Simón Bolívar to a
hemispheric conference in Panamá City, Colombia [now in Panamá]. Congress
finally approved it in 1826 but one delegate died on the way there and the other
arrived after the meeting had adjourned.
In 1828, towards the end of his term,
Congress passed and he signed the Tariff of Abominations which created high taxes on manufactured and
raw material imports. The tariff was a political ploy by the Jacksonians who proposed
it thinking that it would never get through Congress and Adams would get blamed for its defeat. But it did pass.
New England supported it. Southern and Middle States also supported it in
order to deprive Adams of a campaign issue. South Carolina Exposition and Protest,
written anonymously by John C. Calhoun, protested and argued that a state could
determine by itself if a act of Congress were constitutional
That year, Andrew Jackson wins the presidency by a vote of 178-83.
The popular vote was Jackson 647,231 to Adams' 509,097.(2) Adams, like his father
did not stay for the inauguration. He was too bitter. He went home to Massachusetts to practice law, expecting to
live out his life practicing law, reading, writing, and farming.
In 1830, he was elected to the US House from Plymouth, Massachusetts. All other presidents have thought it would be beneath their dignity to
become a "mere Congressman"--if they could have gotten elected.
He worked hard for 17 years for his district, state, and nation. In 1832,
he helped formulate the compromise Tariff of 1832. In 1833, he tried to stop Jackson from moving money into the "pet banks."
When Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, Adams opposed annexation of Texas
for he feared it would mean more slavery. When the House adopted a "gag
rule" to keep members from petitioning about slavery, Adams fought it,
believing that members of Congress should have the right to discuss issue. In
1839, he tried to introduce resolutions that said that no one could be born a slave after 1845 in the US.
Because of gag rule, it was immediately sent to committee, never to emerge. In
1841, he was the chief attorney before the US Supreme Court on behalf of the
who were charged with mutiny and murder when they had taken over the slave ship,
the Amistad. They
had been illegally enslaved. His speech
was eloquent. They were acquitted in 1842. Finally, in 1844, he managed to
get the repeal of the gag rule. In 1846, he voted against going to war with Mexico because he
thought President James K. Polk was acting illegally and trying to provoke a war
with Mexico on behalf of the slave states. However, when it
came to vote funds to pay for the war, he voted yes.
He suffered a stroke in 1846 but was able to resume his seat
in Congress. On February
21, 1848, he suffered another stroke. He died two days later. The life of one of
the most accomplished statesmen in US history was snuffed out.
1 memory.loc.gov/pnp/cph/3c10000/ 3c17000/3c17100/3c17119r.jpg
2 Popular votes were becoming more important because states had been removing property
and religious qualifications to vote. By the time of this election, only South Carolina and Delaware chose
electors by the state legislature. Still, only the Electoral College could elect a president.