John Quincy Adams is mainly remembered as the sixth president of the United States — and not a terribly distinguished one at that. Ironically, concludes Fred Kaplan in his new biography, being president was Adams’ least successful accomplishment in a long life of public service, one that began when he was a preteen and continued until his death at the age of 80.
“His values, his definition of leadership and his vision for the nation’s future — particularly the difficulty of transforming vision into reality in a country that often appears ungovernable — is as much about 21st century America as about Adams’ life and times,” writes Kaplan, distinguished professor emeritus of English at Queens College and a previous biographer of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Henry James, among others.
Kaplan makes his point clear in this generally readable biography that lays out Adams’ almost dizzying list of achievements, although it sometimes gets bogged down in unnecessary detail. Adams’ public service began at the age of 11, when he accompanied his father, future President John Adams, on a diplomatic mission to Europe during the Revolutionary War. When he was only 14, he went on a three-year mission to St. Petersburg with another American diplomat who was trying to gain Russia’s recognition of the new country.
There was more European diplomatic service before and after a single Senate term in the early 1800s, concluding with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. Then Adams served eight years as secretary of state under President James Monroe. Among his accomplishments: Negotiating the treaty that transferred Florida to the United States from Spain and writing the text of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine.
After his single presidential term (1825-29), Adams spent 17 years in the House of Representatives, one of only two presidents to serve in Congress after leaving the White House (Andrew Johnson was the other). In the House, Adams became known as one of the most outspoken voices against slavery. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in the House chamber in 1848.
His lone presidential term came about almost by accident. The three previous secretaries of state had all become president, but Adams faced considerable opposition as a proponent of a strong central government versus states rights, an ideological dispute that helped lead to the Civil War and hasn’t been completely resolved today.
Adams came in second in electoral votes to war hero Andrew Jackson, but neither had a majority. Eventually the House of Representatives chose Adams after he gained the support of the third-place finisher, House Speaker Henry Clay. However, Adams’ opponents controlled Congress during most of his term as president, and he was able to accomplish little to nothing. Adams also ruffled feathers by appointing Clay secretary of state, leading opponents to claim the two had made a deal to give Adams the presidency. He lost overwhelmingly to Jackson in the next election.
Kaplan goes to great lengths to show that Adams’ personal life was difficult. He had a hard time meeting his family financial obligations. His wife, Louisa, suffered from poor health much of her life, including debilitating headaches, high fevers and frequent bouts of inflammatory skin infections. Doctors in those days still bled patients with leeches, but she managed to live to the age of 77.
Louisa had several miscarriages during the marriage. Of the Adamses’ four children, one died as an infant and two of the others died as young adults, one almost certainly by suicide. Only youngest son Charles Francis Adams survived his parents. As a result of her poor health and history of family tragedies, Louisa didn’t want her husband to reenter public life after his presidency, but, as Kaplan points out, Adams felt it was his duty to serve.
In writing this biography, Kaplan was greatly aided by Adams’ diary, which he began at age 12 and continued until just before his death. The entire 50 volumes have been preserved. It’s a good source, but Kaplan quotes from Adams’ diary more than necessary. There are also lengthy quotations of poems that Adams wrote, and their inclusion is probably Kaplan’s attempt to show that Adams wasn’t quite the stiff, forbidding character that he is often portrayed as. If some of these lengthy passages had been dispensed with, the book might have flowed more smoothly.
But there’s no question about the truth of Kaplan’s main point: John Quincy Adams may not have been one of America’s greatest presidents, but he was definitely one of its greatest citizens.
Sam Jacobs is a writer in Miami.