Until Jimmy Carter came along, there really was no rival to John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) as best ex-president, although perhaps William Howard Taft earns
Like several of the Founders whose own later presidential years were troubled, including his own father, John Quincy had a far more distinguished and successful career prior to his time as Chief Executive. But quite remarkably, unlike these other men—John Adams, Jefferson, Madison—who lingered in mostly quiet retirement for decades beyond their respective tenures, in his long career John Quincy Adams could be said to have equaled or surpassed his accomplished pre-presidential service as diplomat, United States Senator, and Secretary of State, returning as just a simple Congressman from Massachusetts who was to be a giant in antislavery advocacy. Adams remains the only former president elected to the House, and until George W. Bush in 2001, the only man who could claim his own father as a fellow president.
Notably, the single unsatisfactory terms that he and his father served in the White House turned out to be bookends to a significant era in American history: John Adams was the first to run for president in a contested election (Washington had essentially been unopposed); his son’s tenure ended along with the Early Republic, shattered by the ascent of Jacksonian democracy. But if the Early Republic was no more, it marked only the beginning of another chapter in the extraordinary life of John Quincy Adams. And yet, for a figure that carved such indelible grooves in our nation’s history, present at the creation and active well into the crises of the antebellum period that not long after his death would threaten to annihilate the American experiment, it remains somewhat astonishing how utterly unfamiliar he remains to most citizens of the twenty-first century.
Prominent historian William J. Cooper seeks to remedy that with The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics (2017), an exhaustively researched, extremely well-written, if dense study that is likely to claim distinction as the definitive biography for some years to come. Cooper’s impressive work is old-fashioned narrative history at its best. John Quincy Adams is the main character, but his story is told amid the backdrop of the nation’s founding, its evolution as a young republic, and its descent to sectional crises over slavery, while many, at home and abroad, wondered at the likelihood of its survival. It is not only clever but entirely apt that in the book’s title the author dubs his subject the “Lost Founding Father.”
Some have called Benjamin Franklin the “grandfather of his country.” Likewise, John Quincy Adams could be said to be a sort of “grandson.” He was not only to witness the tumultuous era of the American Revolution and observe John Adams’ storied role as a principal Founder, he also accompanied his father on diplomatic missions to Europe while still a boy, and completed most of his early education there. Like Franklin, Jefferson, and his father, he spent many years abroad during periods of fast-moving events and dramatic developments on American soil that altered the nation and could prove jarring upon return. Unlike the others, his extended absence coincided with his formative years; John Quincy grew up not in New England but rather in France, the Netherlands, Russia, and Great Britain, and this came to deeply affect him.
A brooding intellectual with a brilliant mind who sought solitude over society, dedicated to principle above all else, including loyalty to party, the Adams that emerges in these pages was a socially awkward workaholic subject to depression, blessed with a wide range of talents that ranged from the literary to languages to the deeply analytical, but lacking even the tiniest vestige of charisma. He strikes the reader as the least suitable person to ever aspire to or serve as president of the United States. A gifted writer, he began a diary when he was twelve years old that he continued almost without interruption until shortly before his death. He frequently expressed dismay at his inability to keep up with his ambitious goals for daily diary entries that often ran to considerable length.
There is much in the man that resembles his father, also a principled intellect, whom he much admired even while he suffered a sense of inadequacy in his shadow. Both men were stubborn in their ideals and tended to alienate those who might otherwise be allies. While each could be self-righteous, John Adams was also ever firmly self-confident in a way that his son could never match. Of course, in his defense, the younger man not only felt obligated to live up to a figure who was a titan in the public arena, but he lacked a wife that was cut from the same cloth as his mother, with whom he had a sometimes-troubled relationship.
Modern historians have made much of the historic partnership that existed, mostly behind the scenes, between John and Abigail Adams; in every way except eighteenth century mores she seems his equal. John Quincy, on the other hand, was wedded to Louisa Catherine, a sickly woman given to fainting spells and frequent migraines whose multiple miscarriages coupled with the loss of an infant daughter certainly triggered severe psychological trauma. A modern audience can’t help but wonder if her many maladies and histrionics were not psychosomatic. At any rate, John Quincy treated his wife and other females he encountered with the patronizing male chauvinism typical of his times, so it is dubious that if he instead found an Abigail Adams at his side, he could have flourished in her orbit the way his father did.
Although Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was largely the force that drove the landmark “Monroe Doctrine” and other foreign policy achievements of the Monroe Administration, most who know of Adams tend to know of him only peripherally, through his legendary political confrontation with the far more celebrated Andrew Jackson. That conflict was forged in the election of 1824. The Federalist Party, scorned for threats of New England secession during the War of 1812, was essentially out of business. James Monroe was wrapping up his second term in what historians have called the “Era of Good Feelings” that ostensibly reflected a sense of national unity controlled by a single party, the Democratic-Republicans, but there were fissures, factions, local interests, and emerging coalitions beneath the surface. In the most contested election to date in the nation’s history, John Quincy, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford were chief contenders for the highest office. While Jackson received a plurality, none received a majority of the electoral votes, so as specified in the Constitution the race was sent to the House for decision. Crawford had suffered a devastating stroke and was thus out of consideration. Adams and Clay tended to clash, but both were aligned on many national issues, and Jackson was rightly seen as a dangerous demagogue. Clay threw his support to Adams, who became president. Jackson was furious, even more so when Adams later named Clay Secretary of State, which was then seen as a sure steppingstone to the presidency, something that further enraged Jackson, who branded his appointment by Adams a “Corrupt Bargain.” As it turned out, while Adams prevailed, his presidency was marked by frustration, his ambitious domestic goals stymied by Congress. In a run for reelection, he was dealt a humiliating defeat by Jackson, who headed the new Democratic Party. The politics of John Quincy Adams and the Early Republic went extinct.
While evaluating these two elections, it’s worth pausing here to emphasize John Quincy’s longtime objection to the nefarious if often overlooked impact of the three-fifths clause in the Constitution, which granted southern slaveholding states outsize political clout by counting an enslaved individual as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation. This was to prove significant, since the slave south claimed a disproportionate share of national political power when it came to advancing legislation or, for that matter, electing a president. He found focus on this issue while Secretary of State in the debate that swirled around the Missouri Compromise of 1820, concluding that:
The bargain in the Constitution between freedom and slavery had conveyed to the South far too much political influence, its base the notorious three-fifths clause, which immorally increased southern power in the nation … the past two decades had witnessed a southern domination that had ravaged the Union … he emphasized what he saw as the moral viciousness of that founding accord. It contradicted the fundamental justification of the American Revolution by subjecting slaves to oppression while privileging their masters with about a double representation. [p174]
This was years before he was himself to fall victim to the infamous clause. As underscored by historian Alan Taylor in his recent work, American Republics (2021), the disputed election of 1824 would have been far less disputed without the three-fifths clause, since in that case Adams would have led Andrew Jackson in the Electoral College 83 to 77 votes, instead of putting Jackson in the lead 99 to 84. When Jackson prevailed in the next election in 1828, it was the south that cemented his victory. The days of Virginia planters in the White House may have passed, but the slave south clearly dominated national politics and often served as antebellum kingmaker for the White House.
In any case, Adams’ dreams of vindicating his father’s single term were dashed. A lesser man would have gone off into the exile of retirement, but Adams was to come back—and come back stronger than ever as a political figure to be reckoned with, distinguished by his fierce antislavery activism. His abhorrence of human bondage ran deep, and long preceded his return to Congress. And because he kept such a detailed journal, we have insight into his most personal convictions.
Musing once more about the Missouri Compromise, he confided to his diary his belief that a war over slavery was surely on the horizon that would ultimately result in its elimination: “If slavery be the destined sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union … the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself.” [p173] He also wrote of his conversations with the fellow cabinet secretary he most admired at the time, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, who clearly articulated the doctrine of white supremacy that defined the south. To Adams’ disappointment, Calhoun told him that southerners did not believe the Declaration’s guarantees of universal rights applied to blacks, and “Calhoun maintained that racial slavery guaranteed equality among whites because it placed all of them above blacks.” [p175]
These diary entries from 1820 came to foreshadow the more crisis-driven politics in the decades hence when Adams—his unhappy presidency long behind him—was the leading figure in Congress who stood against the south’s “peculiar institution” and southern domination of national politics. These were, of course, far more fraught times. He opposed both Texas annexation and the Mexican War, which he correctly viewed as a conflict designed to extend slavery. But he most famously led the opposition against the 1836 resolution known as the “gag rule” that prohibited House debate on petitions to abolish slavery, which incensed the north and spawned greater polarization. Adams was eventually successful, and the gag rule was repealed, but not until 1844.
It has long been my goal to read at least one biography of each American president, and I came to Cooper’s book with that objective in mind. I found my time with it a deeply satisfying experience, although I suspect because it is so pregnant in detail it will find less appeal among a more popular audience. Still, if you want to learn about this too often overlooked critical figure and at the same time gain a greater understanding of an important era in American history, I would highly recommend that you turn to The Lost Founding Father.
Note: I reviewed the referenced Alan Taylor work here: Review of: American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, by Alan Taylor