John Quincy Adams Summary


An anecdote that Paul C. Nagel recounts from John Quincy Adams’s unsuccessful presidential term exemplifies a number of the conflicts in Adams’s complex and frequently perverse personality. At a groundbreaking ceremony for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Adams, unable at first to wedge his shovel into the ground, removed his coat and then accomplished his ceremonial feat to an outburst of cheers from the crowd. He realized that the simple act of shedding his coat registered more powerfully with Americana than did the rhetorical flourishes of his carefully prepared speeches or, for that matter, his hesitations when he had difficulty recollecting them all. At the same time, he worried about the way such an undignified act must have struck any foreigners present. He would make many more speeches but seldom found it expedient to remove his coat.

Adams’s reluctance to unbutton, physically or psychologically, was the product of a temperamental inclination reinforced by his formative years abroad. John Adams saw to it that both his eldest son’s chief schooling and his introduction to working life took place in Europe while the future second president carried out lengthy diplomatic missions there. Although an ocean separated Adams from his mother, Abigail, during those years, she subjected him to a rigid moral discipline no less imposing for being epistolary. He found that he enjoyed the much more sophisticated European culture, especially the theater, which did not much interest his father and which appalled his mother. He performed a series of diplomatic assignments in The Hague, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and London, where he interacted with men of distinction, even becoming a favorite walking companion of Emperor Alexander I of Russia. The most significant break in his life abroad was an unobtrusive term as a United States senator while concurrently occupying the chair of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard. In 1817, at the age of fifty, he found himself back in the raw southern frontier town that had been designated as his nation’s capital.

As James Monroe’s secretary of state, he enjoyed some successes, including major responsibility for drafting the president’s 1823 message to Congress—and incidentally the world—that became known as the Monroe Doctrine. A year later, Adams was elected to what proved to be an ineffective term as president. Two gloomy years after losing his bid for a second term to Andrew Jackson in 1828, he won a seat in the House of Representatives and held it until, as a sick old man of eighty, he collapsed while attempting to make a speech in February of 1848. He died two days later.

Previous biographers have recorded these ups and downs of Adams’s political life, often in a form more detailed than that offered by Nagel, who signifies his biographical intention in his subtitle: A Public Life, a Private Life. He drew his inspiration from the self-proclaimed limitations of Samuel Flagg Bemis, who wrote John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Policy (1949) andJohn Quincy Adams and the Union (1956) but confessed that the inner life of the man had eluded him. Other historians, seeing in Adams a cold, disagreeable man, had not even attempted to understand him. Nagel undertook a review of his subject’s public and political life balanced by an exploration of his character, his main resource being Adams’s massive manuscript journal, now available in its entirety on microfilm but relatively unused.

The journal reveals a complex man of contradictory tendencies. He liked to see himself, for example, as a writer who needed nothing so much as a quiet abode suitable for poetry and scholarship. He did write voluminously, but his poems are most often meager exercises in versification, and the prose subject he knew best—the career of his father—he never got around to writing. His ministerial duties abroad, which involved months of diplomatic treading of water while he awaited instructions from home, allowed him time to indulge this interest, but he constantly complained in his journal of a lack of self-discipline that, in his mind, limited his output. His most important scholarly achievement was a published version of the lectures on rhetoric and oratory that he gave at Harvard between 1805 and 1807.

Inside the would-be scholar was a politician always trying to emerge, despite Adams’s incessant denials of political ambitions. He presented himself as deploring the partisan behavior that politicians, then as now, found essential to success. In this conviction, his parents supported him as too honest, independent, and “brilliant” for politics. The younger Adams’s service as secretary of state under James Monroe,...

(The entire section is 1923 words.)