March 13, 2016
A Principled Warrior
‘John Quincy Adams,’ by Fred Kaplan
by Robert W. Merrymay
On February 22, 1848, Representative John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts collapsed over his desk on the House floor and slumped toward the carpet. He was carried to a nearby sofa and eventually transported upon it to the speaker’s office, where he died the next day. His only words upon that sofa were: “This is the end of earth. I am composed.” It was a fitting death scene for someone who had served 17 years in the House and emerged as one of his era’s most magnetic men of conviction.
But he also had been his country’s sixth President. He had served as a United States Senator, Secretary of State, Minister to Russia, Prussia and Britain, and member of the commission that negotiated the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812. And he kept a diary that Fred Kaplan, the biographer of Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, among others, calls “the most valuable firsthand account of an American life and events from the last decades of the 18th century to the threshold of the Civil War.”
With “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary,” Kaplan has produced a full-length narrative of this remarkable life, rendered in lucid and loving prose. Adams emerges from these pages as a man driven to prove his worth to the world and history, never quite sure he could measure up to his own standards but utterly confident of his values and principles. As he wrote to his mother upon becoming Secretary of State, he feared the President and public had “overestimated, not the goodness of my intentions, but the extent of my talents.”
In truth few contemporaries ever questioned his talents. More often they chafed at his penchant for encasing his opinions in a moral passion that tended to cross into sanctimony. When he entered the race for the presidency in 1824, Kaplan writes, he faced a handicap: “Widely respected, he was less widely liked.”
No doubt these traits contributed to his political difficulties, which in turn curtailed his presidential success. The voters tossed him from office after a single term, choosing instead Andrew Jackson, a military hero whom Adams could never understand or appreciate but whose political ethos more closely matched the electorate’s. Adams’s political fate suggests he was not a man of his time. But Kaplan rightly portrays him as a man ahead of his time, a statesman whose views and perceptions eventually would seep into the national consciousness and guide the nation in important ways.
John Quincy Adams was born in 1767 in Braintree, Mass., into a family that, Kaplan says, “had no distinction — social, financial or political,” until his father, John Adams, gained global fame as one of the leaders of the American Revolution. The elder Adams, sent to Europe as an envoy during the war, took his 10-year-old son along as companion. The lad spent about seven years abroad, learning the ways of the world and gaining a rare degree of self-reliance. His father called him “the greatest traveler of his age.”
Back home at Harvard, the precocious youngster demonstrated the intensity of his opinions, revealing to his diary his view of a fellow student: “a vain, envious, malicious, noisy, stupid fellow, as ever disgraced God’s creation; without a virtue to compensate for his vices, and without a spark of genius to justify his arrogance.” After commencement, where he delivered the student address, he tried the law and found it boring. Then began a series of overseas assignments, interspersed by a five-year stint as a senator from Massachusetts. By age 33, he had spent “more years abroad in the diplomatic service than any other American” of his time, Kaplan writes.
Along the way he married Louisa Catherine Johnson, daughter of an expatriate Maryland businessman who subsequently fell upon hard times. “At their best moments,” Kaplan says, “he and Louisa were a happy match.” He adds that they had “difficult days” when “his workload weighed heavily, his temper was short and his tongue was sharp.” The couple produced four children, though a daughter didn’t reach her first birthday and two sons died in early adulthood. The surviving son, Charles Francis Adams, went on to prominence as a congressman from Massachusetts and ambassador to Britain during the Civil War.
In foreign affairs Adams demonstrated a true genius, favoring a measured policy that eschewed foreign entanglements and missionary zeal but advocated a strong military to protect the fledgling nation from the predations of European powers. As Secretary of State under President James Monroe, he deftly negotiated a treaty with Spain that ceded Florida to the United States and relinquished to America any lingering Spanish claims to lands north of latitude 42 degrees. In exchange, Spain got clear title to Texas and lands south of the 42-degree boundary. This accomplishment, he confessed to his diary, induced in him a rare feeling of “involuntary exultation.” He also conceived the audacious diplomatic warning that became known as the Monroe Doctrine.
In domestic matters he fully embraced the philosophy that became the bedrock of Henry Clay’s Whig Party — a strong central government dedicated to federal public works like roads, canals and dams; a national bank to serve as repository for federal monies; sale of federal lands in the West and South at high prices to pay for the federal government’s expansive programs; tariff levels designed to protect domestic manufacturers; a governmental commitment to the “moral, political and intellectual improvement” of American citizens. He also became one of the country’s most formidable moral critics of slavery — “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed,” as one fierce opponent described him. Ralph Waldo Emerson speculated that he “must have sulfuric acid in his tea.”
In all of this he collided with Jackson’s populist Democratic Party, opposed to the Whigs’ expansion of federal power and supportive of low tariff rates and land sales at affordable prices so ordinary folk could flock to the hinterlands and build up America from below. Adams, in his sanctimonious way, came to detest the Jacksonians with a seething passion that clouded his ability to appreciate the inevitable and probably healthy tension between these two fundamental outlooks. Further, he injected his moralistic fervor into these debates by concluding, to the point of distortion, that just about every position embraced by his adversaries was actually driven by the slavery issue.
Kaplan subscribes to this view and thus succumbs to Adams’s perception of his adversaries as agents of villainy. His rendition of Jackson, for example — as a crude and mindless stooge of the Slave Power — bears little resemblance to the man portrayed in the more balanced biographies of Jon Meacham, H. W. Brands and Robert V. Remini. And Kaplan’s often one-sided political interpretations deprive his narrative of the richness of that era’s history.
Nevertheless, this is a valuable book about an important American figure whose persistent high dudgeon may have lessened his capacity to play the conventional political game of his time but ultimately rendered him a formidable personage of American political philosophy. “He was a warrior, but rarely a happy one,” Kaplan writes. He adds that “his days of strife and sorrow had been many. But the strife had been on behalf of deeply held ideals about his own and his nation’s moral life, about justice and the American future.”
Robert W. Merry, the political editor of The National Interest, is the author, most recently, of “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.”
A version of this review appears in print on May 4, 2014, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Lives of the Young Republic. Today’s Paper