The public career of John Quincy Adams poses this paradox: he was the greatest ever Secretary of State but only a mediocre President. As Secretary of State, he concluded the Adams-Onis treaty with Spain and the 1818 convention with Great Britain. Both were diplomatic triumphs, gaining Florida for the United States and resolving border disputes with both nations. He was the architect of the Monroe doctrine, the cornerstone of American foreign policy in this hemisphere until the present day. He articulated more eloquently than any other Secretary of State a preference for America’s soft power over military deployment. The United States, he said, “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.”
John Quincy Adams’ presidency was a disappointment. He did have a vision of strong federal leadership in internal improvements and scientific innovation—what we today would term public goods. But with few notable exceptions, like the building of the Cumberland Road, he was unsuccessful in persuading Congress to adopt his program. Despite being elected by the House after failing to win a majority of either the electoral or popular vote, he did nothing to expand his coalition and was handily defeated by Andrew Jackson in the next presidential election.
Fred Kaplan’s biography, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, provides a vivid and full account of the life of our sixth president but offers relatively sparse analysis to help explain these political vicissitudes. As a result, the biography, while informative and very well structured, falls short of the excellence of recent biographies of great American statesmen like Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton or Walter Stahr’s Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man. In Kaplan’s work, the narrative, written largely from Adams’ perspective, limits the scope for analysis. It sometimes slights the more general historical context and is often trapped by a sympathy verging on partisanship for the subject. Fortunately, Kaplan’s narrative is sufficiently rich that it permits us to make our own explanations for the arc of Adams’ career.
Adams’ success as Secretary of State and his failure as President were the consequence both of his time and his personality. He was Secretary of State under James Monroe in the era of Good Feelings when the Democratic-Republican Party dominated government as has no other party in American history. As a result, Adams was able to get support for the political compromises that helped him ratify key treaties. By the time he assumed the Presidency, the party had split into factions, and the dominant one, extremely suspicious of federal power, was returning to its roots in the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, the political nemesis of John Quincy’s father. Adams thus took office under much less favorable circumstances than did Monroe, even setting aside the loss of legitimacy that came from winning in the House rather than in electoral college.
And Adams’ personality made it difficult for him to adapt to the new circumstances of factional politics. In dealing with foreign nations, he recognized that he was in the realm of pragmatism rather than pure principle. He had been a diplomat for almost his whole life, beginning as secretary to the Russia legation at age 14. These formative experiences gave him an appreciation for the inevitable give-and-take of international bargaining.
But domestically, Adams was a moralist: in his view, the United States polity should reflect certain principles of liberty and common good that were not subject to compromise. The principles were on the whole admirable, but on the issue of slavery they were not shared throughout the union, and there was disagreement on how to apply them even on less momentous issues. Adams had a tendency to demonize his opponents rather than look for common ground. He was the kind of conviction politician who can succeed as a leader of the nation only when the time is ripe for fundamental change.
The same unbending principles that crippled his Presidency led to the most successful post-Presidency in the history of the United States. Kaplan well describes how, as a member of the House of Representatives for almost two decades, Adams spoke relentlessly against slavery and in particular against the “gag rule” by which Southerners tried to prevent Congress from discussing anything to do with the issue. Adams may have been the House of Representatives’ most effective conviction politician: he leveraged his standing as an ex-President to be heard throughout the land in the cause of freedom—both of speech and of labor.
The most original part of Kaplan’s biography lies in his revelations about Adams’ literary accomplishments. At one a time a professor of rhetoric at Harvard, Adams rivals Abraham Lincoln as a master of prose and wrote far more on more diverse subjects from theology to science. And if Richard II was the poet king, Adams was certainly was our poet President. Unlike his contemporary John Calhoun, who was said to have had the good sense to stop versifying after beginning with the word “Wherefore,” Adams wrote more than competent poetry, using his verse to explore both the everyday and the transcendent. Adams was not a successful President, but few leaders of any democratic nation have possessed a more capacious intellect or sounder principles.