|John Quincy Adams became the first President ever photographed when he sat for this daguerreotype as a member of the House of Representatives shortly before his death.
At the end of his long life John Quincy Adams was revered as Old Man Eloquent by opponents of slavery and reviled in equal measure as a Yankee mad man by the Southern slave holding aristocracy. As a boy and young man he lived in his famous father’s shadow, an errand boy and gopher for the great man on his famously cantankerous diplomatic postings for the infant American republic.
In between he lived an eventful life, full of public service, accomplishment, and occasional respect all the while battling what is now evident as severe depression and self-doubt.
The younger Adams was born on July 11, 1767 at the family home in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts to John and Abigail Adams. His mother’s came from prominent local gentry and his father was a rising lawyer with political aspirations who was soon prominent among Patriot leaders including his cousin Samuel Adams, merchant John Hancock, and fellow lawyer James Otis.
|Famous parents and a daunting legacy--John and Abigail Adams. John Quincy admired and respected his distant father but bitterly resented his mother who was never satisfied with him and whose sharp tongue made it abundantly clear to him.
In his early childhood the boy’s father was often busy with his law practice and politics in near-by Boston or away from home for extended periods of time as a delegate to the Continental Congress. His mother constantly reminded him of how important a man his father was. One summer day in 1777 he learned about the Declaration of Independence, which his father had done so much to bring about, from a letter read to him by his mother.
Just a year later he packed his bags to accompany his father on a critical diplomatic mission to France where he joined Benjamin Franklin in the delicate negotiations to obtain French support for the war effort. The boy was from the beginning more than a companion, he was something of a cross between a domestic servant to his father and eventually a secretary. He absorbed the details of the intrigue around him, including his father’s prickly relationship with the famous and beloved Franklin and learned from the elder Adams’ sometimes curt bluster how not to conduct diplomacy. While on this trip John Quincy began keeping the diary he would maintain for more than 40 years, giving later scholars a priceless insider account of early America and its politics.
|John Quincy Adamst age 10--his father's aide and errand boy in Europe
In 1780 he again accompanied his father when he was made Minister to The Netherlands. On this trip the boy’s duties were more substantial. He also got an education, matriculating at Leiden University in 1781. At the tender age of 14 he was considered competent enough to be loaned to another American diplomat, Francis Dana, who he served as official secretary for the mission to the Court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia. He also traveled in the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Sweden, and Denmark.
During his years abroad he became fluent in French—the court language of much of Europe—and Dutch as well as passable in German and other languages.
When Quincy returned to the now independent United States, he was already one of the most experienced diplomats the country had despite not being out of his teens. He enrolled, of course, at his father’s alma mater Harvard and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1787. The same year his father became the first Vice President under George Washington.
From 1787 to ’89 Young Adams read law with Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport, Massachusetts then returned to Harvard to win a Master of Arts degree in 1790. He passed the Bar in 1791 and began to practice law in Boston.
Despite his notable achievements his mother constantly compared him to her husband and found him wanting. He loved and admired his often distant father, but came to fear the dominating Abigail, who he blamed for his frequent bouts of melancholia.
Young Adams first came to public notice—and earned the esteem and admiration of the President—for penning a series of polemics in support Washington’s refusal to be drawn into the wars swirling around the French Revolution, despite a treaty of alliance. It was Washington, not his father, who insisted that the 26 year old take up duties as Minister to The Netherlands. But the young man did not want to take the job. He feared he would never get out from under his father’s shadow if he pursued a career of public service. His father convinced him that it was his patriotic duty to do so.
In addition to his duties in Holland, Adams also carried papers and instruction to John Jay who was trying to negotiate a treaty with Britain clearing up many points of contention in the post-revolutionary period. He also consulted with Jay and shuttled back and forth between capitals. When Jay concluded his controversial treaty which many considered far too favorable to the British, Adams wrote to his father urging him to support it as the best possible deal. The elder shared it with the President who incorporated points from the letter in his Farewell Address.
Washington kept the young man in service, appointing him Minister to Portugal and then Legate to Berlin. Washington was uncharacteristically effusive in his praise calling Adams “the most valuable of America’s officials abroad.”
|John Quincy Adams 1797 by John Singleton Copley about to leave to become Minister to Prussia.
When his father became President, it again was Washington who urged him to name his son Minister to Prussia despite the inevitable charges of nepotism. He served from 1797 to 1801, his father’s whole single term as President. He secured a renewal of the Prussian-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce on very liberal terms.
Before returning to the United States he married Louisa Catherine Johnson, the British born daughter of an American merchant in London.
|Louisa Catherine Adams, a cultured and accomplished wife.
When he returned to Massachusetts with his new wife, he secured an appointment as Commissioner of Monetary Affairs in Boston by a Federal District Judge. But that sinecure fell victim to the deep personal animosity between two erstwhile old friends and comrades—the elder Adams and newly elected President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wasted no time rescinding the nomination, a slap in the face that did not go unnoticed.
In the end, the offense propelled John Quincy to enter electoral politics as a Federalist, another foot step in his father’s path he has sworn never to undertake. He was elected a member of the Massachusetts State Senate in April 1802 and that fall ran for the United States House of Representatives and lost. But in March of the next year the Massachusetts General Court elected him to the U.S. Senate where he quickly became a leading voice of the Federalist minority.
But it was during that period when John Quincy engaged in one of the most embarrassing acts of his career. He penned a series of six satiric ballads in the style common to Harvard undergraduates mocking the Democratic-Republicans and Jefferson. They were not printed but circulated hand to hand and read with great mirth at Washington taverns where the political elite gathered. Although written anonymously, it quickly became apparent that they were written by Adams. One of them, Dusky Sally, a famously lurid ballad about Jefferson’s dalliance with his slave Sally Hemmings was written in 1803 but published anonymously in 1807. Jefferson was naturally furious. Some Adams apologists dismiss the work as a school boy prank. It was not. It was a political dirty trick propagated by a highly sophisticated 40 year old sitting U.S. Senator.
Despite his service in the Senate, Adams’s expertise in foreign policy and relations caused him to abandon other Federalists and support the President’s Louisiana Purchase and the Embargo Act. Both of these acts were particularly loathed by Massachusetts Federalists who saw them as a plot to create permanent Southern dominance via new states carved out of the vast land acquisition and whose merchants were badly hurt by the Embargo, a measure meant to keep the U.S. out of world war between France and Britain. The General Court met early and stripped Adams of his Senate seat in 1708. Adams promptly resigned the party of his father and joined his former enemies, the Democratic Republicans.
His new party did not entirely trust its convert. Instead of seeking a new elected post or political appointment, Adams took the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. From his lofty perch he wrote extensively promoting a neo-classical, Ciceronian ideal of disinterested public discourse based on reason and illuminated by rhetoric. Despite his best efforts, public discourse in the US was taking a vastly different direction. Still, he would happily have remained in the academy had not duty called once again.
President James Madison called on him to take the critical diplomatic post of Minister to Russia in 1709. His wife Louisa and their youngest son Charles Francis Adams accompanied him to the Tsarist court. After reporting the fall of Moscow to Napoleon and his subsequent disastrous winter retreat, Adams was dispatched to Ghent to serve as to serve as chief negotiator of the U.S. commission to negotiate a treaty to end the War of 1812. Louisa and Charles had to make a harrowing winter coach ride across war torn Europe, always in danger of being caught up in battle or attacked by roving bands of brigands and deserters to join her husband.
|John Quincy Adams, center, at the signing of the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812.
The peace commission succeeded in gaining a remarkably lenient treaty, mostly restoring the status quo ante bellum despite the fact that at the time it was negotiated, the British had dominated the war and humiliated American armies. But the European wars had left the Mother Country bleeding, exhausted, and broke and Adams knew that they had little appetite for an extended war in North America. America’s biggest victory, which might have justified even better terms, came after the treaty was signed when Andrew Jackson smashed and destroyed a British Army attacking New Orleans.
John Quincy Adams was thus absent from the actual conflicts of his country’s two first wars, making his personal experience vastly different than most other Americans.
After the treaty was concluded, a grateful Madison named Adams Minister to The Court of St. James, the country’s most distinguished diplomatic post. He served in London from 1814-17.
On his return home from eight years abroad, newly elected President James Monroe named him Secretary of State, a post for which he was manifestly qualified and which was then widely regarded as the natural stepping stone to the Presidency. He stood at the President’s side for two terms, his most trusted advisor and master of foreign policy.
Adams racked up impressive achievement after impressive achievement while at the State Department. First he had to address the thorny problem of Florida, which was only tenuously held by Spain, weakened by the Napoleonic wars on its soil and a mere shadow of a once mighty empire. Southerners had long had ambitions in Florida and various plots and filibustering schemes were constantly afoot. The British had agents on the ground in Florida—either actually in service to the Crown or merchant/traders functioning de facto—and seemed to have its own plans to snatch the province and hem in expansionist America to the south. Florida, and particularly the large and powerful Seminole tribe that dominated its interior, was also a haven for escaped slaves. Large number of Creek warriors, defeated by Andrew Jackson’s western army had also fled into the arms of the Seminole.
Monroe, undoubtedly with the approval of Adams, ordered Jackson to pursue the fugitive Creek into Florida. The Hero of New Orleans did so with his customary enthusiasm and ruthlessness. In the process he captured and hanged two British subjects he suspected of arming the Indians, precipitating an international crisis. Monroe’s Cabinet was unanimous in the opinion that Jackson had exceeded his orders and should be court martialed and removed from command. Adams alone supported the General, arguing that if the Spanish could not police her territories, the United States had the right to do so in self-defense. His argument carried the day with Monroe, who only issued a reprimand to Jackson. But the touchy Jackson assumed that Adams was responsible for the “rebuke to my honor,” thus beginning the bad blood between the two.
Adams skillfully advanced the same arguments to injured Britain and Spain. In the Adams–Onís Treaty Spain ceded Florida to the U.S. and the boundary between the Louisiana Territory and Spanish Tejas (Texas) was cleared up.
At the same time, Adams had to clear up several post-war issues with Britain, including the final evacuation of frontier posts still held by the British on American soil and clearly defining a western boundary. The terms of the Treaty of Paris which had ended the Revolutionary War had assumed that the Mississippi River extended north to Lake-in-The-Woods from which point a line would be drawn to the pacific coast. The issue had come to a head in the Oregon country were the British Hudson Bay Company and John Jacob Astor’s American Fir Company were in fierce completion for the highly lucrative fur trade.
Adams could build on the work of Richard Rush, temporary Secretary of State until Adams could come to Washington. The Rush–Bagot Treaty agreed to in early 1817 demilitarized the border between the US and British North America was including naval disarmament on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain—the traditional invasion routes that had been used by both sides. The US and Britain also agreed to joint control over the Oregon Territory. Adams successfully helped shepherd the treaty through Senate ratification in 1818 and used it as a springboard for more talks.
The Treaty of 1818, negotiated by Albert Gallatin and Richard Rush under Adams personal supervision, secured a favorable border for the United States along the 49th Parallel including a sizable chunk of Oregon and deep-water ports from which to ship the valuable furs. Use of the Oregon Territory remained open to both nations and mutual freedom of navigation was guaranteed. In addition the treaty formalized the rights of Americans to their traditional fisheries in the Grand Banks off shore from Newfoundland and Labrador. The result was the longest undefended border in the world and a permanent end to hostility between the two English speaking powers.
However he Hudson Bay Company would continue to run roughshod over American fur traders for some time, building to a demand by expansionists to seize all of the Oregon territory and the cry of Fifty-Four-Forty or Fight! almost brought the two nations to war again until the Oregon Treaty of 1846 confirmed the 49th Parallel as the boundary and gave American complete jurisdiction of everything south of that line.
|Secretary of State John Quincy Adams at the globe presents Monroe Doctrine to President James Monroe, left and the Cabinet in this historic painting by Allyn Cox in Great Experiment Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Of course Adam’s biggest accomplishment was enunciating what became known as the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. This was a response to Spain’s crumbling new world empire. Several countries had declared independence. Spain was threatening to send armies to reconquer some of what they had lost and other European powers, particularly the British, French, and Russians were making noises about moving into the void.
Many Americans wanted the U.S. to intervene actively on behalf of the newly independent Republics, some dreamed of a Pan American union. Southern interests were looking for areas into which to expand their plantation and slave culture and carve out new states. With an audience in Europe in mind Adams delivered a speech on Independence Day 1821 declaring that while the United States supported the new republics, it would not intervene militarily on their behalf unilaterally, declaring that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” but warning of European intervention.
From this nugget grew an official state paper which was presented to Congress on December 2, 1823 declaring that it is the policy of the United States that further efforts by European powers to colonize land or interfere with states in the Americas would be viewed as acts of aggression requiring U.S. intervention. The Monroe Doctrine became the basis of American foreign policy and remains in force to this day.
Tomorrow—The Presidency and after.