This post is the third in a three-part series on John Quincy Adams. Part One discussed the unique opportunities of Adams’s childhood and education, and Part Two covered his early career and Presidency.
This post is the second in a three-part series on John Quincy Adams. In Part One we looked at the education and childhood experiences of John Quincy Adams, which gave him a unique opportunity in the fledgling American republic.
In July 1787 a twenty-year-old John Quincy Adams graduated from Harvard. The skeptical college president Reverend Joseph Willard, who had previously held up John Quincy’s admission for a semester, admitted that the young man was likely “to become a distinguished character.”
After graduation he studied law and opened his own practice. He spent his free time, however, writing a series of political commentary. The most famous of his writings of this period were a series of essays called Letters of Publicola. John Quincy excoriated Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and his good friend Thomas Jefferson’s support of Paine’s pro-French Revolution pamphlet. The essays were reprinted throughout the nation and in Britain, bringing the author a new wave of international recognition.
John Quincy’s writings caught the eye of President Washington, who sent him as an ambassador to Holland. For seven years he served there and later in Prussia, feeding the Washington and Adams administrations important intelligence during a period of tension between the United States. and France known as the “Quazi-War.”
After his return from diplomatic service he was elected to the Massachusetts State Senate, where he soon found himself on the bad side of both Federalists and Republicans. He “attempted some reforms and aspired to check some abuses,” he later recalled, but “discovered the danger of opposing and exposing corruption.” He angered his colleagues so much that they elected him to the U.S. Senate (the only way to get rid of him without alienating his powerful family).
His experience in federal legislation was much the same as on the state level. He regularly crossed party lines, supporting, for instance, the Louisiana Purchase despite widespread Federalist and New England opposition.
During this time he was also named professor of oratory and rhetoric at Harvard, where he enthusiastically taught while the Senate was not in session.
His Senate career was productive, but his lack of party loyalty eventually cost him his seat. A furious state senate appointed his replacement a full nine months before his term would end. His political career, for which he and his parents had once held such high hopes, seemed to be over.
He revived his legal practice, which flourished and even brought him some significant cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He also continued to provide foreign policy advice to the Jefferson administration. When James Madison succeeded Jefferson, he immediately appointed John Quincy as minister plenipotentiary to Russia. He jumped at the opportunity to return to politics through what he termed an “honorable diplomatic exile.”
Adams spent four years in Russia, even turning down a nomination to the Supreme Court to remain there. He developed a solid relationship with the czar and reported back to the administration on the goings-on of Europe, including Napoleon’s movements.
He also kept abreast of America’s relationship with Britain, which soon deteriorated into the War of 1812. When Britain sent an offer to negotiate an end to the war, John Quincy was called upon to lead the negotiations, eventually culminating in the Treaty of Ghent. “I hope,” John Quincy said of the treaty, “it will be the last treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States.” Nearly two hundred years later, it still is.
His success in Ghent led to a promotion to diplomatic office in Britain, where he helped negotiate the details of the United State’s new relationship with Britain that were left out of the treaty. As in his previous diplomatic appointments, John Quincy and his wife were remarkably popular, an important part of diplomatic success.
When James Monroe was elected President he chose John Quincy to succeed him as Secretary of State, largely considered to be the most powerful post besides the presidency, making him in essence the president-in-waiting. As Secretary of State he played a role in the acquisition of Florida, navigated a resolution to the Oregon boundary dispute, and helped to articulate the Monroe Doctrine, stating that European attempts to further colonize the American hemisphere would be seen as acts of aggression.
The success of Monroe’s two terms as president were partially due to John Quincy’s presence, and he was unsurprisingly nominated to succeed his boss and friend. As ever before, though, he refused to campaign for his election to office, and he faced an additional obstacle in the opposition of General Andrew Jackson, the “Hero of New Orleans” and a populist favorite. Jackson won the popular vote but failed to obtain an electoral majority, and so the election was decided by the House of Representatives. After the House elected Adams, John Quincy appointed Speaker Henry Clay to be his Secretary of State, leading to outcries that a political deal had been made.
Outcries of corruption over the alleged deal, along with John Quincy’s inability to communicate effectively with the people of the United States, led to a vastly unpopular term as president. It seemed that decades of charm and charisma in the royal courts of Europe and the halls of Harvard had ill prepared him to connect with the common man. Four years later Jackson easily defeated Adams in the presidential election.
John Quincy’s career had seen great successes, as well as some obviously low points. His presidency – which should have been the capstone – ending with a humiliating defeat at the hands of Jackson, was clearly the nadir of his career and seemed as well to be the end of it.
But it wasn’t.
Most people know John Quincy Adams as a dead US president, the only son of a former president to take the job until George W. Bush. What most people don’t know is that his presidency was actually the low point of a long and varied career in public service for which he was prepared by a rather unique upbringing.
I have been mildly interested in John Quincy Adams for years, but it was when I read David McCullough’s John Adams that I decided that I needed to read a biography on the younger Adams. Seeing what an uncommon education he had as the son of a founder, an eyewitness to the Battle of (the hill next to) Bunker Hill, a companion to his father on diplomatic missions to France and Denmark, and a secretary to the first US minister to Russia, all before entering college at Harvard, I was curious to learn more of what he accomplished when he finally got around to adulthood.
For a more in-depth look at our nation’s sixth president, I turned to Harlow Giles Unger’s John Quincy Adams, primarily because the reviews were excellent…and it was on sale.
John Quincy did indeed have a unique upbringing, his childhood coinciding with the turmoil that led to the War of Independence, and his father becoming a central figure in that struggle. Bunker Hill was one of his earliest and most indelible memories, solidifying his love for country and hate of war, tyranny, and oppression, which became clear themes of his life. His education was rigorous and thorough, including a reading proficiency in Greek by age ten. His parents believed him destined to greatness, but the boy suffered from anxiety and depression over his parents’ expectations and the legacy of his father’s accomplishments.
By age nine, he was serving as a post-rider between his hometown of Braintree and Boston, where war was in full swing. A year later, he crossed the Atlantic for the first time, joining his father on a diplomatic mission to France. At the ripe old age of eleven he gave France’s first diplomats to the United States an eight-week crash course in English.
His education continued in Paris and then at Leiden University during his Father’s mission to the Netherlands. At fourteen he left the university to serve as secretary to Francis Dana, sent to gain US recognition from Russia’s Empress Catherine II. His return journey from there to his Father in the Hague included a meandering tour of Scandinavia and Germany.
His education included mastery of five languages. In Greek and Latin he translated whole works of classic literature, sometimes into other foreign languages. His modern language repertoire included French, Dutch, and German, and at least a little Italian.
The young scholar also hobnobbed with some of the period’s greatest men. He was “treated as an equal” by men such as Jefferson and Lafayette and dined with ambassadors from around Europe, as well as the most well-to-do men and women of Paris. Unger notes that even in Paris he had seen more of Europe than most of the people around him.
He was treated as a celebrity upon his return to the United States, meeting most if not all of the most prominent men of his own nation, from Elbridge Gerry to James Madison. He bragged to his sister that he had “been introduced at different times to almost all the members of Congress,” but admitted that he was getting tired of repeatedly answering the same questions about his travels in Europe.
Despite this extensive education, exceptional resume, and a list of acquaintances as good as any American outside, perhaps, of his father and Franklin, an eighteen-year-old John Quincy was deemed unready for Harvard. College president Reverend Joseph Willard advised him to study with a tutor and reapply in the Spring. Despite the humiliation, he followed Willard’s advice and graduated second in his class less than two years later.
Such an accomplished youth must surely be destined for greatness. I mean, his pivotal role in his young nation’s future was practically inevitable at this point, right?
Find out in Part 2.