All Three Names Please!
President #6, C-SPAN historians ranking #19
John Quincy Adams had one of the most distinguished careers in service to the United States that any person may have had. However, the four years he was president, from 1825 through 1829, were a series of political missteps compounded by the fact that he was the only president ever to be elected despite not getting the most ELECTORAL votes.
JQA, as he styled himself in correspondence, was the son of the second president, John Adams. He accompanied his father to Europe during the Revolution and learned French and German along the way. At the age of 14, he accompanied the American minister to St. Petersburg, Richard Dana, because French was spoken among diplomats at the time.
When Adams returned home to the U.S., he attended Harvard (however his admission was delayed because it was felt he didn’t speak Greek or Latin well enough) and graduated with honors and set up a law practice.
Adams fell in love with a Massachusetts woman, but neither her family nor Adams’ parents could ever agree on when or if the marriage should take place, and Adams never married the only woman he apparently ever truly loved. Adams eventually married a British woman and started a family, but he never seemed to truly love his wife.
Eventually, Adams was given a diplomatic post in Europe, first in the Netherlands and then later in Russia, and moved up to the post of Secretary of State under President James Monroe in 1817. And according to author Robert V. Remini, one of the foremost authorities on Adams’ era and a biographer of Andrew Jackson, Adams may have been the greatest Secretary of State ever.
Adams acquired Florida from Spain and in the same negotiation managed to get Spain to acknowledge that the Louisiana Territory extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean. There was also a successful treaty signed with the British in 1818 that settled part of what is now the U.S.-Canada border and also helped U.S. commercial interests greatly. And Adams was the man who wrote what would become known as “The Monroe Doctrine,” a cornerstone of American foreign policy that stated that any further attempts by European powers to colonize any country in the Western Hemisphere would be opposed by the United States.
With a pedigree and a list of accomplishments like Adams, it would seem that his elevation to the White House would have been a cinch. But it most certainly wasn’t.
In 1824, American politics was nominally a one-party system as the Federalists had gone the way of the tricorn hat. But this “one party” had numerous factions and little or no formal structure. Four people were nominated for president: Adams, Andrew Jackson (the extremely popular military hero of the War of 1812), William Crawford (the Secretary of the Treasury and the favored candidates of what would be considered the party regulars in Congress), and Henry Clay (who thought he was the best equipped man for the job because he had an ego the size of his home state of Kentucky.)
1824 was the first year that popular vote totals were recorded in a Presidential election. Jackson came out on top with about 152,000 votes and Adams had about 113,000. Jackson won 99 electoral votes, Adams won 84, Crawford won 41, and Clay finished in 37. Under the terms of the Twelfth Amendment, the top three in the Electoral College vote would be eligible for selection by the House.
This put Clay in the position of kingmaker as he could instruct the states that voted for him to vote a particular way. According to Remini, Clay didn’t hesitate to make his choice. Clay didn’t want Crawford to become President because that man had recently had a stroke and was nearly blind and couldn’t talk. And Clay despised Jackson and didn’t want to see a military man as President. So that left Adams.
But what would Adams do to make it worth while for Clay to support him? It was pretty clear. Adams had to make Clay his Secretary of State. And in doing so, Adams prevailed in the House, winning 13 of the 23 state delegations. And as an added “prize,” Adams pretty much destroyed any chance of accomplishing anything as President because now Jackson and his supporters were, to put it mildly, pissed off.
To make matters worse, in Adams’ first message to Congress (presidents did not directly address Congress at the time, but rather sent over messages to be read), he laid out an ambitious legislative agenda. Adams wanted numerous internal improvements with roads and canals built all over the country. Adams wanted a national university and a national observatory. He wanted to go on the metric system. He wanted to send representatives to a Pan American Congress that was convening in Panama.
Adams ended up getting none of these and was widely ridiculed in the press. It didn’t help that Adams felt it was unseemly for a President to answer any criticism publicly. It also didn’t help that his Secretary of State, Clay, was even more disliked. And the Vice President, John Calhoun, didn’t like Adams.
And to be fair, Adams was hard to love. He didn’t exude a lot of warmth. He was the product of an unhappy childhood. Despite the way HBO had Laura Linney portray Abigail Adams, JQA’s mother, on TV, she was never going to win Mother of the Year. She was a parent, according to Remini’s description of her, who withheld affection and gave out a lot of criticism. JQA didn’t attend his own mother’s funeral and didn’t seem too broken up about it. And Adams in turn was a bad father and had one son kill himself and another drink himself to death.
The John Quincy Adams Presidency was a four-year long trainwreck and in 1828, Jackson won the rematch easily despite a bitter campaign where Jackson’s people accused Adams of pimping out his own son to the Prussian court and Adams’ people accusing Jackson’s wife of bigamy.
After leaving the White House (Adams, like his father, didn’t stick around for the inauguration of his successor), JQA wanted to retire to Massachusetts, but eventually he was asked to run for a House seat and took his seat in 1831. Adams found his true calling in the House of Representatives.
While serving in Congress, Adams argued against the “gag rule” which prevented any discussion of the abolition of slavery. Adams also would represent the Africans on the Amistad, who had taken over the ship that was taking them to America and slavery and tried to return home. Adams won that case and the Africans were free men. It was a sign of the times though that it took a Supreme Court ruling for human beings to actually be given human rights.
Remini’s book on JQA’s presidency tried to highlight four years of John Quincy Adams’ distinguished career. But Adams’ life was much more than four bad years in the 1820s. And Remini reminds us of that. Some great men aren’t necessarily great presidents. And even Adams knew this about himself.
Other stuff: If you want to visit parts of John Quincy Adams’ history, you should visit the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Adams had a granchild born in the White House, the first child ever to be born there. He passed away in the U.S. Capitol.