Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Roy Jenkins

President #32, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #3

Brother can you spare a coin that has my face on it?

fdrWith the exception of Abraham Lincoln, no American President ever faced crises of the scope that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did. He entered the White House as the nation was in the throes of its worst economic situation ever. When he died twelve years later, the country was the preeminent economic and military power in the world.

And if you were alive in 1932 when Roosevelt won his first term in office, you would have been quite surprised to think that this man would have been able to accomplish so much. Roosevelt’s accomplishments before taking office would not have have led you to believe that a radical restructuring of the American government and economy would take place.

Roy Jenkins, a British author who served in both houses of Parliament, tried to sum up the extremely complicated life of Franklin Roosevelt in about 180 pages. Jenkins passed away in January of 2003, a few months before this book was published. Jenkins chose not to examine Roosevelt as some sort of larger than life figure, but rather as a politician who worked his way up the system. Jenkins clearly is in Roosevelt’s camp; but, he isn’t afraid to point out Roosevelt’s flaws.

And if you thought Jenkins had a hard time compressing Franklin Roosevelt’s life into 180 pages, it’s even harder trying to write this post in anything resembling a concise manner. But, I’ll give it a shot.

Franklin Roosevelt was born into a wealthy family in Hyde Park, New York on January 30, 1882. There were two prominent branches of the Roosevelt family in New York. Franklin came from the Dutchess County line, which was mostly Democratic, in contrast to most of the residents of the area. Theodore Roosevelt came from the Oyster Bay (in Nassau County on Long Island) line, who were nearly all Republicans.

The two sides of the family had a merger of sorts when Franklin married his fifth cousin, Eleanor, in 1905. Theodore Roosevelt escorted Eleanor (his niece, her father had already passed away) up the aisle at the wedding. As a wedding “gift,” Eleanor got the “privilege” of living with Franklin’s mother, Sara, for the next 36 years. Sara Roosevelt was: domineering, possessive, rude, dismissive, and otherwise decidedly unpleasant.

Franklin Roosevelt had been educated at Groton and Harvard, where he was never known as an especially bright student. Soon after his marriage, Roosevelt entered Columbia Law School. He never graduated from there, but he did manage to pass the New York State Bar Exam.

In 1910, Roosevelt made his first foray into politics, winning a seat in the New York State Senate. By 1913, Roosevelt’s stature had risen to the point that he was named Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. Franklin Roosevelt was now in the same position that Theodore Roosevelt occupied before the Spanish-American War.

During his time in this job, Franklin had an affair with his secretary, Lucy Mercer. When Eleanor discovered this, she offered to divorce Franklin. Ultimately, they both decided it would be a bad idea politically. Eleanor chose from then on to support her husband politically, but not conjugally. It turned out to be one of the most powerful marriages in American political history. Eleanor constantly steered her husband onto a more leftward course, one that was far more liberal than people would anticipate coming from a wealthy scion of Dutchess County.

Roosevelt was nominated by the Democrats as their Vice Presidential candidate in 1920, but lost badly. A Republican wave carried Warren Harding into office.  Just one year after the election, Roosevelt’s life changed dramatically.

In August of 1921, while vacationing at his summer home in Campobello, New Brunswick, Roosevelt contracted what was widely considered to be a case of polio. (Late in 2003, some doctors cast doubts on this diagnosis and suggested that Roosevelt actually had contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome.) Whatever the cause, Roosevelt would never have full use of his legs again.

Roosevelt could have (and at times very much wanted to) gone into retirement. But, Eleanor Roosevelt, along with aide Louis Howe, encouraged Franklin to remain involved in politics. Roosevelt began extensive physical therapy at Warm Springs, Georgia. (He ended up buying the facility.)

In 1924, Roosevelt made his political comeback when he was able to walk (using very heavy leg braces and  some assistance) to the podium at the Democratic National Convention in New York City to deliver a nominating speech for New York governor Al Smith.

Smith didn’t get the nomination in 1924, but he would four years later. This meant that New York would need to have a new governor. Smith suggested that Roosevelt run for the office. Jenkins portrays Smith as a schemer who figured that he would lose the Presidential election in 1928 (which he did) , but could use his pliable friend Roosevelt in Albany as a a tool for him to remain on the national stage. Jenkins believes that Smith also figured that Roosevelt may not have lived through his first two-year term.

But, the plan went awry. It turned out that Roosevelt had ideas of his own about how to be governor. And these ideas didn’t involve Al Smith. The two friends would become bitter rivals for the rest of their lives. Smith would be one of the leading conservative critics of Roosevelt on the Democratic side.

As the Great Depression grew worse and worse during 1932, it was becoming clear that the Democrats were going to be able to win the White House from the extraordinarily unpopular incumbent Herbert Hoover.

Roosevelt was the leader on the first two ballots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but did not have the necessary 2/3 majority that the Democrats required. Speaker of the House John Nance Garner along with Al Smith each had enough votes to create a deadlock.

But, some behind the scenes maneuvering got Roosevelt the nomination. Breaking with tradition, Roosevelt flew from the Governor’s Mansion in Albany to Chicago (which took over nine hours in 1932) to accept the nomination in person. Prior to this, candidates just waited at home to be told that they had been nominated. Garner was given the Vice Presidential nomination.

The election of 1932 was not close. Roosevelt won 57% of the popular vote and 472 electoral votes. The Democrats (and the allied Farmer-Labor Party) picked up 101 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Change was in the air. However, Roosevelt would not inaugurated until March 4, 1933, the last inauguration on this date. The country had to wait until then to find out what Roosevelt’s plan would be to solve the economic crisis that was only growing worse.

Roosevelt refused to meet with Hoover to discuss plans to bolster the banking system, which was hovering on collapse. There was growing unease that the country could lapse into chaos and social disorder. Unemployment was around 25%.

As it turned out, Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address turned out to be one of the most famous speeches of the 20th Century. (Newsreel footage linked here.)

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Roosevelt was inaugurated on a Saturday. Banks were closed on Sundays. And on Monday, Roosevelt ordered all banks in the United States closed for the week to allow the Treasury to examine their books to assess their solvency. Roosevelt convened Congress on March 9, and one of its first acts was to pass legislation that actually made Roosevelt’s actions legal. Banks began to reopen in the next two weeks.

Then, a flurry of activity came from the White House and was passed by Congress. Acronyms ruled the day. There was the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act), TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), and Roosevelt’s most prized program, NRA (National Relief Administration). All of these actions (and there were far more than I will detail here) represented unprecedented government actions regarding the economy. Farmers were paid to not plant crops. Young unemployed men were put to work on government projects. Wage and price controls were instituted. These programs were called, after a term used in Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign, “the New Deal.” (Additionally, the 18th Amendment, which had established Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment late in 1933. So, Americans could now both be poor AND drunk at the same time LEGALLY.)

In the short term, the economy improved a little. However, since it was close to rock bottom, that was not much of an accomplishment. Roosevelt’s programs faced opposition from all sides. Some Republicans accused Roosevelt of unfairly trying to fix the economy by taking money away from the prosperous. There were also demagogues from the extreme right, such as Father Charles Coughlin, a Detroit priest who had a radio show that excoriated Roosevelt for falling in with Jewish-controlled moneyed interests. There was also Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, who mixed wide scale corruption in his home state with populism. Long wanted to “Share the Wealth” although he gave little details on what his plan was. There was also Charles Townsend, a California physician, who devised a plan where elderly Americans (over 60) would receive $200 a month (which they would be required to spend in 30 days) paid for by a national sales tax.

Coughlin was eventually muzzled by his local bishop. Long was assassinated in Baton Rouge. Townsend’s plan was preempted by Roosevelt’s Social Security program, which started off paying only $20 per month in benefits.

An even bigger problem for Roosevelt was the Supreme Court. Nine of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs went to the Supreme Court and, on seven occasions, they were ruled to be unconstitutional.

Even with these problems, Roosevelt had little trouble getting reelected in 1936. The Republicans nominated Kansas Governor Alf Landon. It was the biggest Electoral College wipe-out in American history in any contested election. Roosevelt won 523 electoral votes (and over 60% of the popular vote) to just 8 for Landon. The Democrats ended up with an 80-16 margin in the Senate and a 347-88 margin in the House. The Senate chamber didn’t have enough room to put all the Democrats on one side of the chamber; so, some Senators had to sit on the wrong side of the aisle.

With this majority, Roosevelt could have accomplished even more, but he wasted his political capital on a battle with the Supreme Court. Roosevelt, not wanting his New Deal legislation tossed out by a majority Republican court, came up with a plan to add justices to the Court. Roosevelt proposed that the President be allowed to appoint one extra justice for each sitting member on the court who was 70 1/2 years old or over, with a maximum of six. Publicly, Roosevelt said that his plan was simply a way to ease the workload for the Supreme Court. However, almost the entire nation saw it as an encroachment on the Judiciary by the Executive Branch.

The plan was bottled up in the Senate. Even some of Roosevelt’s staunchest supporters wouldn’t go along with it. Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson died amidst the legislative wrangling. Also, the Supreme Court, perhaps fearing strong public opinion against it, began to uphold most of the reworked New Deal legislation. Finally, many of the justices began to retire. In the end, Roosevelt appointed eight Supreme Court justices while in office, including two justices who would shape the court for decades after in Hugo Black and William O. Douglas. (Jenkins also mentions that some of the justices would have retired earlier, but one early piece of New Deal legislation cut the pension for Federal judges in half.)

Although Roosevelt now had a friendly Supreme Court after a fashion, he ran into an unfriendly economy. The economy slowed down again in what was termed “The Roosevelt Recession.” Roosevelt took a different tack now. He and his advisers believed that the economy needed massive amounts of Federal government support. The budget deficit soared (by 1938 standards) to record levels. Taxes went up. Whether or not this plan worked is debated among economists to this day. (Or this minute. Just get two economists together and ask them about it. Report back to me.)

As a backdrop to all of this was the increasingly tense state of international affairs. Germany had become a Nazi state under Hitler and had rearmed and was taking over territory (Austria and the Sudetenland) and starting wide-scale persecution of Jews. Japan was asserting its dominance in Asia and the Pacific, having already taken over Manchuria. Italy, not wanting to get left out of the action, decided to attack Ethiopia.

When World War II finally began in 1939 with the German attack on Poland, Roosevelt somewhat vainly hoped to keep the United States out of the fray. Roosevelt even made a speech where he promised “not to send your sons into any foreign wars.” There was still a strong isolationist movement in the United States, led by Charles Lindbergh among others.

Because world tensions were so high, and also because the Democrats didn’t have any candidates on the horizon, Roosevelt allowed himself to be drafted for an unprecedented third term. Henry Wallace would be the new Vice President. The Republicans nominated Wall Street lawyer Wendell Willkie, who didn’t oppose most of the New Deal, but did feel that Roosevelt had not run the economy efficiently. Willkie fared a little better than Landon, but still lost badly.

As we know, the United States didn’t stay out of the war. Roosevelt slowly moved the United States over to the British side of the war. First, he traded American destroyers for long-term leases on numerous British naval bases. Then, he developed a plan known as Lend-Lease, where the United States would send ammunition, tanks, and planes to the British. At the end of the war, the British could give them back, or, if the material was destroyed, they could be paid for. It is not believed that the British sent much back unused, or had any money left at the end of the war to pay for what they used.

The United States was finally pushed into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Roosevelt asked Congress for declaration of war against Japan, which passed almost unanimously. Hitler then decided to honor a treaty he had made with the Japanese and had Germany declare war on the United States. The United States reciprocated and now the United States was now faced with fighting a war all over the globe. Also, the United States was now on the same side as the Soviet Union, which would prove problematic for the next 60 years or so.

In recent years, much has been written and aired about World War II. The History Channel seems to be dedicated to programs about it. So, I won’t be offering much more about the conflict.  (It’s just like your high school history class where the teacher tries to jam World War II into one lesson on the second to last day of school. Also, did World War II end the Depression? Discuss amongst yourselves and report back to me.) But, I will point out some of the parts of Jenkins’ book that I found odd.

First of all, Jenkins referred to Roosevelt’s plan to intern Japanese-American citizens living on the West Coast to camps further into the interior as “disruptive.” That’s one way of putting it. Jenkins also defended Roosevelt’s treatment of refugees, asserting that the United States took in more Jewish refugees than any other country. Whether Roosevelt’s efforts were enough is not addressed by Jenkins.

Jenkins also looks at Roosevelt from a European perspective. And, for someone living in Great Britain, Roosevelt looked like a savior. Jenkins marveled at how much abuse Roosevelt took in the American press during the war. But, in many respects, it was just politics as normal in the United States.

In 1944, Roosevelt’s health began to decline. His blood pressure had soared to dangerously high levels.  He was suffering from hardening of the arteries. Doctors reported that he looked gray and suffered from lassitude. Nevertheless, Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term. His opponent would be New York governor Thomas Dewey. Roosevelt decided to drop Wallace from the ticket and replace him with Missouri Senator Harry S Truman. It isn’t believed that Roosevelt was looking for a replacement in case he passed away. Roosevelt probably felt that he had a better chance to win with Truman on board, rather than the increasingly erratic and extreme left-leaning Wallace. Roosevelt won, although by a smaller margin than in 1940. Roosevelt’s fourth inaugural was a brief ceremony, ostensibly for wartime decorum, but also because his health was so poor.

Roosevelt had run a strenuous campaign, which had taxed his health even more. But, he knew the war was coming to an end. In February of 1945, he traveled all the way to the Crimean port city of Yalta for talks with Churchill and Stalin. Roosevelt, although younger than both Churchill and Stalin, looked considerably older. The postwar state of Europe was beginning to be mapped out. And the map would end up being quite favorable to Stalin and the Soviet Union. Roosevelt and Churchill were unable to guarantee a democratically elected government in Poland after the war, as well as stop Soviet incursions into the Baltic States. The only “concession” Stalin had to make was to agree to attack Japan 90 days after the surrender of Germany.

Upon his return to the U.S., Roosevelt addressed Congress about the conference. For the first and only time, Roosevelt sat down to give his speech before Congress. His health wouldn’t allow him to stand up with braces for any extended period. That speech was on March 1, 1945. Six weeks later, on April 12, 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia, Franklin Roosevelt died of a massive stroke.

Harry Truman became President. On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear weapon was successfully tested in New Mexico. On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Roosevelt’s time was gone, or was it?

We are still living with the New Deal. There is still Social Security. There is insurance for bank deposits. The Tennessee Valley Authority still provides power to a large portion of the country.  Many of the people reading were not alive while Franklin Roosevelt was in office. But, more so than any other President, his legacy is one that we cannot escape.

Other stuff: Franklin Roosevelt was buried at his family home in Hyde Park. It is now part of the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is nearby. Eleanor Roosevelt is buried alongside her husband. There is a Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Memorial along the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Eleanor Roosevelt was reportedly 5’11” which made her the tallest First Lady in history until she was matched by Michelle Obama. Before his illness, Franklin Roosevelt stood 6’2″.

Roosevelt’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner, died 15 days shy of his 99th birthday on November 7, 1967. He is the longest-lived Vice President. Of the four people who ran against Roosevelt for President, three of them outlived him: Herbert Hoover (died at age 9o in 1964), Thomas Dewey (died at age 69 in 1971), and Alf Landon (died at age 100 in 1987.) Wendell Willkie died in 1944 at age 52 of a heart attack.

Only two members of Roosevelt’s Cabinet served through all four administrations: Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. The last surviving Cabinet member from Roosevelt’s administration was his first Postmaster General, James Farley, who passed away in 1976. Farley resigned his job in 1940 because he didn’t believe that Roosevelt should have run for a third term.

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John Adams by John Patrick Diggins

President #2, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #17

May all your wars be Quasi Wars

johnadamsFor most of our lives, John Adams was an historical figure whom people recognized, yet thought little of. We figured he must have been important since he helped write the Declaration of Independence and also became President. But he was no George Washington, a larger than life military hero and “Father of the Country.” He was no Thomas Jefferson, Renaissance man, and thinker of deep thoughts.

John Adams was one of the Founding Fathers whom people had never developed a great deal of reverence for. His face didn’t appear on any currency that was commonly in use. He was just “that guy between Washington and Jefferson.” He doesn’t have a monument or memorial in Washington, D.C. that people go out of their way to see. (There are plans to build a new Adams memorial there.)

But recently, John Adams has had a significant revival among historians. Much of this came from David McCullough’s John Adams, which was a best-seller and later an HBO miniseries. And 175 years after he passed away, John Adams has become one of the most popular historical figures in American history.

John Patrick Diggins, a professor of history at City University of New York, got on board the John Adams train with his biography of the second president, which was published in 2003. Diggins’ biography, for a 150+ page book, is densely packed with discussions about Adams political writings. If you’re looking for something that would be starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, this isn’t the book.

Diggins spends one chapter discussing at length (at least it seemed so to me because it was a slog despite being just over 20 pages) going over two of Adams political writings. One is A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America, which Adams had published in 1787 and 1788. It was Adams’ response to criticisms of the new U.S. Constitution by French philosophers.

In Defence, Adams explains why America needed a relatively complex system of government with numerous checks and balances instead of a model like the French National Assembly, where all the power was held by one body. If you’ve read the whole thing (it’s three volumes long), you have my admiration.

The other book Adams penned was titled Discourses on Davila. It serves as something of a fourth volume to Defence and it was published in 1790. In it, Adams answered charges that he was a monarchist and an aristocrat.

Adams felt that an aristocracy was something that could not be avoided in society. There was a natural tendency for people to associate with people from their own backgrounds economically. Also people always wanted to better themselves, so there was always going to be some group that people wanted to aspire to become part of. Adams felt that the U.S. Constitution was well-suited to providing a maximum amount of liberty despite the presence of an aristocracy.

Diggins spends a long time in a short book comparing the political philosophies of Adams and Thomas Jefferson and Diggins clearly believes that Adams was the superior. Jefferson is portrayed by Diggins as someone who claimed to be a champion of civil liberties and the common man, but failed to grasp the fact that the style of government Jefferson advocated ended up being the Directory of France, which led to the Reign of Terror. Diggins argues that Adams, as a constitutionalist, actually did more for civil liberties because it takes government action to grant such liberties. The Constitution, as Lincoln said, protects us from ourselves.

One of Adams arguments against always bending to majority rule boiled down to this “What if one day 51 people supported one issue and 49 people opposed it? And what happens if one person changes his mind the next day?”  John Adams would not be a big fan of California’s initiative system.

However, Diggins book was supposed to be about Adams’ presidency. And after about 80 pages, Adams takes over the Presidency, edging out Jefferson in the election of 1796 by three electoral votes (there was no popular vote at the time). Prior to 1804, the Vice President was whomever finished second. So, Adams had the uncomfortable position of having his arch-rival serving as his second in command. (Hey, it’s like California where we have a Republican governor and a Democratic lieutenant governor!)

Adams was not a successful president as he was presented with a difficult diplomatic situation with France and he faced opposition from Jefferson’s Republicans (who thought Adams was a monarchist) and  Alexander Hamilton’s arch-Federalists (who thought Adams was too conciliatory toward Jefferson).

One of Adams first acts was sending three envoys to France to start negotiations about the problem of French ships preying on American merchant ships that were trading with England. But the French demanded, for lack of a better word, a bribe before they would talk with the Americans. This event became known as the XYZ affair and since zippers had not been invented, I will state that XYZ referred to the three anonymous people who solicited the bribes. That ended that attempt at diplomacy and the United States and France soon started what became known as the Quasi War, a war that existed in all but name (see also Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.).

Adams hoped that building an American Navy would help with the problems with France, but Hamilton wanted an Army and managed to get himself appointed to be general. Jefferson and his faction opposed any hostility with the French because they admired the French Revolution, which was mostly about lopping off heads at the time. A full-scale war was averted through a mixture of diplomacy and increased internal problems in France (such as Napoleon coming to power) which left the French not particularly interested in pursuing a war with a pipsqueak republic in North America.

Tensions during the Quasi War ran high in the press, which was extraordinarily partisan at the time. Personal attacks on Adams and Jefferson by either side were the norm, and often done by printers who were on the government payroll.  To combat this, Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which served to curb immigration (Irish and French immigrants tended to be on Jefferson’s side) and also make it crime to say anything bad about the President and Congress in the press.

So you might be saying to yourself, “This Sedition Act sounds unconstitutional.” It very well was, but there was never a court test of it and the concept of judicial review wouldn’t be established until 1803. The Acts themselves had built in expiration dates, and they ended as Adams left office. Diggins doesn’t believe Adams came up with the idea of the Alien and Sedition Acts, but since they happened on his watch, he was ultimately responsible, and they remain the biggest blot on the historical record for Adams.

Another event in Adams’ term in office that is little remembered now, but was a big issue at the time was something called Fries’ Rebellion. John Fries was a German immigrant who worked as auctioneer in Pennsylvania. To help fund the Quasi War, Adams had Congress pass a measure which was called the House Tax, which was a nationwide property tax of sorts. Fries led a movement (a rather tame one) that encouraged Pennsylvanians to not pay the tax since it wasn’t proportional to the population. Fries and two others were arrested for this and convicted of treason and sentenced to hang.

However, Adams pardoned Fries because he felt that he had not committed treason, but rather just led a protest that was not intended to overthrow the government. Hamilton and his supporters were aghast and in the election of 1800 they would get revenge on Adams for his perceived apostasy.

The election of 1800 is often called “The Revolution of 1800.” As Diggins points out, it was the first time that a nation that was born out of a violent revolution ever had a peaceful change of power. The election was nasty as Adams’ and Jefferson’s supporter slung mud in what would soon become an American tradition for campaigns. Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr tied for the top spot and Hamilton (who didn’t campaign too much for Adams) was able to get the House of Representatives to put Jefferson in the top spot, because while Hamilton hated Jefferson, Hamilton hated Burr twice as much. And of course, Hamilton and Burr ended up as the Tupac and Biggy of the early 19th Century.

And on March 4, 1801, heroic Thomas Jefferson rode his horse into Washington, D.C. and was inaugurated in front of an adoring crowd and gave an inaugural address that would be the standard by which others were judged for over a century. And dour John Adams slipped out of town and didn’t watch his successor’s inauguration, although Diggins speculates that Jefferson never invited Adams.

After both men had left office, Adams and Jefferson patched up their differences and started a famous series of correspondence where they debated the issues of the day. The standards of the time prevented either man from going on the lecture circuit or writing memoirs to make money, which is sad because I would have paid pretty good money to watch John Adams and Thomas Jefferson debate the issues of the day. It sounds a bit more appealing than watching David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon.

If you are inclined to take in Diggins book about Adams, bring your thinking cap. It is not a romp through the American Revolution and the Federalist Era. It’s a study about how Adams and his political philosophy stood up against the likes of Jefferson, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. It’s a biography of Adams for people who may be interested in placing Adams in the grand scheme of things as a political thinker, rather than just picturing him as a character in a premium cable series.

Other stuff: As mentioned in his son’s post, the Adams are remembered at the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Henry Adams, the great grandson of John Adams, does have a famous statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens by his grave at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.

John Adams died on July 4, 1826 at the age of 90 years, 247 days. That was the longest lifespan of any President until Ronald Reagan surpassed Adams in 2001. Gerald Ford later surpassed Reagan’s lifespan, passing away at age 93.

Adams was the first U.S. President who was a college graduate. Adams graduated from Harvard, the first of five alums (as undergrads) from Harvard who would become Chief Executive. John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy were the others. George W. Bush received an MBA from Harvard, but was an undergrad at Yale. Rutherford Hayes and Barack Obama attended Harvard Law School, but were undergrads elsewhere.

For technical reasons (like me not knowing how the software worked) this might have appeared in your RSS reader before it was visible. Sorry about that.


John Quincy Adams by Robert V. Remini

All Three Names Please!

President #6, C-SPAN historians ranking #19

jqadamsJohn 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.