Book Review: John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, by Robert Remini

For a variety of reasons, I have always been very interested in John Quincy Adams.  He is is precisely the sort of presidents that many contemporary liberals wish they had, and also someone who was lamentably far better at everything (except being a husband and father) than he was as a president of the United States.  His interest in public service and the fact that he spent almost all of his life in the employment of the government as a diplomat and politician gave him a rather high view of what government could do for others that is not something I tend to share.  He was, moreover, a rather stiff and formal person who was nonetheless eloquent when speaking out against the slave power against the Gag Rule and in the Armistad case, both high points of his post-presidential career.  His work as a diplomat on behalf of the United States and as Monroe’s Secretary of State was nothing less than superb, and he was certainly the least corrupt political figure of his time, so there is a great deal to appreciate about him regardless of the distance between his political views and my own [1].

In this short book of less than 200 pages, the author continues his tour through antebellum American political history by writing a short and excellent biography on the life and career of John Quincy Adams.  The book takes a chronological approach to its subject and points out the author’s approval of most aspects of the author’s life and political service, although not his political savvy or his demanding ways as a father.  Remini begins with a discussion of Adams’ privileged but demanding childhood (1) and then looks at the way he found a career as a lawyer (a profession he hated) before moving into electoral politics (2).  After that he examines the move JQA made from Federalist to Democratic-Republican (3) and his influential time as an immensely successful Secretary of State (4).  The election of 1824 (5) precedes four chapters that deal with his unsuccessful presidency, a look at his misguided principles for highly wonky policies that were out of step with the larger American population (and in many cases still are nearly two centuries later) (6), Adams’ efforts at being fair-minded with regards to Indian Removal (7), his diplomatic successes and failures (8), and the controversy over the supposed “tariff of abominations” that brought South Carolina to national attention (9).  A discussion of the immensely bitter and nasty campaign of 1828, the nastiest campaign until at least 2016 (10) precedes Adams’ successful time as a US Representative for his home district in Massachusetts (11) and his victorious career as an advocate for freedom (12) before his death in 1848.

What this book succeeds at particularly well is making John Quincy Adams into a human figure rather than a caricature, which is all too easy to imagine happening in either his own time or our own.  Resistant to the bossiness of his harpy of a mother (the famous Abigail Adams), he proved to be just as demanding and harsh a father to his own children and an immensely awkward husband to his wife, a woman who shrewdly saw that despite his flaws he was certainly a worthwhile catch.  He was widely read but considered himself to lack intellectual depth, and he was deeply shaped by being a bookish intellectual with a lifetime of public service and very little experience in the private sector.  He represents the sort of intellect that is highly praised by scholars but not particularly skilled when it comes to winning elections or dealing with other people in a gracious and warm fashion.  For all of his successes, this book has a great deal of tragedy running through it, as one realizes that he could have been of so much more use to his country and to his family if he had a bit more sense and a bit less of that brutal combination of intellectual arrogance and withering self-criticism.  Such is the life, though.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s