The following is a feature article from the newly released LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2014 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $11 monthly level or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com or b&n.com.
WHEN HE WAS 13, John Quincy Adams traveled with his father from Paris to Brussels to Amsterdam. A year later, in 1781, he journeyed alone with Francis Dana, America’s newly appointed Russian minister, to St. Petersburg, where he would serve as Dana’s private secretary. The journey took 55 days, and covered 2,500 miles. Nearly two years later, he was reunited with his father at The Hague. “He is grown up a Man,” wrote John Adams to his wife, Abigail.
Of the revolutionary fathers, only John Adams could boast a son who would make a major contribution to American public life. Washington had no children of his own; Franklin’s illegitimate son, William, sided with Great Britain and left America for good in 1782; Jefferson had an infant son who died in childbirth (and with Sally Hemings two sons who were freed by his will); Madison had no children (his wife did from a first marriage); one of Alexander Hamilton’s sons made it to acting secretary of state under Jackson, but mostly his children succeeded in local arenas, if at all.
By comparison, John Quincy Adams served as diplomat, senator, secretary of state, president of the United States, and congressman. He also wrote poetry and essays and, as with many New Englanders who believed in self-scrutiny, maintained a diary through most of his life. In John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, Fred Kaplan, distinguished professor emeritus of English at Queens College, offers an exemplary portrait of Adams. Kaplan is accomplished at the art of biography, having written about Lincoln, Twain, Dickens, and Carlyle, among others. While Adams does not rise to the level of these other 19th-century figures, either as politician or writer, he merits renewed attention both on his own terms and as a link between Washington and Lincoln (he knew both men). Kaplan’s biography not only provides a thorough account of the public life, but it also connects the public to the private by making Adams’s writing a central part of the story.
Adams began his diary on November 12, 1779, three days before the 12-year old boy sailed from Boston Harbor to France with his father, who had been appointed minister plenipotentiary to negotiate a peace treaty. Although his first entry only recorded the fact of his leaving, over time the diary, Kaplan argues, was to become “a record of fact and feeling […] the companion with which he spent the most hours, a history that he consulted to corroborate the past and that he wrote each day to affirm the reality of the present.”
The portrait that emerges is of a man devoted to contemplating politics and morals, friendship and love. In a letter written in 1778, he told his brother “we are sent into this world for some end. It is our duty to discover by close study what this end is and when we discover it to pursue it with unconquerable perseverance.” While other children in revolutionary America probably did not express such thoughts, Adams’s belief illustrates how a religious sensibility, grounded in his New England worldview, fueled his actions as a political figure. Eventually he would discover that it was his duty to oppose slavery. But before he labored in the final act of his career to prevent a looming Civil War, he devoted himself to upholding the legacy of the American Revolution.
His entry into public life came, fittingly enough, from writing a series of essays in support of Washington’s neutrality policy in the war between Great Britain and France. “War is murder,” Adams declared, and he would remain a pacifist throughout his life, though he acknowledged that resistance against tyrannical authority could justify for violence. Washington nominated Adams as minister to The Hague. Following that came a series of diplomatic posts: minister plenipotentiary to Berlin, minister to Prussia, the first United States minister to Russia, and minister to the Court of St. James’s. When he returned to the United States in 1817, to assume the post of secretary of state, he had been away for eight consecutive years. At age 50, his European travels were finally over.
But his struggles with selfhood were not. About half of this biography brings Adams’s diplomatic career to life, and it is an important and largely untold story. He represented the new American nation to the world, played a central role in the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812, negotiated the Adams-Onis treaty through which the United States acquired Florida, and provided the ideological framework for what would come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine — that the United States would protect its hemispheric influence — but which might just as easily been named the Adams doctrine.
Yet what makes the public story compelling were Adams’s private struggles. Throughout his life Adams suffered from what he called “nervous agitation.” He often felt ill and became withdrawn. He had trouble with his vision. With frequent sleepless nights, he confessed, in 1787, that he suffered from “days of languor, dejection and debility.” He was ambitious, but despaired over his ambition, which he thought was corrosive of the public good. At the same time, he lamented “the want of genius,” never feeling that he was talented enough.
His wife, Louisa, also struggled with various maladies. She was sickly from numerous miscarriages that almost took her life and fell into months-long depressions. He was 30 and she 22 when they married in 1797. For all their illnesses, real and imagined, they remained together until Adams’s death. “Our union has not been without its trials; nor invariably without dissensions between us,” he wrote in 1811, but added, “my lot in marriage has been highly favorable.”
They both despaired over their sons. Kaplan treats subtly but effectively the question of what it meant to be an Adams. Even John Adams felt it. When he was buried at the family graveyard in Quincy (renamed from Braintree in 1792), five generations already rested there. The Adamses were not just part of the Harvard, Congregationalist-turned-Unitarian cultural dynamo — they helped invent it.
But if John Quincy Adams fulfilled family expectations, his brothers did not: Charles Adams died an alcoholic at age 30; Thomas Boylston Adams did only slightly better (he graduated Harvard and served as his brother’s secretary in Prussia), but also suffered from alcoholism and died deeply in debt.
No wonder he despaired over his own children, fearing that they would be more like his brothers than he. “None of my children will probably ever answer to my hopes,” he confided.“ “I had hoped that at least one of my sons would have been ambitious to excel,” he wrote in 1821. His first-born, George Washington Adams, committed suicide in 1829; John Adams II was expelled from Harvard, drank heavily, and died in 1834; only the youngest, Charles Francis Adams, defied his father’s prediction and became a congressman and diplomat.
Kaplan argues that writing in his diary enabled Adams “to keep emotional composure in the face of personal and pubic blows.” It served as a release, letting him express private thoughts and feelings, and perhaps even providing catharsis. “I consider every day as lost in which there is no writing done,” he confided in 1820. He would persevere, however, even when he developed tremors in his hand, and the demands of office became overwhelming.
Appropriately, Kaplan devotes fewer than 40 pages to Adams’s presidency. Americans viewed Adams as having been elected over Andrew Jackson in a corrupt bargain, a deal whereby he offered Henry Clay the position of secretary of state in return for the Kentucky delegation supporting his election, which had been thrown to the House because none of the four candidates had secured an Electoral College majority. The charge was not fair (other slave states also voted for Adams), but Adams’s presidency never escaped the stigma.
In some ways, it didn’t matter. Adams was the last of a breed of older politicians tied more to the past than to the future of political parties. His ideal of nonpartisanship no longer existed, if it ever did (his father’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans pilloried one another). A new two-party system of Whigs versus Democrats would dominate America for nearly 30 years, and the Whigs, where Adams would end up, lost the majority of presidential elections.
Kaplan’s biography is subtitled American Visionary, and the central component of that vision was American growth based on government investments in industry, tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing, a national bank, and internal improvements to develop the nation’s infrastructure and promote commerce. Henry Clay, the foremost proponent of this cluster of policies, would call it the American System. Adams added to the equation support for education and the promotion of science. (Toward the end of life, at age 76, he traveled to Cincinnati to dedicate an observatory.)
Much of Adams’s vision would come to dominate the direction of society, even though the Democrats — who mistrusted the federal government, opposed a national bank, and promoted an agrarian vision of America — won most presidential elections. The battle between the parties centered on the issue of slavery. Adams envisioned as much in his inaugural address, in which he warned that geographical divisions based on different “modes of domestic life are more permanent, and, therefore, perhaps more dangerous.” Retired from public life after his defeat in the election of 1828, he watched with horror from Quincy as South Carolina threatened to nullify a federal law. “It is the odious nature of the question that it can be settled only at the cannon’s mouth,” he predicted to Henry Clay.
Adams now passed his time reading and writing. He began a biography of his father, but abandoned the project. He wrote articles on historical topics for various periodicals, and kept up his letter-writing and diary entries. Kaplan is interested in Adams’s poetry for what it suggests about Adams’s aesthetic tastes (he loved the work of Byron), and his literary ambitions. But it is clear that the statesman’s work was pedestrian. In Kaplan’s judgment, it lacked “what the greatest poetry has: imaginative genius that transforms the mastery of technical devices into a totality in which the devices are in service of something intelligently beautiful and aesthetically profound.”
Writing verse led Adams to reflect on the passage of time. He was 63 years old and out of office. He prepared to wind down. But the public was not done with him. The emerging anti-masonic movement attracted him, and he would run as the anti-masonic candidate for governor in 1833. (Adams’s embrace of anti-masonry is one of the few topics Kaplan does not adequately explore). But before that, district representatives asked if he would run for Congress as a Whig. He agreed, later explaining, “I saw no warrantable ground upon which I could withhold my services if demanded.” “My election as President of the United States,” he wrote, “was not half so gratifying to my inmost soul,” as being asked to represent the citizens of Plymouth. And so the former president entered Congress, “launched again upon the faithless wave of politics.” He would serve from 1831 to 1848, and produce a remarkable third act to his public life.
That final act revolved mainly around his opposition to slavery. Asked by Alexis de Tocqueville, who was touring the United States in 1831, and acquiring material that would eventually inform Democracy in America, “do you look on slavery as a great plague for the United States,” Adams answered, “Yes, certainly. That is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and fear for the future.” Yet Adams was slow to make the problem of slavery central to his politics. In 1800, peeved that Jefferson’s election over his father was made possible in part by the three-fifths clause, which provided the South with additional electors, he denounced privately “the inconsistency of holding in one hand the rights of man, and in the other a scourge for the backs of slaves.” But in 1804, as a senator, he voted against an act to make it illegal to import slaves into Louisiana. His vote was based on constitutional principles; nevertheless, opposition to slavery was not his moral beacon at this time.
What changed was both political and personal. After 1831, with Nat Turner’s rebellion, the emergence of a radical abolitionist movement, and the nullification crisis, it was clearer than ever that slavery threatened to destroy the Union. For decades Adams had worried about the nation’s “darkest side, our tendency to faction, sectionalism, and disunion.” Now, it seemed to be coming to pass.
But something personal was also at work. Reflecting on his youth, Adams undoubtedly thought back to his journey to Russia as a 13-year-old and what he saw there of serfdom. Without plunging into psychological reductionism, Kaplan suggests that the slavery Adams saw in Poland and Russia “formed part of the subtle matrix of awareness taking shape in his mind over the following decades that American slavery was a great evil.” Those sights and feelings remained largely latent until he entered Congress.
“I abhorred slavery,” he wrote in his diary in 1832, viewing it as “the wedge which will ultimately split up this Union.” What to do about it was a difficult question. He opposed colonization schemes whereby free blacks would voluntarily relocate to other nations; he also dreaded the “unnatural” mixing of the races that resulted from white masters forcing themselves on female slaves, a subject he contemplated in two essays based on his reading of Othello. Most of all, he despaired over the efforts of Southern politicians to prevent the presentation of antislavery petitions to the House. Nothing to him was more sacred than the constitutional right of the people to petition the government. But now, in order to preclude thousands of antislavery petitions, Congress passed a resolution that automatically tabled them. In opposition, Adams cried, “Am I being gagged or am I not?”
Adams devoted himself to opposing what came to be known as the “gag rule,” which after 1840 operated on a continuing resolution (it need not be voted upon at the start of every session.) As his anger at being silenced rose, so did his radicalism. He proposed a constitutional amendment that abolished slavery. He opposed the extension of slavery into any new territories. On one occasion, he even sought to present a petition from slaves. Outraged southerners moved that Adams be censured, which played into his hands because he had a right to speak in his defense. He did so by holding the floor for an entire day and denouncing slavery. (On another occasion, he held the floor for five days). He explained to his constituents, “I would […] not deny the right of petition to slaves — I would not deny it to a horse or a dog, if they could articulate their sufferings.”
Although his fight against the gag rule brought him considerable notoriety, it was his defense of the Amistad captivesbefore the Supreme Court that garnered the most attention. In 1839, a group of Africans, who had been captured by Portuguese slavers and shipped to Cuba where they were purchased and placed on the Amistad for shipment to a Caribbean plantation, took control of the ship. A U.S. Navy brig then seized the Amistad and transported the Africans to prison in New Haven. There they were charged with the murder of the captain and a cook, and also became the subjects of various salvage and property claims. Lower courts ruled that the Africans were not slaves and should be allowed to return home.
Adams spoke before the Supreme Court for nine hours over two days, his thoughts as much in the past as the present. A lawyer before he was a diplomat, Adams recalled that it had been 32 years since he had appeared before the Court. Indeed, he might have been sitting on the bench had he accepted the nomination to a seat that had been offered in 1811. But he turned it down. “I shall always be too much of a political partisan for a judge,” he thought. (Instead, Joseph Story, who would write the opinion in the Amistad case, was appointed.)
The legal issues seemed clear enough and, on March 9, 1841, Story ruled that “there does not seem to us to be any ground for doubt, that these negroes ought to be deemed free.” The emotional issues for Adams were just as clear. What had happened to all the great and honorable persons he had known going back more than 50 years:
Gone! Gone! All gone! […] In taking, then, my final leave of this Bar, and of this Honorable Court, I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to Heaven, that every member of it may go to the final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead.
Seven years later, Adams went to his final account. His last political victory came in 1844, when the gag rule was rescinded. In November 1846, he suffered a stroke. Still, he returned to his seat at the front of the House. Both sides of the aisle gave him a standing ovation. He never abandoned writing, even composing a paragraph that he called a “Posthumous Memoir.” “Pen should never be put to paper,” he wrote, “but for the discharge of some duty to God or man.” He may not have adhered strictly to that dictum, but service to nation and self was a sacred duty he shouldered throughout his life. He collapsed at his desk and died in the House on February 23, 1848. After two days of public viewing, a final journey brought his body back to Quincy.
Louis P. Masur is Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. His books include Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union (2012), The Civil War: A Concise History (2011), and 1831: Year of Eclipse (2001).