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Adams, John Quincy
John Quincy Adams was more than just the sixth president of the United States. He was a child of the American Revolution, having witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was the son of the nation's second president, John Adams. And he was a successful diplomat. Chosen president by the House after finishing second in the Electoral College, Adams became the first president to wear long trousers, rather than breeches, at his inauguration, on March 4, 1825. After one term as president, he went on to serve with distinction for 17 years in the House of Representatives.
Adams was born on July 11, 1767, in Brain-tree, Massachusetts (now Quincy, Massachusetts). As the son of one of the nation's founders, he had many opportunities not available to other young men. Before reaching the age when young people today graduate from high school, Adams had established himself as a diplomat. He accompanied his father on diplomatic missions to Europe in 1778 and 1780, where he studied in Paris, France, and in Amsterdam and Leiden, the Netherlands. In 1781, at the age of 14, Adams traveled with Francis Dana, the first American minister to Russia, as Dana's private secretary and French interpreter. In 1783, the young Adams joined his father in Paris, where he served as one of the secretaries to the American commissioners in the negotiations of the peace treaty that concluded the American Revolution. Fearing alienation from his own country, Adams returned home in 1785 and, by virtue of his earlier studies, was able to enroll as a junior at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1787.
For three years, Adams read law at Newburyport, Massachusetts, under Theophilus Parsons, and in 1790, he was admitted to the bar. While struggling to find clients, Adams engaged in political journalism. He wrote a series of 11 articles controverting some of the doctrines presented in Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791–92). In a second series of articles, he defended President George Washington's policy of neutrality in the war between France and England in 1793. His third series of articles attacked those who wanted the United States to join France in a war against Britain. These articles impressed Washington so much that he appointed Adams U.S. minister to the Netherlands in May 1794.
President Washington thought Adams one of the ablest officers in the foreign service. In 1796, he appointed Adams minister to Portugal. Before Adams's departure for that new post, however, his father became president. Both Adamses felt that it was undesirable for the son of a president to hold a post in the father's administration, but Washington urged that the younger Adams remain in the diplomatic corps, calling him the most valuable public person abroad. President Adams then appointed his son minister to Prussia.
Before taking up his new post in Prussia, Adams was married, in London, to Louisa Catherine Johnson (1775–1852), daughter of the U.S. counsel in London.
In September 1801, with new president Thomas Jefferson in the White House, Adams was called back from Prussia. In 1802, he was elected to the Massachusetts senate. One year later, the state senate elected him to the U.S. Senate. (Prior to the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, U.S. senators were elected by the senates of the individual states.)
"To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is … the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind."
—John Quincy Adams
Adams had always considered himself a political independent, and he was given a chance to prove this in the U.S. Senate. After his election, he was set upon by forces opposed to the Federalist Party, of which Adams was considered a member, and political enemies of his father. Instead of accepting his fate as a powerless and unpopular member of an unpopular political minority, Adams asserted his political independence. He began to vote with President Jefferson and the opposition Democratic-Republicans, and broke with his party completely in 1807 by supporting the Embargo Act (46 App. U.S.C.A. § 328). This act, backed by Jefferson, placed an embargo on all foreign commerce. The act was opposed by the Federalists and the New England states, who wanted to encourage trade with the British. They feared that the Embargo Act would stifle New England's economy. Adams voted for the Embargo Act, against the wishes of his party and region, believing that it benefited the nation as a whole.
Adams paid the price for breaking with his party. Federalist leaders in Massachusetts—who felt that Adams had betrayed them—elected another man to the Senate several months before the 1808 elections. Adams resigned, and later that year, in a move indicative of his political independence, attended a Democratic-Republican congressional caucus meeting, where James Madison was nominated for president, thus allying himself with that party.
Adams attempted to retire from public life and devote himself to a teaching position at Harvard College, but the lure of public service was too strong. In 1809, President Madison persuaded him to accept an appointment as minister to Russia. In 1814 and 1815, Adams played a key role in the negotiations resulting in the Treaty of Ghent, with the British, ending the War of 1812. The negotiations helped Adams gain respect as a diplomat.
In 1817, President James Monroe called Adams back to the United States to serve as his Secretary of State. Adams's most important achievement in this office was the development of the Monroe Doctrine. It was Adams who made the first declaration of that policy in July 1823, several months before Monroe formally announced it in his annual message to Congress, on December 2, 1823. At that time, the United States feared that Russia intended to establish colonies in Alaska and, more important, that the continental European states would intervene in Central and South America to help Spain recover its former colonies, which had won their independence in a series of wars in the early nineteenth century. Adams believed that the Americas were no longer subject to any European colonial establishment and that they should make their own foreign policies. The Monroe Doctrine set forth three basic policy statements aimed at protecting the Western Hemisphere from European intervention: North and South America were closed to further European colonization; the United States would not intervene in wars in Europe and would not interfere with European colonies and dependencies in the Americas; and the United States would regard any intervention by a European power in the independent states of the Western Hemisphere as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.
Adams served as secretary of state for the entire eight years under President Monroe. When the presidential election of 1824 came around, Adams was considered a favorite; after all, the previous two presidents, Madison and Monroe, had also served as secretaries of state. But 1824 was no normal year for politics in the United States. All four candidates were members of the same political party, the Democratic-Republican Party, and party affiliation had given way to sectionalism. Secretary of the Treasury William Harris Crawford, of Georgia, who had recently suffered a paralytic stroke, was nominated by a congressional caucus. The Tennessee legislature nominated Andrew Jackson, and the Kentucky legislature nominated Henry Clay. Adams was nominated by an eastern faction of the party in Boston. On Tuesday, November 9, 1824, voters went to the polls and cast 153,544 votes for Jackson, 108,740 for Adams, 46,618 for Clay, and 47,136 for Crawford. (Figures from Kane, Facts about the Presidents; figures in other sources differ.) The electoral vote results were as follows: Jackson, 99; Adams, 84; Crawford, 41; and Clay, 37. As no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives was called upon to choose the president, as set forth under Article II, Section 1, Clause 3, of the Constitution. After Clay gave his support to Adams, the House elected Adams the sixth president in February 1825.
For one who had led so accomplished a life, Adams must have viewed his presidency as a failure. He got off to a rocky start when Jackson's supporters in Congress decried what they called a corrupt bargain between Adams and Clay. Only days after the House selected Adams president, Clay was offered the office of secretary of state, which he accepted. This deal split the Democratic-Republican Party, and Adams's group became known as the National Republicans. Jackson's group fought with Adams for the next four years.
Adams threw all his energies into the presidency. In his inaugural address, he called for an ambitious program of national improvements including the construction of highways, canals, weather stations, and a national university. He urged Congress to use the powers of government for the benefit of all people. Congress disagreed. Many of the programs advocated by Adams were not realized until after his death.
Despite his best efforts, Adams felt worn down by the burdens and demands of the presidency. His personal reserve, austerity, and coolness of manner prevented him from appealing to the imagination and affections of the people. He had not even tried to defend himself against the attacks of Jackson and his followers, feeling that it was below the dignity of the president to engage in political debate. Throughout Adams's presidency, Jackson gained in popularity, so much so that in the elections of 1828, he defeated Adams by 178 electoral votes to 83. Jackson won a popular vote proportionally larger than that of any other presidential candidate during the rest of the 1800s.
Once again, Adams sought to retire from public life, but the people of Massachusetts called him back. In 1830, he defeated two other candidates and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing a district from Plymouth. When it was suggested to him that his acceptance of this position would degrade a former president, Adams replied that no person could be degraded by serving the people as a representative in Congress, or, he added, as a selectman. Indeed, Adams said that his election as president was not half so gratifying as his election to the House.
Adams shone brightly from 1831 to his death in 1848. He remained independent of party politics, and held important posts in Congress, serving at times as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and of the Committee on Manufactures. Adams was conspicuous as an opponent of the expansion of Slavery and was at heart an abolitionist, though he never became one in the political sense of the word. He took center stage during debates over the gag rules, which resulted when abolitionists sent many petitions to Congress urging that slavery be abolished in the District of Columbia and the new territories. Southern members of Congress who did not want to discuss slave issues passed a series of rules, known as the gag rules, that kept the abolitionists' petitions from being read on the House floor, effectively blocking any discussion of slavery. Adams fought the gag rules as violations of the right of free speech and the right of citizens to petition their government as guaranteed in the First Amendment. As the leading opponent of the gag rules, Adams became the person abolitionists sent their petitions to. He, in turn, tried to have the House consider those petitions, only to run up against the gag rules. For several years, Adams tried unsuccessfully to have the rules repealed, but he was able to win supporters to his side each time he tried, and in 1844, he finally succeeded in having the rules abolished. Another contribution of Adams to the antislavery cause was his championing of Africans on the slave ship amistad. The slaves had mutinied off the coast of Cuba, capturing their masters. The slaves, unfamiliar with navigation, asked their captives to help them sail to a country where slave trade was illegal. The former masters took advantage of the slaves' navigational inexperience and directed the ship into U.S. waters near Long Island, hoping to find sympathetic U.S. authorities. Adams was one of two attorneys who argued the case of the Africans before the U.S. Supreme Court, defending the blacks as free people. President Martin Van Buren had taken the position that the slaves must be returned to their masters and to their inevitable death. Adams helped win their freedom (United States v. Libellants of Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. [15 Pet.] 518, 10 L. Ed. 826).
Adams's support of the arts and sciences was evident in his battle to uphold the dying wishes of an eccentric Englishman named James Smithson. Smithson was the illegitimate son of the first duke of Northumberland. At his death in 1829, he bequeathed his entire estate to his nephew. His will further provided that if the nephew were to die without heirs, which he did in 1835, the entire estate was to be given to the U.S. government to found what Smithson asked be called the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Adams led a ten-year fight for acceptance of the endowment, which was valued at $508,000 in 1835, and the Smithsonian Institution was established on August 10, 1846.
On November 19, 1846, Adams suffered a stroke, from which he never fully recovered. He continued to serve in Congress until he suffered a second stroke and collapsed in the House of Representatives. He was carried from his seat to the Speaker's room, where he lay until his death two days later, on February 23, 1848.
Kane, Joseph N. 2001. Facts about the Presidents: A Compilation of Biographical and Historical Information. 7th ed. New York: Wilson.
Nagel, Paul C. 1997. John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life. New York: Knopf.
Parsons, Lynn H. 1998. John Quincy Adams. Madison, Wis.: Madison House.
Remini, Robert Vincent. 2002. John Quincy Adams. New York: Times Books.