When John Adams ceased to be president, his son John Quincy Adams was thirty-three years old and the ablest of America’s diplomats. In 1791 John Quincy was in London, helping John Jay negotiate a treaty. Although John Quincy was now too grand to stoop to hypergamy, he did manage to bring into the family a new type. Louisa Johnson was the daughter of the American consul general at London. Mr. Johnson was a feckless Marylander married to an English woman. Brought up in Europe, Louisa was “charming, like a Romney portrait,” according to her grandson Henry Adams, “but among her many charms that of being a New England woman was not one.” Louisa did not take to Boston or Braintree (“Had I stepped into Noah’s Ark, I do not think I could have been more utterly astonished”). Happily, the old President took to her. She also made John Quincy a good wife; but then great men seldom make bad marriages.
Nevertheless in a recent biography of John Quincy Adams,* Marie B. Hecht (who annoyingly refers to her subject as “Johnny”) suggests that the marriage must have been rather hard-going for the Europeanized Louisa, who once confided to her son Charles Francis that the Adams men were “peculiarly harsh and severe with their women.” Frequent miscarriages, bouts of fainting and illness were to be Louisa’s revenge. But her husband never varied from his view that “political subserviency and domestic influence must be the lot of women….” Also, to be fair, he was as hard and severe with himself as he was with others.
John Quincy disliked the idea of holding diplomatic posts under his father. Uncharacteristically, Washington himself wrote to the new president John Adams expressing the hope “that you will not withhold merited promotion from Mr. John [Quincy] Adams because he is your son.” So John Quincy Adams was posted American minister to Prussia 1797-1801. He then returned to Boston ostensibly to practice law but actually to become the president. He served as a commissioner in bankruptcy until removed by President Jefferson (who later, disingenuously, denied any knowledge of this petty act against the son of his predecessor). After service in the Massachusetts state legislature, John Quincy was sent to the United States Senate in 1803. As senator, he showed a complete independence of party, supporting Jefferson’s Embargo Act. Consequently “the Republicans trampled upon the Federalists, and the Federalists trampled upon John Quincy Adams.”
Personally, John Quincy was esteemed but not much liked. He himself liked neither political party: “between both, I see the impossibility of pursuing the dictates of my own conscience, without sacrificing every prospect, not merely of advancement, but even of retaining that character and reputation I have enjoyed. Yet my own choice is made, and if I cannot hope to give satisfaction to my country, I am at least determined to have the approbation of my own reflections.”
But presently John Quincy gave satisfaction both to country and self. After losing his seat in the Senate, he served four years as President Madison’s minister to Russia during the War of 1812. Czar Alexander took to John Quincy and kept open Russian ports to American shipping. In 1812 John Quincy Adams was appointed one of the commissioners to make peace with England, the meetings to be held at Ghent.
Among the other four commissioners were the brilliant Albert Gallatin, Geneva-born secretary of the treasury to Jefferson, and the rising Kentucky lawyer and quadrennial presidential candidate Henry Clay. They shared the same house in Ghent. Clay wanted to sit up all night and gamble while Adams liked to go to bed at nine; wild oats seem never to have been planted (at least visibly) in the garden of any Adams. John Quincy particularly avoided actresses “because,” he writes touchingly in old age, “the first woman I ever loved was an actress, but I never spoke to her, and I think I never saw her off the stage…. Of all the ungratified longings that I ever suffered, that of being acquainted with her, merely to tell her how much I adored her, was the most intense.” At the time this Laura and Petrarch were each fourteen years old. The Puritan must suffer or he is not good.
Clay had been as responsible as any American leader for the 1812 war with England (he particularly wanted to annex Canada); consequently, he was quite willing to prolong the war in order “to make us a warlike people.” But John Quincy was not a war-lover; he also knew that the English Ministry was not happy with a war that could not be won, particularly at a time when not only had Castlereagh managed to antagonize both Russia and Prussia but Lord Liverpool’s Government was being much criticized for imposing a property tax in order to prosecute a far-off war. On December 24, 1814, the treaty of Ghent was signed. Two weeks later, a wild Tennessee backwoodsman named Andrew Jackson won a mighty victory over English troops at New Orleans. The fact that the war was already over made the victory no less sweet for the humiliated Americans, and the political star of Jackson was now in the ascendant.
Like his father before him, John Quincy Adams was appointed minister to England. For two years the Adamses lived at Ealing; they were pressed for money, which was just as well for they were not much sought after by London society. For one thing, Americans of any kind were less than the vogue; for another, Adamses can never be in vogue. But John Quincy’s eye was as sharp as ever. Of Castlereagh he wrote, “His manner was cold, but not absolutely repulsive.” He did enjoy Holland House and what intellectual company came his way. Yet he was eager to go home. He feared expatriation—taking on “an European disposition” and then, returning home, “a stranger in his own country.” Meanwhile, his son Charles Francis Adams was initiated to the glories and miseries of the English public school, where being an American was not a passport to gentle treatment.
For some time John Quincy had been a Republican. As early as 1802, he wrote his brother Tom: “I concur with you in the opinion that the cause of federalism is irretrievable.” The old Federalist party had indeed fallen apart. Everyone was now a Republican of one sort or another. The Western leader of the party was Henry Clay, closely pressed by Andrew Jackson. John Quincy himself was not a man of locality: “My system of politics more and more inclines to strengthen the union and the government.” Yet when he heard an American jingo say, as a toast, “Our country, right or wrong,” John Quincy responded severely: “I disclaim all patriotism incompatible with the principles of eternal justice.” It never occurred, as far as we know, to any Adams of the Four Generations that there might be no such thing as eternal justice. The first Adams believed in the Puritan God. The second was equally devout. In the last generations overt religion vanished almost entirely from their voluminous letters and diaries; nevertheless the idea of eternal justice, of moral right, of some essential and binding law to the universe never ceased to order their lives.
President Monroe appointed John Quincy to be his secretary of state, at that time the second most important office in the land and the surest way to the presidency. The eight years that John Quincy served President Monroe were known as the era “of good feelings.” It was indeed a tribute to John Quincy’s pronounced excellence that he was given the post; for Monroe was a Virginian and the Virginians had governed the United States from the beginning: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe dominated the nation for thirty-six years with only one break, the four years that John Adams of Massachusetts was president.
John Quincy was not delighted with cabinet life: “There is a slowness, want of decision, and a spirit of procrastination in the President, which perhaps arouses more from his situation than his personal character.” Experiencing flak from the ambitious Clay and his other rivals for the presidency Jackson and Crawford, John Quincy wrote: “My office…makes it for the interest of all the partisans of the candidates for the next Presidency…to decry me as much as possible.” “Always complain, but superbly explain” could be the Adams family motto.
Although John Quincy was generally admired for his intellectual brilliancy and hard work—certainly he was our best secretary of state—he was filled with the usual Adams misgivings. When he gave a reception, he was certain that no one would come. He was afraid of either talking too much or too little. The ladies of the family worried about his shabby appearance: watery of eye, tremulous of hand, he grew fat, and flatulent. He feared—but finally dared—to eat a peach. With quiet satisfaction, he confided to his diary: “I am a man of reserved, cold, austere and forbidding manners….” He was prone to such solitary pleasures as swimming in the Potomac River, wearing nothing but a black swimming cap and green goggles. Much of the time he was bored by the politicians he had to deal with. But when he was stimulated intellectually, he could be eloquent.
During this period, General Andrew Jackson was on the rampage in the Spanish Floridas, hanging people right and left, including two Englishmen. Yet John Quincy did his best to defend Jackson (a man of whom Jefferson wrote: Now he is really crazy!). In the process Adams helped formulate what is known as the Monroe Doctrine: that no European power may interfere in the Western hemisphere while no American government will interfere in Europe. This proud doctrine is still, theoretically, in force although it ceased to have any meaning when the United States went to war with Germany in 1917.
Jackson’s filibuster-capers appealed hugely to the electorate and in 1824, under the system of the Electoral College, Jackson received 99 votes for president; Adams, 84; Crawford, 41; Clay, 37. Since no candidate had the required majority, the election went into the House of Representatives for decision. Rightly, Clay feared Jackson, the hero of New Orleans, more than he did John Quincy. Clay gave his support to John Quincy Adams, who became president in February 1825. Clay was then appointed secretary of state. Everyone cried “foul,” and John Quincy was held to be corrupt by all Jackson men and a good many disinterested worthies as well.
Now, once again, there was a President Adams; and he proved to be every bit as wounded in his amour propre, as bitter as the first Adams who wrote from Massachusetts: “My dear son, Never did I feel so much solemnity as upon this occasion. The multitude of my thoughts, and the intensity of my feelings are too much for a mind, like mine, in its 90th year.”
John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man (Macmillan, 1972).↩
John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man (Macmillan, 1972).↩