The Adams’ Fall: II

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.”

The administration of John Quincy Adams proved to be even more of a disaster (for him) than that of his father. Jackson and his allies were rightly indignant at losing an election in which Jackson had, after all, got the most votes; they also regarded as corrupt the alliance between John Quincy and Clay. Nor did the new president very much like or understand the country he presided over. For one thing, democracy had made a sudden advance with universal suffrage—that is, any free man over twenty-one could now vote. The rule by “the best” was ended once and for all.

John Quincy saw what was coming but he meant to hold the line, and his first inaugural address was a challenge to the democrats: “While foreign nations, less blessed with that freedom which is power than ourselves” (obligatory gesture to Demos) “are advancing with gigantic strides in the career of public improvements, are we to slumber in our indolence or fold up our arms and proclaim to the world that we are palsied by the will of our constituents?” There sounded for the last time ex cathedra presidentis the voice of the original Inventors of the nation.

John Quincy had great plans to foster education, science, commerce, civil service reform; but his projects were too rigorous and too unpolitical to be accepted. For instance, the United States had not one astronomical station while in Europe there were 130 “lighthouses of the sky.” This happy phrase was received with perfect derision by the mob. It was plain that John Quincy was not suited to lead a quasi-democracy. He was too intelligent, too unyielding, too tactless. He also found hard to bear the inanities of political attack (he was supposed to have supplied a lecherous Russian nobleman with an innocent American girl). Needless to say, Jackson swamped him in the next election. The Jackson slogan was prophetic of the era: “Jackson who can fight, and Adams who can write.”

But John Quincy saw the future more clearly than most of the mob-pleasing politicians. Of slavery he wrote privately in 1820, it is “an outrage upon the goodness of God.” But at the time he stayed clear of the subject because he saw that any challenge to the slave-owning states would lead to the dissolution of the Union. In 1837, after President Jackson’s savage treatment of the Creeks and Cherokees, John Quincy wrote: “We have done more harm to the Indians since our Revolution than had been done to them by the French and English nations before…. These are crying sins for which we are answerable before a higher Jurisdiction.”

Three days more, and I shall be restored to private life…. I go into it with a combination of parties and of public men against my character and reputation such as I believe never before was exhibited….” Pure Adams, the self-pity; but not so far off the mark.

Like his father, John Quincy Adams refused to attend the inaugural of his successor. Back in Massachusetts, he started to put his father’s papers in order but this bookish task bored him. He was not cut out for libraries and retirement. To the horror of his son Charles Francis Adams, John Quincy “demeaned” himself and went back to Washington as a mere representative to Congress where he served in the House until his death seventeen years later. As Emerson rather unexpectedly wrote, “Mr. Adams chose wisely and according to his constitution, when, on leaving the presidency, he went into Congress. He is no literary old gentleman, but a bruiser, and he loves the mêlée…. He is an old roué who cannot live on slops, but must have sulphuric acid in his tea.”

Certainly John Quincy Adams’s most useful period was the last when he was obliged to enter the hurly-burly at something of a disadvantage. For one thing, his voice was weak, his manner tentative: “It is so long since I was in the habit of speaking to a popular assembly, and I am so little qualified by nature for an extemporaneous orator, that I was at the time not a little agitated by the sound of my own voice.” But he persisted, fighting and eventually winning the battle to admit those petitions against slavery that the House would not for years entertain. He helped create the Smithsonian Institute. He denounced the American conquest of Mexico which added Texas and California to the empire. Then, in the midst of a debate, he collapsed on the floor of the House; he was taken to the Speaker’s chambers. On February 23, 1848, he died. Final words: “This is the last of earth. I am composed.”

The Third Generation was on the rise. Charles Francis Adams had committed hypergamy in the sense that he was the first Adams to marry a great deal of money in the shape of Abigail Brooks, who, according to one of her children, took a “constitutional and sincere pleasure in the forecast of evil. She delighted in the dark side of anticipation.” Four of her sons were to be remarkable in the next generation: John Quincy II, Charles Francis II, Henry, and Brooks. Like all the Adamses the sons were voluminous writers and Henry was a writer of genius even though his brother Charles wrote rather better prose. Their father also wrote copiously or, as his son Charles observed glumly, while writing his father’s biography: “He took to diary writing early, and he took to it bad.” Mark Twain apologized to William Dean Howells for using “three words where one would answer—a thing I am always trying to guard against. I shall become as slovenly a writer as Charles Francis Adams if I don’t look out….”

It is during the Fourth Generation that the high moral style of the early and the puissant Adamses is now tinged with irony, that necessary weapon of the powerless. There was to be no more life at the very top for the family but there were still good, even great things to be done.

Of his father Charles Francis Adams, Henry wrote, “[his] memory was hardly above the average; his mind was not bold like his grandfather’s or restless like his father’s, or imaginative, or oratorical—still less mathematical; but it worked with singular perfection…. Within its range it was a model.” The range included diplomacy and the by now inevitable family post of minister at London. Charles Francis was minister during the difficult years 1861-1868 when a powerful movement in England favored the Confederacy for reasons both sentimental and practical. The despised colonies of four-score years before had now become a predatory and dangerous empire, filling up the North American continent and threatening, by its existence, the British Empire. The vision of the United States split into two countries brought roses to many a cheek both on the government and the opposition benches.

Adams went about his work of keeping England neutral with that coolness which had caused a political associate to describe him as “the greatest Iceberg in the Northern Hemisphere.” Or as this solemn gelidity himself put it: “My practice has been never to manifest feeling of any kind, either of elation or of depression. In this, some Englishmen have taken occasion to intimate that I have been thought quite successful.”

Paradoxically, much of the pro-Southern sentiment in England came from those who abominated the peculiar institution of slavery. Although they disapproved of the slave-holding South, they saw Lincoln as a ruthless despot, trying to hold together by force a union that was constitutionally based on the right of any state to leave that union when it chose. Lincoln was never, to say the least, devoted to the abolition of slavery; and not until the war to preserve the union had gone on for three years did he free the slaves. Consequently Charles Francis was forced to listen to much sharp criticism from high-minded antislave Englishmen while his son Henry (acting as the minister’s secretary) was denounced in the street for Lincoln’s wickedness by Thackeray.

The chief crisis in Anglo-American relations during Charles Francis’s ministry was the Alabama affair. The Alabama was a formidable warship built at Liverpool for the South. Charles Francis maintained that if the English allowed such a ship to be built and armed, they automatically ceased to be neutral. Prime Minister Lord John Russell asked for proof of the ship’s ultimate use. When this was provided, the attorney general supported Charles Francis and recommended that the ship be seized. But by then the Alabama had sailed, embarrassing Lord John’s Government. The American minister then proceeded to keep careful count of each ship sunk by the Alabama in the course of the war and later saw to it that England paid the bill.

When another ship destined for the Confederacy was ready to go to sea and Lord John seemed unwilling to stop it, Charles Francis played the diplomat’s ultimate card: “it would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war.” Three days later Lord John seized the Southern warships.

Now the focus shifts to the Fourth Generation. Henry Adams in his autobiography writes a good deal about his formative years in London as his father’s secretary. Although there is little doubt that Henry inherited the family passion to be the first in the nation, it was already plain to him that the great plutocratic democracy was not apt to take well to one with such an “education.” The age of the robber barons was now in full swing. Shysters like Jay Gould and Jim Fiske controlled the economic life of the country, buying and selling members of Congress—and presidents, too. Although Henry’s father was, from time to time, mentioned for president, no one ever took very seriously this brilliant, cold man who spoke French better than English.

Of the four sons of Charles Francis only John Quincy Adams II got into elective politics. And failed. Just as he failed to get out from under the weight of the family’s intellectual tradition by, among other things, abandoning “the vile family habit of preserving letters.”

The second son Charles Francis II was a marvelous scribbler; also a man of action. After examining in detail the misdeeds of the railroad tycoons (published in a volume called Chapters of Erie, with several essays by his brother Henry), he himself became a railroad tycoon and president of the Union Pacific. The next brother Henry was to write the finest of American histories as well as one of our few good political novels. The youngest brother Brooks was also a writer very much in the Adams (by now) highly pessimistic vein. In fact, it is he who rather gives the game away with the title he chose for a posthumous edition of some of his brother Henry’s essays, The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma.

I cannot remember when I was not fascinated by Henry Adams. I was brought up in Washington; belonged to a political family; and used often to pass the site of the house where Adams had lived in Lafayette Park, just opposite the White House.

Once I asked Eleanor Roosevelt if she had known Henry Adams, who died in 1918. “Oh, yes! He was such a kind man, so good with the children. They would crawl all over him when he sat in his Victoria. He was very…tolerant. But,” and she frowned, “we did not agree politically. I remember the first time we went to his house. My Franklin had just come to Washington” (as assistant secretary of the navy) “and I of course was very shy then and could never get the courage to speak up, particularly with someone so much older. Well, my Franklin made some remark about President Wilson, about how well he was doing. And Mr. Adams just laughed at him and pointed toward the White House and said, ‘Young man, it doesn’t make the slightest difference who lives in that house, history goes on with or without the president.’ Well, I just couldn’t keep quiet. ‘Mr. Adams,’ I said, ‘that is a very terrible thing to say to a young man who wants to go into politics and be of use to other people.’ Oh, I made quite a speech.”

And what did Mr. Adams say?”

I can’t remember. I think he just laughed at me. We were always good friends.”

So the great Adams line ended with a theory of history that eliminated Carlyle’s hero and put in its stead something like Hegel’s “course of the divine life.” Yet one can see from the beginning the family’s dependency on fate, on some inscrutable power at work in the universe which raised men up or cut them down, and guided nations. At the beginning this was, plainly, the work of the Puritan God. Later, when that god failed, it was simply energy or “the Dynamo,” as Henry Adams called those “secret invisible Laws of Nature” that hurl this petty race through time and spinning space.

There was more than a degree of sourness in Henry’s old age; after all, he was living across the park from the White House where grandfather and great-grandfather had presided. As compensation, his beautiful memoir is filled with a good deal of mock humility, confessions of “failure,” and a somewhat overwrought irony. “I like [Henry],” wrote Henry James, “but suffer from his monotonous, disappointed pessimism…. However, when the poor dear is in London, I don’t fail to do what I can.” Luckily, the Master never read the diary of Mrs. Henry Adams: “high time Harry James was ordered home by his family.” She thought “if he wants to make a lasting literary reputation,” he must settle in Cheyenne and “run a hog ranch.”

But, politically, Henry Adams was not without influence; his best friend and next-door neighbor was that most literary of secretaries of state John Hay, while Adams himself was always at the center of the capital’s intellectual life. Invitations to his house were much sought after; yet he “called on no one, and never left a card.” Henry James in a short story set in Washington describes a distinguished figure based on Henry Adams. As the character draws up a guest list for a party, he says, finally, wearily: Well, why not be vulgar? Let us ask the President.

Henry Adams was remarkably prescient about the coming horrors; like his mother he anticipated the worst. Before the First World War, he prophesied the decline of England and France, and the rise of the United States, Russia, and Germany. But in the long run, he felt that Germany was too small a power “to swing the club.” Ultimately, he saw the world in two blocs: the east dominated by Russia; the west dominated by the United States. He also predicted that should Russia and China ever come together “the result will be a single mass which no amount of force could possibly deflect.” He predicted that this great mass would be both socialist and despotic; and its only counterbalance would be an “Atlantic combine,” stretching from “the Rocky Mountains on the west to the Elbe on the east.” Henry Adams always used what influence he had to try to persuade the various American administrations to bring Russia into our sphere of influence.

The last days of Henry Adams were spent trying to understand the forces that control history. He wanted an equivalent in history to Einstein’s never-to-be-found unified field theory. The best Henry Adams could come up with was a chapter of the memoir called “A Dynamic Theory of History”; and it was not enough. Finally, Adams abandoned history altogether. “I don’t give a damn what happened,” he wrote, “what I want to know is why it happened—never could find out—stopped writing history.”

How would John Adams have responded to such despair? In his college diary he copied out Contemptu Famae, Contemni Virtutem, which he translated as: “A Contempt of Fame generally begets or accompanies a Contempt of Virtue.” And then he adds: “Iago makes the reflection that Fame is but breath, but vibrated Air, an empty sound. And I believe Persons of his Character are most inclined to feel and express such an Indifference about fame.” No Adams was ever, to himself, truly famous and so all Adamses thought themselves used poorly by fate. But then from the beginning they set themselves intellectual and moral standards that no one could live up to. With Puritan vigor they positively insisted on noble failure in a society that has always been devoted to easy, crass success. So let us, late in the day as it is, praise such famous men.

(This is the second part of a two-part article.)


Freedom When? June 10, 1976

  1. *

    John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man (Macmillan, 1972).