Within the past two years or so the historical visibility of John Quincy Adams has been enhanced to a degree that could scarcely have been anticipated a few years earlier. William Lee Miller’s Arguing about Slavery was a circumstantial account of how Adams, in his post-presidential career as a Massachusetts congressman, almost singlehandedly beat down the efforts of Southern members to prohibit the House’s reception of antislavery petitions.1 At the end of last year came two dramatic spectacles, each with the same name, one a film and the other an opera, depicting the mutiny in 1839 of black African captives aboard the schooner Amistad who were destined for slavery. Recaptured off the Long Island coast by an American naval vessel and incarcerated in a Connecticut jail, they were eventually released following the powerful plea on their behalf before the Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams. Finally, we have a new biography of Adams himself by Paul Nagel, which aims to exhibit aspects of the man’s personality hitherto, the author believes, imperfectly understood.
The African slave trade depended on black Africans capturing other black Africans and selling them to dealers on the coast for shipment to plantations in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas. This is what happened to a group of Mende tribesmen in West Africa in the spring of 1839. They were transported in a Portuguese slaving vessel to Cuba, where fifty-three of them were sold to two Spaniards who planned to carry them by sea in the chartered ship Amistad for resale at Puerto Principe on the island’s northeast coast. But on the fourth night out one of the captives, Joseph Cinqué, managed to get free of his manacles and unchain the others.
Seizing sugar-cane machetes they found in the hold, they killed the captain and ship’s cook; the other two crew members escaped in a ship’s boat; and the lives of the two Spanish traders were spared on condition that they navigate the Amistad back to Africa. The Spaniards thereupon tricked the mutineers by steering eastward by day but maneuvering the ship by night northward into US coastal waters, bringing it eventually to anchor off Montauk Point. The ship and its African refugees were captured, and their would-be Spanish owners rescued, by a patrolling American revenue cutter. The Africans with their by-then acknowledged leader, Cinqué, were taken to Connecticut by a federal marshal and lodged in the county jail at New Haven, there to await the adjudication of their status.
The legal issues, understandably somewhat slurred over in the Spielberg movie and all but ignored in the opera, were in fact fairly knotty. On the one hand the seaborne slave trade had by this time been outlawed throughout the Atlantic world for some eighteen years, both by municipal law and by international agreements. Engaging in it was punishable by death in both England and the United States, and the King of Spain had decreed that any slave brought into a Spanish colony was automatically free. On the other hand, slavery itself was lawful throughout Latin America and the Southern United States. It was not illegal to ship slaves from one Spanish colony to another, and once a trader from Africa got his cargo ashore in Cuba the captives’ status became in practice that of slaves, since it was in the interest of most of the island’s white population to connive in evasion of the law. Newly arrived blacks were openly bought and sold, at which time bribed notaries would certify lists of them with newly conferred Spanish names, providing the new owners with “evidence” that the blacks had been in a state of slavery, and thus by degrees Hispanicized, since before the external trade had been proscribed.
So although the Amistad captives, fresh from Africa, were in principle legally free persons, the mounting drama of their case from the moment of their imprisonment in New Haven grew from the tug and heave of two conflicting interests, each determined that the other not be allowed to specify what was to be done about them. Great exertions were made by their self-proclaimed owners, José Ruiz and Pedro Montes, by the Spanish minister to the United States, and even by officials of the Van Buren administration—who, facing the election of 1840, were doing all they could to avoid antagonizing voters in the Southern states—to get the case, whether involving piracy and murder, or property, or both, transferred to Cuba and tried by a Spanish tribunal there. Equally intense were efforts by a contingent of American abolitionist leaders determined to have the Africans declared free.
Those pressing for a transfer to Cuba based their argument on comity between friendly nations and a claim that American courts were not competent to take jurisdiction in comparable cases involving Spanish subjects, and on a clause in a treaty of 1795 between the United States and Spain committing the parties to see that property rescued from pirates and robbers at sea be taken to port for restoration to its owners. The defense’s position was that the blacks were not property, having been unlawfully captured, and that they were not pirates or murderers either, having acted in lawful self-defense to reclaim the freedom that had been taken from them.
The case was heard twice at Hartford before the federal district and circuit courts, the judgment on both occasions being, in the light of overwhelming evidence, that the Africans were legally free. The latter decision was appealed by the Van Buren administration and argued before the Supreme Court in Washington in February 1841. Former President John Quincy Adams had been persuaded to appear as senior counsel for the defense, and brought the story to its climax with flashes of his best oratory. The Court was persuaded; the blacks—by then reduced in number to thirty-nine—were awarded their freedom; and after further funds were raised by the abolitionists, they were transported back to their African homeland the following year.
Moviemakers who undertake historical films appear to fall into two opposing categories. Their respective aims are all but irreconcilable and neither has much feeling for or comprehension of the other. For the one, a predominating aim is to bring the past—with judicious amendments if deemed necessary—closer to the present, and thereby simplify it for the perceptions of an audience assumed to be little informed and no more than half awake. The other, a soberingly small minority, is concerned above all with the very otherness of distant times and past events. It is concerned with the contrasts, rather than the similarities, to what we know, and with the need for reaching for whatever may be recoverable in the tonality and color of the past in order to capture a wholeness of effect which alone, these moviemakers believe, may disclose to us something of its meaning.2
I can’t be certain which class Mr. Spielberg sees himself as belonging to, or whether he even supposes such a distinction to exist. Amistad is certainly a film of considerable power. The black captives are real-life West Africans, speaking their own dialect with subtitles, and as for the two leading actors, Djimon Hounsou as the heroic Cinqué and Anthony Hopkins as the irascible John Quincy Adams, it’s hard to see how any producer could have done better. The scenes of violence make their principal impact by depicting forms of brutality with which we are no longer familiar, and with a realism in shuddering contrast to the grotesquely stylized abstractions that pass for violence in most of the cop movies we see. On the other hand, scriptwriters don’t as a rule have many settled convictions or points of view about anything; they go with the fancies of their time; they need to be called to account to make them do anything else; and I can’t but deplore Mr. Spielberg’s not keeping his on a shorter tether.
If I were called in as a historical censor on this film, I’d begin with what might appear at first glance as a trifling instance. Beards and mustaches—potent talismans of our own time—would not come into fashion before the late 1850s (every portrait of the period shows this), yet they’re all over the place here, and when the extras come boiling out of the US cutter Washington to take charge of the Amistad people their faces are covered with a five-day stubble, in the style of many of today’s film notables, a piece of whimsy which would in that former day have got them all clapped in the brig. The carefully shaped historical illusion we need for belief already begins to unravel. Rather more serious, though, is the scene in which a woebegone little band of abolitionist missionaries outside the captives’ jail cell try to hearten them by singing psalms and waving Bibles at them. One of the blacks mutters, “They look miserable,” and the audiences at both the screenings I attended sniggered obligingly, as it was intended they should.
In fact the abolitionists of that day were a stern and intrepid lot who took daily risks for their convictions, and their armament against the abuse they took and the stones with which they were often pelted was a stout Christian faith that fortified them in adversity and beckoned them on. As to what purpose could have prompted the cheap shot taken at them here I won’t venture to guess, but it isn’t merely unfair; it falsifies and contaminates the story’s entire moral texture. These were the very people whose exertions got the Amistad case going in the first place and kept it going, making its successful outcome—and for that matter Mr. Spielberg’s film—possible. Sneering at such types now, for taking on the role of Christian soldiers then, simply shuts another door on what we’re straining to recover.3
But Spielberg and his collaborators, perhaps in compensation, have meanwhile concocted another kind of abolitionist out of whole cloth, a fictional black printer of New Haven—“Theodore Joadson,” played by Morgan Freeman—who is accepted on terms of equality and with easygoing respect as a matter of course by everyone he deals with. But how can we have forgotten so soon? Lamentably high on the list of what any historian of that period—or indeed any reader drawn to it—cannot help knowing is that no such person of the bearing and dignity depicted by Mr. Freeman would have been allowed to exist in the America of 1840, even in New England, and that in fact such a person would have had hard enough going well into the twentieth century. The airy complacency that presumes to redraw such realities does no service to the historical understanding of anyone in our own time, black or white, who aims, even at the expense of feeling good, to grasp the tone and feel of race relations in their then-hideous state. 4
Mr. Spielberg does contrive to snatch out of all this a victory of sorts with the high point of his drama brought about by John Quincy Adams, whose real story resists any intervention to make it look either more or less pretty than it actually was. True, in the lines Anthony Hopkins is given to deliver in the ten minutes allotted to him before the Supreme Court, there isn’t a single phrase that duplicates anything Adams actually said in his famous two-day, eight-hour summation, and what Mr. Hopkins does say is not without its stretches of nonsense.5 But the measure of Hopkins’s extraordinary talent, in this scene and in those preceding it, is an instinct that could somehow both absorb and transcend most of the incongruities being insistently stuck in his way.
Some commentators have carped about the tendency they see in producers, when they need a person to play a famous American, to bring in an Englishman to do it. No doubt there are bad reasons for this, but there may be some good ones too, intended or not. Unlike us, Englishmen of every sort—though perhaps especially film and theater types—are in their everyday life hemmed in on every side by reminders of their past: village street patterns, artifacts, edifices, some of which have been there for as long as a thousand years. The very there-ness of the past is a kind of coercion that hangs in the air; the degree of attachment they may or may not feel for it matters less than does the network of inhibitions that keeps them from seeing it in any way that suits them. The English have had a lot of practice at this kind of encounter; their representations of historical occasions are consistently done with an assurance ours somehow don’t often manage, suggesting that they may even on occasion be better at perceiving the contours and overtones of our past than we ourselves are.
Operas, happily, aren’t required to meet anything resembling historical standards (there isn’t a “historical” opera I know of that remotely does); their survival depends on a different kind of artistic urgency. Anthony Davis’s opera Amistad probably gets as close to the historical record as could be expected (though admittedly that isn’t very close), and indeed its greatest success appears to have come in the course of its advance promotion as a history lesson for the schoolchildren of Chicago. But no opera should be, or can be, or needs to be, a history lesson. This one can be seen, on other grounds, as a significant achievement. It had exceptionally solid backing for its introduction last November by Chicago’s Lyric Opera; immense energy and imagination went into the various phases of mounting it; and in a cast and chorus of seventy-five, thirty-five were blacks, providing a new opening for African-American singers on the operatic stage.
A strain of the mythical runs through the story, introduced by an African “trickster god” who assumes various guises and whose sayings and contortions serve—though bumpily and often confusingly—to move things along; there is a Goddess of the Waters who is given one big aria and then oddly disappears (both, however, are authentic reflections of West African folklore); and most of the white American bystanders are rather nasty cardboard caricatures. There have been complaints about each of these features, though I’d guess they could all have been nicely overlooked if it hadn’t been for the music.
The music is difficult, though that isn’t the asset it could be, since it lacks the alterations of color needed to accompany the succession of characters or indicate new turns in the action. Its persistent dissonances offer no lyric relief, which the Goddess of the Waters and Margru in her lament for her lost baby could have used; and there don’t seem to be enough musical ideas to keep it going. Those that occur (such as the intervalic rhythmic devices that sound as if borrowed from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms) are hung onto beyond their time and drummed into the ground. Large numbers of listeners didn’t stay to the end, and most of the critics who came in from all over went away grumbling.6
All might not be lost if Mr. Davis, who is in fact a composer of unusual talent, were to take heart from the example of one of his illustrious predecessors. Verdi went to the trouble of going back to two of his unsatisfactory earlier works—Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra—in order to give them a full overhauling; each survives today as a masterpiece. If Mr. Davis should make a similar effort, I’d hope he might reconsider at least one of his Amistad characters, John Quincy Adams—less on historical grounds than for purely operatic reasons. Perhaps the most important advance cue an operatic composer gives his audience about the kind of person a character is and how he’s to behave is the range of voice assigned him. And if it’s John Quincy Adams (and if he keeps that name), you don’t even need to know that the real Adams had a high, shrill voice; the least homework will show your man as fretful, jumpy, sharp-tongued (Loge, Mime, Spalanzani, Incredibile—all reedy tenors), and you won’t make him, of all things, a bass. Basses and tenors aren’t merely different voices; in the land of opera they’re entirely different kinds of people.
If there were a single theme preeminent among all the others that bound together four generations of the Adams family, it was the vision of high-minded statesmanship. John Adams’s presidency was both wrecked and redeemed by his decision—which split the Federalist Party and cost Adams a second term—to send a peacemaking mission to Paris in 1800 following America’s undeclared naval war with France. John Quincy Adams served on several diplomatic missions abroad, and at home as senator, secretary of state, president, and, for the final sixteen years of his life, as the member for Plymouth in the US House of Representatives. His son Charles Francis Adams, as Lincoln’s minister to Great Britain during the Civil War, performed the incalculable service of keeping the Palmerston-Russell ministry reminded of the consequences that would ensue from a British recognition of the Confederacy.
On Charles Francis’s son Henry the challenge of statesmanship weighed as heavily as it had on any of his forebears, yet in Henry’s case the summons never came. But although the political universe of America’s Gilded Age had no further use for an Adams, or for any Adams version of the public good, Henry Adams’s nine-volume evocation of the America of his grandfather’s time, a vicarious reenactment of an era of statesmanship otherwise past recovery, is still cited by many as the most imposing work of history any American has so far produced.7
An all-but-unanswerable case could be made for John Quincy Adams as the most distinguished public figure of the entire era between the founding generation and the advent of Lincoln. Yet such a case is seldom if ever made, and that makes for a problem in itself. One reflection of this is the presidential performance polls published from time to time in the Sunday supplements, and since Adams’s presidency has not been generally regarded as a success he is automatically knocked out of the Top Ten, thus tending to fade from view as a contender for any other kind of ranking. But that can’t be the whole answer.
Two weeks before John Adams’s inauguration in 1797, the normally diffident George Washington wrote to his successor-elect of his “strong hope that you will not withhold merited promotion for Mr. John [Quincy] Adams because he is your Son. For… I give it as my decided opinion that Mr. Adams is the most valuable public character we have abroad, and that he will prove himself to be the ablest of all our Diplomatic Corps.” The younger Adams, then twenty-nine, had already served with high merit as United States minister to the Netherlands, and would shortly assume a similar post at Berlin as minister to the kingdom of Prussia. When his father’s presidential term ended in 1801 he came home, was elected to the Senate the following year, and was shortly thereafter chosen as the first Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric at Harvard, whose duties he would perform concurrently with those of the Senate. His senatorial tenure was abruptly terminated in 1808 by the Massachusetts Federalists, enraged at Adams’s refusal to follow the party line, first on Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and then on the Embargo, both of which he supported. He had already declared in his diary, “A politician in this country must be the man of a party. I would fain be the man of my whole country.” It was a motif that would both animate and plague the remainder of his public life.
Adams’s career resumed its upward trajectory when President Madison appointed him as minister to Russia, where he was a great success with the Tsar and with the other members of the international diplomatic colony at St. Petersburg. The additional credit he acquired there led to his being named to head the five-man commission formed for negotiating peace with a British delegation to end the War of 1812. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Eve 1814, whose terms were exceptionally favorable for the United States, was a signal achievement, in effect belatedly ratifying the full independence of the one-time colonies and opening the way for American nationality, at home and abroad, to assume a level of self-assurance it had never hitherto had. Nationality and Union: still another of the dogmas, as fiercely held as any, of John Quincy Adams and of his father before him.
After one more successful assignment, that of minister to Great Britain, Adams, by the time of James Monroe’s accession to the presidency in 1817, had become the one indisputably logical choice to be secretary of state. He was promptly confirmed by the Senate, missing unanimity by only a single vote, and while in that office he brought off two of the most remarkable accomplishments of his career. One was the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 with Spain, concluded only after anguished foot-dragging by the Spanish minister Don Luis de Onís and his home government in the face of Adams’s grim pertinacity. The treaty, in return for American renunciation of claims to the Spanish province of Texas, secured title to a stupendous expanse of territory that included East and West Florida, everything lying north of a line zigzagging northwesterly from the mouth of the Sabine River on the Gulf to the northern border of California and west to the Pacific Ocean, and south of the as-yet-undetermined boundary of the Oregon country. It was an acquisition fully comparable to the more famous Louisiana Purchase, and requiring infinitely more skill to bring about.
Adams’s other feat was, of course, the Monroe Doctrine—more aptly called, most authorities believe, the Adams Doctrine. Its essential points were set forth in Monroe’s annual message of 1823: that the American continents were “not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers,” and that any interference in the affairs of former colonies in the New World that had recently asserted their independence would be regarded as evidence “of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” But these were the explicit principles; more intricate and more significant were the unspoken premises. The three Virginia patriarchs Monroe, Jefferson, and Madison, each a ferocious Anglophobe in earlier days, were by now all for embracing the proposal of the British foreign secretary George Canning that a joint Anglo-American manifesto of similar effect be given to the world, in view of signs that the powers of Europe might be preparing to help Spain recover its lost possessions in Latin America.
Adams’s conviction, to which he eventually converted Monroe, was that the United States could now make such a declaration on its own. He seems to have foreseen that the external interests of the United States and Great Britain would assume directions less and less incompatible in the course of the nineteenth century; a foreign policy of any real specificity would be less and less called for on our part, thanks to the British fleet; and meanwhile there would be no need of saying so, or even of thinking so. It would be superfluous, in other words, “to come in,” as Adams put it, “as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”
John Quincy Adams is generally acknowledged to have been America’s greatest secretary of state. In Adams’s time, moreover, that office was assumed to be the final step short of the presidency—and so it was with him, though in the worst possible way. The four contenders in 1824, nominated by various expedients at a time when party conventions were still in the future, were Adams, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and General Andrew Jackson, whose popular following had steadily mounted since his annihilation of the British invaders at the (post-treaty) Battle of New Orleans in early 1815 and his campaign against the Seminole Indians in Spanish Florida in 1818. None received a majority, though Jackson led the others in both popular and electoral votes, and the election had to be decided by the provision for such cases in the Twelfth Amendment whereby the choice would be made among the first three by the House of Representatives.
Henry Clay, being fourth and thus eliminated, thereupon threw his support to Adams on the assumption—correct as it turned out—that his reward would be the secretaryship of state, and consequently a favored position for his own next try for the great prize. The “Corrupt Bargain,” as it was promptly tagged by the Jackson men, became a curse that would pursue them both, and, coupled with the dire reality of a minority president, would probably have doomed Adams’s administration no matter what he might have made of it. What he did or didn’t make of it could be a story in itself, of which more later.
Adams’s reemergence in the comparatively lowly post he did not hesitate to accept in the House of Representatives after his defeat for reelection by Jackson in 1828, and what he did there in the remaining years of his life, gave proof that a career of his sort still had the capacity to achieve a kind of unexpected pinnacle. His successful nine-year battle with the combined forces of the Slave Power to eliminate the House’s gag rule against the reception of antislavery petitions, in the midst of which occurred his great defense of the Amistad captives, made his exertions, more than those of any other public person, responsible for converting the Northern public to the antislavery temper it brought to the choosing of Lincoln in 1860. Such observances in memory of a public figure as took place in the city of Washington upon Adams’s death in 1848 had not been seen since Philadelphia had accorded similar homage to the deceased Franklin in 1790.
With all this on the record, and with interest in Adams on the rise, one wasn’t quite prepared to see Paul C. Nagel’s John Quincy Adams come forth as the probably well-intentioned but curiously disconnected anticlimax it turns out to be. Disconnectedness, indeed, is a leading impression that greets the reader, though there are several others. The author is primarily concerned with the private side of his subject’s character, and claims to have discovered the key, which has eluded investigators up to now, to the “iron mask” once referred to by Adams’s son Charles Francis. This was his susceptibility to attacks of depression, the most dramatic of which occurred in 1788 when the young Adams was trying to adapt himself to the study of law, which was becoming more and more of a daily drudgery, and being immobilized by feelings of failure, guilt, self-doubt, and despair. It took several months of rest, time off from his studies, and then a youthful love affair to get him back in shape.
What this “key” unlocks that we didn’t already know—thanks to the miles of paper trail Adams himself left for posterity—is hard to tell, and from here on the line of causation intended to reveal the inner Adams becomes less and less easy to make out, much less keep track of. A mystifying side-excursion comes with Mr. Nagel’s going after Adams’s strong-minded mother, Abigail Adams, to whom he took a dislike in two of his earlier books. Her “insecurity” and “need to dominate,” the towering achievements she expected of her son, her badgering him to dress more neatly and to stay clear of dissolute habits—all are seen as imposing a burden that came close to crushing him. “Abigail Adams was a calamity as a mother.”
This piece of news, first broken here, is certainly arresting. Nagel himself doesn’t provide much evidence for it, beyond editorial cueing, his tiptoe “might have” and “perhaps” constructions, and scrappy quotations truncated and then completed in his own words.8 And when we try checking other sources, what we find elsewhere somehow doesn’t have much to do with anything being offered here. An entry of June 20, 1788, in Adams’s diary tells of his riding into Boston to greet his parents returning from England. “I…found my father was gone to Braintree but my Mamma was at the Governor’s: I immediately went there and enjoy’d all the satisfaction that can arise from the meeting so near and dear a friend after a long absence.” Or Abigail to her son after being introduced to a man who had known him in St. Petersburg:
As I entered the room, he said this Lady is the Mother of Mr. J.Q. Adams. I bowed assent. Your Son Madam is very fond of you. He talked much of you. Indeed he is very fond of you—I replied that the attachment was reciprocated …and you may be sure it was a cordial balm to the Heart of an affectionate parent.
When Abigail died in 1818, her son was prevented from being at the funeral in Massachusetts by a welter of State Department business in Washington. But Mr. Nagel hints that his absence “was the ultimate testimony to a lifelong resentment of his mother’s domineering ways,” and that what he wrote in his diary about her death—not quoted—“had a perfunctory air.” Here is what Adams did write:
Had she lived to the age of the Patriarchs, every day of her life would have been filled with clouds of goodness and love. There is not a virtue that can abide in the female heart but it was the ornament of hers…. Never have I known another human being the perpetual object of whose life was so unremittingly to do good…. Life is no longer to me what it was; my home is no longer the abode of my mother. While she lived, whenever I returned to the paternal roof I felt as if the joys and charms of childhood returned to make me happy. All was kindness and affection…. One of the links that connected me with the former ages is no more.
But just in case his mother’s bullying might need some reinforcement as a full explanation of Adams’s psychic afflictions, Mr. Nagel moves from a psychological to a somatic emphasis, and to clinical depression as a matter of brain chemistry, caused by insufficient levels of serotonin. That ought to cover just about everything and allow having it both ways, except that there isn’t the least evidence for any of it. Nor is the evidence for recurrences of Adams’s youthful spell of depression more than hazy. A hint of another bout—which was in any event quickly terminated—doesn’t come until some sixteen years later; then after another twenty years he certainly had some bad patches as president, though the nightmare surrounding the Adams presidency—the Jacksonian opposition’s determination not to allow it to accomplish anything—would have driven any normal person to the edge. Here too his spirits came back in a rush when he was at last shed of the office.
There was another onslaught of gloom in 1833, bringing Adams to “a depressed state as serious as the one he had suffered as a youth in Newburyport.” But without some uninterrupted and unedited extracts from Adams’s diary, this can’t be very persuasive, especially since such concurrent events as the loss of his brother Tom, the decline of his alcoholic son John, and the reelection of his uncouth nemesis, Jackson, would have been enough of a setback to someone far less excitable, irritable, and moody than John Quincy Adams—even without such drawbacks as erratic brain chemistry or lifelong damage by a hectoring mother. Adams, as it happened, was shortly cheered up on being nominated for governor by the Anti-Masonic Party (though he withdrew his name before the election), and by the birth of his first grandson. No more such attacks seem to have occurred in the remaining fifteen years of his life.
Mr. Nagel’s subtitle, A Public Life, a Private Life, is somewhat misleading, inasmuch as his announced purpose is to reveal the hidden Adams, and in fact the public side only accompanies this quest as a sketchy and monochromatic outline, obtainable in greater depth and certainly greater accuracy from any other extant account of the Adams story. The two sides are thus artificially partitioned, with the public side little more than dimly present in the search for the “real” Adams. But with such a life, how can they be separated? Upon reading (not in this book but elsewhere) of Adams’s exclaiming at the completion of the Transcontinental Treaty, “It was, perhaps, the most important day of my life,” or, in reference to his Freedom of the Seas project of 1823, “I feel that I could die for it with joy,” we don’t ask whether this was the “public” or the “private” Adams. They are, we can only conclude, one and the same.
On one subject, however, Mr. Nagel does try bringing the two together, and again sets the reader to musing. Adams’s antislavery credentials aren’t, it seems, as valid as we have supposed, for all the fury with which he battled the slaveholders in the mid-1830s and 1840s, because the renown he gained therefrom really arose from “a bruised ego and thwarted ambition,” and “from his all-consuming desire for political vengeance.” That he got into this by way of the gag rule issue was something of an accident; that issue, Nagel argues, was made to order for getting even with the Southerners and the Jackson-Van Buren men who had made a shambles of his presidency. “Previously he had displayed little concern about the enslaved African-American,” and he “never supported the abolitionists.” We’re now having a stern look at the “private” Adams, as his biographer moves to snatch the “iron mask” from his public face.
But once more we have the tiresome problem of evidence, and of having to take account of several factors—not just one—that animated John Quincy Adams’s lifelong insistence upon himself as “the man of my whole country.” There isn’t the least doubt that those most responsible for blocking that aspiration became prime targets for his choicest invective, and that his satisfaction at making them squirm and sputter gave wings to his oratory, earning him his belated title of “Old Man Eloquent.”
It is also true that he had until then kept his views on slavery largely (though by no means entirely) to himself, and had held the abolitionists at arm’s length. (Though it isn’t true that he “never supported” them; by the 1840s he was holding regular strategy huddles with Theodore Weld, Joshua Giddings, and other members of the small abolitionist nucleus beginning to form in the House.) It is most pertinently true that Adams’s abomination of slavery went back to his father’s time; John Adams had called it “an evil of Colossal magnitude,” and the son had never seen it as anything else. By the time of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 JQA was already full of gloomy thoughts about the turn he saw things taking. Slavery was “the great and foul stain,” and as for the clause in Missouri’s new constitution requiring restriction on the immigration of free blacks into the state:
Already cursed by the mere color of their skin, already doomed by their complexion to drudge in the lowest offices of society, excluded by their color from all the refined enjoyments of life accessible to others,…his barbarous article deprives them of the little remnant of right left them—their rights as citizens and as men.
He had only favored the Compromise, he said, “believing it to be all that could be effected under the present Constitution, and from extreme unwillingness to put the Union at hazard.” This obsession with the Union, this dread of its latent fragility, this conviction that its safety was a precondition for everything else—just as Lincoln would see it forty years later—had been with the Adamses from the time of the founding more than thirty years earlier. They had accepted another compromise on slavery then, and for the same reasons. They had come to regret it, persuaded now that “the bargain between freedom and slavery contained in the Constitution,” as JQA put it, “…is morally and politically vicious.”
A concluding reflection might concern not John Quincy Adams’s final burst of fame, but rather his public life at its nadir, the period of his presidency. That phase has all but dropped out of the nation’s memory, a tendency Mr. Nagel is inclined to encourage: “His administration was a hapless failure and best forgotten….” But what if we didn’t forget it? How was it, for instance, that Lincoln’s future secretary of state, William H. Seward—though certainly very few others—could have seen Adams as “the best President since Washington”? A perverse view, and not to be taken seriously, for undoubtedly sound reasons. Nor was it so taken at the time. Yet it might still serve as a goad of sorts for piecing out not the goodness or badness of the Adams presidency but rather its forgottenness.
Adams’s picture of himself, as not “the man of a party” but “the man of my whole country,” had become by then anachronistic. One of his political tormentors, Martin Van Buren, was already assuming a leading part in fashioning the great novelty of the age in political practice, a system of mass parties whose functions would include the management of careers as well as the channeling and control, rather than the proliferation, of political conflict. But to John Quincy Adams, “party” was still a work of the devil, as it had been to his father. He did little or nothing to build a following for his administration; he refused to punish disloyalty within the circle of his own appointees; and he repelled the advances of the New York journalist Thurlow Weed, whose talents as a political tactician were second only to those of Van Buren. The limp effort to “re-elect the president” in 1828 had little to draw on from the president’s own example.
But this may well have been the lesser part. An inevitable and probably necessary but ultimately pernicious legacy of the Revolution was the persuasion that government should be seen as an alien force. Those of the founding generation had done what they could to change that view, and the doctrine that did much to carry the day in the debates over ratification in 1787-1788—the sovereignty of the people—held the potential for a course substantially different from the one it eventually took. Government as the people’s own instrument, the figurative extension of themselves and the agency that embodied their highest and deepest aspirations, was one way; the other was to see government as an encroaching presence, which the people’s representatives must be ever vigilant to ward off from taking any consequential part in shaping the people’s private or collective concerns.
John Quincy Adams aspired to go the first way, and in Henry Clay he had, for once, a worthy ally. The spacious program he presented to Congress in 1825 was an amalgam of Clay’s “American System”—a federally sponsored infrastructure of roads, canals, and other internal improvements, accompanied by encouragement of nascent manufacturing through protective tariffs—with Adams’s own design for the furthering of science and learning through the establishment of observatories and a national university. It was based on the conviction that the national government had the powers, the capacity, and the duty to promote the well-being, prosperity, and enlightenment of “my whole country.”
The design, of course, never had a chance. Adams’s own cabinet had little or no faith in it, and the representatives of a still-rural, state-centered, parochial people howled it down. The unlucky phrase with which Adams warned against being swayed by selfish private and local interests—not to be “palsied by the will of our constituents”—was hooted back at him forever after.
A tradition of mistrust was the way taken, already too late, no doubt, for it to have gone otherwise. It is with us still, and the people’s representatives are still doing what they did then. The other way—a taking for granted that large designs, and the taxes to pay for them, are concocted for the benefit not of somebody else but of our neighbors, ourselves, and one another—has of course had its hopeful support from time to time, though fitfully and temporarily, and has never achieved the legitimacy that would protect it, in season and out, as an unquestioned civic value. That way was buried with John Quincy Adams, and the efforts of his enemies, his few friends, and indeed of Adams in spite of himself, all combined to bury it. We need little assurance, then, from Adams’s latest biographer that his presidency is “best forgotten.” It already has been.
April 23, 1998
A brilliant example of the second type, aptly recalled by Simon Schama in his critique of the Spielberg Amistad (“Clio at the Multiplex,” The New Yorker, January 19, 1998, p. 40), is Daniel Vigne’s Return of Martin Guerre, during the filming of which the historian Natalie Zemon Davis kept after the crew until she was satisfied that every touch was right. ↩
To top it off, this earnest group of Congregationalists (they couldn’t have been anything else), in a community where the least hint of popery made people twitch with horror, are all wearing crosses. (The high school drama coach would have caught that one, at least anywhere in New England.) But this was a slip-up, and thus partially excusable. Not excusable, being a calculated alteration of the truth, is the deliberate downsizing of two other white antislavery men, Lewis Tappan and Roger Baldwin. Tappan, a New York merchant, was from first to last the prime mover in the effort to secure the captives’ freedom and their passage back to Africa. But in the film he is last heard musing that it might be better for the antislavery cause if they were all to be martyred, whereupon he fades from the action and is seen no more—banished, as it were, by a withering glance from the imaginary “Joadson.” ↩
It might be objected that Frederick Douglass should embody a major contradiction to the generalization made above. Yet it was no less a person than William Lloyd Garrison who brooded that Douglass was getting too uppity, and told him, “Better have a little of the plantation speech than not; it is not best that you seem too learned.” Anyone who supposes that the climate in which a free black person—to say nothing of a black abolitionist—had to function was anything like that depicted in the film would do well to consult Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 214-246; or William H. Pease and Jane H. Pease, “Boston Garrisonians and the Problem of Frederick Douglass,” Canadian Journal of History, Vol. 2 (September 1967), pp. 29-48. ↩
The transcript of Adams’s remarks is in print, all 135 pages of them, as Argument of John Quincy Adams, before the Supreme Court of the United states in the Case of the United States vs. Cinque, and Others . (New York, 1841); and there are two modern facsimile reprints, one by Johnson Reprint Corp. (1968), and the other by Negro University Press (1969). A comparison with the Spielberg shooting script (my copy, probably pirated, was obtained at a New York bookstall on Astor Place) is highly entertaining. ↩
I was not present at the opera’s performances in Chicago, so won’t presume to venture beyond the brief observations given here, though I’m reasonably well acquainted with the libretto and the music, and have gone over the piano score with my friend Bruce McInnes, a leading New York choral director, he and I seeing pretty much eye to eye about the music. I’ve also been edified by the uneasy efforts of critics from seven different newspapers to think of reasons why the opera didn’t seem to work. ↩
History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Scribner’s, 1889-1896), 9 volumes. ↩
Nor does Nagel feel obliged to furnish any kind of apparatus of citation and footnoting. Its absence has several advantages for authors and publishers but none for readers, especially skeptical readers curious to know where the author got his evidence and would like to see and judge it for themselves. Nagel’s appendix on sources will hardly do as a substitute, if only because, to take one instance, his own slant on JQA’s mother is protected by the omission of any material on Abigail Adams. The reading of such books as Phyllis Levin’s Abigail Adams (St. Martin’s, 1987), or especially Edith Gelles’s Portia: The World of Abigail Adams (University of Indiana Press, 1992), which gives his own earlier books on that subject some rough handling, would arouse many doubts about what he wants readers to think of her. All in all, Samuel F. Bemis’s two-volume biography, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (Knopf, 1949) and John Quincy Adams and the Union (Knopf, 1956) is still the one for readers who want a work that is fully dependable, extensive and detailed, and scrupulously documented. ↩