Angry, Icy, Enlightened Adams

Diplomatic Reception Rooms, US Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Louisa Catherine and John Quincy Adams; paintings by Charles Robert Leslie, 1816


In February 1778, John Quincy Adams, ten years old, crossed the Atlantic with his father, who had just been appointed to the American diplomatic delegation in Paris. “Johnny…reads and chatters french like a french Boy,” John Adams proudly wrote Abigail a few months after father and son, a family of two, arrived in France. The young John Quincy, groomed from infancy for lofty public responsibilities, was determined to profit from his stay in the French capital. “We are sent into this world for some end,” he instructed his younger brother Charles from Paris. “It is our duty to discover by close study what this end is and when we once discover it to pursue it with unconquerable perseverance.” He would demand ever more of himself as the years went by. “I have indulged too much indolence and inactivity of mind,” he wrote three decades later, “and the year has left no advantageous trace of itself in the annals of my life.”

The persevering young man would become a diplomat, skillfully representing the United States in the courts of the Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, Sweden, Russia, and Great Britain. And he would play a significant part in American politics. From 1803 until 1808, he was a United States senator from Massachusetts. In 1817, President James Monroe appointed him secretary of state, and from that position he ascended to the presidency, governing the nation from 1825 to 1829. In 1830, he won a seat in the House of Representatives and would serve there until 1848, when he collapsed at his House desk, dying at the age of eighty.

John Quincy Adams was a talented actor in history—though often just a lucky spectator. In 1795, on special assignment in London, the twenty-eight-year-old Adams had an audience with King George III, the “Tyrant” denounced by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The king was cordial though ill informed about his former colonies. Did “All the Adamses belong to Massachusetts?” His Majesty wondered vaguely. And was young Mr. Adams’s father now governor of Massachusetts? “No, sir; he is Vice President of the United States,” John Quincy replied.

At a dinner at the White House in November 1804, six months after the French Senate proclaimed Napoleon the emperor of France, Senator Adams listened as President Jefferson turned the conversation to the French Revolution, an event Jefferson had once passionately supported. “It seemed as if every thing in that country for the last twelve or fifteen years had been a DREAM,” said a disabused Jefferson. Now he modestly wished only for a stable constitutional monarchy in France, with a return to the Bourbon dynasty, “the Old Family.”

As minister to Russia from 1809 to 1814, Adams hated “the stagnant political atmosphere and the Scythian winters of…

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