A Great American Hater

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
John Singleton Copley: John Quincy Adams, 1796

When Henry Adams defined politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds,” he knew what he was talking about. Politics ran in the family. His great-grandfather John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the second president of the United States, hated the French Revolution and considered the third president, Thomas Jefferson, the next thing to an anarchist. Henry’s father, Charles Francis Adams, served as Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to Britain when sectional hatred in the United States burst out into civil war. But it was Henry’s grandfather John Quincy Adams, born in 1767, who held more high federal offices not only than anyone in the family but more than anyone in the history of the republic.

He began his public career as minister to the Netherlands (1794–1797) and Prussia (1797–1801), then represented Massachusetts as a US senator (1803–1808) until Boston federalists broke with him over his support for Jefferson’s trade embargo. His diplomatic service resumed when President James Madison appointed him minister to Russia (1809–1814) and then to Britain (1815–1817). As secretary of state (1817–1825) under President James Monroe, he was the principal architect of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine and negotiated the purchase of Florida from Spain as well as a new border between the United States and Spanish possessions in the west. In 1824 he succeeded Monroe to the presidency but was defeated in 1828 by Andrew Jackson. Three years later, Massachusetts voters sent him to the House of Representatives, where he served, despite what some called his “derogatory descent” from the nation’s highest office to that of a mere congressman, until his death in 1848.1

Even by Adams standards, John Quincy was a good hater. He hated idleness, small talk, and nightlife. He hated “the extremes of opulence and of want” that he encountered in England, where starving beggars came by night to the doors of country estates and had to be carted away, dead or alive, by the groundskeepers in the morning. He hated what we would call “elites” for their “great Notions, of high Family” (his father’s phrase), and demagogic politicians for their “Charlatanery of popular enticement” (his own phrase). During his years abroad he disliked, if not quite hated, the incessant dinner parties where he had to deliver “Table-Cloth Oratory.” He was good, too, at holding a grudge. For decades he blamed his father’s loss in the presidential election of 1801 on “the joint work of [Aaron] Burr and Alexander Hamilton” and relished the “divine retributive justice” made manifest in “the murder of one of them by the other in a duel, and the irretrievable ruin of the murder[er.]”

Long on anger, Adams was short on humor—a case in point for his grandson’s doubt that “New England Calvinists ever laughed.” His notion of a joke was…


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