'John Quincy Adams': one extraordinary American public servant

Harlow Giles Unger weaves a narrative of what was a very demanding -- even harrowing -- career

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This biography of America's sixth president, John Quincy Adams, is in the tradition of the "Founding Fathers" literature of recent years. It is a finely written example of the genre, dealing this time with the son of one of the nation's patriarchs, second President John Adams.

John Quincy Adams had a multifaceted career serving as a diplomat, a U.S. senator, secretary of state, president and finally as a remarkable congressman, who actually died in the House of Representatives.

By Harlow Giles Unger
Da Capo Press ($27.50).

Harlow Giles Unger deftly weaves into a narrative of what was a very demanding -- even harrowing -- career, choice reporting on the tragedies that dotted Adams' personal life, including deaths of his children and the horrible mishaps of members of his and his wife's families troubled with alcoholism and debt.

Anyone still burdened with an image of early American leaders bewigged, wearing shoes with silver buckles, rolling along cheerfully in horse-drawn carriages while thinking great thoughts should read this book. It presents factually but unemotionally the diseases, personal problems and vicious rivalries that tormented them. I was particularly taken by the picture of a Washington, D.C., now among the most prosperous of American cities due to the affluence that surrounds government, with tottery houses surrounded by mud and besieged by snakes, rats and bugs.

John Quincy Adams was a public servant for 67 years. He served as U.S. envoy to Russia, the Netherlands, Prussia and the United Kingdom. This part of his career involved a certain amount of glamour, including at the Court of Russian Czar Alexander I. However, his days as a diplomat also included begging the various European governments for money for the fledgling American republic, trying to maneuver them into not waging wars that would be damaging to America, and a lot of picking the brains of foreign statesmen and diplomats to acquire information that would be useful to Adams' masters in Washington.

As president, from 1825 to 1828, John Quincy Adams is generally considered to have been a failure, not having succeeded at putting many triumphs on the boards.

The reason was twofold. First of all, partly because of having lived so much of his life overseas, partly because of his Northeastern heritage, and partly because he was somewhat didactic as a speaker, he was found by the American people in general to be a cold fish. His wife, Louisa, did her best to soften this image of him, but without noteworthy success.

The second part of his shortfall as president has a familiar ring in 2012. Sen. Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, Adams' successor-to-be as president, put together in Congress a group largely composed of Southern slaveholders who blocked virtually every measure Adams proposed, dooming him to governmental impotence. Jackson determined from the start of Adams' term, just as current U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky did with President Barack Obama, that his and his party's goal in political life was to see to it that Adams didn't get a second term. Adams didn't, but both the president and the Congress were considered by the American people to have failed in their governing roles for their lack of cooperation.

That the reason for the opposition of Jackson and his group to Adams was his early, flat, uncompromising opposition to slavery was crystal clear. Adams wrote, "I do believe slavery to be a sin before the sight of God."

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1830 after his defeat for the presidency, Adams, representing Massachusetts, passed up no occasion to attack slavery as an institution and the Southern slave-owning members of the American legislature. He called them "a slaveocracy" and attacked them with such regularity that they imposed what they called a Gag Rule on him, seeking to silence him every time he spoke, while he used every trick in the parliamentary book to get under their skins.

His contributions to America from 1781 to his death in 1848 were considerable, despite efforts to stifle him as president and congressman. They include the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution and the conclusion of the Transcontinental Treaty with Spain, which greatly enlarged the borders of the United States.

He wasn't a great president, but he was a great American statesman and legislator. This book tells his story well and illuminates brilliantly the history of the United States during his long career in the process.


Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).


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