Nonfiction Review: “John Quincy Adams” by Harlow Giles Unger

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Perhaps no man was better prepared by upbringing and education to serve as President of the United States than John Quincy Adams. Yet, the Harvard-educated only son of Founding Father and second U.S. President John Adams came to lead one of the most undistinguished administrations in American history.

Grandiose perhaps in his desire to lead a presidency free from partisanship, his machinations gained election by the House of Representatives after a four-candidate race in 1824 failed to produce a majority in the Electoral College. His alliance with Henry Clay threw him into the rising tide supporting the “barbarian” (Adams’ word) Andrew Jackson, who had outpolled Adams and stormed over him into the White House in 1829.

Adams was quickly reduced to a ghost of a president, shambling through an irrelevant and undemanding routine at the White House. “Politically impotent,” writes biographer Harlow Giles Unger—also author of a raft of critically regarded and similarly accessible lives of Founding Fathers such as that of Patrick Henry, “Lion of Liberty”—“John Quincy recognized that he would be the first chief executive in the nation’s short history to contribute nothing to his country.

“With little else to do, he joined [wife] Louisa in breeding silkworms outside his office and lengthened the time he spent walking, swimming and horseback riding each day.”

Drawing on Adams’ diary and other sources, Unger paints vivid pictures of this depressing time. Fortunately for his near-novelist’s sensibility wedded to a sound scholarship, there are also plenty of scenes of triumph and drama to portray—including crossings of the Atlantic and witnessing the battle of Bunker Hill.

And fortunately for the reputation of Adams, perhaps no president had stronger first acts or third acts as a national political leader. Before his presidency, he had already served as an ambassador to European states and as Secretary of State negotiated the treaty ending the War of 1812. Such accomplishments seemed to augur a better presidency.

But Adams’ final act was truly remarkable. Swallowing pride, he decided to take a political “demotion” and serve as a congressman from Massachusetts, in Adams’ mind not beholden to a narrow constituency but to the whole country.

In point of fact, his very New England independence ultimately brought him into conflict with the nation’s slave power. In the House, he stood valiantly against the Gag Rule that prevented any discussion of the abolition of slavery. In the pro-slavery leaders’ version, the abolition of slavery was a matter for the individual states but its presumed constitutionality under the founding document’s “three-fifths” rule (which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person in calculating federal political representation) prevented any congressional meddling with it.

Adams consistently argued that the First Amendment took precedence over any such consideration. Our modern minds can hardly grasp how slavery and states’ rights were so inextricably bound together in the defensiveness of pro-slavery Southern leaders, such as Virginia representative Henry Wise, who described the “principle of slavery” as a “leveling principle … friendly to equality. Break down slavery and you would with the same blow destroy the great democratic principle of equality among men.”

Standing before the U.S. Supreme Court, Adams in 1841 famously successfully defended the African slaves who had rebelled against and captured the slave transport ship “Amistad.” The court declared that because the defendants were in fact free before their “mutiny” on the high seas, they must be declared free here.

In light of today’s general public dissatisfaction with legislative representation at both the state and national levels, Adams’ long, distinguished service in the House almost inevitably raises the question: Why don’t we seem to be able to produce representatives like that any more? Instead, suspecting that elected officials are almost necessarily corrupted by long service, state voters approve term limits that throw away valuable experience along with the tainted connections of long-serving representatives.

Just maybe, the fault is in ourselves. Our representatives ultimately reflect us, yet we allow them in their speech to reduce us to “consumers” or “workers” (or more rarely “entrepreneurs”), as corporations do. The simple notion of citizenship—anchored in our mutual political responsibilities to one another—has become tragically, perhaps fatally, eroded.

To grasp what we have lost, consider the title of a collection published in 1975 by Chicago constitutional authority George Anastaplo: “Human Being and Citizen: Essays on Virtue, Freedom and the Common Good.” Anastaplo suggests that universal human values necessarily exist in tension with the particular demands of being a citizen, in whatever state, but that it is good for us to constantly explore this tension to help us decide what, politically, we must do. In the midst of demands for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment during the Watergate scandal, for example, Anastaplo counseled caution. He speaks of such political virtues as prudence, but who thinks or talks this way today?

Instead, many of today’s “citizens”—such as they are—cleave to ideologies providing pat answers to questions deserving deeper exploration. Why then should we expect more of the people we elect?

Congressman John Quincy Adams died virtually in the traces of his political calling, collapsing on the House floor on February 21, 1848. He died two days later in the House Speaker’s office. Because he was both a human being and citizen as well as a politician, instead of sighing “Good riddance,” along with his eloquent biographer Unger we mourn his passing. (Martin Northway)

“John Quincy Adams”
by Harlow Giles Unger
Da Capo Press, 380 pages, $27.50


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