John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was the sixth president of the United States. A brilliant statesman and outstanding secretary of state, he played a major role in formulating the basic principles of American foreign policy.

Born in Braintree (now Quincy), Mass. on July 11, 1767, John Quincy Adams was the eldest son of John and Abigail Smith Adams. In 1779, at the age of 12, he accompanied his father to Europe. Precocious and brilliant—at 14 he accompanied Francis Dana, the American minister, to Russia as a French translator—he served as his father's secretary during the peace negotiations in Paris. Except for brief periods of formal education, he studied under his father's direction. When he entered Harvard in 1785, he was proficient in Greek, Latin, French, Dutch, and German.

After his graduation Adams studied law and began to practice in Boston in 1790. More interested in politics than the law, he made a name for himself with political essays supporting the politics of President George Washington. Those signed "Publicola" (his answer to Thomas Paine's Rights of Man) were so competent that they were ascribed to his father, who was then vice president.

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The Diplomat

In 1793 Washington appointed young Adams minister to the Netherlands. From this vantage point he supplied the government with a steady flow of information on European affairs. Sent to London in connection with Jay's Treaty, he met Louisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of the American consul, and married her on July 26, 1797. Although it was not a love match, the marriage was a happy one marked by deep mutual affection. In 1797 Adams became minister to Prussia, concluding a commercial treaty incorporating the neutral-rights provisions of Jay's Treaty.

On his return to the United States in 1801, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts Senate. Two years later he became a U.S. senator. Nominally a Federalist, he pursued an independent course. He was the only Federalist senator from New England to vote for the Louisiana Purchase. The Massachusetts Federalists forced him to resign in 1808 because they were angered by his support of Jefferson's commercial warfare against Great Britain and his presence at a Republican presidential nominating caucus.

Adams severed his connections with the Federalists and in 1809 accepted an appointment from Republican president James Madison as minister to Russia. He did much to encourage Czar Alexander's friendly disposition toward the United States. It was partly due to Adams's encouragement that Russia made an offer to mediate between Great Britain and the United States, which led to direct peace negotiations to end the War of 1812. As a member of the peace commission at Ghent, Adams and his colleagues (Henry Clay, Albert Gallatin, James A. Bayard, and Jonathan Russell) found the British commissioners so intransigent that they were obliged to conclude a treaty short of American expectations. In 1815, as minister to great Britain, Adams worked to lessen the tension between the two nations by welcoming Lord Castlereagh's friendly overtures.

The Secretary of State

In March 1817 President James Monroe appointed Adams secretary of state. Adams, who was then 50, was not a prepossessing figure. He was short, plump, and bald; his best feature was his penetrating black eyes. Inclined to be irascible, and very much aware of his own intellectual powers, he disciplined himself to conceal his impatience. "I am," he wrote in his diary, "a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners…"Hewasillat ease in large gatherings, but in intimate circles he could be an entertaining companion. Imposing rigid moral standards on himself, he was inclined to judge others harshly. He had an almost Puritan sense of duty and a passion for work, which kept him at his desk for long hours not only in connection with official duties but in the scholarly researches that gave him so much pleasure. Every day he found time to make lengthy entries in his diary, which constitutes one of the most revealing sources for the political events of his era. His wife, witty and gracious, somewhat compensated for her husband's social shortcomings; Louisa Adams's weekly evening parties were among the most popular in the capital.

Adams and Monroe worked together in the greatest harmony and understanding, for they were in complete agreement on the basic objectives of American foreign policy. They wished to expand the territorial limits of the nation, to give American diplomacy a direction distinct from that pursued by the European states, and to compel the other powers to treat the United States as an equal. Monroe closely controlled foreign affairs, but he relied heavily on Adams, who proved a shrewd adviser, an adroit negotiator, and a talented writer whose state papers formulated administration policy with logic and a tremendous command of the relevant facts.

The most difficult negotiations undertaken by Adams were those culminating in the acquisition of Florida and the definition of the western boundary of Louisiana. In 1819 Adams was able to exploit Andrew Jackson's invasion of Florida to force Spain to settle both issues in the Transcontinental Treaty, which Spain ratified in 1821. Adams's familiarity with the complexities of the history of Louisiana enabled him to obtain a boundary settlement favorable to the United States and to fix the northern boundary so that American interests in the Columbia River region were protected. During the crisis precipitated by Jackson's unauthorized seizure of Spanish posts in Florida, Adams was the only Cabinet member to recommend that the administration completely endorse the general's conduct.

Equally taxing and less successful were the prolonged negotiations with the French minister over indemnities for confiscation of American ships and cargoes during the Napoleonic Wars, France's commercial rights in Louisiana, and trade relations in general. In 1822 Adams concluded a treaty providing only for a gradual reduction of discriminatory duties. His efforts to persuade Great Britain to open West Indian trade to American ships were unsuccessful. In the midst of these demanding negotiations, Adams conducted an extensive correspondence with American diplomats, reorganized the State Department, and drafted a masterly report for Congress on a uniform system of weights and measures. In 1822 Monroe formally recognized the new independent states in Latin America. Adams's instructions to the first American emissaries reflected his misgivings about the future of these states, which were largely dominated by authoritarian regimes.

When France intervened in Spain in 1823 to suppress a revolution, Adams did not share the view that this presaged a move on the European powers, who had banded together in the Holy Alliance, to restore Spanish authority in South America. He was far more concerned about Russian attempts to expand along the Pacific coast. Consequently, he welcomed Monroe's decision in 1823 to make a policy declaration expressing American hostility to European intervention in the affairs of the Americas. To the President's declaration, later known as the Monroe Doctrine, Adams contributed the noncolonization principle, which affirmed that the United States considered the Americas closed to further European colonization. In 1824 the American minister in Russia, acting on instructions from Adams, obtained an agreement in which Russia withdrew north of latitude 54'40", but Adams was not able to persuade the British to vacate the Columbia River region.

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The President

In 1824 Adams was involved in a bitter four-cornered presidential contest in which none of the candidates received a majority of the electoral votes. Adams with 84 votes, largely from New England and New York, ran behind Andrew Jackson with 99 but ahead of William H. Crawford with 41 and Henry Clay with 37. The contest was resolved in Adams's favor in the House of Representatives when Clay decided to support him. Adams's subsequent choice of Clay as secretary of state raised a cry of "corrupt bargain"; there was no overt agreement between them, but the charge was most damaging.

Adams's presidency added little to his fame. In the face of the absolute hostility of the combined Jackson-Crawford forces, he was unable to carry out his nationalist program. His proposals for Federal internal improvements, a uniform bankruptcy law, federally supported educational and scientific institutions, and the creation of a department of the interior were rebuffed. His sole success in dealing with Congress was the appointment in 1826 of two delegates to attend the Panama Congress, arranged by Simón Bolívar. This Adams achieved only after acrimonious debates in which hostile congressmen made much of the fact that American delegates would be participating in a conference attended by black representatives from Haiti.

Committed to a protectionist policy, Adams signed the Tariff of Abominations (engineered by the Jacksonians in 1828), although it was certain to alienate the South and displease New Englanders, whose manufactures were not granted additional protection. He never permitted political expediency to override his rigid sense of justice. Consequently, he alienated much Southern and Western opinion by his efforts to protect the interests of the Cherokees in Georgia. He also declined to use the power of patronage to build up a national following, although Postmaster General John McLean was appointing only Jackson men. Pilloried as an aristocrat hostile to the interests of the "common man," Adams was overwhelmingly defeated by Jackson in the election of 1828.

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The Congressman

At the end of his presidency, Adams expected to concentrate on the scholarly interests which had always absorbed so much of his time, but his retirement was brief. In 1831 he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served for eight successive terms until his death. Although generally associated with the Whigs, he pursued an independent course. For 10 years he was chairman of the Committee on Manufactures, which drafted tariff bills. He approved Jackson's stand on nullification, but he considered the compromise tariff of 1833, which was not the work of his committee, an excessive concession to the nullifiers. After 1835 he was identified with the antislavery cause, although he was not an abolitionist. From 1836 to 1844, when his efforts were finally successful, he worked to revoke the gag rule that required the tabling of all petitions relating to slavery. Session after session "old man eloquent," as he was dubbed, lifted his voice in defense of freedom of speech and the right to petition. True to his nationalist convictions, he continued to advocate internal improvements and battled to save the Bank of the United States.

Adams suffered a stroke on the floor of the House of Representatives on Feb. 21, 1848. He was carried to the Speaker's room, where he died 2 days later without regaining consciousness.

Further Reading on John Quincy Adams

The most important printed sources are Adams's diary, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams…, edited by Charles Francis Adams (12 vols., 1874-1877), and Worthington Chauncey Ford's edition of The Writings of John Quincy Adams (7 vols., 1913-1917), which stops in 1823. The best biography is Samuel Flagg Bemis's two volumes, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (1949) and John Quincy Adams and the Union (1956). Adams's election to the presidency is covered fully by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). Studies of Adams's diplomacy are Dexter Perkins, The Monroe Doctrine, 1823-1826 (1927; new ed. 1966); Philip C. Brooks, Diplomacy and the Borderlands: The Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 (1939); Arthur Preston Whitaker, The United States and the Independence of Latin America, 1800-1830 (1941); Bradford Perkins, Castlereagh and Adams: England and the United States, 1812-1823 (1964). See also George A. Lipsky, John Quincy Adams: His Theory and Ideas (1950).