CLAY JENKINSON: The Future In Context — John Quincy Adams: The President Who Failed In His Pursuit Of Happiness

This is another in an occasional series of articles by Clay Jenkinson on some of the less well-known presidents of the United States.

Dear old mom, Abigail Adams. (Presidential History Blog)
Dear old mom, Abigail Adams. (Presidential History Blog)

Somehow, I feel sorriest for John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) of all the one-term presidents. He was the sixth president of the United States, son of the second, John Adams the revolutionary. It seems to me that JQ was never allowed to be a boy. His parents pushed him relentlessly. His formidable mother, Abigail, made him read out loud to her, at the age of 7, Charles Rollin’s Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians and Grecians.” He crossed the Atlantic with his famous father in 1778, on a diplomatic mission, when he was only 10 years old.

It was then that his mother wrote, “For dear as you are to me, I had much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you have crossed, or any untimely death crop you in your infant years, rather than see you an immoral profligate or a graceless child.” Geez, mom! He graduated from Harvard in 1787 and just seven years later, in 1794, President Washington appointed him the American minister to the Netherlands. He was just 26 years old.

John Quincy Adams really wanted to be a poet, what was then called a man of letters. His parents quickly put the kibosh to that. He fell in love with a young woman named Mary Frazier of Newburyport, Mass. She was from a prominent family. She was 16; he 22. When Abigail Adams learned of the romance — he had kept it secret from his parents but not his siblings — she forced him to desist. Employing her full imperiousness she wrote, “Common fame reports that you are attached to a young lady. I am sorry that such a report should prevail.” And “a too early marriage will involve you in troubles that may render you and yours unhappiness the remainder of your life.” Unable or unwilling to defy his mother, JQ and Mary broke off their engagement. His heart was broken.

A few years later, when he fell in love with an English woman, Louisa Catherine Johnson, in London, he wisely married her 3,000 miles from his parents’ meddling in a quiet ceremony near the Tower of London on July 26, 1797. His parents made it clear that they disapproved of his marrying a foreigner. Abigail never really accepted Louisa and radiated at her daughter-in-law a frosty formality. John Adams came to prize her as a literary companion. The old ex-president did what he could to shield Louisa from her mother-in-law’s grim hostility. Where is Freud when you need him?


John Quincy Adams served as a United States senator from Massachusetts (1803-08). He was minister to the Netherlands and then the United Kingdom and later still U.S. ambassador to Russia. He was also U.S. minister to Portugal and then Prussia. He was the secretary of state in the Monroe administration (1817-25). He was appointed and confirmed for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1811, but he declined the office. He was (1825-29) the president of the United States. And after that, he served for 17 years in the U.S. House of Representatives (1831-48), where he became the leading opponent of slavery in the United States. Thus, his own enormous talents (he knew seven languages, wrote more than a dozen books), coupled with his parents’ oppressive “support” enabled him to achieve everything he wanted in life — except happiness.

Adams may have been the greatest secretary of state in American history. He negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, that not only gave America the Floridas (our Florida plus a strip along the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Texas), but temporarily settled the southwestern boundary between the United States and New Spain (Mexico). In 1818, with his characteristic diplomatic mastery, he squared off the northern border of the United States once and for all at the 49th parallel, from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. He also formulated what became known as the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. His friends and members of what was left of the New England (Federalist) party were surprised and chagrined at his imperialist proclivities.

At Last, the Presidency

The presidential election of 1824 was one of the most chaotic and controversial in American history. There were four candidates: Adams of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee and William H. Crawford of Georgia. The war hero and populist Jackson appeared to win the election with 152,901 popular votes (41.4 percent) and 99 electoral votes, as opposed to Adams with 114,023 popular votes (30.9 percent) and 84 electoral votes. Clay received 13 percent of the popular vote, Crawford 11.2 percent. But under the terms of the U.S. Constitution, because no candidate received a majority of Electoral College votes, the election went to the House of Representatives, where Adams won on the first ballot, Feb. 9, 1825. The Jacksonians believed the election had been stolen from them by some conspiracy of “establishment” politicians. Hard not to agree.

Like his father, J. Q. Adams kept a voluminous diary all his life. A much-abbreviated (and chastened) 12-volume edition was published by his son, Charles Francis Adams, between 1874-77. In the diary, Adams ruefully admitted that two-thirds of the public preferred some other candidate in 1824.

A Stillborn Presidency

Richard John of the University of Chicago writes, “John Quincy Adams always regarded his presidency as a failure, and few historians have disagreed.” Adams’ first decision as president was fatal to his success. He appointed Kentucky’s Henry Clay secretary of state. The Jacksonians immediately denounced this as “a corrupt bargain,” that Clay had thrown his support (including the votes of Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio) to Adams in exchange for the most-coveted cabinet post in early American administrations. Biographer Paul Nagel devotes only a single short chapter in his 1997 biography to Adams’ presidency. “All that he hoped to accomplish,” Nagel writes, “was thwarted by a hostile Congress. His opponents continually assailed him with what he claimed was the foulest slander. Consequently, while Adams sought re-election in 1828, he did so mostly from stubborn pride, and he actually looked impatiently toward his certain defeat by Andrew Jackson.”

Adams pressed Britain to open its markets to American commerce. Instead, Britain suspended American trade with the West Indies. He urged the Senate to pay more attention to Latin American affairs. The Senate balked. At several points in his single term, Adams attempted to protect the Native Americans of Georgia from unjust land grabs and from their forced relocation in the American West. He was denounced for meddling in Georgia’s sovereign affairs. He attempted to convince Congress to fund a series of internal improvements — adoption of the metric system, exploration of the Pacific Northwest, the creation of a national university (an idea George Washington had endorsed during his presidency), a national observatory, and a naval academy. Congress refused. He unsuccessfully supported the building of a thousand-mile road between Washington and New Orleans, and he supported the creation of a 185-mile canal between the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River.

Opposition to Adams’ domestic agenda was mostly just the vengeance of the Jacksonians, who were certain that the election of 1824 had been stolen, and determined to make Adams a one-term president, and a failed one at that. The ostensible argument for opposing these sensible investments in American infrastructure was that the national government was exceeding its constitutional authority (the old states’ rights argument), but many historians believe that much of the opposition came from the American South, which feared that a strong central government would eventually disrupt the institution of slavery. Adams’ principal congressional adversary, John Randolph of Roanoke, Va., warned that a government that powerful might choose to emancipate every slave in America. Richard John concludes, “Not until the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in 1861, would another president strike such terror in the heart of the South.”

Defeat and a Great Post-Presidency

Former President John Quincy Adams, “Old Man Eloquent,” fatally stricken at his desk in the House in 1848. (loc.gov)
Former President John Quincy Adams, “Old Man Eloquent,” fatally stricken at his desk in the House in 1848. (loc.gov)

Adams, like his father, refused to attend the swearing in of his successor. Like his father back in 1801, JQ slipped out of Washington, D.C., at dawn on March 4, 1829, to avoid seeing a man he regarded as semibarbaric (Andrew Jackson) replace him in the presidency. Unlike his father, however, he did not retire to his home at Braintree, Mass., to lick his wounds for the rest of his life.

In 1831 he was persuaded to run for a congressional seat. After deciding in his usual agonizing way that following the presidency by a stint in the House of Representatives was not a degradation and demotion, but an example of small-r republican virtue, he won the seat, which he held for the rest of his life. He died in 1848, two days after suffering a stroke on the floor of the House. As a representative, Adams did not attack slavery head on, but he led a movement to end the gag rule on citizens’ petitions to Congress, most of which were appeals to abolish slavery.

One of his greatest moments came in 1841, when he defended before the Supreme Court 53 Africans who had taken control of the ship that was transporting them, the Amistad, and eventually landed it at Montauk Point on the eastern shore of Long Island. The Supreme Court decided for the enslaved men and women on March 9, 1841. Senior Associate Justice Joseph Story wrote the decision: “It was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice.”

A Question of Character

Great though he certainly was, John Quincy Adams was irascible like his father, and like his father he always chose stubbornly (and self-righteously) to do the “right thing,” even when it compromised his own self-interest, even when it frustrated or angered his political base.

He opposed the spoils system, for example, and therefore retained administration officials and even Cabinet members from the previous administration, some of whom worked openly to undermine his agenda. Like his father, J.Q. Adams believed that anything he did that won popular support must be the wrong thing to do. Both of them courted unpopularity as a badge of integrity. JQ confessed to his diary, “I was born for a controversial world and cannot escape my destiny. … My life must be militant to its close.” John and John Jr., were secular Calvinists, who sometimes merited H.L. Mencken’s definition of puritanism: “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.

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