July 11, 1767 – Birthday of John Quincy Adams – Review of “John Quincy Adams” by Harlow Giles Unger


John Quincy Adams was the amazingly gifted son of John and Abigail Adams. From the time Quincy was very young his parents directed his education, insisting, for example, that, at age seven, he read Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War in the original Greek. When John Adams was appointed by Congress as a commissioner to France, he took Quincy – now ten years old – with him. By age thirteen, Quincy was attending a university in Europe and consorting with lawyers, professors, diplomats, and scholars. At age fourteen, he was invited as translator to accompany Francis Dana, the new Russian minister, to the court of Empress Catherine II. Dana spoke no French, but Quincy was proficient in it, among other languages. While the two waited in St. Petersburg to be granted access to Russian officials, Quincy spent his time reading history, economics, poetry, and taught himself to read and write German. Later he became something of an honorary son of Thomas Jefferson.

Good Genes:  Portrait of Abigail Adams, and Portrait of John Adams
Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Good Genes: Portrait of Abigail Adams, and Portrait of John Adams
Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This was a boy who grew up in rarified company to become a brilliant, eloquent, forward-looking man who was, therefore, as America’s sixth President, unfortunately out of touch with the rest of the American nation. Quincy tried to promote civic improvement, but the Americans pushing out the frontiers of the young country were more interested in bettering their own lots. His pleas for expenditures to upgrade infrastructure and improve commerce and manufacturing fell on deaf ears. His advocacy of programs to promote “the advancement of literature, and the progress of the sciences” elicited contempt.

Andrew Jackson in 1824

Andrew Jackson in 1824

Quincy was particularly ridiculed by his dumb-and-proud-of-it political rival Andrew Jackson, who quite successfully wore his lack of education as a point of pride. (This is only one of many parallels in this book to the contemporary political scene.) As Unger writes:

…the majority of Americans… developed a deep resentment for the Harvard scholar who suggested he knew better than they what they needed to know and what they needed to do. They wanted less government, not more. They would read and learn what they liked – or not.”

Andrew Jackson took every opportunity to stoke political dissatisfaction with Quincy. He was furious with him for – as he saw it – having stolen the election from him. The Presidential race in 1824 initially had no clear victor: the votes were split among Jackson, Quincy, Henry Clay of Virginia, and William Crawford of Georgia.


It happened that Quincy and Henry Clay were friends, and shared political ideals. The two met up, and they decided that Clay would toss his delegates’ votes in for Quincy. Upon winning, Quincy then announced that Clay would be Secretary of State. According to the author, there is no evidence it was a direct trade, and in fact, much evidence that it was rather a natural selection by Quincy, but Jackson and his party never forgave Quincy for “buying” the office that should have gone to Jackson. Moreover, they resolved to obstruct him in the Congress at every step of the way in his presidency. (…yet more echoes of contemporary events.) Unger writes:

Calling themselves Democrats, the new party [of Jackson followers] set out from the first to cripple John Quincy’s administration and ensure his departure after one term. John Quincy tried to forestall the inevitable by offering Jackson a cabinet post as secretary of war, but Jackson all but laughed in his face and refused even to consider serving an administration he was determined to bring down.”

After Quincy’s inevitable defeat to Jackson in 1828, he was prepared to live a life of semi-retirement, but got elected to Congress. He dove into the work whole-heartedly, and soon became a staunch advocate of the abolitionist cause. This too, was an uphill battle ahead of its time. The 24th Congress (1835 – 1837) responded to Quincy’s efforts by instituting the infamous “Gag Rule” in 1836 that resolved:

All petitions, memorials, propositions, or papers, relating in any way, or to any extent whatsoever, to the subject of slavery or the abolition of slavery shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid on the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.”

Quincy went on the road to defend himself and freedom of speech to the American people, a step he never took while President. He appealed to church leaders to aid him with the abolitionist cause, calling slavery “a sin before the sight of God.” They responded by inundating Congress with petitions:

During the 1837-1838 session alone, the American Antislavery Society sent the House 130,200 petitions, with untold thousands of names, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; 32,000 petitions to abolish the Gag Rule; 21,200 to forbid slavery in U.S. territories; 22,160 against admitting any new slave states; and 23,160 to abolish the slave trade between states.”

In 1840, Quincy, aged 73, took time out to appear pro bono before the Supreme Court for the defense of the thirty-six Amistad Africans who had been abducted into slavery. The slaves broke their chains, killed the captain and three crewmen, and overpowered the rest of the crew, ordering them to sail for Africa. Unfortunately for the captives, the crew sailed for America instead. The Africans were imprisoned for piracy and murder, and their case was brought to court by abolitionists.

In the Supreme Court, Quincy’s argument delivered on the 24th of February and 1st of March, 1841 had spectators in tears. On March 9, 1841, the Court declared, with only one dissent, “There does not seem to us to be any ground for doubt that these Negroes ought to go free.”

Oil portrait circa 1840 of Joseph Cinque, leader of the Amistad captives

Oil portrait circa 1840 of Joseph Cinque, leader of the Amistad captives

John Quincy continued to serve in Congress, finally collapsing while at his desk and dying two days later on February 23, 1848.

Discussion: One cannot help but admire this brilliant and misunderstood man; this profound patriot, who preferred to face the slings and arrows of his detractors rather than take a position in violation of his principles solely because it would align him with a popular party or faction. [Would that Thomas Jefferson, not to mention contemporary politicians, have displayed the same thick skin and intellectual honesty!] He did not demur from making his opinion of slavery known, and from trying to get legislation passed to ensure that “the first and holiest rights of humanity [will not] depend upon the color of the skin”:

It perverts human reason … to maintain that slavery is sanctioned by the Christian religion, that slaves are happy and contented in their condition, that between master and slave there are ties of mutual attachment and affection, that the virtues of the master are refined and exalted by the degradation of the slave; while at the same time they vent execrations upon the slave trade, curse Britain for having given them slaves, burn at the stake Negroes convicted of crimes for the terror of the example, and writhe in agonies of fear at the very mention of human rights as applicable to men of color. …[T]he bargain between freedom and slavery contained in the Constitution of the United States is morally and politically vicious, inconsistent with the principles upon which alone our Revolution can be justified….”

Evaluation: John Quincy Adams is remarkably unfamiliar to modern Americans considering his brilliance, courage, and contributions to early American government and diplomacy. Unger does an excellent job, as usual, in making this biography readable and consistently interesting. This is the author’s twentieth book and sixth biography of a major Founding Father and I have yet to be disappointed in any book I have read by him. He is not only a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at Mount Vernon, but also a journalist and broadcaster, which I think gives him a good feel for how to present history in an entertaining way.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2012

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