His was one of the great American lives, touching many of the great issues from the Colonial-era stirrings of independence to the threshold of the Civil War, leaving footprints on American foreign policy (the Monroe Doctrine) and race relations (the Amistad slave-rebellion case) that shape us to this day.
A member of one of the great American political dynasties, rivaling the Roosevelts, Tafts, Kennedys, and Bushes, John Quincy Adams nonetheless inhabits the netherworld of American memory, remaining a figure of mystery, overshadowed by the Adams who preceded him (John, his father), by the president who succeeded him (Andrew Jackson) — and by the mother who shaped him (Abigail Adams).
President, diplomat, member of the Senate and House, he may be the quintessential American of the first century of our national life — as worldly as Benjamin Franklin, as intellectual as James Madison, as cultivated as Thomas Jefferson, and yet less known than any of those.
In undertaking “John Quincy Adams,” Fred Kaplan, distinguished professor emeritus of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, clearly is trying to do for the son what David McCullough did for the father. He may have achieved that goal, but at a price: a biography whose hero is slightly too heroic.
Like the father, the son’s life intersected with Franklin, Jefferson, Monroe, John Jay, and other historical gods of the period. His first break was as a young lawyer appointed resident American minister at The Hague, then dispatched to Berlin as minister plenipotentiary. It was evident from the start that his was not to be an ordinary career — or life.
Kaplan sketches Adams as a measured idealist, firm in his faith in American power and promise alike, clear in his vision of the nation’s challenges (race, especially), nuanced in his views of the human condition. In Adams’s assessment, Kaplan says, “human beings were not corrupt, but they were deeply flawed.’’
Poet, translator, scholar, the list of his casual readings — Demosthenes, Aristotle, Cicero — is comparable only to Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, not even to Woodrow Wilson, the scholar president. He thought deeply about politics and applied an unusually philosophical template to his congressional votes — and as the early-19th-century crisis over impressment of sailors by the British deepened, he became the only Federalist to support the first nonimportation bill and the only Federalist to back the 1807 embargo on trade with Great Britain and France.
“To many New England Federalists,’’ Kaplan writes, “Adams was a traitor to his class, his state, and his region.’’ In time he resigned his Senate seat rather than change his views and votes. He was abandoned by all but a handful in the salon and solon society of Massachusetts.
This produced a familiar Adams family conundrum, archly described by Kaplan: “Everyone else seemed to have deserted him, and, as he elevated himself to the ranks of the persecuted, he had the satisfaction of taking his place alongside his father in the family psychology.’’
But this was a life of so many unanticipated twists and fateful turns that Adams was destined not to disappear from view or to retreat to happy quotidian anonymity. Ahead of him were appointments to Moscow and London, an assignment as peace commissioner at Ghent following the War of 1812, and then, perhaps the most enduring act of a multiscened life, appointment as James Monroe’s secretary of state. It was in this position that he developed the doctrine that bore the president’s name but carried Adams’s fingerprints — and that has shaped American history for nearly two centuries.
Kaplan portrays the Monroe Doctrine as an American reaction to dynastic politics in Europe and the imperial impulse they produced. The concern, of course, was primarily the Spanish legacy in Latin America. Monroe was reluctant to issue the doctrine; Adams was insistent. The secretary prevailed. However, the reader might be left with the feeling that Kaplan’s description of this vital episode is a bit too spare.
As 1824 approached Jackson positioned himself for the presidency, adopting a profile that Kaplan describes as “the Washington outsider unrivaled in courage and integrity, the military superman charging into the fray to disperse the Washington elite and govern on behalf of the people.’’ The election was deadlocked, resolved only by the “corrupt bargain’’ for support of three key states that is known to all American 11th-graders, giving Adams the presidency and Henry Clay, a former rival candidate, the position of secretary of state. The Jacksonites howled. Not so Adams’s biographer. “It seemed,’’ Kaplan argues, “a practical and honorable arrangement of a sort that was customary in American politics and essential to the machinery of governance.’’
From the beginning it was clear Adams would be under constant fire. He claimed success for funding infrastructure projects but was dogged by charges he was a closet abolitionist and hurt by his identification as a representative of the Northeast that once had spurned him so cruelly. His defeat by Jackson in 1828 was no surprise — but it did become a populist symbol of a new democratic ethos.
Out of the White House, Adams was drawn, unconventionally in his time and in ours, to a House race, won it, and found unusual and heroic pleasure in it. There he mastered tariff and bank issues and, increasingly, assailed slavery, moving, as Kaplan puts it, “from discreet tactfulness to outspoken radicalism.’’
In a grand coda to his political life he defended the Amistad prisoners in the Supreme Court arguments and voted against the Mexican War. He collapsed in the House chamber and died as he lived, fighting for justice and for a conception of the country that was at once antiquarian and modern. It was a notable life, marked now by a notable biography.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.