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book review

‘The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams’ by Phyllis Lee Levin

Phyllis Lee Levin’s biography examines John Quincy Adams’s accomplished life before he served one term as US president.
Phyllis Lee Levin’s biography examines John Quincy Adams’s accomplished life before he served one term as US president.Merlin Archive

We probably remember John Quincy Adams best — when we remember him at all — as the scion of America’s second president, a one-term president himself and a zealous antislavery advocate. He made the unusual choice of serving in the House of Representatives after his presidency and won an 1841 US Supreme Court case on behalf of a group of Africans who took over the Spanish slave ship Amistad.

This notable New Englander’s career also included a brief tenure as a professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard and various diplomatic coups, including negotiating European peace and trade agreements and fashioning the anti-interventionist Monroe Doctrine. But historians traditionally have dismissed one-term presidents as failures, and Adams’s image as a chilly, self-righteous curmudgeon hasn’t helped his reputation.

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Nevertheless, we now find ourselves in the midst of a modest JQA revival, fueled in part by his voluminous diaries and letters and heralded by the publication last year of Fred Kaplan’s admiring “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary.”

Phyllis Lee Levin’s biography, which culminates in Adams’s 1817 appointment as James Monroe’s secretary of state, is another effort to reclaim him as an American hero. Whatever Adams’s political failings, Levin makes the case that Adams (1767-1848) was a man of extraordinary natural gifts, enhanced by diligent study, European travel, and contact with the greatest minds of his era, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

The author of “Abigail Adams” and “Edith and Woodrow,” Levin shows us glimpses of Adams’s struggles with depression and argues that his cool exterior concealed a tender, even passionate regard for his family and closest friends. His letters and diary entries express devotion to his parents and three siblings, profound grief over the death of his young daughter and affectionate loyalty toward his chronically ailing spouse, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams.

Levin says that the marriage, though hardly ideal, was less of a disaster than past accounts — including his wife’s — have suggested. She calls Louisa’s sardonically titled “Adventures of a Nobody” and other autobiographical writings “deeply romanticized, puzzling, conflicting, melodramatic and ultimately tragic,” as well as “acid enough to permanently deface” her husband’s image. The biographer’s aim is to correct the record — in part by arguing that Louisa’s problems, which included several miscarriages and her father’s financial woes, were as much emotional as physical.

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In general, Levin stays close — sometimes too close — to the primary sources, quoting liberally and paraphrasing so meticulously at times that she might as well be quoting. Leading readers through JQA’s early life almost day by day, “The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams” offers detail and intimacy. But its readability might have been improved by judicious omissions and more historical context.

Adams was an undoubted prodigy who “was astonishingly like his father,” Levin writes. “Not only a born-and-bred patriot of spotless integrity, brilliant, fiercely independent, intensely introspective, he was, on occasion, impatiently undiplomatic and pitiably sensitive. . . . [H]e questioned his own yearning ambition, agonized over his passionate nature, was suspicious of praise but wounded by criticism and suffered a near-fatal flair for denigrating his own accomplishments.”

John Adams recognized his son’s talents early. Much of JQA’s education involved international travel and a diplomatic apprenticeship to Adams senior, who represented America’s interests abroad. When he wasn’t acting as secretary to either his father (starting at age 10) or another mentor, Francis Dana, young Adams was busy translating Latin and Greek classics, picking up French and Dutch, studying Euclid and (from age 12 on) scribbling in his diary.

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The down side of his “painfully peripatetic” life was long separations from members of his family, especially heartrending in an era where trans-Atlantic travel was difficult and dangerous and letters took months to arrive.

But the European sojourns paid off handsomely. In between stints as a lawyer and legislator, the multilingual Adams won appointments as an ambassador to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia and, finally, England. Adams’s descriptions of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and eventual rout are especially eloquent. “It may well be doubted whether in the compass of human history since the creation of the world, a greater, more sudden and more total reverse of fortune was ever experienced by a man,” he wrote to his mother.

Adams would experience his own, more modest reversals of fortune. Apart from a cursory afterword, Levin’s book omits his presidency, electoral defeat, and productive post-presidency. But it serves as an illuminating prologue to those later, better-known stories.


Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.