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John Quincy Adams


Adams, John Quincy

John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, was a child of American independence, the primary architect of the first century of the nation's foreign policy, and an implacable foe of slavery.

Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Mass., on July 11, 1767, the first son of the brilliant, patriotic, and strong-willed Abigail Adams and her husband, John Adams, then a little-known country lawyer. When John Quincy was seven years old, his father, who was in Philadelphia attending the First Continental Congress, wrote to his wife of her duty to "mould the minds and manners of our children. Let us teach them not only to do virtuously, but to excel. To excel they must be taught to be steady, active, and industrious." A year later, mother and son watched the smoke and heard the cannons from the Battle of Bunker Hill. The letter, and the close, frightening but also exhilarating event, set the boy's life on its course.

John Quincy Adams began 70 years of public service when in 1778, at the age of 11, he acted as his father's secretary during a diplomatic mission to France. In 1780 he again went to Europe with his father, this time as an official secretary, and a year later he served as secretary and interpreter to the American minister to Russia, Francis Dana (1743 - 1811), on the first U.S. mission to that country's court at Saint Petersburg. Returning to western Europe via Sweden, Denmark, and Germany in early 1783, Adams lived for the next two years in The Hague, London, and Paris, where he pursued his formal education. When he returned to America in 1785 to enter Harvard College, he knew five or six modern languages as well as Latin and Greek, had traveled throughout northern and western Europe, had been under the close tutelage of his father for seven years, and had taken part in much of the diplomacy of the American Revolution.

Adams graduated from Harvard in 1787 and two years later finished his legal apprenticeship. Without enthusiasm he began to practice law in Boston in 1790. He was soon easily distracted into writing a notable series of newspaper articles attacking the ideas of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, and in 1794 he eagerly accepted President George Washington's appointment of him as minister to Holland. He subsequently served as minister to Prussia from 1797 to 1801. His letters to American officials contained by far the most perceptive and influential news coming back across the Atlantic during the crucial years of Napoleon's rise to dominance. During a mission to London in 1796 - 97, he married Louisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of a Maryland merchant serving as U.S. consul in London. Their marriage produced four children and lasted until his death, 51 years later.

Home again in 1801, Adams served briefly in the Massachusetts Senate and then in the U.S. Senate from 1803 to 1808. Although nominally in the Federalist party, he had no use for that party's increasingly regional posture and instead supported most of the policies of Thomas Jefferson's administration, including the Embargo Act of 1807. His refusal to bow to heavy pressure from the Massachusetts legislature to repudiate that measure led to his resignation from the Senate - and, 150 years later, to his inclusion in John F. Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage (1956).

President James Madison then appointed Adams minister to Russia, and he sailed - this time with members of his own young family - for Saint Petersburg, arriving just before ice closed the Baltic in December 1809. He lived there for four years and gained the confidence of Russian officials, who began negotiations leading to the end of the War of 1812. Adams traveled about northern Europe for 18 months pursuing these negotiations. As chief American commissioner, he signed the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814. Madison promptly appointed him the first postwar American minister to Britain. Like his father before him and his son Charles Francis Adams after him, he stood proudly before the king of the former mother country as the representative of his independent nation.

As secretary of state during the administration (1817 - 25) of James Monroe, Adams took a leading role in its deliberations and earned his standing as perhaps the most successful secretary of state in American history. He concluded negotiations he had begun in London to demilitarize the American border with Canada (1818), purchased Florida (1819), demarked a long southern boundary with Spanish Mexico that for the first time recognized American claims extending to the Pacific Ocean (1819), and set forth the principles of Anglo-American reconciliation and New World independence from the Old, known ever since as the Monroe Doctrine (1823).

Increasingly bitter political strife, however, puzzled and eventually infuriated Adams. He felt, justly, that he was entirely qualified - indeed that it was his due - to become president in 1825; yet he had only contempt for the selfish machinations and public circus apparently necessary for electoral success. His ambition triumphed, however. Although no candidate won a majority of the electoral vote in 1824, Adams accepted the support of Henry Clay to secure his final selection - over Andrew Jackson and William H. Crawford - by the House of Representatives. Although inaugurated as a "minority president," he nonetheless submitted a broad, national program to an increasingly factional and sectionally oriented Congress and public. He called in 1825 for recognition of the new Latin American republics, support of canals and other internal improvements, establishment of a national university, support for scientific explorations, and in general for Congress "to give efficacy to the means committed to us for the common good." Congress ignored these grand programs and instead increasingly responded to the rising tide of laissez-faire expansionism and frontier individualism that swept Adams out of and Andrew Jackson into the White House in 1829.

Retired permanently, he thought, to his books and to his farm, Adams nevertheless responded dutifully when his neighbors elected him to the House of Representatives in 1830 and kept him there for nine consecutive terms. There, as "Old Man Eloquent," again and again speaking his conscience and calling the nation to respond to its highest impulses, he lived out his last, perhaps most remarkable career. In his relentless, eventually successful opposition to the so-called gag rules, which stifled antislavery petitions, Adams dramatized for the nation the repressive character of slavery. When fatally stricken in the House in 1848, almost 70 years to the day after he had first sailed for Europe with his father, he had just voted against a resolution thanking the American generals of the Mexican War, a conflict he had opposed.

When Adams died on Feb. 23, 1848, he was not only the last surviving statesman of the American Revolution but also the first national leader to have dramatized the moral issue that precipitated the Civil War. He thus nearly encompassed in his public career the "four score and seven years" of which Abraham Lincoln was soon to speak; he had also defined the foreign and domestic purposes that in his view undergirded the nation that his father had helped to found and his son would help to preserve. Although he was at times rigid, demanding, self-righteous, and even quaint, John Quincy Adams possessed the personal integrity, devotion to principle, intellectual intensity, and strong will that have made his name and his family a national resource.

Biography from The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia