John Quincy Adams

ON the 23d of February, 1848, the extraordinary man whose name forms the title of this article was struck down in the House of Representatives at Washington, while in the discharge of his duty among its most active and honored members; active, although past eighty years of age; honored, because none forgot that twenty years before he had been the chief magistrate of the nation; and because the lustre derived from that high post, which in so many men would have been tarnished by the acceptance of the lower, was in him only heightened by the fidelity, the ardor, and the penetration with which he performed every duty to the hour of his mortal seizure.

The successive volumes of the Memoirs of John Quincy Adams have appeared almost too rapidly to enable one thoroughly to digest their contents, for they are not to be read in a hurry, and before these pages appear, we may well have a sixth before us, touching the most critical point of Mr. Adams’s life. The first comprehends his boyhood, the early missions to Great Britain, Holland, and Prussia, and the service in the senates of the State and the nation; the second and third, the mission to Russia,

the treaty of Ghent, and the second mission to England; while the fourth and fifth show him in the Department of State: a period extending, in all, from the 11th of July, 1767, to the 30th of May, 1822.

Labor of love as it was to prepare for the press a proper selection of Mr. Adams’s papers, it was more than commonly arduous. The mass of manuscript left by him in prose and verse is something stupendous. The editor remarks as follows; in his preface: —

“Independently of a diary kept almost continuously for sixty - five years, and of numbers of other productions, official and otherwise, already printed, there is a variety of discussion and criticism on different topics, together with correspondence public and private, which, if it were all to be published, as was that of Voltaire, would be likely to equal in quantity the hundred volumes of that writer.”

Mr. Adams seems, in fact, to have positively loved to use his pen. His habit was to get up at a very early hour, often before sunrise; and this he did even when resident at courts, where he was forced to attend parties kept up inordinately late. His working day was thus much longer than that of most of his associates, and was filled by the pen, which indefatigably committed to paper what appear to have been in most cases his first thoughts on every conceivable subject which presented itself, whether in talk, reading, silent observation in company, or solitude. It was, we believe, rarely his habit to revise; and the resulting mass of manuscript is almost beyond precedent in the lives of even industrious men. But it strongly reminds us of the work achieved by one man, of whose writings Mr. Adams was a constant and devoted student, and whose character, though strongly alien to his in many points, was strongly akin to it in others: that is, Cicero.

Nor in any point is this resemblance more curiously marked than in the fondness alike of the Volscian and the Yankee for verse composition, of a kind that both contemporaries and posterity persist in thinking the reverse of poetical. The editor has very properly included a few of his father’s pieces in these volumes, justly remarking that no true notion of his character can he acquired without them. He retained the habit of translating and composing in verse, and occasionally, when on a purely moral theme, his lines remind one of the dignified strains of Addison’s lute; but that is the very extreme of praise that can be accorded to them.

Of this great voluminousness and prolixity in Mr. Adams’s writing one is forced to treat at the very outset of an attempt to do justice to his memoirs. From the preface to the last page of the fifth volume, we see how his own life, official and private, was as it were wrapped up in countless quires of manuscript. There is abundant evidence that his associates in business constantly revolted against the length to which his contributions to the common work were drawn out. During the negotiations of Ghent his diary is full of almost petulant complaints like this: “ I found as usual that my draft was not satisfactory to my colleagues. On the general view of the subject we are unanimous, but in my exposition of it one objects to the form and another to the substance of almost every paragraph. ... It was considered by all the gentlemen that what I had written was too long. It is, however, my duty to make the draft of the dispatch, and they usually hold me to it.” (Vol. III. p. 21.) It is amusing enough, therefore, to find almost a year later that “ Mr. Gallatin showed me his draft of a dispatch to the secretary of state, to be sent with the treaty” [of commerce]. “I suggested to him several considerable alterations, to which he readily agreed, and which will shorten the dispatch by about one half ” (p. 240).

It is probable, however, that this prolixity was partly forced upon him by the peculiar circumstances under which he entered on his various official posts. Beginning with his original appointment when a boy of fourteen as secretary of legation to Russia, he was constantly brought to one situation of first-rate importance after another with no chance for preparation. He was forced to write down every object as soon as he saw it; every reflection the moment it occurred, for immediate use. He had no time to digest, to compress, to polish. He had no time to be short. He knew the fault; his associates knew it; and the editor of his memoirs, contemplating the mass of manuscript to be selected from, knows it best of all. Few will deny that where a selection had to be made, the diary was the thing to choose.

But the diary itself called for stern compression, if the book was to be read, or even bought. The editor has laid down five rules for himself, so that the resulting selection “ should be fair and honest.” 1st. To eliminate the details of common life and events of no interest to the public. 2d. To reduce the moral and religious speculations, in which the work abounds, so far as to escape repetition of sentiments once declared. 3d. Not to suppress strictures upon contemporaries, but to give them only when they are upon public men acting in the same sphere with the writer. In point of fact there are very few others. 4th. To suppress nothing of his own habits of self - examination, even when they might be thought most to tell against himself. 5th. To abstain altogether from modification of the sentiments or the very words, and substitution of what might seem better ones, in every case but that of obvious errors in writing.”

It is hard to say that Mr. C. F. Adams can do anything injudicious; and yet we wish that the first of these rules could at least have been differently interpreted. It is precisely “the details of common life ” which in such a man are “ of interest to the public ” a quarter of a century after his death. As the editor has shown that it is not unwillingness to have his father’s inmost life known which has caused his suppression of family matters, as witness the remarkable entry on the 26th of July, 1811, we must regret that he gives us so little of that side of his father’s life which we could get nowhere else, and so much of what we knew not incorrectly before. In Volume I. p. 23, we read, “ Mr. Adams took up his abode at Newbury port for the three years of study required for admission to practice. The diary which he continued to keep gives a curious and not uninviting picture of the social relations prevailing in a small New England town at that period, but it does not seem to retain interest enough to warrant the occupation of space in this publication.” Perhaps not; but we fancy that most readers would prefer the tea-drinkings at Newburyport in 1789 to the endless balls at St. Petersburg in 1810, where “ the principal dancing was in what they call Polish dances, consisting simply in a number of couples walking up and down the room as in a procession.”

In fact, we must express our belief that, the account of the mission to Russia might have borne still farther compression without injury. The long and dreary voyage through the Sound and the Baltic is interesting and instructive; but there seems little value in the constant repetition of his attempts to persuade the minister of foreign affairs that the sugar which the American ships brought to Archangel really was grown in the United States and not smuggled from the West Indies. We soon learn that the wisest and fairest minister of an absolute monarch must keep his petitioners amused with words till his master is in the whim to act, — donec Bithyno libeat vigilare tyranno, — and we get almost as tired of Count Romanzoff’s audiences as Mr. Adams did himself. Nor can it be said that the fragments of news which filtered through to St. Petersburg about the diplomacy of England, and the campaigns of Moscow and Leipsic, possess much interest and novelty to those who have access to Liverpool’s Memoirs and Ségur’s Campaign. The diaries of this period should be rather kept as materials for a future historian of Bonaparte, a more veracious Thiers, a more intelligent Alison, who may yet say something on a subject not exhausted even by the grave and penetrating Lanfrey.

With this exception, we conceive, Mr. Adams has selected well from his father’s diary. The early missions, when Washington with his unerring knowledge of human nature dared to put a man’s burdens on a youth’s shoulders, bringing him in contact with the pride and folly of the French Propagandists in Holland; the dark days of liberty in England; the continuance in public service by his father, when it was at once wise and delightful to supply the national need by paternal partiality at the licentious court of Prussia, all unconscious of the rottenness that would so soon undermine the glories of Frederic; the sudden change to legislative service at home; and the deadly contests of federalists and republicans, the former army divided against itself and dealing poisoned blows under the guise of friendship;— the senator learning painfully at Washington the art of oratory which he was to teach as professor at Cambridge; the industry, the independence, the rectitude at once intellectual and ethical which wrung from both parties in the Senate of the United States respect for the man they wanted to hate because they could not make him as bitter and as selfish as themselves; — the names of old political heroes, whom it is the fashion to forget now, but who were giants indeed, Pickering and Giles and Lloyd and Bradley, — all these things, which go to make up the first portion of these memoirs, are indeed charming as well as precious in their revival of a period we do wrong to let die.

Mr. Adams certainly did not disguise his opinion of his contemporaries. On the choice of United States senator in 1803, he says: “ At the caucus Mr. Lowell and Mr. Otis were warm partisans for Mr. Pickering. Of Lowell I could expect no less, nor indeed of Otis; for he has of his own accord told me several times that, as Mr. Mason would certainly decline a reëlection, he, the said Otis, meant to use all his endeavors to get me chosen in his stead. How could I possibly imagine, then, that Otis would propose or support any man but Pickering? ” January, 1805: “ The president’s itch for telling prodigies is unabated. Speaking of the cold, he said he had seen Fahrenheit’s thermometer in Paris at twenty degrees below zero. ... ‘Never once in six weeks as high as zero, which is fifty degrees above the freezing point.’ These were his own words; he knows better than all this, but he loves to excite wonder.” It will be remembered that this was Jefferson. In January, 1806: “Mr. Clinton is totally ignorant of the most common forms of proceeding in the Senate. His judgment is neither quick nor strong. As the only duty of, a vice-president is to preside in the Senate, a worse choice than Mr. Clinton could hardly have been made.” Of Mr. Bayard, afterwards his colleague in the Ghent mission: “ I know my morals and political principles to be more pure than his, and this is saying little, for his are very loose.” These opinions have been taken all but at random in running rapidly over many pages; and if the diary is superficially studied, the impression might be left that when one of Mr. Adams’s contemporaries defended his political views unflinchingly, he was set down as a virulent partisan with no particle of candor, and if he showed any disposition to conciliate, as a dishonest time-server; and that the writer was a suspicious, morbid, and jealous man. And yet this would be a most unjust conclusion. Mr. Adams had such a devoted love for pure truth and abstract justice, his patriotism had so little infusion of party spirit, his official career was so purged from any taint of selfishness, that he found it hard to forgive his associates for following a less lofty standard, or using less unexceptionable means.

We are far from asserting that his opinions of these men were always accurate or free from prejudice. But it seems to us there were two circumstances, one natural, the other partly accidental, which give his judgment a rare value. First, he was by nature too fond of principle ever to be a party man; he was born to be independent, untrammeled, steadily thinking for himself, and hence much more likely to see both sides as they really were. Secondly, he twice came home to take part in public affairs, after long absences; during these, he may have dropped some threads of information, but he saw men and things with a far clearer head than those who had all along been in the thick of the fight.

He was not exactly a suspicions man, but he did not readily enter into the operations of other men’s minds, especially those who arrived at results by a quicker process than he, forming his opinions as he always did after long and painful deliberation. When at last he had worked out his conclusion, he held to it with a conviction that passed the bound which separates opinion from feeling, and was slow to believe that those who attacked it could have a conviction equally honest and well reasoned. And even if Mr. Adams’s often severe judgment were derived from less lofty principles, we should still rejoice at the publication at length of comments on public men, telling exactly what was thought of them in times when we know men did think hardly of each other. It is the fashion now to write lives telling nothing but good of a man, and wherever in diary or correspondence hard words come in, to substitute asterisks for names or leave out whole pages or letters, till a plain man, who knows the subject of the biography lived in continual hot water, wonders how such a saint could ever have been allowed to be a martyr. This is bad enough in America, but it is perhaps still worse in England, where every year some bulky set of Memoirs or Correspondence is published, in which the whole political history of a generation is falsified, for fear some Lady Mary at Hampton Court may be offended at seeing her treacherous and profligate grandfather set out in the true colors in which he appeared to his contemporaries. Let us have an end of this servile memoir writing, and once more hang over the head of would-be tyrants the wholesome fear of the exposure of their guilt to the next generation.

Upon these disingenuous historians, the comments of Mr. Adams come down with an edge of the very “ ice brook’s temper.” His clear and merciless comments have a cold passion about them like the solidified gases, which

“ Burn frore, and cold performs the effect of fire.”

The second volume, as we have said, is occupied with the voyage to Russia, the mission in St. Petersburg, and the return through Sweden to Holland, in preparation for the conferences of Ghent. We have already intimated our opinion that much of this volume will hardly prove of general interest. There is considerable repetition in the matter otherwise valuable; for instance, Mr. Adams’s opinion of the character of General Prado is given several times over in nearly the same words. But however these things may be, we cannot help being struck with the acuteness displayed in his comments, founded on mere fragments of news, on the blind selfishness of Napoleon. The Continental System our envoy penetrated in all its futility and arrogance; conceived solely to annoy England, it yet did far less harm to her than to the neutral nations and France herself. Our envoy, when he left America, would probably have been called by ultra-federalists a partisan of Bonaparte; but it took very little time to prove to him that the Corsican was at once the most devoutly worshiped at home, and the most widely detested man everywhere else in Europe. He in vain tried to impress the correctness of his views upon Napoleon’s friends and enemies alike, who smiled civilly, and sometimes agreed politely to the strange fancies of the unsophisticated republican, only to go on weaving the complicated web of their policy; never quite certain whether they ought not to try and enlist him on their side as the astutest of men, until one crash after another showed that he had been simply sound in his deductions because honest in his principles, and that Russian, German, English, and French diplomacy had all overreached each other.2

In this volume we have constant occasion to judge the wisdom of the editor’s second rule in selecting from these journals; namely, to reduce the moral and religious speculations in which the work abounds. It is surprising to find that Mr. Adams voluntarily increased the already immense labor of noting down all the incidents and conversations that came under his observation, not only by personal, historical, and literary comments, but by boundless moral and religious commonplaces, over and over again; interspersed, it is true, with reflections and aspirations of a truly profound and exalted character, and yet sadly interfering, by their prolixity, with that economy of time which must have been so needful. It was an easier task for him to write down every thought as well as every fact that occurred, than to decide whether he should commit it to paper or not. To him these were doubtless the most precious words he wrote. He could not have conceived that a mere record of facts could take precedence of a record of meditations on the providence of God, or the weakness of man. He would have replied to any such cavil, and replied truly, that if he had been of any use or power in his day, it was because his allegiance to God and virtue had been kept every instant before his eyes, giving force to a character which had naturally more than one weak spot.

The era of his early life offers a twofold explanation of these copious moralizings. The literature most admired when he was a boy was largely tinged by them. Young’s Night Thoughts, that epic whose hero is commonplace personified, had been published in John Adams’s boyhood; The Rambler while he was an undergraduate; and both were among the supreme favorites of our grandfathers. The usual text-book of ancient history was Rollin, from whose milk and water our school-boys are happily delivered, without, however, being fed on any heartier historical diet.

But as Mr. Adams grew up a different kind of writing came in. Much of his moral and religious comment which we call commonplace was then attacked as absurdity and paradox unworthy of common-sense or sound philosophy. Mr. Jefferson was regarded by John Adams’s party, if not by himself, as the foe of God as well as of man, to whom the Bible and the constitution were alike objects of contempt; and if the suspicions of the political circles in which John Quincy Adams moved forced him to record everything he saw and heard, the infidelity and profligacy of many whom he met in society made it necessary for him to put on record his feelings and beliefs, as having been actually entertained by a reasoning man of the world. Nor would it be amiss if in this age those who are so eager to revive the old credulities of unbelief would spend a little time in reading over what they stigmatize as effete, commonplace, and tending to the subjection of free thought, solemnly recorded, as it is, by the boldest champion of free speech and independent judgment that America ever bore.

The third volume passes on to the mission to Ghent and the residence in England. A strange scene that was, — the supercilious envoys of Great Britain forced to take up several months, amid the more important concerns of settling the respective claims of grand dukes and landgraves to the plunder of France, in talking to the would-be diplomats from the upstart republic, who persisted in thinking the mistress of the seas was amenable to the law of nations, that they themselves were entitled to participate in a discussion of its points, and were insulted if attempts were made to bluff them by allusions to English statute law.

And the natural difficulties of maintaining American rights against John Bullism were not helped by the singular complexity of the American commission. Two of its members were Bayard, the courtly orator from Delaware, a French marquis of the time of St. Simon miraculously changed into a United States senator, the founder of a race of hereditary nobles which still rules in our country; and Gallatin, the only one of all who was a republican citizen by birth, and yet who was not an American, who must have felt every hour that in his genius for practical statesmanship he surpassed every one of them, yet who never entirely outlived the prejudice against his Swiss birth. Both were as different as possible from Russell, whose practical knowledge of commercial interests was rendered quite nugatory by an eagerness not to offend or get himself into hot water, which did not lack much of treachery. All three of these agreed in a desire to maintain the honor of America, all three were fitted in various ways to honor her by their appearance abroad, all three did fill prominent places in her councils; but all three have had their fame entirely obscured, though in very different degrees, by the superior lustre of their colleagues, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay.

In no case do Mr. Adams’s severe comments on men whose training and aims were unlike his own, particularly when read by the light of his after years, strike us as more instructive than in that of Mr. Clay. We must believe that these two great men met at Ghent with an equal wish to sustain the rights of America against the insolence of Great Britain. But here almost all parallel ends. Mr. Clay’s natural powers and passions were strong, his education imperfect, his experience wholly confined to his native country, and largely to crowds of admiring followers. Mr. Adams’s powers, though naturally above the common rank, were thoroughly and carefully trained and drilled; he had seen almost more of Europe than of his home, and had been a constant mark for inherited and acquired opposition. The former was an ardent partisan of the West, who appears to have thought that all hope for the rising empire of the future rested on excluding England from the Mississippi, and that what little life and energy were left in the Eastern States were sold to some European power — he did not care which. The latter was a steady, cautious New Englander, who knew much of the world, understood the full force of such words as commerce and fisheries, and felt that the whole United States ought to feel the shock if the islands in Passamaquoddy Bay were to be absorbed by New Brunswick. One was a fluent and fiery orator, who swept away his countrymen by the magic of his presence and his rhetoric, and would have gladly prolonged the war for years in order to fire the national heart to the utmost. The other never felt at ease on his legs: he forced the unwilling esteem of men by his inflexible probity, his pungent logic, and his untiring industry; and he dreaded the continuance of war with the horror of a thoughtful publicist. Clay was alternately chilled and stung by the Yankee Puritan who filled drafts of dispatches with long arguments on the religious duty of civilizing the Indian country; Adams distrusted and feared the backwoodsman whose noisy card-parties used to break up at four in the morning, as he was rising to prepare the labored manifesto which his colleague would pull to pieces at ten. Yet, though the sessions of Ghent were an endless squabble between these two statesmen which all the courtliness of Bayard, the tact of Gallatin, and the facility of Russell could scarcely appease, they parted retaining in spite of themselves an impression of each other’s greatness which afterwards led to the league of 1824; a league so reviled at the time, but one which the future historian of our country will declare a truly noble sacrifice of party ambition and personal pique to the highest interests of the nation.

The account of Mr. Adams’s mission to Great Britain, which completes the third volume, is curious, as showing how little the court of the regent and the administration of Liverpool recognized the importance or even the existence, one might say, of our nation, which was already so well understood by the really great minds of England. As Mr. C. F. Adams intimates in one of his notes, nothing can be greater than the change from the formal boorishness of Queen Charlotte and her son, to the real consideration and courtesy which Americans and their representative invariably receive from the present sovereign of England and her household, which gains new dignity for the country ruled by her. But as respects the government of that time, we see very clearly from Adams’s diary what recent compilers of memoirs have attempted to conceal or even ventured to deny, its total inefficiency and incapacity for ruling England. Of Lord Liverpool’s principal colleagues and supporters all possessed considerable patrician courtesy as long as Great Britain’s motives or acts remained uncriticised; some were good business men, many skillful intriguers, a few, like Eldon, learned in some special branch. But as far as understanding the claims, rights, and duties of a great and free people, at home or abroad, in such a world-crisis as that which followed the battle of Waterloo, not one of them — Liverpool, Eldon, Castlereagh, Bathurst Sidmouth, Westmoreland, Bexley, Colchester — had the first claim to be considered wise, judicious, well-informed, kind, generous, just; not even intelligently selfish or thoughtlessly brave. The disregard, nay the total ignoring of the rights of America which such an administration showed to Mr. Adams, at the time when every Englishman of real genius was excluded from their counsels, bore fruit of bitter flavor in the days of his own service in the Department of State.

This service occupies the fourth and fifth volumes, and even then is not finished. We first have Mr. Adams wrestling with the chicanery of the Spanish minister who endeavored to hinder the ratification and faithful execution of the treaty which ceded the Floridas. Afterwards the Spaniard Onis retires for a moment, and employs, to plead King Ferdinand’s cause, M. Hyde de Neuville, the bitterest aristocrat of the Bourbon restoration, sent as minister to the United States, where his natural courtesy, and apparently honest respect towards our countrymen and especially Adams, contended with an almost religious horror of our institutions. No sooner are the Spaniards somewhat quiet, than Stratford Canning appears on the scene as minister from England, and begins the old policy of boundless friendliness as long as Great Britain is to be the sole arbiter of the meaning of words, and the propriety of actions, whether her own or another’s, and then loud - voiced and peremptory bullying when any single act of her government or envoy is questioned. But this policy did not work quite so well in Washington as Lord Stratford afterwards made it work at Constantinople. Even the “ Great Elchi ” found in John Quincy Adams one who if need was could be as peremptory and fiery as himself; and doubtless his representations of the firmness and energy of our Department of State had no small share in inducing his illustrious kinsman to adopt so eagerly Mr. Monroe’s — i. e., Mr. Adams’s — doctrine of Hispano - American nationality.

Of Monroe the diary does not raise our opinion. His heart seems to have been entirely in his Virginia estate, and his head —nowhere. Calhoun is invariably presented as upright, judicious, and patriotic; Crawford, a name once great among us, now almost utterly forgotten, wholly occupied in intriguing for the president’s chair, to which Adams himself attained instead.

The discussions on the Missouri compromise form no small part of these volumes, and will be read probably with the greatest interest. The diarist recognized the full range and meaning of this subject, and has left on it some most valuable reflections.

In the fifth volume the diary breaks down, — utterly beyond the power even of its indefatigable author to keep up; he seems to have felt a sincere and honest regret in this enforced separation from an ever-faithful and dear companion.

The last two rules which Mr. Charles F. Adams has imposed upon himself in editing this diary, namely, to suppress nothing of his father’s stern and careful self-examination, and in no case to change his language, must be approved by everybody. It is to us most touching to see how this man from his earliest years to his latest, through a life of changes and chances, of cares and honors rarely known to men, was his own severest critic, ann with prayer and meditation discerned, fought, conquered his faults. Fairly might he claim from his country a share in the praise that she so eagerly accords to Washington and Franklin, so sternly withholds from Burr, and so sadly from Hamilton, that he is one of those Americans; who, in their eagerness to make their country greater, know how to make themselves better.

If our extracts seem few, it has been that our readers may be induced to search these volumes for themselves; and in advising them to do so, we must repeat our recognition of the modesty, the skill, and the devotion with which the editor has executed his duty.

William Everett.

  1. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, comprising Portions of his Diary from 1795 to 1848. Edited by CHARLES FRANCIS ADAMS. Volumes I.-Y Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott & Co.
  2. Before dismissing the Russian mission we cannot but remark the strange amalgamation of Paul I. with his father, Peter III., in Mr. C. F. Adams’s note, vol. ii. p. 58. These notes are generally of the most accurate, useful, and intelligent character; sometimes of a delightfully sly humor.