The Revival of John Quincy Adams

The sixth president, long derided as a hapless elitist, is suddenly relevant again 250 years after his birth.

President John Quincy Adams sits for a painted portrait in a library in 1826. (T. Sully / Library of Congress)

July 11 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of John Quincy Adams. We are experiencing something of an Adams revival, with several new biographies, new editions of his astoundingly revealing and eloquent diary, and a renewed willingness to see this one-term president turned antislavery congressman—rather than his ally-turned-rival Andrew Jackson—as the custodian of what is most redemptive, and hopefully enduring, in the American political tradition.

Is it a simple matter of Jackson down, Adams up? Or is it Jackson red, Adams blue? During the waning days of the Obama administration, the Treasury Department, under pressure to diversify the faces on currency, decided to save Hamilton and Franklin but give up Andrew Jackson in favor of Harriet Tubman. Not at all coincidentally, candidate and President Trump awkwardly embraced the white populist legacy of Jackson, imagining Jackson (dead in 1845) as a “winner” who might have prevented the need for a Civil War.

This string of quotes and tweets led to a lot of handwringing among historians who identified good reasons to see the Trump in Jackson: Both shared a hatred of Washington, made outsized claims to mandates, took quick action to remove undesirables (in Jackson’s case, southern Indians), flaunted a willful ignorance of precedent, embraced crony capitalism, and relied on sheer bluster, whether cynical or sincere. Other experts and pundits defended Jackson, citing his extensive experience as a military leader, his democratic bona fides, and his principled stance against banks and South Carolina nullifiers.

But there’s more to Adams’s revival than Jackson’s fall. The junior Adams used to be ridiculed as an aristocrat so stuck in his parents’ 18th century that he refused to stick with a political party or campaign for the presidency. But no one, including Jackson, can best his half-century of public service or the sheer variety of his contributions as a legislator, executive, and diplomat. Without question, he was the most experienced statesman ever to occupy the Oval Office.

How did Adams survive so long in national politics? It wasn’t his famous name. And it certainly wasn’t the antislavery credentials we celebrate now. While his father John Adams has recently gained an exaggerated reputation as an antislavery founding father, the son knew better: John Adams had actually helped tamp down slavery issues in the Continental Congress and never tried to resuscitate them as vice president or president. It was in part by hewing to other principles—his nationalism above all, and next his ambition—and practicing bipartisanship, joining with Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans during the debate over the Louisiana Purchase and then fully switching parties during a controversy over international trade regulations. Punished by his Massachusetts colleagues, who declined to renominate him for the U.S. Senate, at the age of 41 he turned down a Supreme Court seat and instead packed his bags, his wife, and oldest son off to join him at a diplomatic post at St. Petersburg.

He ably defended American interests there—including those of trade with slave-importing Cuba—and managed to get to Ghent to play a key role in negotiations ending the War of 1812. By 1817, he was the best informed man in the country where it came to foreign affairs. He provided the perfect balance, as James Monroe’s secretary of state, to continue the Virginia dynasty—the succession of Virginia presidents from Jefferson through Madison to Monroe who managed to preserve American independence and keep slavery largely off the national legislative agenda. He was a one-man argument for the flourishing of nationalism, and the end of sectionalism, in the so-called “era of good feelings.” His more famous antipartisanship also reflected a canny appreciation of the role that he, as a Yankee son of a Founder, could play as the embodiment of that era’s vital center.

This had particular implications for his what he did and did not say and do about slavery. Adams’s Transcontinental Treaty with Spain, in which the future of Florida and more of the Gulf Coast remained at stake, was still up for debate in Congress when Representative James Tallmadge offered his amendment to make Missouri statehood conditional upon abolition. Indeed, Adams’s triumphs at Ghent and his more recent diplomatic success at growing the nation in a southwesterly direction were part of what made the question of slavery in a new state so momentous in 1819.

In discussions within the cabinet, Adams took the position that slavery restriction was unconstitutional and inconsistent with the Louisiana Purchase treaty. He continued to worry that Missouri would derail the Spanish treaty. The pressures mounted. He wrote in his diary that “this is a question between the rights of human nature and the Constitution of the United States. Probably both will suffer by the issue of the controversy.” During a gripping evening with a favorite colleague, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, he came face to face with the emerging argument on behalf of the expansion of slavery, framing it as a positive good. The founding fiction that slavery would die of its own accord or wither from the end of the international slave trade had faded. Instead, Adams was forced to confront the fact that the cabinet colleague he most admired for his intelligence and devotion to the republic found a neo-colonial dependence on Great Britain preferable to a union in which slavery existed on sufferance, banned from the western future.

A few days later, Adams joined a cabinet majority advising the president that slavery restriction was, in fact, constitutional. His own position had flipped, but clarified. Slavery questions were restricted to the states where slavery existed; where it did not yet exist was a different matter. Missouri was ambiguous, so a deal was inevitable. “The fault is in the Constitution of the United States, which has sanctioned a dishonourable compromise with slavery,” he confided to his diary. The dishonor lay in its conflict with the Declaration of Independence, which had grounded the American Revolution in the consent of the governed. Yet now it was clearer than ever that “slave representation has governed the Union.” Maybe he should not have signed on to the compromise by failing to object in the cabinet meetings. Maybe he could propose a constitutional convention. In public, however, he stayed out of the line of fire.

1821 instead became the year of his most famous, defining statement of America’s exceptional identity, a July 4th address in Washington, D.C. that depicted “conquest and servitude” as “mingled up in every part of the social existence” of Great Britain. The rebellions of the 17th century indexed this British history. The settlement of New England, by contrast, which stood in for the entire nation, involved the purchase of Indian lands and a social compact “in which conquest and servitude had no part.” The Declaration of Independence represented a new epoch in history because it delegitimized foundings based “upon conquest.” The United States stood for natural and equal rights; “her glory is not dominion, but liberty.” This historical interpretation undergirded the Monroe Doctrine he developed: Europe must not interfere in the Americas because the U.S. “abstained from interference” abroad and refused the “Imperial diadem.” “Let us not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” he argued, as part of a long campaign to distance the U.S. from British-style imperialism that helped justify the American variety, in which expansionists like General Jackson displaced Indians by creating facts on the ground. Slavery had nothing to do with the meaning of America: a statement as true to his understanding of world history and the image he wished to project abroad as it was false to the reality at home.

Discretion didn’t keep Adams from being suspected of antislavery sympathies when he emerged as one of the five major candidates for the presidency. When none of the candidates received a majority in the Electoral College, he followed precedent by creating a cross-sectional alliance with Kentucky nationalist Henry Clay, and consequently received just enough votes in the special House election to become president. In a sense, and an ironic one at that given the honesty that leavened his political acumen, accusations of corruption plagued his presidency from that moment on. But so did the already-sordid politics of slavery, whereby Georgians hid their cotton-fueled aggressions toward the Creek and Cherokee in states’ rights lingo, and Virginians like John Randolph attacked the very idea of sending representatives to a summit with the new Latin American republics because it might recognize the legitimacy of darker people’s citizenship or—even worse—legitimate recent slave emancipations in South and Central America. His presidency was doomed: Jackson and his allies in New York and Pennsylvania had him in their sights as a big fat target who could be called corrupt, old-fashioned, and aristocratic without any threat to slavery needing to be mentioned.

By 1828, Jackson was hailed as the common man’s president, the outsider who would clean the stables of Washington—but he also made it clear from the beginning that his would be a government for the white people, and by the southerners. The great puzzle is why John Quincy Adams, unlike other ex-presidents, kept the fight going—by running for Congress eight times.

In the age of the presidential tweet as weapon, it’s instructive to remember that Adams rose as a writer and orator—a communicator—comfortable with both formal treatises and newspaper and dinner party distillations of them. He may have overreached in his supercharged, famously tone-deaf first annual message in which he called for more government, forgetting that he was addressing the nation and not only congressmen and policy wonks. But in the long run, his sheer skill and ambition to speak to and for the nation, rehearsed in his monumental diary, prevailed.

The continuity lay in the sound bytes he crafted, for which he has never received full credit. In a commencement address at Harvard in 1787, he helped define the 1780s as a “critical period” for the new nation. In his first diplomatic posts during the 1790s, he wowed George Washington with his remarkably informative and prescient dispatches and newspaper articles on European affairs, including the French Revolution. For the next several decades, in published orations on celebratory occasions, he repeatedly digested the trends of the day and provided new words for conceptualizing America’s hopes to combine liberty and nationhood.

He had bitter rivals but mostly confined personal attacks to his diary, where he also mused regularly on the politics of the possible—such as slavery.  From our perspective today, it took him an awfully long time to realize—or go public with—his sense that, as he put it during the Missouri Crisis, “if the dissolution of the Union must come, let it come from no other cause but this.” It wasn’t until after his presidency that he fully admitted that the Constitution’s compromises over slavery, and the proslavery drift of national policy under Jackson, also compromised his vision of a modern nation dedicated to human improvement and liberty.

Nevertheless, he spent the remainder of his life expanding on this theme, in public speeches he revised for the newspapers and franked—sent for free—from his desk in Congress. No one was in a better position to testify to the slavers’ betrayal of a more idealistic version of 1776.

Those who write rather smugly, today, that Lincoln’s brief for the antislavery intentions of the Founding Fathers was good politics but bad history ignore how much the onetime junior congressman from Illinois had learned from his senior Whig colleague. “The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, was seen and lamented by all the southern patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction, than by the author of the Declaration himself,” he pronounced in a Fourth of July oration in 1837. In the end, Adams not only prophesied but actually laid so much of the groundwork for the Civil War over slavery and nationhood because he, more than anyone else, was in a position to do so.

For those disposed to administer tests on politicians’ and ex-politicians’ purity of motives, it may also be instructive to note that it was a mixture of antislavery and nationalism, as well as more strategic or political motives, that moved Adams in the direction that makes him worthy of reverence now. For those who are looking for creative possibilities in the American political system, it is striking that our supposedly most elitist ex-president found in the more humble precincts of the Congress a path out of the partisan mess that had frustrated him as president. He wasn’t so much “the professor” the Jacksonians derided in favor of their mythical “ploughman,” as he was a son of the democratic and nationalist Revolution. He looked to different, and better developed, modes of persuasion to promote America’s best interests on the world stage and at home, always preferring to appeal to what Lincoln, one of his congressional pallbearers on his death in 1848, would call “the better angels of our nature.” Most of all, his desire to stay true to the Declaration of Independence and its promise of equality in an improved future, rather than an idealized past, is a reminder that Americans have defined themselves by more than their enmities.