Pre-service occupations: minister to Berlin, U.S. senator, minister to Russia, peace delegate (Treaty of Ghent), minister to England, secretary of state (Monroe)
Key events during his administration: Erie Canal completed (1825); C&O Canal begun (1828); Tariff of 1828 (the “Tariff of Abominations”); treaties of Indian Springs (1825) and Washington (1826); Panama Congress (1826)
Presidential rating: Mostly unsuccessful, and unpopular
John Quincy Adams was literally groomed for great things.
He was the first relative of another president to hold the office. Like his father John, Adams was a brilliant, successful and driven man. Like his father, Adams would attain the nation’s highest office and be limited to one term. And like his father, he would be no more successful holding on to that office.
But unlike the elder Adams, the son’s solitary term was a struggle from the start, and arguably the first unsuccessful presidency.
John Quincy Adams was one of the most highly educated men to become president. JQA—as he often referred to himself—led what biographer Robert V. Remini terms “a privileged life.” His famed parents, John and Abigail Adams, literally raised him to achieve great things. His parents guided his life intensely: what to study, wear and eat; how to conduct himself in public; where to live; what to do with himself; when to marry, etc. It was relentless. You can read about the famed love and intellectual affair of John and Abigail in David McCulloch’s John Adams, but you’ll only get a hint of just how much they—especially she—controlled every single aspect of the son’s young life.
Youth, they drilled into his fertile mind, was for study, and his pleasures should be found in learning, not frivolity. Therefore his life revolved around education, prayer and learning how to be a proper man ready to carry fourth the good Adams name—and being ever watchful to never bring shame to that name. The instructions began early. For example, Abigail took the seven-year-old Johnny to watch the battle of Bunker Hill as it was being fought, so he could understand the price of liberty. Later, his father took him on his missions to the courts of Europe, which freed him from his mother’s physical presence but not her spiritual presence. She loomed large over his life, continually nagging him by letter, even robbing him of the one woman he passionately loved because Abigail said it wasn’t time for him to marry.
In other words, John and Abigail Adams raised a stern, highly self-critical man who was intensely curious, well-versed on most any subject, but gloomily resigned to follow a path not of his choosing. (Adams would treat his own sons worse, even going so far as to not invite two of them for Christmas one year because their grades at Harvard were poor.) He placed exacting standards on himself, keeping to his almost his entire life: He’d rise early to exercise and study, and work late. In another day and age, he’d be called a “square:” While his contemporaries on diplomatic missions engaged in cards and drinking, he retreated to books. He immersed in studies on the Bible, languages, sciences, mathematics, literature, philosophy, etc. You’d think that he’d make a fascinating dinner companion, but unlike Jefferson, Adams was a brooding and stiff character. Brilliant—but so personally demanding that it could paralyze him.
It was this man who became the sixth president of the United States.
Adams followed his father into the diplomatic arena at a young age. During Washington’s administration, he vigorously defended the president’s policy of neutrality. Consequently, Washington took note and appointed young Adams as minister to the Netherlands in 1794. As one of only six ministerial positions, it was a high honor. Adams, reluctant to leave America, nevertheless went at his parents’ behest. Adams storied diplomatic career was off.
He later served as minister to Berlin—in the meantime marrying the daughter of a British merchant in 1797—before being recalled by his father in 1801 in one of President John Adams’ last acts as president. Young Adams then served a term in the U.S. Senate, where he angered his Federalist allies by not opposing Jefferson’s embargo. Slowly moving in the direction of Republicanism, Adams won favor with the Madison administration and was appointed minister to Russia. He formed a strong friendship with Czar Alexander I and was present for Napoleon’s invasion and subsequent defeat.
In his greatest feat as a diplomat, he lead the commission that negotiated the end to the War of 1812, which essentially returned things to the status quo ante bellum.
He won much fame and friends at home and abroad as a diplomat, and subsequently James Monroe made him secretary of state, where he further burnished his credentials through the formation of the Monroe Doctrine and the Adams-Onis treaty.
As secretary of state, Adams was a natural choice for the next president. But he had competition—especially the formidable Andrew Jackson.
The “corrupt bargain”
The election of 1824 was, at first, a five-man contest between Adams, Jackson, Calhoun, Treasury Secretary Crawford and Speaker Henry Clay. Calhoun soon dropped out when he realized he’d never win, but he easily won the vice presidency. Crawford suffered a stroke but remained somewhat popular. When the electoral ballots were counted, Jackson had 99 (41% of the popular vote), Adams 84 (30.9% of the popular vote), Crawford 41 and Clay 37. No one had a majority, so the election went to the House—which meant that Clay, as the very powerful Speaker, would in effect decide the next president.
Since Clay had the fewest votes, he was dropped. That left Jackson, Adams and Crawford. The latter had the least support, and his mild stroke left questions of his ability to serve. So the question was Jackson or Adams. Jackson was clearly popular, but Clay detested the thought that someone whose only qualification was “killing 2,500 Englishmen” would become president.
Clay met with Adams, who, although opponents in some matters during Monroe’s terms, found some common ground. They apparently pledged mutual support; Adams also sought pledges of support from electors from other states to vote for him in return for favors.
Clay threw his support—and electors—to Adams, who was chosen on the first ballot on Feb. 9, 1825, shocking and outraging the Jacksonians, who believed that Jackson should be president based on his lead. A week later, Adams named Clay his secretary of state, the position Clay had sought eight years earlier. Jacksonians howled in protest, and immediately charged that a “corrupt bargain” had been made: If Clay would support Adams and make him president, Adams would make Clay secretary of state, still the surest route to the presidency.
It was a gigantic mistake.
In fact, “mistake” seems too tame a word. The “corrupt bargain” effectively ended Clay’s political career, and almost destroyed the Adams presidency before it started. It would be a long four years, with the Jacksonians hounding Adams every step of the way.
Was there a “corrupt bargain?” Not really, but on the surface—especially to those who wanted to see one—there definitely appeared to be one. But it’s easy to understand why Clay wanted Adams and not Jackson, and why Adams would chose the very capable Clay to lead State. However, Adams was completely politically tone deaf. He expected people to understand why he did things because of his superior intellect, and just never did understand how things looked politically. No matter what the reasoning, no matter the justification, the appearance of a “corrupt bargain” became the reality.
The end of the Republican party of Thomas Jefferson
The corrupt bargain essentially doomed Adams from the get-go. Like the 2000 Florida debacle, the Jacksonians vowed revenge and immediately began the 1828 presidential campaign. Every step they took in the Congress from Adams’ inauguration on was designed to undermine Adams and his administration. It’s no exaggeration. The Jacksonians, believing that they were the aggrieved party and had an election “stolen” from them, acted from spite and malice. They brought no credit upon themselves.
Some of their opposition to Adams’ programs was honest, and done from constitutional and philosophical grounds, but a lot of it had to do with how Adams gained office. Their actions were often petty and downright mean (especially those of old purist Republican John Randolph), but they formed the basis of the permanent split in the old party of Jefferson.
One of the hallmarks of the “Era of Good Feelings” during the Monroe administration was the absence of political party, as the Federalists were no longer a national party and the Republicans were in near complete control. But one-party rule was either an illusion or a temporary truce. Two camps formed: the National Republicans, loyal to Adams and Clay; and the Democratic-Republican party, true to the core of Jeffersonian republicanism. The opposition leader in the senate was Martin Van Buren, often called the architect of the Democratic party, and he moved to thwart Adams every way he could. The new Democrats’ de facto leader was of course Jackson, and included in its ranks supporters of John C. Calhoun—the vice president!—and former supporters of Henry Clay, who sealed his political fate by joining with Adams.
The “National Republicans” would not last long, and would soon be replaced by another short-lived party—the Whigs.
Some true successes—but no credit
Adams’ presidency was full of ideas, but unfortunately for him, many of those ideas were stillborn because of the hostility toward his administration. The Jacksonian-controlled Congress rarely gave him a chance through adherence to Jeffersonian values and, sometimes, sheer spite. (Note: Jacksonian Democrats gained control of Congress midway through Adams’ term, but opposition to Adams started almost right away.)
Adams’ primary domestic program consisted of Henry Clay’s “American System,” which included a high tariff (protectionism) against foreign goods, support for internal improvements—which were critical for moving goods to markets and fostering greater industrialization in Pennsylvania, New York and other northern states—and support for the Second National Bank. Some of this actually succeeded in passing Congress, but the Jacksonians immediately squashed some of Adams’ more fanciful suggestions, such as a national observatory and a national university.
Although much derided by the Jackson Democrats, who believed in only a minimalist federal approach to economic affairs and internal improvements, the American System succeeded in creating some critical internal improvements. Among the successes were the beginning of the C&O Canal (to compete with the Erie Canal, completed and opened in 1825) and an extension of the Cumberland Road.
In addition, the Adams economy was actually pretty good. The debt from the War of 1812 was finally retired, manufactures expanded, shipping grew, industry grew, etc. The American System actually worked, and didn’t harm agriculture, such as cotton, as much as was feared. But Adams received little credit for it both because he wouldn’t propagate for himself and because the opposition was more vocal.
Another Adams success, enacted through Henry Clay, was the establishment of free trade with several nations—though again Adams received very little credit. One reason is because one nation ceased to exist by the time he left office, and, as usual, the Jackson Democrats derided his foreign policy attempts—especially the Panama Congress.
One political disaster after anotherBecause of intense hostility and Adams’ own political tin ear, his administration struggled continually. President Adams and Secretary Clay had wanted the United States to participate in the Panama Congress, organized in 1826 among Central and South American states to create a unified policy toward Spain. It was a forward-thinking policy—get America involved with her neighbors to the south; after all, hadn’t Adams and Monroe declared this part of the world was for the Americas only? Adams saw involvement with Simon Bolivar’s congress as the next step in American relations, but the U.S. Congress didn’t see it that way. Even though Congress had pressed for recognition of Latin countries during Monroe’s time, Congress—namely southerners—wanted nothing to do with the Panama Congress, especially because many Latin states had outlawed slavery.
Eventually, the foot-dragging Congress authorized a couple of delegates, but one died en-route and the other arrived after the Panama Congress concluded, much to Adams’ embarrassment.
A worse conundrum for Adams was what to do about the collection of tribes in western Georgia known as the Creeks. It’s a complicated matter, but in summary, a small selection of Creeks had made an agreement in 1825 called the treaty of Indian Springs. However, not all of the Creeks agreed to the treaty (a frequent problem with treaties) and killed the man who had made the treaty. President Adams declared the treaty void. He obtained a new treaty with a broad representation of Creeks, with many of the same stipulations of the prior treaty. But Georgia’s governor objected, claiming the first treaty was still in effect. Adams called out federal troops, while the governor countered with state militia. Fearing a civil war, Adams backed down.
The Creeks were the ones who got shafted, as the governor moved to seize all of their lands; by the end of the decade they were gone from Georgia entirely—and Adams’ stock fell even further in the South.
But the worst disaster for Adams was the 1828 Tariff, also called the Tariff of Abominations, which was part of the American System. What the 1828 tariff did was to create a protectionist program that essentially touched most aspects of American life, including shipping, manufacturing and agriculture. Southern states, especially South Carolina—home of John C. Calhoun—were hurt because of the reduced market for southern cotton in Europe. (Calhoun would later rage against the tariff during Jackson’s administration.)
The tariff split Adams’ cabinet, probably irreparably. Clay was of course all for it. But combined with Jackson’s popularity throughout the South, the tariff cost Adams any remaining support he had in that part of the country.
By election year, Adams was damaged goods—but that doesn’t mean his case was hopeless: the economy was mostly strong, the country was at peace. The only problem was that he was John Quincy Adams, and his opponent was the ever-popular Andrew Jackson—and Jackson’s supporters were fired up like no one had seen since the Revolution.
1828: the dirtiest, nastiest campaign ever
The 1828 presidential election was the nastiest, dirtiest, most disgusting and vile campaign in American history—and it had been going on for four years.
Over the previous four years, the Jacksonians had done everything they could to destroy Adams politically because of the 1824 election—and it was working. Now, they turned their attention to Adams personally.
The two candidates stayed out of it directly, as was the custom. (Candidates never campaigned during that age, beyond occasional speeches. Surrogates did most of the work.) But their allies and partisan newspapers let fly with some of the most revolting crud imaginable. Issues really weren’t debated. Lies, insults, charges, imaginings, hyperbole, flights of fancy were hurled back and fourth, lies that brought neither honor nor glory to either candidate, because neither man distanced himself from the junk being said on his behalf.
Some of the charges made by Jackson’s Democrats, none of which were true:
- Adams had “pimped” for Czar Alexander I when he was minister to Russia
- Adams bilked the government for far more money than necessary for diplomatic missions
- Adams used public money to buy “gambling devices” (they were a chess set and a billiards table, which he purchased with his own money)
- Adams “criminally” cost America Texas in the Adams-Onis treaty
- Jackson married his wife, Rachel, before she was divorced, making her a bigamist. (The Jacksons said it was a clerical error, as they believed she was divorced.) She died shortly after Jackson was inaugurated, and Jackson never forgave Adams for not speaking out against the slur.
- Jackson’s mother was a prostitute and he was the son of a mulatto
- While a general, Jackson massacred Indians, was exuberant in using death sentences in courts martial and dueled excessively. These had some validity, but were seen in the context of a larger effort to smear Jackson, so they didn’t stick.
None of the charges against Jackson stuck, but the ones against Adams were poison. But what made my jaw hit the floor was the willingness of both sides to make up anything—anything—to slime the other side. It’s really sickening, and it’s no different than the garbage that the committed left has been doing to George W. Bush since 2000. (The truth doesn’t matter—only what they can throw at him that sticks.)
Adams, already known as a poor public speaker, wouldn’t campaign on his own behalf, even when given the chance. On one occasion, a crowd of well-wishers wanted some comments from the president. He said hello and goodnight. That was it. Such was Adams’ public presence.
Even though his programs worked, America faced no true enemies, the economy was growing, America was expanding, Adams was in serious trouble. The National Republicans were unorganized, while the Jackson Democrats held meetings and ran clubs all over the south, west and north. The Jackson press was relentless, and the Adams press could hardly keep up. Even when the Adams newspapers took the high road and argued issues, they couldn’t keep up.
In the end, the lack of organization and a sour, uninviting incumbent weighed against a highly organized and dynamic challenger foretold the end of the Adams presidency. The public, already sour on Adams, booted him from office.
Jackson held Adams personally responsible for the slurs against his wife, so the general never paid a courtesy call on Adams. Adams detested this breech of decorum. This sealed Adams’ bitterness against Jackson. And so, like his father, Adams became the only other president to not attend the inauguration of his successor.
Personally, Adams was a wreck. His father had died during his presidency, so he was left to carry fourth the Adams legacy. His hard-driving ways helped drive two of his sons to alcoholism, and suicide. (That’s a hard thing to write.) Only his son Charles would live up to the father’s demanding expectations (Charles would be a diplomat during the Civil War, instrumental in keeping Europe neutral, and his own son, Henry, would of course become the famous man of letters at the end of the century).
But much to his surprise and delight, Massachusetts in short order returned Adams to Washington as a congressman. It was there that Adams finally found his voice. The presidency was not his forte, but sparing in the well of the House was. Over the next two decades, Adams surprisingly became an antislavery champion, not because he was an abolitionist, but because he fought against the “gag” rules.
All Americans have the right to petition Congress, but Adams believed it a travesty that pro-slavery forces prevented slavery from even being discussed in Congress. From the time of his first election until 1844, Adams repeatedly railed against the gag rules (where petitions and motions on slavery were tabled and not discussed, hence “gagged”) until finally all gag rules were overturned.
Adams gained a popularity he never enjoyed while president. Biographer Remini suggests Adams did this partially to get back at everyone who treated him so roughly while he was president, and there seems to be some validity to it, but he also believed in what he was doing.
Adams, before never a great speaker, honed his speaking skills in Congress to such a great extent that he won the famous “Amistad” case at the Supreme Court in 1841. Africans kidnapped by Spanish traders rebelled and killed most of the crew of the ship Amistad. The surviving crew members tricked the Africans into sailing to America. Spain declared the Africans to be slaves and demanded their return, but an initial trial held that they had been taken illegally and were therefore not slaves, but free.
The case went to the Supreme Court and Adams won—even though he hadn’t appeared before the court in more than 30 years. It was his finest hour.
While reading about John Quincy Adams, I wondered if he was just a man ahead of his time. Many of the proposals he made in his first message to Congress—a national university, a national observatory, internal improvements, etc.—were things that would have found a much more receptive audience at a much later time.
Historians disagree on whether his presidency was a failure, or whether it was an unappreciated, qualified, partial success. Biographer Mary Hargreaves argues for the latter, with a lot of justification.
It’s not that Adams’ ideas or programs were bad. It’s that Adams himself was a political disaster—and that set him up for attack after attack, against which, by his own admission, he failed to respond. I’ve found that he had five things working against him that would make him a poor president no matter what the age:
- He was politically tone deaf—stone cold deaf. He could never appreciate the forces arrayed against him because of the arrangement that made him president.
- He refused to advocate for himself openly on the basis that it was beneath his dignity.
- He refused to dismiss people from the administration despite overwhelming evidence that they were actively working to undermine him.
- He had no understanding of politics and how it worked, despite being a diplomat and secretary of state. He didn’t learn this until he was a congressman. In this respect, having legislative experience would have greatly served Adams prior to being president.
- He wouldn’t fight back.
Final assessment: Mostly unsuccessful, and unpopular, but mainly because politically, he failed. (Had his programs not worked, I’d consider him a failure.)
A recognized authority on Andrew Jackson, Robert V. Remini, wrote The American Presidents entry on John Quincy Adams. He may seem a little partial to Jackson, but he understands Adams; while giving the brilliant statesman his due, Remini points out his numerous flaws and how they kept Adams from having what could have been a decent presidency.
Remini’s is a more personal account of Adams’ entire life. For a meatier account of Adams’ often overlooked presidency, read Mary W. M. Hargreaves, The Presidency of John Quincy Adams (1985) of the University of Kansas’ the American Presidency series. Hargreaves is kinder to Adams’ presidency than Remini.
1. John Quincy Adams, official White House portrait.
2. Adams sat for this portrait while in London at age 29. (Oil, 1796, by John Singleton Copley, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, from a gift of Mrs. Charles Francis Adams.)
3. A daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams, taken 20 years after he left the White House. Adams became the first president to have his picture taken (but not while he was president). Public domain image.
4 and 5. Part of and an entire infamous “Coffin Handbill” from the 1828 election, used against Andrew Jackson. It was supposed to show how Jackson enthusiastically used executions in courts martial. Public domain image (U.S. only)
6. Composite of significant people in the Amistad story: (L to R) Margru, John Quincy Adams, Cinque and Roger Sherman Baldwin. Illustration courtesy of The Connecticut Historical Society.