John Quincy Adams: A Man for the Whole People

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Release Date: 
June 25, 2024
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This magisterial biography rightly places John Quincy Adams at the forefront of great American statesmen.”

John Quincy Adams was a “child of the Enlightenment” and a believing Christian. He was an American nationalist during a time when America was riven with sectional rivalries and disputes, whose paramount goal was to save the Union. He was an unabashed but not an uncritical patriot. He served one term as President of the United States after winning a much-disputed election in the House of Representatives in 1824, but made a lasting mark on U.S. foreign policy when he served as President James Monroe’s Secretary of State. And to the very end of his life and career, he sought ways to end slavery, which he viewed as an abomination and a betrayal of the country’s founding principles as set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

Randall Woods, the John A. Cooper Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, captures all of this and more in his informative, entertaining, and insightful biography of the nation’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams: A Man for the Whole People. As a son of the great John Adams—founding father and president—much was expected of John Quincy. His education began at home. John and Abigail Adams, Woods notes, believed that all human beings “were born with an innate moral sense” which needed reinforcement throughout their lives.

John Quincy learned Latin, Greek, and other subjects at school, but perhaps his most important education was learning at the feet of his father. John Adams was the driving political force behind the American Revolution and served in diplomatic posts for the new nation he helped to create. John Quincy accompanied his father on some of those diplomatic assignments, serving as his father’s secretary in Paris and other European capitals. At the age of 14, John Quincy traveled to St. Petersburg where he served as secretary to the American Minister to Russia, Francis Dana.  

The American Revolution produced a constitutional republic. Shortly thereafter, however, the French Revolution produced the “terror” then led to wars and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The response in the U.S. to the French Revolution and European wars included the early formation of political parties, with Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans urging an alliance with France while Federalists led by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams promoted neutrality. John Quincy sided with his father and the Federalists. John Quincy, Woods writes, “was just as much a conservative nationalist as his father and Alexander Hamilton.” International relations, he believed, should be approached with realpolitik.

Conservative nationalism would be John Quincy Adams’ guidepost throughout his political/diplomatic career. It is reflected in his remarkable diaries that he kept beginning at the age of 12, and his many diplomatic achievements, including the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, the Convention of 1818 that settled the northwest boundaries between the U.S. and Great Britain, the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 under which the United States acquired Florida and excluded Spain from the Oregon Territory, and the Monroe Doctrine that warned Europe’s powers to refrain from establishing new colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

Woods notes that John Quincy Adams’ diplomatic approach combined American continental expansionism (“Manifest Destiny”) with foreign policy restraint and realism. John Quincy expressed that approach best in a July 4th address wherein he counseled his countrymen to “go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” and reminded them that America is the well-wisher of freedom and liberty to all, but the guarantor only of her own.

In telling John Quincy Adams’ life story, Woods presents interesting portraits of Adams’ contemporaries, including Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoon, James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, James Polk, Martin Van Buren, and many others. Woods also deals with the “personal” and family life of John Quincy Adams, with all of its joys and many of its sorrows.

The presidential election of 1824 was decided in the House of Representatives because no candidate won a majority of electoral college votes. Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and had the most electoral votes. Adams was second in both. The House of Representatives—voting by state delegations—selected Adams as president. Adams named Henry Clay as his Secretary of State, which led Andrew Jackson and his supporters to label the elect ion a “corrupt bargain.” Jackson rode that theme to the White House four years later.

Adams was elected to congress in his post-presidential years, and served there until his death in 1848. He was involved in debates over the annexation of Texas and the impending Mexican-American War (which he opposed). He capped his distinguished public career by promoting an end to slavery which he believed was tearing apart his beloved Union, including arguing the Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

This magisterial biography rightly places John Quincy Adams at the forefront of great American statesmen. He was not our greatest president, but he arguably was our greatest secretary of state.