An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: John Adams and John Quincy Adams- Two Founders of Our Nation?

Aug 5, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)      Professor Elder, John Adams may have had a dubious distinction of being our second President, but he certainly had a difficult act to follow in terms of following George Washington’s leadership for 8 years. How difficult were Adams’s years in office?

Adams inherited a diplomatic mess from Washington. The French Revolution had resulted in a general European conflict in the 1790s, and the United States tried to remain neutral. The British, however, refused to respect our rights to trade with France. They seized our ships on the high seas without compensation. Many Americans wanted us to declare war on the British, but Washington chose instead to negotiate. He got a few minor concessions from the British in Jay’s Treaty, but did not get a promise from them that they would stop the illegal seizures. When the French learned of this, they began to seize American ships bound for Great Britain. This was the situation that confronted Adams as he took office in March of 1797.

2)      There was recently a 7 part HBO made for t.v. movie on the life of John Adams, based on the book by David McCullough. Why the interest in Adams at this point in history? Or do all of our Presidents have something to teach us?

Adams is interesting because he did so many things in his life. He was one of the three main figures involved in writing the Declaration of Independence, he helped negotiate the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War, he was our first minister to Great Britain after we won our independence, he was the first vice-president, and he was our second president. That’s more than all but a handful of Americans have accomplished.

3)      Much of Adams’s preparation was as ambassador to France, and the Netherlands. How did this help prepare him for the Presidency?

On paper, Adams looked well qualified to be president because he had spent time in France negotiating the end to the Revolutionary War and in Britain as our minister. But he is generally regarded as a failure as president largely because of his diplomacy regarding those two countries.

4)      Much has been said about his relationship with President Washington. What does history tell us about their relationship?

They were two quite different people. Washington was tall, graceful, and had a commanding presence. Adams was short, stout, a poor speaker, and not very socially adept. But the two shared a common vision for the new nation, and got along cordially because they respected each other.

5)      Further, Thomas Jefferson was certainly another eminent figure during that time. How did Adams and Jefferson get along?

Adams and Jefferson originally were close because of their shared work in writing the Declaration of Independence. But Adams wanted a strong central government for the new nation, while Jefferson did not. This drove a wedge between them to the point that by 1796 they had become bitter political rivals. But after both had left the White House they reconciled, and ended their lives on positive terms.

6)      Now, John Adams had a son, John Quincy Adams, who also became President. Does the historical record indicate the elder Adams was grooming his son for that office or was it just luck, chance, and fate?

John Quincy Adams grew to maturity before there was a presidency, so you cannot say that the elder Adams raised his son with an eye to becoming president (unlike Joe Kennedy, who clearly had the goal of seeing one of his sons become president). But the fact that his father’s presidency had ended with such a resounding rejection by the people may have motivated John Quincy Adams to try to resurrect the image of his family name.

7)      John Quincy Adams, also served as an ambassador to several countries- was this a type of training ground for the younger Adams or was John Quincy simply the best candidate at the time?

John Quincy Adams had accompanied his father on his diplomatic missions, and as such was regarded as a very good choice to become a diplomat in his own right. John Quincy Adams was uniformly successful as a diplomat and as the secretary of state.

8)      Philosophically, were these two individuals similar in their political beliefs or did they have disagreements? What do we know from the writings of these two men?

They were definitely two of a kind. Neither was comfortable socially, and both were what we would call a stuffed shirt. There doesn’t seem to have been the conflicted relationship that the two Bushes shared.

9)      Taken together, what was the impact of each of these men on the country and the spirit of the times?

Both of them were great Americans. They gave selflessly to their country, and had many significant accomplishments. But they were part of an era when men of societal standing expected to be the leaders, and didn’t recognize the growing democratic impulse that was developing in the young nation.

10)   Professor Elder, thank you for responding. Obviosuly, we will next be looking at George Bush the elder and George W. Bush. I’ll look forward to it!

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