An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Our Presidents—John Quincy Adams

Oct 12, 2012 by

John Quincy Adams

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)          Professor Elder, thank you for agreeing to do this series of interviews to let students all across the United States know a bit more about the men who have led this country for more than 200 years. We are up to the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?

John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, in what was then known as Braintree, Massachusetts (that site is located in the present-day city of Quincy, Massachusetts). His father was John Adams, who would of course become the second president of the United States. John Quincy Adams was born at a time of rising tensions between Great Britain and its North American colonies, and as he grew he saw his father take on an increasingly more important role in the struggle to force the parent government to recognize the validity of the colonial grievances.  After John Adams helped guide the Second Continental Congress in the direction of declaring independence, the new nation rewarded him in 1778 with an appointment to serve as our envoy to France.

John Quincy Adams accompanied him to France, and when his father was appointed as our envoy to the Netherlands in 1780 he went with him there as well. When Congress decided to appoint Francis Dana as the nation’s first minister to Russia (Dana was never officially received by the Empress Catherine the Great, but acted in an unofficial capacity as the representative of the United States), John Quincy Adams was given the opportunity to become one of the secretaries for the legation even though he was only 14 years of age. John Quincy Adams spent three years in this capacity, and then returned to his family home in Massachusetts. He entered Harvard College, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1787. He then simultaneously began graduate studies at Harvard and the study of law under a Massachusetts lawyer named Theophilus Parson. He received a Master’s Degree from Harvard in 1790, and was admitted to the bar in 1791. Adams began to practice law, but events soon brought him back into public service.

As President Washington sought to steer clear of the growing turmoil that had developed in France as a result of the French Revolution, John Quincy Adams penned a number of articles in favor of his course of action. Washington rewarded him with an appointment as our minister to the Netherlands in 1794. Adams was reluctant, but his father helped persuade him to acquiesce. He served capably for two years.

In 1796, Washington appointed him to be the minister to Portugal, but soon thereafter sent him to the American legation in Berlin. When his father became president in 1797, he chose his soon to be the nation’s minister to Prussia. His service in this role ended in 1801 when his father’s presidency ended. Before he left Europe, however, John Quincy Adams married the daughter of an American merchant in London. He is thus the only American president to have been wed outside of the United States.

He returned to the United States in 1801 and attempted to practice law, but soon decided to enter the realm of politics. After losing two elections, Adams was chosen by the Massachusetts legislature to serve in the United States Senate in 1803. But Adams proved unpopular with the legislators who appointed him, as he increasingly began to support President Jefferson. The Massachusetts legislature chose not to reappoint him in 1808, and Adams left the Senate. He then accepted a position on the faculty at Harvard, but once again he would soon be called to service.

When James Madison became president, he sent Adams to Russia to serve as the nation’s minister to that nation. Reversing its previous policy, Russia formally accepted his credentials, and Adams spent the next five years in St. Petersburg representing the United States. During that period of time, the United States declared war on Great Britain, a conflict that we know as the War of 1812. Hoping to achieve a favorable peace treaty, Madison asked Adams to serve on a delegation assigned the task of negotiating a settlement to the war. These efforts resulted in the Treaty of Ghent, which went into effect in 1815.

After peace was restored, Adams was appointed as our minister to Great Britain (a post that his father had also held). After two years in that capacity, Adams was nominated the new president, James Monroe, for the position as secretary of state. Adams proved to be one of the most effective secretaries of state the nation has ever known, and in 1824 he sought to use this service as a springboard to become the president of the nation. No one candidate received a majority of the electoral votes, and as a result the House of Representatives had to choose the new president. In February of 1825, a majority of the state delegations in the House voted for Adams, and he became the sixth president of the United States.

2)          What was he MOST known for?

Unfortunately, Adams was far less successful as president than he had been in any other capacity in his life.  First, his presidency began under a cloud of controversy. Four individuals had received electoral votes in the election of 1824, with Andrew Jackson winning the most votes (but not a majority).  As the House of Representatives took up the task of choosing the new president, Adams (who had finished second) was visited by the man who had finished third. After that meeting, that individual asked his supporters in Congress to vote for Adams. That gave Adams enough votes to win, and as his first action as President Adams nominated his benefactor (Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay) to serve as the secretary of state. This smacked of a conspiracy to many, and Adams lost favor as a result.

As president, Adams was unable to accomplish anything that could have resurrected his image. Even in the realm of diplomacy, where Adams had achieved such a distinguished legacy, Adams had no success. So unfortunately, the presidency of John Quincy Adams is most known for its stunning lack of success.

3)          What would you say were his strengths?

John Quincy Adams was clearly a very intelligent individual. He was hard working and honest, and never pandered to anyone while holding office.

4)          What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Unfortunately, what I regard as a strength, is of course a political liability. As president you have to keep the support of your base, but Adams was too principled to do so. Thus, when he sought reelection, his supporters deserted him in droves.

5)          What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

As president, his influence both here and abroad was minimal. But as a diplomat and as secretary of state, he was one of the most important Americans of all time. From negotiating a successful resolution to the War of 1812 to devising the strategy that has come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, John Quincy Adams deserves to be recognized by all Americans for his estimable service to the nation.

6)          In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

If he is known to present day Americans, it is probably from how he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the movie “Amistad.” Others may simply know him as one of the two father-son duos to serve as president. I’m afraid that there is no chance that historians will ever regard his presidency favorably.

7)          What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Coming up with the statement of principles that we know as the Monroe Doctrine was probably his greatest contribution. A close second would be negotiating the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812.

8)          Could you provide a summary statement about our fifth President?

John Quincy Adams proves that it is extremely difficult to gauge what type of a president a person will be. On paper, John Quincy Adams should have been our best president, as he had been a great success as a diplomat and cabinet member. His story, therefore, shows that there are intangibles that cannot be discerned prior to assuming the office of the president.

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