Reviewed by Michael L. Ramsey
MICHAEL L. RAMSEY is president of the Roanoke Public Library Foundation.
John Quincy Adams lived in the shadow of his father and the other founders of the United States. Adams was intimate with the people who invented the country and those who brought the country to civil war soon after his death. He provided a living connection between the country’s founding and its foundering.
Adams was the eldest son of John and Abigail Adams. His life spanned eight decades, and his contributions to the development of this country are impressive in number and in the magnitude of importance to defining how we govern ourselves.
Most Americans know very little of this former president even though his was the first biography in President John F. Kennedy’s celebration of American political leadership, “Profiles in Courage.” Harlow Giles Unger has provided a palatable remedy to that national knowledge gap.
John Quincy Adams began his career of service to his country when he accompanied his father to France to seek financial help for the American War of Independence. President George Washington appointed him to serve as secretary to the American legate to Russia, and from there he ascended in the diplomatic service.
His accomplishments in Europe were enough to constitute an impressive career. His diplomatic career included serving as minister to Holland, Prussia, and Russia, and acting as the head of a commission to negotiate an end to the War of 1812.
Adams was always a national patriot. He abandoned his own political party because of his distaste for partisan politicians more interested in their own careers rather than the welfare of the nation.
A tangible emblem of his national focus, his knowledge of international affairs and his erudition can be seen in the final negotiation with Great Britain’s Lord Castlereagh as the convention ending the War of 1812 was being finalized.
Adams insisted that the documents did not adhere to the protocol of alternat, meaning that each party’s copy listed that party as the first signatory of the document. Castlereagh produced the alternat version, and John Quincy Adams had legal evidence that the United States was an equal with Great Britain.
Adams was appointed secretary of state by President James Monroe. This “stepladder to the presidency” position did result in his election to that office, but not because he deigned to climb the “ladder.”
Unger provides an excellent portrait of Adams as a man of great intellect and patrician ancestry who could not speak to common folk in a language they could understand. His speeches were filled with references to philosophies and literature that most Americans had never read and didn’t know existed.
After his defeat for re-election, Adams did something that no other former president has done — he was elected to the House of Representatives. It was while serving in that branch of government that Adams made many of his lasting contributions to his nation.
Adams delivered a momentous speech on the House floor in the presence of a young congressman from Illinois who later used Adams’ speech as the foundation for the Emancipation Proclamation he issued while he was president.
Adams was the country’s foremost authority on the U.S. Constitution, and he used that knowledge to fight against disunion, end the House speaker’s gag rule, stop the ban on citizens petitions being introduced on the House floor, and fought for abolition.
It was during this time that he successfully defended Africans who had been kidnapped and put aboard the ship Amistad, which was headed for Cuba, where they were to be sold into slavery.
Perhaps his lasting legacy that demonstrably touches the lives of most Americans was his guarding of the James Smithson bequest to the U.S. government. He kept at bay the many universities and academies and others who wanted to claim shares of the money and used the bequest to open the Smithsonian Institution.
He persevered, and the result is the realization of Smithson’s dream (shared by Adams and by Washington) of a national “institution for the general diffusion of knowledge.” It also allowed Adams to promote his idea of building astronomical observatories — his “lighthouse in the sky.”
Unger has brought the dour visage of Adams from the dim daguerreotype, with which many are familiar, to life.
This book lets the reader know the sixth president as a serious man, a deeply devout Christian and family man, a fierce defender of the idea of nationhood through the union of states, a champion for the rights of everyone to participate in governing and a man so devoted to his principles that eschewed the rancorous and divisive rhetoric of political parties (including his own).