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john quincy adams

12 may 2008

Robert V. Remini is the most distinguished historian of Jacksonian America. He could probably write a biography of John Quincy Adams in his sleep. Fortunately, he is awake and alert in the Quincy Adams entry for the Times Books American Presidents series. His John Quincy Adams is a solid introduction to an understanding of the star-crossed sixth President.

John Quincy Adams was one of a small class of Presidents (including William H. Taft, Herbert Hoover, and JQA's own father John Adams) who had exemplary pre- and post-Presidential careers but made a complete mess of their four years in the White House. The Times Books series is intended to study the Presidencies more than the Presidents, but Remini, faced with the disaster that was 1825-29, writes a more standard short biography. As Garry Wills does with James Madison, Remini must confront the problem of why such a brilliant statesman made such an indifferent President.

And as Wills concludes about Madison, the problem with JQA was largely that of temperament. Both men were distinguished leaders in the House of Representatives. Fiendish in argument, they were great rhetoricians. But the Presidency, though a bully pulpit, requires more than a rhetorician. Great Presidents must be strong debaters, but they must also be charming arm-twisters and ruthless political bosses.

John Quincy Adams could win people over with argument alone. Unlike Gary Hart, who sees President James Monroe as the primary author of the Doctrine that bears his name, Remini posits the adoption of the Doctrine as a matter of Secretary of State Adams winning an intraparty debate "over Monroe, over ex-Presidents Jefferson and Madison, and over the entire Cabinet" (61). Even more impressive was Adams's victory in the 1841 Amistad case, where he persuaded a slavery-friendly Supreme Court to find in favor of Africans who had seized a ship from their transporters. Imagine persuading a National Right to Life convention to adopt a resolution supporting Roe v. Wade, and you have some notion of the stunning success that Adams achieved with Amistad.

But as President, you don't just win a case and have done with it. You have to persuade a fickle public to support you anew every morning. And you have to use the powers of your office to assemble a team that will beat your opponents in daily skirmishes. Adams was somewhere between indifferent and inept at these basic political tactics. He came across as prickly and distant, the quintessential egghead. And he allowed an enemy Jacksonian Postmaster General, John McLean, to run what was then the most important source of patronage in the Executive Branch. At times in John Quincy Adams, Remini resorts to an isolated exclamatory sentence to express his amazement at JQA's missteps. What a ninny!

Still, all intellectual political junkies revere Adams. He was a lifelong student. He read and spoke many languages (though he refused to make stump speeches in Pennsylvania in his near-native German; no campaign-trail boilermakers for this Presidential candidate). Adams proposed national observatories (derided by his opponents as "lighthouses in the sky," when he had used the preposition "of"), a national university, a naval academy. He was a fanatic on the subject of commercial standardization (as was Herbert Hoover), and wrote an important treatise on weights and measures. And in the course of a 55-year political career, he evolved from an expansionist relatively undisturbed by slavery into the most senior and most aggressive anti-slavery voice in Congress. Remini's short book gives us the whole picture, and on balance it is a very admirable one. Maybe there is a mini-series in the junior Adams's future.

Remini, Robert V. John Quincy Adams. New York: Times Books, 2002.