Like almost all educated men in New England, John Quincy Adams never doubted that slavery was abhorrent. At the same time, he placidly accepted that little, if anything, could be done to eliminate the practice. Slavery was an evil, but a very remote one. In 1818, when Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign minister, proposed a treaty to enforce the ban on the slave trade, Secretary of State Adams refused to sign, since he feared that Britain would abuse the right of signatories to board one another’s ships in order to “impress” America sailors into the British navy. Adams insisted that “the right to board vessels in peace time is more destructive of human liberty than slavery.”
Adams didn’t have to think about slavery—and then, quite suddenly, he did. In 1820, Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. At that point, half the 22 states were slave, and half free. Missouri would upset that balance. The Congressional debate over the admission of Missouri forced the issue of slavery out of the shadows. Adams privately raged that all the best speakers lay on the southern side of the question. “If but one man,” he wrote in his journal, “could arise with a Genius capable of comprehending, a heart capable of supporting and an utterance capable of communicating those eternal truths that belong to this question…this is the occasion upon which such a man would perform the duties of an Angel upon Earth.”
As a member of President James Monroe’s cabinet—and perhaps also as a man who aspired to succeed Monroe, and knew the temper of the nation—Adams chose to remain silent in public. Yet he could no longer abide the contradictions in his own thought. He picked a fight over slavery in a cabinet discussion, and afterwards spoke of the subject in the course of a long walk with Secretary of War John Calhoun, later to become slavery’s great intellectual champion. Once home, and sitting again in front of his journal, Adams mused on the fact that a man as gifted as Calhoun could sincerely hold such repellent convictions. Transcribing his train of thought as it came to him, Adams wrote that the practice of slavery “taints the very sources of moral principle…perverts human reason, and reduces men endowed with logical powers to maintain that Slavery is sanctioned by the Christian religion. …The impression produced upon my mind by the progress of this discussion is that the bargain between Freedom and Slavery contained in the Constitution of the United States is morally and politically vicious.”
John C. Calhoun, slavery’s great champion
Adams had never said this before. It is quite possible that he had never thought this before. The fact that the Constitution permitted slavery had placed the issue beyond debate for him; no longer. Henry Clay had persuaded legislators to admit Maine as a free state at the same time as Missouri came in as a slave state. Adams recoiled at the so-called Missouri Compromise. He had come to see slavery as a poison eating at the nation’s vitals. A sense of human kinship with enslaved men began to stir in Adams.
In a conversation in late November with a visiting Congressman, Adams spoke feelingly of the exclusion of slaves from every human enjoyment—“from the bed, from the table, and from all the social comforts of domestic life.” Then, carried on by the force of logic and passion, he made an astonishing declaration: “If Slavery be the destined Sword in the hand of the destroying angel, which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of Slavery itself. …calamitous and desolating as this course of Events in its progress must be, so glorious would be its final issue that as God shall judge me I dare not say that it is not to be desired.”
John Quincy Adams had been raised from the earliest moments of consciousness to regard Union as the supreme good. He had devoted his career as a diplomat and a politician to defending that union. Now he was shaken by a dreadful, majestic vision of the destruction of what he held most dear in the name of a yet greater principle. He would not act upon that principle either as Secretary of State or President. But in the last decade of his life, as a member of Congress, he would devote himself to the abolitionist cause. He would become the avenging angel of which he once dreamed.
In September, 1786, John Quincy Adams began his senior year at Harvard. Along with accounts of the drunken revels of a classmate and the election of class officers, Adams took note of a popular insurrection brewing in the towns of central Massachusetts. A mob, complaining of high taxes and crippling debt, had surrounded the Court of Common Pleas in Worcester, forcing the officers of the court to adjourn to a nearby tavern. Adams could not have been less sympathetic. “Citizens,” he wrote, “must look to themselves, their idleness, their dissipation and extravagance, for their grievances.”
Adams was watching the beginning of Shays’ Rebellion, the first popular uprising against the new American government. The Shaysites, named after the leader of the movement, Daniel Shays, were New England farmers and artisans who had been unable to make debt payments owing to a recession and low commodity prices; some had been jailed, and others had lost their property. States had refused their entreaties to loosen credit, and outraged protestors had responded by blocking courthouses to prevent bankruptcy cases from going forward. Militia conscripts in several Massachusetts towns refused direct order from Governor Nathaniel Bowdoin to disperse the protestors.
Shays rebellion was the first crack in America’s post-revolutionary solidarity. By threatening the legitimacy of the fragile union, still governed by the Articles of Confederation, the insurrection turned even the most fiery revolutionaries into defenders of the established order. Samuel Adams, hero of the Boston Tea Party, helped sponsor the Riot Act, which authorized the suspension of habeas corpus. Harvard, the cradle of New England’s elite, knew very well where it stood in a battle between merchants and farmers with pitchforks. Adams’ friend Harrison Gray Otis recruited a light infantry to be put at the disposal of the governor.
Adams had no fortune to protect and no intention of joining a militia. But his father, John Adams, then minister to England, had long instilled in him a horror of the mob.The elder Adams was even then writing A Defense of The Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which sought to counter the radical individualism of Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine by proposing an executive strong enough to curb popular passion. John Quincy’s mother Abigail wrote from London to remind her son that “a popular Tyranny never fails to be followed by the arbitrary government of a Single person.”
The young man scarcely needed reminding, and not only because he was a Harvard man and the son of his formidable parents. Adams had grown up in the great courts of Europe, where he had absorbed ideas very much at odds with the democratic American spirit. The Harvard of the day assigned students to take sides in debates, known as “forensics.” In a forensic over the question of equality, Adams took the view that the laws could offer no protection if every citizen felt free to change them. Government must be entrusted to those who understood best how to govern. “In arguing against equality,” he acknowledged, “I am combating against the sentiments of perhaps a large majority of the inhabitants of this Commonwealth.” But nature herself had created inequality among men, and it was not for man to seek to make it otherwise.
Shays’ Rebellion gathered force throughout the fall. The rioters organized into regiments, hoping to overthrow the Massachusetts government. For months, Adams wrote, no one spoke of anything else. In late November, rumors spread through Harvard that 1500 Shaysites had gathered four miles from Cambridge, prepared to march on the town. Adams, always ready to imagine the worst, saw early signs of national dissipation. In response to another forensic, Adams wrote of “the astonishing decay of public virtue among us.” Only a decade before, men had been prepared to sacrifice all in the name of liberty; in the new age of selfish and contracted principles, “now we hear of nothing but riots.”
In early 1787, the state legislature authorized Governor Bowdoin to declare martial law and to wipe out the rebels. At a skirmish in Springfield, Adams noted with evident relief, a group of rebels had been put to flight. By June, the insurgency had been crushed. Shays’ Rebellion was the first political drama in which Adams had been old enough to take a side. He had unhesitatingly chosen the side of wise rulers against unruly citizens—republicanism, he would have said, against the rule of the mob. For the remaining sixty years of his life, whether in the face of the French Revolution, Jeffersonian populism or Jacksonian democracy, he would stand for constitutionalism, strong central government and a powerful executive.
During the five years he spent in St. Petersburg as the American minister to Russia, John Quincy Adams never ceased to be amazed by the ferocity, and the beauty, of the Russian winter. The temperature often fell to twenty or thirty below zero. Adams, who walked under any and all circumstances, would don his bearskin coat, his fur hat and his thick mittens, and trudge out into the blinding whiteness along the Neva Prospect, alone save for the occasional hunched-over figures shooting by in sleds. After one such jaunt, he noticed that the vapor from his breath had frozen on his cape and his hair, turning both perfectly white. “The same effect,” he wrote, “gives a singular appearance to the men of the Country who wear whiskers on the upper lip. They look as if they were full powdered. Horses which have been driven fast enough to produce a free perspiration are entirely covered with it, and appear white, whatever their real colour is.”
St. Petersburg in winter
St. Petersburg in the winter was a place of marvels. The gaily painted rooftops of the churches and palaces vanished, and the Neva river, frozen as solid as marble, seemed to disappear into the flat vista. The low-wheeled droschkas gave way to sleds, which shot down the broad avenues at astonishing speeds; the vehicles of the nobility were borne along by splendid horses with the gait of greyhounds, one in harness and the other, loosely bound, prancing and curvetting in perfect synchrony.
The court of Tsar Alexander greeted the winter with a great burst of parties, carnivals and masked balls. But the immense whiteness also served as a magical setting for outdoor parties. These were the specialty of the Duc de Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s minister, whom Alexander treated almost as a member of the royal family. No one save the Emperor himself lived as magnificently as the Duc, who kept 65 servants in his retinue and 56 horses in his stable. Both Adams and his wife Louisa were every bit as fond of Caulaincourt as Alexander was. Adams considered him “the most polished and at the same time the most unaffected man that I ever knew.”
The Duc had a splendid country place in Kammeny Ostrov, an island in the Neva delta, just a half-mile from the Tsar’s own palace. In December, 1809, two months after the Adamses arrived in Russia, the Duc invited them to a party there. “We got there about half an hour before dinner,” Adams wrote; “just in time to see a little of the sliding down the hills, and taking part in the amusement.” Several hills had been fashioned from snow and ice; the Duc’s guests climbed into sleds whose runners fit into grooves carved in the ice, and then shot downhill. The guests had arrived in special sledding regalia, “The men with fur-lined Spencer’s and caps, pantaloons over boots, fur-caps, and thick leather mittens. The ladies with fur lined riding-habits.” After dinner, which took place at 4:00, the ice-hills were lighted with lamps and torches, and some of the guests got back in the sleds. But, Adams noted, the thermometer had dropped to fifteen below zero, and everyone headed inside.
Adams and Louisa had watched the whole spectacle from indoors, where there were card games, dice and dancing. (Adams spent the afternoon talking to Baron Blome, the Danish minister.) One of the distinctive features of these winter parties was that the guests, who included Caulaincourt’s mistress, Mme. De Vlodeck, disappeared into dressing rooms, took off their clothes, donned the clothes of the opposite sex, and then danced in their new cross-dressed identity. “Messrs. Rayneval, Rumigny, Lajard, and Loewenstern appeared in female attire,” Adams blandly noted. Louisa was urged to join the fun. Scandalized by a practice that struck her as louche, but also mortified by her very modest wardrobe, Louisa declined. As the evening wore on, the Adamses began to worry that their servants were freezing; Nelson, their black servant, suffered mild frostbite in his toes. They left at 9:00. The corps diplomatique must have had a good laugh at the rigid proprieties of the American minister and his wife.
The Tsar turned against Napoleon the following year, and the Duc knew to leave before he was asked to do so. Adams remained long enough to enjoy senior status at court. He was no match for the French in wealth, title or savoir-faire. And yet by the time he had labored through five Russian winters, he had secured the friendship of the tsar for years to come.
On August 12, 1811, after twelve hours of labor, Louisa Adams gave birth to a girl. Louisa had had so many miscarriages that each live birth felt like a miracle—all the more so since Louisa and John Quincy Adams then lived in St. Petersburg, where he served as minister to Russia. He insisted that the baby be named after her. Adams doted on little Louisa as he never had on his three sons. In November, he wrote to his mother to say, “We are daily seeking for resemblances in her countenance, and associate her in fancy with all our dearest friends—She has the eyes of one; the nose of another, the mouth of a third and the forehead of a fourth, but her chin is absolutely and exclusively her own.”
Louisa largely disappears from Adams’ journal until August 20, 1812, when he made a brief notation in his journal: “Louisa very sick with dysentery.” She recovered, and then the symptoms returned, more violently. Adams was by nature a worrier who saw every skirmish as a harbinger of war; Louisa joked that he became so panicked in the face of her own illnesses as to be practically useless. Now he threw all courtesy aside in his fears for his baby daughter. When he learned that the family’s English physician, Dr. Galloway, was out of town, Adams dispatched a carriage at eleven for a Dr. Simpson, who sent back word that he would come in the morning. Adams then went to the man’s home in the middle of the night, rousted him from bed and dragged him to his daughter’s bedside.
Today, of course, we would treat dysentery with antibiotics, or with oral rehydration. At that time, doctors had no idea what to do, especially with infants. Simpson administered an emetic, to induce vomiting, which would have been useful only if Louisa had swallowed a poison. He and Galloway, when the latter returned, suggested a move to the country. Later they advised the Adamses to bring Louisa back home. They diagnosed a teething problem, and proposed lancing Louisa’s gums to allow her baby teeth to emerge faster. A surgeon was summoned, pronounced the procedure futile—and then administered it the next day. At one point Dr. Galloway shaved Louisa’s head in order to apply a blister, which would bring blood to the surface.
Louisa sat by her baby’s cradle hour after hour, sometimes spelled by her sister Catherine when exhaustion overtook her. Adams tried to work; at this climactic moment in world history, Napoleon had crossed into Russian territory, while the U.S. had declared war on England. But Adams could think only of his daughter, howling with pain. “I have had in the course of the few last days several visitors,” he wrote, “but have hardly the remembrance of their names, or of the occasions of their visits.” Baby Louisa sometimes rallied, and then her condition would worsen again. Adams wrote: “I endeavour to brace my mind by reason and reflection, to an event which I cannot disguise to myself to be probable.”
Adams filled his journal with despairing medical bulletins. September 12: “My dear Child had a quiet and composed Night, but early this morning was seized again with violent Convulsions, which continued the whole day, and announce her approaching dissolution.” September 13: “It appeared scarcely possible that our Child should survive the tortures which she endured throughout this day. September 14: “Renewed blisters, warm baths, and injections of Laudanum and Digitalis have been tried during the last two days, with no favourable effect.” Finally, on the 15th: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. At twenty-five minutes past one this morning, expired my daughter, Louisa Catherine, as lovely an infant as ever breathed the air of Heaven. It becomes me not to murmur at the dispensations of Divine Providence.”
Louisa’s grief at her infant’s death amounted almost to madness. “My heart is buried in my Louisa’s grave,” she wrote in her own journal, “and my greatest longing is to be laid beside her even the desire of seeing my beloved Boys gives way to this cherished hope.” The shadow of her baby’s death would darken the remainder of her long life.
Adams did not, then or ever, seek death. His unshakeable Christian faith protected him from such terrible depths, while his sense of obligation as a public servant compelled him to return to work, and to life. But he had lost a child whom he had loved more unreservedly than he had any other being in his life. “She was,” he wrote several days later, “precisely at the age when the first dawn of intelligence begins to reward the Parents pains and benefits. When every gesture was a charm, every look delight; every imperfect but improving accent, at once rapture and promise. To all this we have been called to bid adieu.”
John Quincy Adams grew up in a household in which it was taken for granted that a man would sacrifice his interests for his principles. His father had risked the wrath of the mob and the respect of his fellow patriots when he agreed in 1779 to serve as the attorney for the commanding English officer at the Boston Massacre. He had outraged his own Federalist party, and perhaps lost his chance to serve a second term as President, by refusing to go to war with France in 1798.
From the moment John Quincy Adams entered the U.S Senate in 1804, he followed his father’s example of independence to an almost reckless degree. He was the only Federalist to vote for the Louisiana Purchase, which New Englanders quite rightly felt would diminish their status by making them a smaller fraction of the country. When England began to threaten war by boarding American ships and “impressing” American sailors, he sided with the Republican administration of Thomas Jefferson, which sought retributive measures. In 1806, Adams agreed to draft legislation establishing an embargo on imported English goods—a disaster for New England’s economy and for the merchants who dominated Massachusetts’ political life. Adams had grown up with these men; they were his closest friends. He was, once again, the only Federalist to vote for “non-importation.”
Tensions between the U.S. and England reached a crisis point in June of 1807, when the Leopard, a British warship cruising the waters off Virginia, fired on the Chesapeake, an American frigate that had refused demands to board, killing three and wounding eighteen. The nation exploded with demands for redress, even war. In Boston, however, the Federalists, some of whom sided with the British, refused to convene a town meeting. Adams agreed to attend a state-wide meeting convened by the Republicans, and helped draft a resolution vowing to support “with our lives and fortunes” whatever measures might be required to defend national honor. The following day, Adams recorded that a friend had told him, “I should have my head taken off, for apostasy, by the federalists.”
The Leopard fires on the Chesapeake
Congress re-convened that December amidst a war fever. Adams’ own position was excruciating. He knew that non-importation had done nothing to curb British hostilities on the high seas, and thus that his continued support for the measure was doing grave damage to New England’s interests and his own for no good reason. He tried, and failed, to loosen the embargo. Nevertheless, when Josiah Quincy, a Federalist Congressman and a kinsman, implored him to recognize the folly of his position and call for end to non-importation, Adams flatly refused. Surrender to the high-handed conduct of America’s former colonial master would divide the nation, he said, and thus terminate “either in a Civil War or in a dissolution of the Union with the Atlantic states in subserviency to Great-Britain.” To avert such an end he was prepared “to sacrifice everything I have in life, and even life itself.”
The martyrdom Adams embraced turned out to be political, rather than personal. In January, he took the extraordinary step of attending a national Republican caucus to nominate the party’s next Presidential candidate. This was such a staggering betrayal of party that his mother, Abigail, wrote to say that his attendance had been “inconsistent both with your principles, and your judgment.” (John Adams, however, said that his son had done rightly.)
The senator returned home in the spring to find that he had become an outcast. The Sale Gazette called him one of “Bonaparte’s Senators.” Harrison Gray Otis, a friend from boyhood, broke off all relations. Adams’ wife Louisa, who spent many of her evenings at the Otis’ fine Beacon Hill home, must have been devastated. And then, in May, 1808, came the final blow: the state legislature, which appointed U.S. senators, chose a committed Federalist as Adams’ successor, though his term had another year to run. Adams sent a terse note resigning immediately.
Adams regretted nothing. In fact, he was enormously proud of the stance he took. In a letter to a former Congressional colleague, he wrote, “I have felt on this occasion a little of the spirit of martyrdom; knowing that my governing motives have been pure, disinterested and patriotic, I can consider every calumny cast upon me, as the tribute of profligate passions to honest principle.”
It is worth recalling that John Adams’ defense of the Redcoats vaulted him into the leading ranks of the anti-colonial movement, while John Quincy’s betrayal of his class endeared him to the ruling Jeffersonians. Both became President despite—or because of—their flinty integrity. Is it possible even to imagine such a path today?
John Quincy Adams arrived at Harvard in May, 1786, a 19-year-old junior. He had spent much of the previous decade living the terribly mondain life of an American expat in Europe. Now, for the first time, he lived among young men his own age. He loved it. Adams studied hard, learned to play the flute, organized dances and developed dear friendships. We know this because he kept a meticulous account in his journal.
Harvard in Adams’ day
Adams’ journal serves as one of the great sources of knowledge of Harvard life in the 1780s, not to mention of the Class of 1787. In his senior year Adams decided to write short sketches of each of his 46 classmates, in alphabetical order. He carefully listed the birthplace and date of each man before delineating his temperament and achievements, or lack thereof. In the years before, he had amused himself by writing “characters,” most of them mocking, of the girls he met. Now he may have felt that he was writing for posterity, for Adams expected some of his classmates to rise to the leading ranks of the nation.
We can recognize something almost achingly familiar in each of Adams’ pen portraits, even the most Hogarthian of them. Asa Johnson, at 28 the oldest member of the class, had ambition, but not talent. “Unfortunately,” Adams wrote, “he has hit upon a method which will not succeed: he has determined never to be of the same opinion as any other person, and to bid the world defiance.” Johnson treated the existence of God “as an absurd chimera, which little minds only can conceive. …If you pretend to reason with him, he will not argue but by cavilling. … He carries his singularity so far, that in eating a piece of bread and butter, he holds the butter down, so that it may come upon the tongue.” Adams saw through the absurd posturing to Johnson’s desperation: He was so poor that he had cut off his boot tops in order to fashion the uppers of a pair of shoes, and turned the folds of his shirt into a waistcoat.
The vapid Joseph Jackson: “His face is as perfect a blank as his mind. …He is extremely dull of apprehension, and possesses no other talent than that of pouring forth in profusion the language of Billingsgate.”
Solomon Vose, an avowed enemy: “As vain, envious, malicious, noisy, stupid a fellow as ever disgraced God’s creation. …possessing all the scurrility of a cynic with all the baseness of a coward. …Incapable of receiving pleasure, butt from the pain of others.”
William Lovejoy Abbott, a deadpan wit: “He appears fond of being thought a dry humorous fellow, and has acquired a great command of his Countenance.”
John Sever: “His genius is very good, but he is destitute of all moral principles, and he has ever been remarkable for dissipation and disregard of the laws of the University.”
Adams was as often generous as he was harsh. Of Benjamin Beale, he wrote, “The Government [of Harvard] has so repeatedly taken note of him at exhibitions, that it has given offence to many young men of the university, and they affect to despise his abilities, and deny his scholarship. …he displays no vanity, either of his person, which is elegant, or of his genius, which has been flattered by distinctions, and this I think is a mark of sense.”
And he could be dispassionate about those closest to him. Of his best friend, James Bridge, he recorded, “His genius is metaphysical, rather than rhetorical; in reasoning with him, we are rather convinced by the force of his argument, than seduced by the brilliance of his imagination.” Bridge was ambitious, charming, benevolent. “I think very probably that he will one day be eminent in the Political line.”
It was not Bridge, of course, but Adams who would become eminent in the political line. Adams was the only member of the Class of 1787 whose name means anything to us today. The administration honored Adams’ intellectual gifts by choosing him to deliver one of the two English orations at Commencement. Yet Adams was not the class star. He considered several of his friends superior to him in scholarship, and his classmates did not choose him as president or vice-president.
Like generations of graduates after him, Adams found much at Harvard to curb his vanity. His time there, he reflected, “has been productive of very good effects, particularly in reducing my opinion of myself.” And like many others after him, he could hardly bear to think of life after Harvard. “Too soon,” he wrote, “I shall be obliged to enter anew upon the state of general society, one which I have already met with disgust, and which with satisfaction I quitted.”
Adams’ premonitions were all too accurate: Never again would he be as happy as he had been during his time at Harvard.
Louisa Catherine Adams, John Quincy Adams’ wife, was one of the unhappiest women ever to occupy the White House. Adams treated Louisa with the condescension common to the era, though with very little of the corresponding gallantry; his chilly propriety had long since frozen the natural gaiety of her spirits. The couple had three sons, and at various times Louisa felt ill-used by all of them. “As regards women,” she once warned a future daughter-in-law, “the Adams family are one and all peculiarly harsh in their characters. There seems to be no sympathy no tenderness for the weakness of the sex.”
Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Louisa Adams
Louisa was a delicate woman who often felt overwhelmed by life, or at least by life in the Adams family. Being First Lady only inflamed her problems. She hated the vast, cold, barely-furnished White House. “A thing of rubbish and rags,” she scornfully called it; “a half-finished barn, like everything else in this desolate city.” The place, she said, “depresses my spirits beyond expression.” The fumes from the coal fires in her bedroom left her with a permanent hacking cough—the “Lehigh Coal Catarrh,” she called it. She spent long days in he room, reading and eating chocolates and counting off her woes to herself. Louisa had once been a witty creature of the salon, and now, at 47, she felt increasingly solitary and superfluous.
The First Lady found solace in writing. She wrote melancholy poems, including one about a girl who had committed suicide and another about a mother who had lost her infant—as she herself had 15 years earlier. She wrote prayers, and a journal of her life, and plays, including a farce titled “Juvenile Indiscretions or Grand Papa.” None were published, or for that matter publishable. Her most extraordinary, and revealing, work of fiction was an unfinished play, written in late 1827, her third year in the White House, titled, “Metropolitan Kaleidoscope or Varieties of Winter.” This fragment describes a party given by Lord and Lady Sharply. The identity of the main character is unmistakable:
Lord Sharply was a man of extraordinary talents, and great requirements. He was the creature of Art rather than nature. He had filled many high stations most honourably and with great satisfaction to the Nation and government he represented. His knowledge of mankind was vast formed however more from books than from the actual and enlarged study of man; which led him often to shock their prejudices and wound their feelings… .Perseveringly laborious, there were few things too difficult for him to achieve; and the natural coldness and reserve of his manner defied the penetration of the most indefatigably prying curiosity, to discover his thoughts, or to perceive his motives of action… .only those who dwelt constantly in his society could sometimes observe the flashing of his eye, and the tremulous motion of his lip, conveying some faint idea of the volcano that burnt within but which seldom found vent… .He was full of good qualities, but ambition absorbed every thought of his soul, and all minor objects had ceased to interest… .
What a brutal summation! Louisa was not exacting revenge, for it never crossed her mind that anyone would see her work. Writing offered catharsis: she could express to herself what she could not say aloud. This is what she truly thought, at least at that moment. The two had separated in all but name, spending their summers apart and exchanging strained letters. Louisa’s biographer cites this devastating passage to show that she had married an arrogant, unfeeling monster.
But Adams wasn’t a monster. He could be a terribly forbidding figure, but he was also a man of deep feeling, as those who could read the subtle heraldry of his eye and lip knew well. All the frost between husband and wife melted away in the terrible aftermath of their son George’s death in April, 1829. Louisa saw that, despite his own agony, her husband thought always of her. Adams’ adamantine convictions, about life as well as politics, could make him unbearable. But he was a fine, brave man in a crisis.
In the summer of 1800, John Quincy Adams, then the 32-year-old minister to Prussia, and his wife, Louisa, took a trip across Silesia, a European frontier which encompassed what is today eastern Germany, southwestern Poland and the northern tip of the CzechRepublic. It was a very strange trip for a couple accustomed to the life of European capitals; but Adams had found the protocol of the court at Berlin stultifying, and he hoped that the mountain air would restore Louisa’s permanently fragile health.
In fact, Adams never thought of himself as a cosmopolite; he was happiest in the rocky terrain of his native New England. In the wilds of Silesia, he found a rugged landscape that touched his sense of the sublime. In one of a series of letters that he wrote to his brother Tom, Adams rhapsodized over the “wild, romantic and endlessly varied prospects” of the country around Hirschberg, today’s Polish city of Jelenia. He trekked to a height of 4000 feet to see his first glacier, and rose at 2 AM in order to climb to the top of the highest peak in the region, the Riesenkoppe, or Giant’s Head. From there he gazed in wonder across all of Silesia, Bohemia and Saxony.
Caspar David Friedrich’s “Landscape in the Silesian Mountains,” 1815
But Adams’ eye was always drawn to the works of man. His father, when traveling across Europe a generation before, had taken notes on innovations to be brought back home; and so, now, did he. Everywhere he went he visited the local factories. He noted that Bohemian glass was so much cheaper than it was in England that it could be exported to America despite the far greater transportation cost. In Grunberg, a textile center just east of Frankfurt, he found that every man had his own loom, and did all the spinning, dying and weaving for himself. This led Adams to a striking critique of early capitalism that anticipated Marx:
“It is possible, for I cannot dispute the principles of Adam Smith, respecting the division of labor, that by the separation of all these single operations, the same quantity of industry, might produce a greater quantity of work’d materials, but it is very doubtful whether it would produce a competent subsistence to so many individuals… .Thus hundreds of laborious men will be compelled to groan and sweat under a weary life, for the sake of adding thousands more to the thousands of one merchant.”
In two months of travel, Adams didn’t see a painting or a sculpture worth noting, but he jotted down the details of mechanical contraptions and whimsical inventions and architecture and folk tales and local habits. He was deeply impressed by the natural republicanism of men who had never lived under martial law, but mocked the image of Silesians as Europe’s noble savages. Of one isolated village he wrote, “The houses are generally full of children, clad in no other garb, than a coarse shirt, oftentimes naked; and loaded with vermine, like the land of Egypt, at the last of its plagues.” These artless rustics had cheated him on the cost of bread and milk.
Once he returned home, Adams read everything he could find on the region, virtually all of it in German, for Silesia remained terra incognito to the Anglophone world. On top of the 30 letters he had written Tom during his trip, he wrote 24 more from his home in Berlin on Silesian history from the remotest era up to the present; law and custom; taxation and revenue; “ecclesiastical concerns,” “schools and seminaries” and, finally, the great scholars and writers of the region, virtually all of whom would have been unfamiliar to his readers.
Adams had agreed to have Tom publish the letters in a new magazine called The Port-folio; they were gathered into book form in 1804. The Letters on Silesia constitute an early version of a literary genre we know very well today, one in which an intrepid author—a Jonathan Raban or a Paul Theroux—ventures into a strange land and reports back on its landscape, monuments and folkways. Adams was not as elaborately deferential to the natives as most contemporary writers are; he often paused to declare his gratitude at having been born an American. He was, it’s true, more scholar than poet. Yet Adams had the travel writer’s bottomless curiosity, indifference to personal comfort and vast fund of obscure knowledge. He was at least as cantankerous as Theroux. The only thing he lacked, alas, was a sense of humor.
On Saturday, August 5, 1809, John Quincy Adams boarded the Horace for St. Petersburg, where he was to serve as U.S. minister. He was accompanied by his wife, Louisa, and her sister, Catherine, his infant son, Charles Francis, three private secretaries, a chambermaid and a black manservant, referred to only as “Nelson.” Ships in Charleston harbor fired cannons in salute, while garrisons on shore formed up in parade. Adams’ feelings were already wrought to a pitch, for he was leaving behind his two older boys and his aging parents. His mother, he recorded, had sent him “a letter which would have melted the heart of a Stone.”
Adams had first made the Atlantic crossing at age ten; he was an imperturbable sailor. On this occasion, though, he had less to fear from foul weather than from Napoleon, who had recruited allies among the maritime powers to form naval blockades in the hopes of starving England. Adams would thus be running a North European gauntlet. Sure enough, six weeks out, as the Horace approached the Danish coast, she was accosted by a Danish ship which demanded she put into Christiansand harbor. Captain Bickford of the Horace refused. The Danish officer, Adams recorded, “made a signal to the men in his boat laying along side of us to come on board, which the Captain ordered our crew to resist. We had in half a minute a dozen or fifteen men with pikes, axes and swords on the quarter deck, and the men from the boat pressing forward to her forecastle to attempt boarding us.” At the last moment, the Danes withdrew.
Adams’ route through the Gulf of Finland
Over the next several weeks, as the Horace rounded the northern tip of Denmark, it was boarded by a British ship enforcing its own blockade against Copenhagen, and fired on by a Danish craft which forced the Horace to put in at Ellsinore, the mythical home of Prince Hamlet. Soon after that, a storm blew up which snapped the Horace’s foremast in two. Through it all, Adams continued to calmly read Plutarch and take daily readings of air and water temperature.
The storm blew for ten days, so that the Horace seemed to be tethered to the Swedish coastline. It was now mid-October, with the northern winter soon to close in. Captain Bickford dreaded the passage through the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland. The Danish pilot they had taken on board, who had made the trip 36 times, insisted that the Horace would be trapped in ice before reaching the Russian port of Cronstadt. And there would be no place along the way to put in. Captain Bickford proposed that they retrace their path to Kiel, in northern Germany, where they could pass the winter, or from where Adams could make the 1500-mile overland passage to St. Petersburg.
To continue the voyage was to risk death—for himself and his family, as well as for the crew. Everyone on board favored turning around. Adams had no urgent mission which required reaching St. Petersburg in the fall rather than the spring. But for Adams, all public missions were urgent ones. “In the pursuit of a public trust,” he reflected in his journal, “I cannot abandon upon any motive less than that of absolute necessity the endeavour to reach the place of my destination, by the shortest course possible.” Still, he had his family to think about. On October 14, Adams agreed to go to Kiel, but insisted that they double back if the wind changed over the next few days.
The wind did change, and Captain Bickford resumed the forward journey. But the winds reversed themselves again the following day. Bickford wanted to turn around once again, but now Adams refused. Bickford angrily told Adams that he alone would bear the consequences for whatever mishap they suffered. Adams promptly accepted. As a young man, Adams had yearned to be tested as his father’s founding generation had been. As he grew older, he always faced moments of danger with perfect nonchalance. The same could not be said of his frail wife; but at no point did Adams record her feelings about the storms, the threats from alien powers, the peril to herself and their baby boy. He would have felt that taking merely personal feelings into account would have been unworthy of him as a public servant.
The winds stayed adverse for an agonizing 36 hours. And then they blew fair once again, and stayed that way. The Horace reached Cronstadt on October 22; by the next day, the Adams party had docked at a quay on the NevaRiver just opposite to the famous equestrian statue of Peter The Great in St. Isaac’s Square. Adams felt that he had narrowly averted disaster—but not the disaster of being locked in ice. He later wrote to his brother, Tom, “I cannot but reproach myself for this momentary compliance, as it indicated a flexibility, which ought not belong to me.”
On June 26, 1805, Josiah Quincy, a member of Harvard’s Board of Governors, rode out to Quincy to tell John Quincy Adams that Harvard had chosen Adams as the first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Adams, who had been expecting the news for some while, was delighted. He had been moping around the house for the last month, picking up and putting down books, puttering in the garden, and fearing that he had sunk into a state of “mental imbecility.” Now he had the purposeful employment he could not live without. What’s more, Adams had read and thought a great deal about the classical subject of rhetoric, which popular opinion generally held to be fusty and pettifogging. (This would have increased rather than diminished the appeal.) And the funds for the chair had come from a bequest by Nicholas Boylston, a relation on his mother’s side. Boylston’s nephew, Ward Nicholas Boylston, had insisted that the appointment go to Adams.
Adams, who brought a deep sense of his own insufficiency to every great task he undertook, set to work with a vengeance. He memorized Greek roots every morning at dawn, then read the New Testament in Greek. He re-read the works of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, the great ancient masters of rhetoric, which as he understood it was the science of speaking well, long since codified by these and lesser known classical figures.
The classical masters of rhetoric: Aristotle…
Oratory, by contrast, was a species of performance—the art of speaking well, as Adams put it. Adams was an inveterate student of oratory, especially his own, which he considered woefully deficient. It had long been his habit, on returning from church, to write a searching critique of the pulpit oratory. Now he began paying even more attention than usual to matters of delivery. He wondered, for example, why a Rev. Flint, though quite eloquent, seemed to repel his congregants. “His defect,” Adams concluded, “is mere monotony, from two causes. 1. The want of proper inflexions in the voice, and 2. a pronunciation given to almost every syllable the same quantity of time. He must have formed this habit, by too much anxiety to speak distinctly.”
Adams was then serving in the U.S. Senate, and that winter as he listened to his colleagues drone on, he often scribbled notes to himself for future lectures. In June, after a suitably solemn ceremony—procession, prayer, Harvard anthem, Latin speech—Adams was formally installed as a member of the faculty. He gave his introductory lecture, probably in Harvard Hall, on July 11, 1806—his 39th birthday. He had sweated blood over every sentence and paragraph. The ancients, he explained to his dozen or so juniors and seniors, had cared deeply about the subject because both Athens and Rome had determined the course of civic life through “deliberative assemblies”—true democracies. Today, owing to the “corruption” of “executive influence” or “party spirit,” great issues were decided privately before being debated publicly. We moderns had thus permitted the subject to decay. A republic, and a Christian society, could not thrive without men learned in rhetoric and gifted in oratory. “Sons of Harvard!,” Adams cried. “Gather fragrance from the whole paradise of science, and learn to distill from your lips all the honies of persuasion.”
For all his oratorical shortcomings, some of them imaginary, Adams was a master of rhetoric, and in his own prose harnessed the elegant balance of a Cicero or a Burke to a vehemence of spirit all his own. His lectures were themselves a lesson in the power of rhetoric. “Who is it,” he asked, while discoursing on the role of the preacher, “with the voice of a Joshua, shall control the course of nature herself in the perverted heart, and arrest the luminaries of wisdom and virtue in their rapid revolutions around the little world of man?” Surely not “the cold and languid speaker,” or “the unlettered fanatic,” or even the erudite divine with “the whining, monotonous singsong of a delivery.” (That would be the Rev. Flint.) No, “the genuine orator of heaven” must have “a heart sincere, upright and fervent; a mind stored with universal knowledge, required as the foundation of the art, a genius for the invention, a skill for the disposition, and a voice for the elocution of every argument to convince and of every sentiment to persuade.”
Adams delivered eighteen lectures over two years, before he was called away to serve as minister to Russia. The students asked him to compile his lectures into a book. After a perfunctory pshaw, he agreed. Like almost all of Adams’ written work, this immensely learned and ponderous volume was destined for the deepest shadows of the library shelves.
The Boylston Professorship, however, lives on after over two centuries. The current occupant is the poet Jorie Graham.