UA-45959396-1
August 18, 2014
JQA makes peace with Britain, war with his colleagues

    In early July, 1814, John Quincy Adams reached the Belgian city of Ghent in order to begin negotiations with the British to end the War of 1812. He was soon joined by by an extraordinary team of colleagues: Henry Clay, the brilliant young House Speaker; Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury and indispensable man of the Madison Administration; and Senator James Bayard of Delaware, known as “Chevalier.” Adams wrote excitedly to his wife Louisa that the British could not compare to the Americans “for sagacity and shrewdness of comprehension” or “vivacity of intellect.”

     The Americans, quartered in an elegant neo-classical villa, the Hotel Alcantara, settled into a set of conflicting routines.  Adams often ate by himself, and took long solitary walks to the gates of the city and beyond. The others would dine later, and smoke cigars and drink wine, and then go out to coffee houses and come back for cards and billiards. Clay, a notorious rake, had the room next to Adams, and at times Adams would find himself waking just as Clay was going to sleep. The two men quickly began to get on one another’s nerves. Gallatin was called on to intervene. In mid-July, James Gallatin, the Treasury Secretary’s seventeen-year-old son and secretary, wrote in his diary, “Mr. Adams in a very bad temper. Mr. Clay annoys him. Father pours oil on the troubled water.”

Albert Gallatin, peace-maker among the peace-makers

    The clash of temperament within the American team grew much more serious as the negotiations got under way. At first Adams drafted the correspondence to Secretary of State James Monroe. But he reported to Louisa that his colleagues had shredded one of his drafts, while keeping far more of an alternate version written by Gallatin. “He is always perfectly cool,” Adams wrote, “and I, in the judgment of my colleagues, am often more than temperately warm.”

    The British, who then enjoyed a clear advantage on the battlefield, were demanding territorial concessions that the Americans had been explicitly instructed not to make. Adams wanted to meet presumption with scorn. “The tone of all the British Notes is arrogant, overbearing, offensive,” he wrote in his journal. “The tone of ours is neither so bold nor so spirited as I think it should be.” But when Adams mounted his rhetorical high horse, and thundered about British violations of natural right and divine order, his colleagues ridiculed him. “The terms God, and Providence and Heaven, Mr. Clay thought were canting,” Adams grimly recorded,  “and Russell”—Jonathan Russell, a deputy—“laughed at them.”

     Adams was, at 47, America’s most seasoned and most gifted diplomat. Yet he could neither get along with his colleagues nor moderate his temper. One wonders how he had achieved such dazzling success in The Hague, Berlin and Moscow.  Adams had always worked alone, which suited his solitary and uncompromising nature; in close quarters, he could not adapt as other men quite naturally did. And he was a vehement man; he could accept an insult to himself, but not to his country—especially an insult from Great Britain. As a nine-year-old boy Adams had heard the awful din of the Battle of Bunker Hill; he could not forget, and barely forgive.

    The American team was constantly on the verge of crack-up. At one point the British cleverly offered to concede the right to fish on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, precious to New England and thus to Adams, in exchange for the right of navigation on the Mississippi, a red line for the Western Clay. This produced violent arguments between the two, with the emollient Gallatin acting as referee.

    The tides of war went back and forth; in the fall, the U.S. won a series of crucial naval battles. In early November, the Duke of Wellington scotched a planned military expedition, telling Lord Liverpool that British troops had shown themselves unable to take and hold territory. Now Adams’ great experience came to the fore. Despite their bluster, he told his colleagues, the British would accept ute posseditis—“the state before the war”—and proposed that they make such an offer even though President Madison had not authorized them to do so. He would, he said, take personal responsibility for violating instructions. Clay refused; he was still seething over the Mississippi. All agreed that they would cede neither the Grand Banks nor the Mississippi. The Americans presented their plan; and the British, after insisting upon first one and then another additional concession, acquiesced.

    The negotiating teams signed the Treaty of Ghent December 24. A war which looked at one point like it might lead to a catastrophic defeat for the Americans ended as a draw. Adams had played a strange role: Having almost wrecked the consensus among his own team, he had ultimately pointed the way to success. He had a gift for making arguments, but not for leading men.

August 11, 2014
"If we must perish, let it be in defense of our RIGHTS!"

    On June 22, 1807, the captain of the Leopard, a British warship patrolling a few miles off the Virginia coast, demanded that an American frigate, the Chesapeake, permit a boarding party to search for escaped British seamen thought to be aboard. Britain was then entangled in a global war for dominance with France, and had been harassing American vessels trading with France’s Caribbean colonies and demanding the right to “impress” British sailors serving the U.S.  This time the American captain refused. The Leopard opened fire, killing three and wounding eighteen. Americans were outraged at this affront to sovereignty. Mobs destroyed whatever British property they could find; towns passed resolutions ending all commerce with England.

    But now in New England, where the local economy depended overwhelmingly on trade with England. In this conflict, in effect the opening skirmish of the War of 1812, New England’s sympathies lay with the British. The Federalists who controlled the state’s politics refused to convene a town meeting in Boston to condemn the attack on the Chesapeake.

    This posed a severe dilemma to Senator John Quincy Adams, a leading Federalist. To Adams, who as a seven-year-old boy had watched the battle of Bunker Hill from a neighboring hilltop, the Federalist deference to trade and self-interest smacked of servility. Earlier that year, with British depredations against American shipping on the rise, Adams, alone among the Federalists, had voted for an embargo on British goods. Now he attended a town meeting in Boston called by Thomas Jefferson’s Republican party, and served on the committee which drew up a resolution condemning the naval assault.. The following day, Adams recorded that a friend had told him, “I should have my head taken off, for apostasy, by the federalists.” He had become a traitor to his class.

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Timothy Pickering, Adams’ Federalist rival

    Now both the U.S. and the British began to assume a war footing. In early 1808, the British Parliament authorized the seizure of neutral ships trading with France and its allies. The Congress responded by imposing a total embargo on trade with England—a catastrophe for New England. Adams, very reluctantly, voted for the embargo. Citizens across New England staged a spontaneous revolt: juries refused to convict merchants accused of violating trade restrictions. Adams was left defending a policy which his constituents despised, advanced by a President most of them loathed, and very unlikely, as he understood very well, to affect British behavior. (It didn’t.) He proposed one measure after another to soften the terms of the embargo; all failed.

    On February 1, 1808, Adams’ kinsman and fellow Congressman Josiah Quincy, asked for a private meeting. “He said,” Adams recorded in his journal, “my principles were too pure for those with whom I was acting, and they would not thank me for them. I told him I did not want their thanks.” Quincy apparently believed, as many Federalists did, that Adams was currying favor with the Republicans preparatory to switching parties. How else to explain his bewildering behavior? Adams set his visitor to rights. War with England was coming, he said, and New England’s opposition to that war was bound to end “either in a Civil War, or in a dissolution of the Union with the Atlantic States in subserviency to Great-Britain.” To resist this dreadful prospect, Adams added dramatically, “I was ready if necessary to sacrifice every thing I have in life, and even life itself.”

    Adams had sealed his doom. On February 16, Thomas Pickering, a hard-shell Federalist and Adams’ inveterate rival, published an open letter accusing Adams of doing Jefferson’s bidding, and Jefferson in turn of doing the bidding of the monster Napoleon. That was tantamount to treason.

    Adams fired back with a 10,000-word open letter of his own. Pickering had called on the “commercial states” to refuse to enforce the embargo—that is, to defy the authority of the federal government. This was precisely the calamity Adams had forecast to Josiah Quincy. If New England can nullify a federal statute, Adams observed, so could the Southern states. How, then, would the Union stand? Here he anticipated by a full generation the argument over states’ rights and “nullification” which lead to the creation of the Confederacy.  Adams denounced Pickering’s policy as craven surrender—and worse, self-defeating. “Submission,” Adams thundered,  “never yet set boundaries to encroachment.” Perhaps war could not be avoided. “If we must perish,” Adams ringingly concluded, “let it be in defense of our RIGHTS.”

    In May, the Massachusetts legislature selected a replacement for Adams—even though the latter’s term would not end for another year. Adams immediately wrote a letter of resignation. His career as a Federalist politician was over. He had been humiliated by his own party, but in later years he described the confrontation as one of the proudest moments of his life. Of course it did not end his career. Adams’ willingness—no, eagerness—to risk all for principle was, paradoxically, the source of the great achievements of his life.

August 4, 2014
What kind of Christian was John Quincy Adams?

    Of all American presidents, John Quincy Adams was perhaps the most deeply immersed in Scripture and in Christian theology. He read the Bible virtually every morning of his life and went to church without fail on the Sabbath, often attending two services. Yet for a man whose entire life was shaped by Christian faith and Christian duty, Adams was a remarkably non-dogmatic believer. He read deeply in the theology of his day, but he favored liberal thinkers like Jean-Baptiste Massillon, much admired by Voltaire and d’Alembert, and John Tillotson, Dean of Canterbury in the last third of the 17th century and a leading voice of religious tolerance.

John Tillotson, Puritan theologian

    Adams was so deeply committed to the principle of freedom of conscience that when Harvard made him the first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, he asked to be excused from a required religious test. “With the most perfect deference and respect for the legislature of the college,” Adams wrote, “I must question their authority to require my subscription  to a creed not recognized by the Constitution or the laws of the state.” (Harvard complied.)

    What, then, did Adams believe? His father, John Adams, was a Unitarian, which is to say that he rejected the Trinitarian deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Adams felt that the answer to this question was beyond the reach of human knowledge. His own creed was spare, and elemental. In a diary entry towards the end of his life he wrote, “I have at all times been a sincere believer in the Supreme Creator of the world, of an immortal principle within myself, responsible to that Creator for my conduct upon earth, and of the divine mission of the crucified Saviour, proclaiming immortal life and preaching peace on earth, good will towards men, the natural equality of all mankind, and the law, `Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’”

    Adams was a man of faith, but also a skeptic. Between 1811 and 1813, when he was minister in St. Petersburg, Adams sent his son George a series of letters on the Bible which demonstrate both the depth of his erudition and his striking insistence that faith be consistent with reason, though not fully bounded by it. “It is so obvious to every reasonable being,” he wrote, “that he did not make himself, and that the world which he sees could as little make itself, that the moment we begin to exercise the power of reflection, it seems impossible to escape the conviction that there is a Creator.” Adams then proceeded to elucidate the doctrines of the immortal soul, of an all-powerful but immaterial God, of God’s righteousness, his superintendence of the universe. George was all of eleven at the time. What must he have made of this Cartesian proof from first principles?

    The letters range across ancient history, philology, textual exegesis and theological debate, but Adams’ master subject was the moral order established by Scripture. The “false religions” of the antique world had been densely peopled with gods, but the God of the Bible, uniquely, created the world, and mankind, and established the terms under which man could enjoy felicity, and punished him for violating those terms. Similarly, the classical doctrine of the Four Ages of Man offered an explanation for moral degeneracy but no possibility of salvation, while the Biblical concept of an original state of innocence followed by a fall held out, in the New Testament, the hope for redemption through the light of Gospel. Revelation had thus superseded the moral philosophy of the ancient world. The New Testament had revealed the supreme truth: Love thy neighbor. For Adams, as for generations of Puritan-descended Americans, religion had no meaning unless it could accomplish the great work of making men better.

    Adams’ faith appeared to be unshakeable. Even when his infant daughter, Louisa, died after an agonizing illness, he did not, he wrote, “murmur at the dispensations of Divine Providence.” In the face of all the terrible trials of his life he absorbed strength from his Christian faith, as from his patriotism. He was like a sailor in a storm who had lashed himself to the mast.

    But was it so? Adams’ scouring intellect unsettled even his own Puritan dogma. In the diary entry laying out his core religious convictions, written at age 75, he admitted that even on such supreme matters, “I entertain involuntary and agonizing doubts, which I can neither silence nor expel.” Adams struck others as a man of ferocious certitudes. Perhaps they only saw what Adams wished them to see. 

July 28, 2014
In which brother Tom, JQA’s best friend, commits the unspeakable

    John Quincy Adams’ youngest brother, Tom, was his closest friend. Tom was much less ambitious than his brother, inclined more to amused irony than to towering outrage, possessed of no clear direction but quite content to hitch his wagon to his brother’s bright star. John Quincy brought Tom with him as his secretary when he was appointed minister to Holland in 1794. Three years later, when John Quincy married Louisa Johnson in London and then moved to his next post in Berlin, his loyal brother moved with him. While the minister attended to his professional duties, Tom kept Louisa company, dancing with her at balls and listening to her complain about court life. Louisa thought of Tom as a brother who had “provided a solace in my moments of mental anguish.”

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Thomas Boylston Adams, JQA’s youngest brother

    Tom finally came home in 1798. John Quincy asked him to manage his funds, which he had been foolish enough to entrust to the middle brother, Charles, who had turned out to be a wastrel and a drunk. The obligation, and the income, came with a stinging admonition: “You will never think yourself entitled to betray my confidence because I am your brother, or to ruin me, because I cannot take the law of you.” Tom didn’t need the warning, but didn’t bridle about getting it.

     Tom played many roles in the life of his increasingly celebrated big brother. Unhappy as a lawyer, he took a job as editor of the Port-Folio, a new magazine, where John Quincy regularly published essays and poems. When Minister Adams was sent to St. Petersburg, Tom acted a ward to his son, George. He was ever compliant. When the elder brother, briefly unsure of the way forward, suggested the two of them buy a farm together and make a new life for themselves and for John Quincy’s family, Tom immediately responded, “No more words. I am your man, for a new Century, and manual labor.” 

    Tom finally married and began having children, but he never earned a living, and had to move in with his parents. A note of impatience began to creep into his brother’s letters. Don’t let the tenants get away without paying rent; don’t take on obligations you can’t afford. The divide was sharp between Adamses who succeeded and those, like Charles, who failed; the very decent but hapless Tom seemed to be teetering on the edge.

    In September of 1819, while Secretary of State Adams was in Boston, he received the shocking news that Tom had fled from his father’s home. No one knew where he had gone. He was drinking heavily, and he had been flying into terrible rages with his wife, his children, and even his father. Worse still, he had run through much of the family funds, and John Adams was boiling with anger. John Quincy’s friend and relation Josiah Quincy warned him that Tom must not be allowed to return to his father’s roof. “He explicitly declared that he thought my father’s life depended upon it; and that it was my duty to make the necessary arrangements to prevent it.” Tom’s wife, Nancy, was hysterical. “Much of her Conversation with me,” he wrote, “I would wish for her sake to forget.”

    Adams understood that he would have to make good his father’s losses and provide financially for Tom and his family—as he already did for Charles’ family, and for the family of his deceased sister, Nabby. He quickly devised a plan: He would pay his father $1000 for the deed to the ancestral estate, take the mortgage of Tom’s house in Medford and put Tom on an allowance. But that was not enough; he also had to effect a reconciliation between Tom and Nancy, and between Tom and their unforgiving father. Here Adams was at a loss. He visited the tomb of his mother, Abigail, who had died the year before, and whom he dearly missed. There he “implored the divine blessing that the cup of affliction might be administered in Mercy,” as she would have done.

    Tom finally reappeared, though he was not yet willing to show his face to his older brother—probably because he was drunk. The two finally talked, and Tom meekly accepted the terms. Both Nancy and John Adams then agreed to take him back.  John Quincy Adams returned to Washington exhausted, dispirited and yet more deeply in debt than he already had been. Perhaps he felt proud that he had preserved the Adams family name, and the family fortunes. He didn’t say so; for Adams, the obligation to subordinate personal good to family was absolute.

    Adams did not, however, feel that he had to love a brother who had fallen so short of Adams family standards. When Tom died in 1832, Adams barely expressed sadness for the little brother who had once figured so largely in his life. But he wrote to Nancy promising to take care of her and her six children for as long as he lived.

July 28, 2014
In which brother Tom, JQA’s best friend, commits the unspeakable

    John Quincy Adams’ youngest brother, Tom, was his closest friend. Tom was much less ambitious than his brother, inclined more to amused irony than to towering outrage, possessed of no clear direction but quite content to hitch his wagon to his brother’s bright star. John Quincy brought Tom with him as his secretary when he was appointed minister to Holland in 1794. Three years later, when John Quincy married Louisa Johnson in London and then moved to his next post in Berlin, his loyal brother moved with him. While the minister attended to his professional duties, Tom kept Louisa company, dancing with her at balls and listening to her complain about court life. Louisa thought of Tom as a brother who had “provided a solace in my moments of mental anguish.”

Thomas Boylston Adams, JQA’s youngest brother

    Tom finally came home in 1798. John Quincy asked him to manage his funds, which he had been foolish enough to entrust to the middle brother, Charles, who had turned out to be a wastrel and a drunk. The obligation, and the income, came with a stinging admonition: “You will never think yourself entitled to betray my confidence because I am your brother, or to ruin me, because I cannot take the law of you.” Tom didn’t need the warning, but didn’t bridle about getting it.

     Tom played many roles in the life of his increasingly celebrated big brother. Unhappy as a lawyer, he took a job as editor of the Port-Folio, a new magazine, where John Quincy regularly published essays and poems. When Minister Adams was sent to St. Petersburg, Tom acted a ward to his son, George. He was ever compliant. When the elder brother, briefly unsure of the way forward, suggested the two of them buy a farm together and make a new life for themselves and for John Quincy’s family, Tom immediately responded, “No more words. I am your man, for a new Century, and manual labor.” The letters between them are by turns fond, jokey

and confiding.

    Tom finally married and began having children, but he never earned a living, and had to move in with his parents. A note of impatience began to creep into his brother’s letters. Don’t let the tenants get away without paying rent; don’t take on obligations you can’t afford. The divide was sharp between Adamses who succeeded and those, like Charles, who failed; the very decent but hapless Tom seemed to be teetering on the edge.

    In September of 1819, while Secretary of State Adams was in Boston, he received the shocking news that Tom had fled from his father’s home. No one knew where he had gone. He was drinking heavily, and he had been flying into terrible rages with his wife, his children, and even his father. Worse still, he had run through much of the family funds, and John Adams was boiling with anger. John Quincy’s friend and relation Josiah Quincy warned him that Tom must not be allowed to return to his father’s roof. “He explicitly declared that he thought my father’s life depended upon it; and that it was my duty to make the necessary arrangements to prevent it.” Tom’s wife, Nancy, was hysterical. “Much of her Conversation with me,” he wrote, “I would wish for her sake to forget.”

    Adams understood that he would have to make good his father’s losses and provide financially for Tom and his family—as he already did for Charles’ family, and for the family of his deceased sister, Nabby. He quickly devised a plan: He would pay his father $1000 for the deed to the ancestral estate, take the mortgage of Tom’s house in Medford and put Tom on an allowance. But that was not enough; he also had to effect a reconciliation between Tom and Nancy, and between Tom and their unforgiving father. Here Adams was at a loss. He visited the tomb of his mother, Abigail, who had died the year before, and whom he dearly missed. There he “implored the divine blessing that the cup of affliction might be administered in Mercy,” as she would have done.

    Tom finally reappeared, though he was not yet willing to show his face to his older brother—probably because he was drunk. The two finally talked, and Tom meekly accepted the terms. Both Nancy and John Adams then agreed to take him back.  John Quincy Adams returned to Washington exhausted, dispirited and yet more deeply in debt than he already had been. Perhaps he felt proud that he had preserved the Adams family name, and the family fortunes. He didn’t say so; for Adams, the obligation to subordinate personal good to family was absolute.

    Adams did not, however, feel that he had to love a brother who had fallen so short of Adams family standards. When Tom died in 1832, Adams barely expressed sadness for the little brother who had once figured so largely in his life. But he wrote to Nancy promising to take care of her and her six children for as long as he lived.

July 21, 2014
"I feel myself answerable for this calamity"

    On April 1, 1803, John Quincy Adams received a letter with shocking news: The London banking firm of Bird, Savage and Bird had collapsed seven weeks earlier. His father was wiped out. John Adams had purchased $16,000 worth of bonds issued by the Continental Congress during the Revolution, and had later deposited them in Holland. While serving as minister to Holland, John Quincy had moved the funds to Bird, which offered higher interest rates. He hurried home to deliver the catastrophic news. “They felt it severely, but bore it with proper firmness and composure,” he wrote in his journal. Indeed, stoicism in the face of loss was deeply etched in the family ethos. “If I cannot keep a carriage, I will ride in a chaise,” Abigail wrote to her younger son, Tom. “If we cannot pay our labourers upon our Farms, we will let them to the halves, and live upon a part.”

    The farm was the great joy of John and Abigail’s life. John Adams had dubbed it “Peacefields,” and regarded it as the shelter from the violent storms of his life. After losing his re-election bid to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Adams had retired to the farm to live the quiet life of a farmer. Abigail delighted in the fruit trees in her garden—pear and apple, plum and peach. At the center of Peacefields was a home worthy of a former president—the Vassal-Borland House, a long three-story structure with fine parlors with furniture and porcelain which Adams had acquired in Europe. Three generations of Adams now lived in Peacefields. Yet it wasn’t at all clear that the Adamses would be able to keep the farm by leasing out portions of it. If their son couldn’t bail them out, they might lose everything.

The Vassall-Borland House

   “I feel myself in a great degree answerable for this calamity, and of course bound to share largely in the loss,” Adams wrote. Drafts written on the account were already being returned “protested”; that is, they had bounced. This was a matter of public humiliation as well as financial danger. Adams resolved immediately that he would sell his own home, and his fire and marine insurance, to keep creditors at bay, though even so he wouldn’t have sufficient assets to make his parents whole. He wrote to his brother-in-law, William Stephens Smith, in New York, to see if Bird had any assets he could move to attach. Rufus King, the U.S. minister to England, wrote to say that he would personally honor Adams’ bills; another family friend offered a $10,000 loan. 

    Within a few weeks, Adams concluded that the only way to save Peacefields was to sell everything he had and use the proceeds to buy the farm and give it back to his parents to use during their lifetime. Adams was then a lawyer with a very modest practice as well as a member of the state legislature; he had, in short, very poor prospects of earning his way out of the hole he now proposed to dig for himself. But there is no evidence that he gave the issue a second thought, or that he discussed it with his wife, Louisa. His obligations to his parents preceded his obligations to his own family; it was that simple.

    On May 5, John Adams wrote to his brother Peter asking him to appraise the land, the house and every structure on the property. Peter came back with a figure of $16,802.50 for the land as well as four houses and three barns. John Quincy agreed to give his parents $12,812 2/3 for 250 acres, the barns and all the houses save the home itself, which they would keep. He succeeded in selling his own home in Boston for $7000, and raised the rest of the money through selling stock mortgaging other property. His parents would remain on the farm, and in the house, for the remainder of their lives.

    Adams was, with a few exceptions, a prudent investor. Had he been responsible only for his immediate family, he could have lived free of financial anxiety. But he was not. When his When his hapless brother Tom went bankrupt, he took care of Tom’s family. When his son John died with a mountain of debts, Adams paid off the creditors and took John’s widow and children into his own household. And when John Adams finally died at 91, Adams insisted, to Louisa’s utter horror, in buying the Vassal-Borland House and 103 adjoining acres for $12,000, which of course he didn’t have. Whatever his worthy family feelings, she wrote, “that you should waste your property and burthen yourself with a large unprofitable landed estate, which nearly ruined its past possessor, merely because it belonged to him, is scarcely prudent or justifiable.”  

    No, it wasn’t. But Adams felt far too deeply bound to the land, to his parents, to his family name and history, to do otherwise. He lived in debt virtually his entire life. It was a debt he willingly paid to his own ancestors.

July 14, 2014
All roads lead to Cicero

   In the household of John and Abigail Adams, the great figures of republican Rome were regarded as models, as teachers—almost as friends. John Quincy, their oldest son, was raised on a steady diet of Roman history, and of the works of Livy, Sallust, Tacitus and others, both in English and in Latin. Of all of the ancients, Johnny was taught most to revere Cicero, whom his father considered the greatest example of the philosopher-statesmen the world had ever known. The lessons stuck: Throughout his life, John Quincy Adams would feel Cicero’s guiding hand at his shoulder.

Cicero, Adams’ great guide

    For the Adamses, father and son, Cicero was the very type of the republican citizen. A scholar of the first order, Cicero was also a public man who sought to shape the civic life of his time as a lawyer, a civil servant, a politician and, above all, an orator. He was beloved by the people, for he championed republican principles at a time when the Roman republic had descended into autocracy. The price of his courage was death: Marc Antony had him killed as an enemy of the state. Cicero left behind the classic world’s greatest works of oratory.

    John Quincy Adams continued to read Cicero once he had left his father’s orbit. In 1792, as a young lawyer with aspirations for public service, he turned to the Philippics, Cicero’s magisterial indictment of Marc Antony. He was deeply impressed with the way Cicero slowly raised the flame of accusation, first speaking of Antony as a friend and only later attacking him “with great vehemence.” Adams was struck as well by Cicero’s willingness to league himself against Antony with the party of Caesar, a compromise struck in the name of principle.

      Adams’ journals are full of subsequent references to Cicero. When, in 1805, he was named the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, he immediately turned to Cicero for instruction. He read Cicero on the immortality of the soul, and thought him the pagan philosopher who came closest to Christian wisdom. He sought him out for consolation, and for wisdom. When he suffered a shattering loss to Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential contest, Adams committed himself to re-read Cicero’s complete works.

    What he found there, characteristically, was not stoic resignation but stern resolution. In the 14th oration of the Philippics, Cicero had responded to a proposal to end the dispute with Marc Antony. “The argument of Cicero,” he wrote in his journal, “is that peace is impossible. It begins with a beautiful encomium upon peace, and expression of abhorrence to civil war. But contends that peace must be consistent with liberty, and the guilt of war upon those who would reduce the country to servitude.” So Adams’ father would have said half a century earlier. So Adams himself, who foresaw civil war over slavery, had come to believe.

    Adams passed on to his own sons the reverence for Cicero he had learned from his father. While Adams was in the White House, his son Charles Francis, a recent Harvard graduate, had asked his advice in developing a suitably grave and eloquent writing style. Of course Adams immediately suggested Cicero. Of Caesar little remained save the words of others, he observed; Cicero’s works have made him an immortal source of wisdom and moral courage. He advised his son to “make him the study of your whole life,” as he himself had done.

    Over the next few months, the next generation of Adamses argued over Cicero. Charles was unmoved by the great orator’s reverence for public service, and, by implication, his father’s. The real motive, he claimed with the smug superiority of the young, was the vanity of the ambitious man. Far from taking offense, a delighted Adams seized the opportunity to defend the principles of republican citizenship. Have you, he asked Charles, imagined what you would have done had you lived in a dictatorship rather than a republic? Cicero, at age 27, had defended Roscius, deemed an enemy of the state. Was that ambition? Charles would no doubt prefer Cato, Cicero’s great rival in the Roman Senate, who had expressed his disdain for Rome’s rulers by committing suicide. Yet in such a choice there was more “obdurate pride” than true patriotism. Perhaps when you are my age, Adams suggested, you will recognize “the necessity of measuring by a more pliant standard the firmness of others.”

    Adams had learned from Cicero the daily heroism required of the dedicated reformer. In his final letter on the subject, he quoted an expression of Bacon’s: “all rising to great place is by a winding stair.” That, he told Charles, was the Ciceronian rather than the Catonian perspective—the wisdom of “the practical statesman” rather than the “inflexible moralist.”

July 7, 2014
JQA takes on the slave-holders of Congress—-and wins

    In the first days of February, 1837, John Quincy Adams received a petition on slavery. Adams received dozens of such documents every week; he was then virtually the only man in Congress prepared to enrage Southern legislators by presenting public petitions calling for an end to slavery and the internal slave trade. They had responded by imposing an unprecedented “gag” preventing petitions on slavery from being read into the record or referred to committee, as was typically the case. This document, however, was unprecedented, for it purported to come from slaves themselves. What’s more, the signatories opposed abolition, insisting that they wished to serve their masters “as long as life and health will permit.” The document’s author had suspiciously good penmanship and diction, while the actual signatures—“Susan Risky,” “Billy Lukes”—were scrawled  down the page. Some signed their last name with an “X.” The petition was plainly a fraud designed to make Adams look ridiculous.

   The petition was, in fact, a godsend. Adams wanted to force the Southerners to defend slavery, and thus expose to the public the bloody-minded logic of their “peculiar institution.” At the same time, the gag infuriated him, for he viewed the constitutionally-mandated right of petition as inviolable. On February 6, Adams rose in the House to say that he held in his hand a petition from twenty-two persons “declaring themselves to be slaves.” He did not say what these petitioners sought, leaving the obvious impression that they wished an end to slavery. Since the gag prohibited the presentation of such petitions, Adams asked the Chair to decide whether it could be received—especially since, he noted slyly, it was “one of those petitions which had occurred to his mind as not being what it purported to be.”

The U.S. Capitol in 1839

    The South rose as one to denounce the presumption, the fanaticism, the incitement, of presenting a petition from slaves. Dixon Lewis of Alabama Lewis offered a resolution stating that “by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen,” Adams “directly invited the slave population to insurrection,” and thus should be “forthwith called to the bar of the House, and be censured by the Speaker.” If slaves have the right to petition, Waddy Thompson of South Carolina declared, must it not be conceded that they have as well the right to vote? It was hardly an absurd question.

    For three days Adams sat quietly—it must have taken superhuman self-restraint—while his adversaries, making the case for censure, rained down abuse. Only two members defended him. Finally, Adams rose in his own defense. He passionately defended the right of petition, a principle founded on the universal right “to seek for mercy.” Has even the worst despot “ever denied this humble privilege to the poorest or the meanest of human creatures”? Yes, he would present petitions from slaves—or from “a horse or a dog” if it had “the power of speech and of writing.”

    Adams now rounded directly upon his accusers, all of whom had fallen into the trap he had set by brandishing the alleged petition from slaves without explaining that those petitioners sought the end of abolitionism, not of slavery. He offered a small bit of advice from an old man to the young: “that when in future they charged others with crimes, first to be quite sure of their facts.” Having enraged his foes, he now exploited their extremism. Waddy Thompson had called for Adams to be subject to criminal prosecution. Do the slave-state representatives, he asked, believe that a member should be criminally liable for seeking to present a petition? If, as Thompson had claimed, the law of South Carolina sanctioned such an act, Adams proclaimed, “I thank God I am not a citizen of South Carolina!” The court reporter tersely summarized the reaction to this last provocation by writing “Great agitation.”

    Adams had touched a fault line among the Southerners. Henry Wise of Virginia volunteered that he would never permit a grand jury to sit in judgment upon words spoken in Congress. Adams pocketed the concession and then turned back to Waddy Thompson. “If he thought to frighten me from my purpose,” Adams thundered, “if that, sir, was his object, he mistook his man! I am not to be intimidated by the gentleman from South Carolina, nor by all the grand juries in the universe.” It is unlikely that by that point any member thought otherwise.

    By the time the vote was taken, only 22 members could be found to vote for censure. The editor of The Boston Daily Advocate wrote that “The effect of the speech has been rarely if ever exceeded by the influence of any speech on any assembly.” Adams had given courage to his timid Northern colleagues and thrilled the burgeoning abolitionist movement. He had shown what one man could do.

    He could only do so much, however. The House voted 162 to 18 that slaves do not have the right of petition. And the gag would not be repealed until 1844.

June 30, 2014
JQA defends republican principles—against make-up

    In the fall of 1797, John Quincy Adams and his new wife, Louisa, arrived in Berlin, where Adams was to take up his post as minister to Prussia. Today the word “Prussian” conjures up a military state, but by the late 18th century the court in Berlin was idle and dissipated. Adams was presented, seriatim, to the chief members of the royal family, including the empress dowager and various princes and princesses royal. Adams described one such ritual in his diary: “Thence I went to the Palace of the order of Malta, where the Prince and Princess Ferdinand reside. She was a daughter of the Markgraf of Brandenburg Schwedt, a cousin of the late king. He is grand Master of the order of Malta, within the Prussian dominions. Introduced first to the Princess by Monsr. de Sydow, and afterwards to the Prince by the Baron de Geertz.” Having grown up in European courts, Adams mastered the elaborate protocol with ease, though he found it crushingly tedious.

    Louisa had only left the bosom of her family a few months earlier; she was terrified, bewildered, and not at all blasé. She was delicate, pale, pretty and terribly correct. She was very quickly taken up by King Frederick Wilhelm III’s lovely queen Louise, who like her near-namesake was 22 years old. At her very first court ball, first Prince Radziwill and then Prince Wittgenstein asked her to dance, and she stayed on the floor till 2 in the morning. She danced with Beau Brummel, the most celebrated dandy of the period, and with Lord Elgin, of the marbles. (He was, she noted in her own journal, “a remarkably handsome roué.”) She was the only foreigner invited to the Ridotto, a meticuloulsy choreographed  pantomime in which the court re-enacted famous scenes from history. Louisa was shocked by the decadence of court life but, shy hothouse plant that she was, she could not help feeling surprised and delighted at effect she had produced.

Queen Louise of Prussia

    At a ball in January of 1799, one of the court ladies informed Louisa that the king himself wished to take the first country dance with her. Louisa went deathly pale with fright. The queen, taking pity, offered her some rouge from her own box. When Louisa said with what must have been great embarrassment that her husband would never permit her to wear rouge, the queen “smiled at my simplicity, and observed that if she presented me the box he must not refuse it, and told me to tell him so.” Republican scruples were beyond the ken of the royal court; that night, Adams sternly told his wife to return the box as soon as she could.

    Why was Adams, who had spent a small fortune on his own court dress, prepared to humiliate his wife over a box of rouge? He would have said that he had many good reasons. He had always treated female adornment and artifice as contemptible. His supreme model of womanhood was his mother Abigail, a woman who could run a farm, but not dance a quadrille. He feared that Louisa lacked the New England spirit of austerity. When courting his future wife, he had warned in a battery of letters that she was dangerously attached to trifles, and admonished her “not to form habits of attachment to the empty baubles of a life connected with Courts.” Perhaps, though he would never have let on, he was vexed, and a little jealous, about her rapid conquest of the hearts of gentlemen, rakes and even a king.

    Louisa had been a spoiled child, and she was not accustomed to taking orders. Though she had calmly accepted the cramped apartment and dismal furnishings compelled by Adams’ modest salary, she quietly rebelled at the sacrifice of a harmless vanity. Several months after the ill-fated party, Louisa put on rouge at home and before coming downstairs asked Adams to snuff the light. The imposture failed: He spotted the make-up on her pale skin, and demanded that she wash it off. She tried again yet another evening. This time, as she later wrote, she “walked boldly forward to meet Mr. Adams— As soon as he saw me, he requested me to wash it off, which I with some temper refused; upon which he ran down and jumped into the Carriage, and left me plànté là! even to myself appearing like a fool crying with vexation.” Louisa, defeated, undressed, went off instead to join friends and swore to stop attending court affairs.

    Adams was unyielding in all matters involving principle. He was, however, inclined to view practically everything as a matter of principle.

June 23, 2014
The “Corrupt Bargain”

    Throughout his Presidency, and beyond, John Quincy Adams was dogged by the accusation that he had gained office only owing to a “corrupt bargain” he had reached with one of his competitors, Henry Clay. Adams’ biographers, deeply protective of his moral standing, have been at pains to refute the accusation. But it’s far from absurd.

    No candidate emerged from the 1824 election with a majority of electoral votes, thus sending the top three finishers—Adams, Andrew Jackson and William Crawford—into the House of Representatives. Clay had finished fourth. Because each of the 24 states in the House would have one vote, Clay could swing the election by instructing his loyalists to vote for one of the top three.

Henry Clay, Adams’ alleged co-conspirator

    On December 15, Edward Wyer, a former diplomat whom Adams used on sensitive missions, came by Adams’ home to say, as Adams noted in his diary, that “he had it from good authority that Mr. Clay was much disposed to support me, if at the same time he could be useful to himself.” On the 17th, Rep. Robert P. Letcher, a Clay confidante from the latter’s home state of Kentucky, paid a call. Letcher was obviously Wyer’s source. He explained that while Kentuckians preferred Jackson to Adams, as Adams, who had received zero popular votes in the state, knew perfectly well, many of Clay’s friends were prepared to follow his guidance. What, Letcher, wished to know, were Adams’ sentiments towards Clay?

    Adams understood that Letcher was telling him that if he could reassure Kentucky’s House delegation that Clay would have “a prominent share in the administration,” they would be prepared to overlook their own views and vote for him. Adams blamed Clay for artfully spreading rumors designed to put Adams’ patriotism in question. Nevertheless, he said that he “harbored no hostility towards Clay.” Letcher “made no definite propositions,” and Adams himself responded “in general terms.” 

   At a New Year’s Day dinner at the White House, Clay sidled up to Adams and whispered that he would like to have a “free & confidential visit” with him. Clay came to Adams’ home on F Street at 6 pm January 9. Adams later wrote that in the course of “a long conversation explanatory of the past and prospective of the future.” Clay had asked him, “as far as I might think proper, to satisfy him with regard to some principles of great public importance, but without any personal considerations for himself.” Of course, Clay observed sententiously, he had reassured his friends that they should vote according to their own consciences. As for himself, however, “he had no hesitation in saying that his preference would be for me.”

    This was almost certainly true.  Clay had written to a friend that Crawford was too sick for the rigors of the job, and as between “the two evils” remaining, Jackson would “give the military spirit a stimulus and confidence which could lead to the most pernicious results,” whereas Adams would leave America’s institutions as he had found them.

    Nevertheless, we can not help wondering what concerns “prospective of the future” the two men discussed. Adams, uncharacteristically, does not say. Strikingly, he left a blank space at the end of the passage, as if he had planned to write more, and never got around to doing so. Nothing may have been said of votes and jobs because nothing needed to be said. Clay later wrote in a letter to an ally that, though Adams had made no promises, he concluded from the interview that he could have whatever job he wanted.

    On January 13, the Kentucky state legislature passed a resolution overwhelmingly pledging support for Jackson. Nevertheless, only eleven days later the Kentucky Congressional delegation announced for Adams, 8-4. On February 9, Adams eked out a victory over Jackson thanks to the votes of Kentucky and two Western states that had also gone for Clay. He soon named Clay his Secretary of State.

    Even before the House vote, prominent newspapers in Philadelphia and Washington had printed an anonymous letter claiming that Clay and Adams had reached a secret deal. There was, after all, no other plausible explanation for the behavior of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation. Thus the story of the “corrupt bargain” was born.

    There had been a quid pro quo, whether explicit or not, and the deal had subverted the will of the people of Kentucky. Was that corrupt? We might shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s politics.” Adams’ defenders also point that Adams might well have made Clay his Secretary of State even without a deal. But it won’t wash. Clay was a gambler and a conniver, but Adams was an unyielding moralist. In this case, he permitted himself to indulge in the conventional deal-making politics he despised in others. He did so because he wanted desperately to be President. And he paid the price. Andrew Jackson and his allies made sure that “corrupt bargain” clung to Adams for the next four years like a trail of tin cans.

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