John Quincy Adams often used the occasion of his birthday, July 11, to reflect on his life to date, and to anticipate what was to come. As he grew older, Adams found his mind turning increasingly to the prospect of his death. On his 73rd birthday, in 1840, he wrote in his diary, “I am deeply sensible of the duty of beginning in earnest to wean myself from the interests and afflictions of this world, and of preparing myself for the departure to that which is to come.” A devout Christian, Adams lived in prayerful communion with his God, and felt that he must ready his soul to be called home from his “pilgrimage,” as he sometimes called his life.
And yet he wasn’t ready at all. After acknowledging his religious duty, Adams made a stark admission to himself: “The truth is, I adhere to the world and all its vanities, from an impulse not altogether voluntary, and cannot, by any exercise of my will, realize that I can have but very few days left to live.”
Adams was torn between soul and self. Piety, and wisdom, told him that the time had come to detach himself from the things of this world. His father had returned to the farm after losing the presidency, and stayed there for a quarter of a century until he died. The younger Adams lacked his father’s old-age equanimity. At times he found life in Quincy unbearably dull, and could scarcely wait for Congress to go back in session. And while Adams suffered from myriad ailments—rheumatism, sciatica, a periodic inflammation of the eye—he was actually in no danger of dying.
Adams soldiered on through his seventies, attending every meeting of Congress, delivering public speeches, reading and writing and arguing. He rarely missed a day in his diary. Then, after October 31, 1846, a gap appears. The diary only resumes on March 14, 1847, with an entry which Adams titled “posthumous memoir.” On November 10 of the previous year, he writes, he had been prepared to take a walk from his son Charles Francis’ house in Boston when his knees gave way and he sank to the ground. He was carried to bed, and attended day and night by a nurse. “From that hour,” he wrote, “I date my decease, and consider myself for every useful purpose to myself or to my fellow-creatures, dead; and hence I call this and what I may write hereafter a posthumous memoir.”
What a strange term! Adams was now describing his life from a point beyond his life. He felt that his perpetually restless spirit had at last been stilled; perhaps he welcomed the end of his pilgrimage. Yet the life force in this old man continued to beat. After several weeks he began to ride in a carriage, and then to walk to church. He insisted on returning to Washington for the upcoming session of Congress. He and Louisa made the trip, as always, by rail, steamer and carriage. The posthumous memoir was, in fact, written from his house on F Street, near the Capitol. After this last passage he found that he could no longer write, and began to dictate his journal to his grand-daughter Mary Louisa.
Charles Francis was later to become his father’s literary executor, and edited the twelve-volume collection of his journals, which includes about a third of the total. The last volume ends with an entry from June 1, 1847, when Adams returned to Quincy, because, Charles Francis tells us, his father no longer involved himself in public affairs. That’s true; and yet the diary shows that Adams’ iron grip on life had not altogether relaxed. He still critiqued the Sunday sermons he attended, still took walks, still read and pondered Paradise Lost. He had been thrilled by astronomy since his undergraduate days, and remained so. He and the other members of the Harvard Board of Overseers visited the university’s observatory, which Adams had done a great deal to bring into being. Adams was thrilled to see Mars, Saturn and Neptune, the planet that had just been discovered.
That fall Adams returned to Washington for the last time. In Congress he rose to introduce several petitions, and to oppose the war in Mexico. In his diary, he recorded all the mundane business of the Congress, as he had been doing since 1832. Few men loved the institution as he did. On January 4, 1848, he noted that a one Congressman rose to offer a resolution, another to make a point of order. There followed a notation: “Giddings of Ohio.” Joshua Giddings was a passionate abolitionist who revered Adams, and whom Adams loved. The diary, which Adams had begun keeping in 1779, at the age of 12, ends with him. There are, finally, no more words.
Adams lived until February 23. He was felled by a stroke on the floor of Congress, and died two days later.
As JQA fell silent, so will JQAspeaks. But this blog, unlike its subject, will quicken to life once again, when my biography of Adams appears, some time in 2015.
On November 25, 1783, the sixteen-year-old John Quincy Adams, in London, wrote to his friend Peter Jay Munro: “Oh Lord! Munro: if you have ever a Heart, don’t come here, you’ll lose it, most assuredly! such Women! you know this Country is renowned for thieves.— there are as many Heart robbers as money Robbers in it.” Adams wrote Munro eighteen letters in all, and most of them resound with headlong enthusiasm, open-hearted affection, passionate curiosity and barely restrained ribaldry. They are a reminder that this man we recognize from his grim middle-aged visage was once a young man full of a young man’s brimming passions.
The two had met that summer in Paris. Adams was a rare bird, an erudite and Europeanized American nevertheless rooted in love of country, and of his native New England. Munro was of the exact same feather. After the death of his father, he had been sent to live with his uncle, John Jay, a leading revolutionary and the heir to a great New York fortune. Like the elder John Adams, Jay had been sent abroad as part of America’s first cadre of diplomats. Munro had traveled with his guardian to Madrid and then to Paris, where John Jay and John Adams, along with Benjamin Franklin, negotiated the treaty which ended the Revolutionary War. Both John Quincy and Peter Jay served as private secretaries. They met often at Franklin’s home in Passy, where the Jays were quartered. They read Samuel Johnson’s Life of Pope together. They must have rambled around Paris together. Adams had never had a bosom pal before. When he left for London in October, they vowed to write regularly to one another.
Adams’ letters are full of bantering wit. He addressed one “Dear Moron,” a play on Munro’s name. Neither of them had been to London before, save in imagination, and Adams sent long descriptions of everything he saw—museums and art galleries, the House of Lords, the Tower. Adams had adored the stage since he was a little boy; now he had arrived at the center of the theatrical universe. One evening, he wrote, “I went…to see that wonderful, wonderful, wonder of wonders, Mrs. Siddons”—Sarah Siddons, the great Shakespearean of the age. “The most capital performer upon the Stage; not only of Europe, at present, but that ever was seen. (N.B. while I am in England, I must talk like an Englishman). She out Garrick’s Garrick, Sir, cent per cent.”
That Wonder of Wonders, Sarah Siddons
Young Adams was in a poeticizing mood. He sent his pieces to Munro, with the mock pretense that he hadn’t written them but had read them in a newspaper or heard them on the stage. He wrote bar-room ditties and satires in the manner of Pope, and even a bit of doggerel on the hot-air balloon, a technology that had been unveiled in Paris that summer to Adams’ utter delight. But in a few of the poems, he dropped the cool pose of the flâneur and wrote about his heart, or, rather, his desire. One began:
Oh love, thou tyrant of the breast,
Thou hast deprived me of my rest,
Oh thou hast changed me quite,
I lay me down upon my bed
Chloë comes straight into my head
And keeps me ‘wake all night.
Adams dropped hints about his crushes, almost certainly unrequited: “Alas! Alas! I have left her. Heaven knows when I shall see her again.” The two had secrets between them. “I beg you would let me know,” Adams wrote, “whether your uncle or aunt know any thing about a certain foolish affair that happened once between you and me. I have my reasons for asking—tho’ I hope they don’t for it was a business of which we ought both to be ashamed … .” We can only speculate about what that shameful business was.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about the letters is the young Adams’ deep seriousness about books and culture. He and Munro carried on a running debate about the merit of a passage in Julius Caesar. When Munro expressed the then-commonplace opinion that Virgil’s Aeneid was much the greater poem than Milton’s Paradise Lost, Adams, who was then translating the Aeneid, attacked him with a battery of quotations. And he sagely added a bit of advice—“never to decide a thing in your own mind upon hearsay alone but to examine things yourself and judge for yourself.”
Intellectually, Adams at sixteen was a remarkably mature person. But he had had few fixed friendships, and had grown up around adults. He craved the company of people his own age. He wrote Munro far more often, and at far greater length, than Munro wrote him. He kept expecting to return to Paris and resume their friendship. But by the time he came back, in the summer of 1784, Munro and Jay has returned to the United States. The correspondence soon petered out. But the friendship, brief as it was, had given Adams an opportunity to express feelings he otherwise confided only to his journal.
On November 8, 1833, John Quincy Adams wrote a long entry in his diary that began, “Blessed! Ever blessed be the name of God! That I am alive, and have escaped unhurt, from the most dreadful catastrophe that ever my eyes beheld.” He had just escaped from one of the very first train wrecks.
Adams was an Eastern Seaboard commuter, traveling from Washington to Boston at the end of every Congressional session in the spring or early summer and making the return trip in the late fall. Adams had been born into the ancient world of the sailing ship and had been delighted by the advent of the steamship. He was fascinated by every kind of machine, and had inspected the early rail systems generally used to haul cargo from mines. By the fall of 1833, trains had begun to run on the Camden and Amboy Railway, which connected those two New Jersey cities, and thus Philadelphia and New York. The trip cost $3 and took nine and a half hours, a modest improvement over steamboat and stagecoach. The November 8 trip was his first ride on the C & A.
Locomotive from the Camden and Amboy Railway
“There were upwards of 200 passengers in the railroad cars,” Adams wrote. Two locomotives pulled four or five passenger cars, each of which forty or fifty people sitting on benches. Adams was in the first car. The train had stopped a few miles south of Camden to oil its wheels, and then re-started. They had reached a speed of about 35 mph “when the front left wheel of the car in which I was, having taken fire and burn’t for several minutes, slip’d off the rail. The pressure on the right side of the car then meeting resistance, raised it from both wheels off the rails, and it was oversetting, but the same pressure on the car on the train immediately behind, raised the left side from the rail, till it actually overset, to the right, and in oversetting, brought back the car in which I was to stand on its four wheels, and saved from injury all the passengers in it.”
The car behind them was not so fortunate. “The scene of suffering,” Adams wrote, “was excruciating. Many women, and a child, scattered along the road, bleeding, mangled, groaning, writhing in torture and dying, was a trial of feeling, to which I had never before been called.” One man died within minutes, another soon after—the first recorded fatalities in the history of rail transportation. Adams listed the names and home towns of both the wounded and the dead, perhaps having learned them through an inquest he ordered that evening. A “Mr. Vanderbilt” broke his leg. This was Cornelius Vanderbilt, who vowed never again to ride on a train—a pledge which he violated once he began buying up railroads in the ensuing decades.
Adams had never been to war, and never, as he indicated, seen violent death close up. He had been calm at the time, but afterwards trembled at the prospect of what might have been. “When the thought came over me that a few seconds more of pressure, on the car in which I was would in all probability have laid me a prostrate corpse, like him who was before my eyes, or made me a cripple for life—and, more insupportable still, what if my wife and grandchild had been in the car behind me…” The idea that Louisa and little Mary Francis might have taken the train with him was “torture, a thousandfold worse than death.”
Adams was quite prepared to be reckless with his own life, which he felt that he had pledged to his country. As President, he had faced down with perfect composure a man who planned to assassinate him. But he was terrified lest his wife or grand-children fall ill, much less perish; the thought that he might have been the agent of their death “unmann’d” him, as he wrote in a letter to his son, Charles.
Adams also promised Charles that he would not see foot again on a railroad car, at least until the technology radically improved. But the train onward from Philadelphia to Baltimore was too convenient to pass up. Congress was not yet in session, and Adams had no pressing business in Washington. But for Adams, the call of duty was a pleasure rather than a burden. The next day, for all his inward horror, he climbed back on the train.
In the spring of 1822, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams faced a threat to his reputation which he feared would destroy his chances to become President. A member of Congress had alleged that Adams, as one of the diplomats in Ghent negotiating the end the War of 1812, had surrendered to Great Britain the right to navigate the Mississippi in exchange for preserving American access to the fisheries of Newfoundland—in effect subordinating the interests of the West to those of his native New England. At the time Adams had argued bitterly over the issue with one his fellow diplomats, Henry Clay. By 1822, Clay was his chief rival for the presidency. Adams had no doubt that Clay was behind the allegations.
In the course of burrowing into the files at the State Department in order to rebut the charge, Adams found a letter from another commissioner, Jonathan Russell, objecting to the proposed swap, as Clay had, and suggesting that he would detail his concerns about the state of the negotiations in a later letter to then Secretary of State Monroe. This second letter was nowhere to be found, and Adams asked Russell, now a Massachusetts Senator, if he could furnish a copy. On April 22, Russell complied; and Adams found that Russell had shockingly alleged that he and some of his colleagues had deliberately ignored instructions from Secretary of State James Monroe not to barter away the Mississippi for the fisheries. This was false, as Russell would have known perfectly well; Monroe had agreed to the exchange. Russell was a Clay confederate who may have borne Adams a grudge; Adams realized that the “duplicate” was in fact a fake designed to advance Clay’s subterranean campaign against him.
Jonathan Russell, who made the mistake of provoking JQA
Adams cared about nothing more deeply than his reputation; Russell’s imposture launched him into a righteous fury. Russell must have assumed that the original letter had vanished, but on the 25th Monroe, now the president, found it and delivered it to Adams. In the actual letter Russell had made no allegation of bad faith. After hours of minute scrutiny, Adams discovered 172 discrepancies between the two documents. Adams presented his findings to the President, asking him to send to Congress both letters, as well as Adams’ own report on the affair. Monroe demurred; he had no wish to take sides in a brewing political struggle.
Russell may have learned that Adams had unearthed the true letter, for on the 29th he found a pretext to visit the Secretary of State. Adams confronted him. Russell insisted that any errors in copying had been inadvertent; but, Adams recorded, he paled at Adams’ account. Adams returned to the White House and found Russell there, apparently importuning the President not to release the letter. Russell exited, and Monroe, in an uncharacteristically angry exchange, told Adams that he would not release the letter unless Congress demanded it. Adams then resorted to a subterfuge of his own, persuading a friend in Congress to draft a resolution seeking the correspondence. The President furnished both letters along with Adams’ damning report.
From this point, the newspapers took over and turned the private dispute into a very public donnybrook. Pro-Clay papers printed the Russell duplicate without the original. Pro-Adams papers printed both letters side-by-side, along with the Adams report. Russell took to the pages of the Boston Patriot to defend himself. Adams wrote a point-by-point rebuttal which appeared in the National Intelligencer, Washington’s semi-official newspaper, July 17 and August 7.
It was widely agreed that Adams had conclusively proved Russell’s’ perfidy. Louisa Adams wrote her husband from Quincy to say that he should leave well enough alone and come home. Other friends made the same suggestion. Adams refused. “If he wishes for peace with me,” Adams wrote to one of them, “he must hold out the white flag.” The heat in Washington that summer was unbearable, the city was all but deserted, but Adams slaved away. In September he self-published a book-length pamphlet under the title, “The Duplicate Letters, The Fisheries and The Mississippi.” Russell did not answer; there was nothing to say.
Clay realized that he had done far more harm to himself than to his adversary. He remained silent until November, when he wrote a letter to the National Intelligencer disavowing any connection to the “unhappy controversy.” Russell, however, was obliterated, and left office the following year, only two years into his tenure. Timothy Pickering, an old Boston Federalist and no friend of Adams, was heard to say, “I regard Mr. Russell as a man fairly done over. Mr. Adams will be exalted in the estimation of New England by his Remarks, and ought to be exalted in any part of the world.”
Adams’ demolition of his adversary was so widely celebrated that it became a verb. To “Jonathan Russell” someone meant to destroy him utterly.
In late October, 1843, John Quincy Adams, then 76 years old, traveled to Ohio, the only trip he ever took to the American interior. He had been invited to lay the cornerstone of an observatory to be built by the Astronomical Society of Cincinnati. Adams had been fascinated by astronomy from his days at Harvard, and as President he had called on the nation to build a network of observatories in order to advance scientific understanding.
The Cincinnati Observatory
At first Adams had worried that the long trip would be hard on his fragile health, but almost as soon as he boarded the train to Springfield he began to marvel at the speed and comfort of America’s emerging transportation network. In Adams’ youth, the trip from Boston to Washington, by sailing ship and by carriage over shattered roads, had taken at least a week. Now he took a train to Buffalo, a steamer across Lake Erie and then a canal boat down the Ohio Canal from Cleveland to Hebron in central Ohio—a trip of at least 600 miles. Each leg required a day or less.
Adams was delighted by the improvement in America’s infrastructure. He was even more taken aback by the change in his own fortunes: He was greeted everywhere with wild enthusiasm. Adams had been America’s least popular president. Not only did he utterly lack the common touch, he was a primordial member of a New England elite which seemed increasingly out of touch with a burgeoning frontier nation. Yet in Cleveland he was recognized at a barbershop, and soon a throng gathered at his hotel, clamoring to look upon his face and to shake his hand. In Akron, he gave a speech at Town Hall, and then greeted citizens. “Among the women,” he wrote in his diary, “a very pretty one, as I took her hand, kissed me on the cheek. I returned the salute on the lip, and kissed every women that followed, at which some made faces, but none refused.”
For many Americans, and above all those in the free states, Adams was no longer the failed president of fifteen years earlier. He was, rather, a moral hero—a man who had stood almost alone in Congress to champion the right of the people to petition for an end to slavery, and who had persevered in the face of fierce efforts by slave-state Congressman to censure, intimidate and discredit him
The cornerstone-laying took place November 9. A torrential rain began that morning, and continued all day. Nevertheless, a vast crowd formed on Sixth Street, where a banner had been raised: “John Quincy Adams, Defenders of The Rights of man.” Thousands followed the procession to the hilltop site—later re-named Mount Adams—where the former president laid the cornerstone atop copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and gave a brief address.
The newspapers of Cincinnati wrote of little else. The abolitionist Weekly Herald observed sardonically that Adams was the very same man he had been five years earlier, “when he was named, but to be cursed, and when to vindicate his course, was almost equivalent to a loss of caste.” Now he was beset by “an obsequious crowd of flatterers.” A less sour appraisal came from the Daily Advocate and Advertiser of Pittsburgh, where Adams ended his tour, and where workers had decided as a gesture of regard to close their factories for the day. “Somewhat of the respect which was manifested was doubtless due and given to the ex-President,” the editors wrote, “but the heartiness with which it was given was owing to esteem and affection for the man—for his undaunted spirit—his strict integrity—perseverance in duty—and true republicanism. …He has met the sober second thought of the people and it has at length done him justice.”
Adams despised all forms of hero-worship, and in his journal he declared himself “disgusted” by the adulation. In fact, this battle-hardened old warrior felt deeply touched, and profoundly grateful. He told a crowd in Covington, Kentucky that he had found citizens “disposed to manifest towards me such feelings as I know not how to allude to without emotion. Such as through a long life it has been my lot to experience very little of–such as in their extent, I had not the most distant idea, expectation or belief that I deserved.”
What Adams said about his expectation was plainly true. He had not opposed what he called “the slave power” in Congress with the hope of winning over the American people. He had expected to be isolated and despised; he had almost welcomed his mistreatment as a proof of integrity. And yet, precisely because he had stood fast when others feared to join him, Adams had become an object of veneration. The American people had, at length, done him justice.
On June 8, 1791, the first of a series of letters, signed “Publicola,” appeared in the Colombian Centinel of Boston, a Federalist newspaper. The letters, ten in all, were so many sticks of dynamite placed underneath Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which had been published earlier that year. It was widely assumed that the author was Vice-President John Adams. Thomas Jefferson had written what we would now call a blurb claiming that Paine’s broadside would refute “the political heresies which have sprung up among us,” an unmistakable reference to Adams’ Discourses on Davila, seen as a defense of constitutional monarchy. In fact, the author was Adams’ son, the 24-year-old John Quincy.
Thomas Paine, Adams’ family bête noire
Paine was not a popular figure in the Adams household. Years earlier, John Adams had written a letter to his wife, Abigail, complaining that Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense had been credited with rousing the colonies to demand their liberty, when really his own letters had done more to sway public opinion (a view unique to himself) . Both father and son considered Paine a reckless radical; both had been appalled by the French Revolution, which Paine celebrated. The younger Adams, bored and frustrated as a novice lawyer, decided to make his debut as a public figure with an assault on Paine.
In The Rights of Man, Paine argued, with the French revolutionaries, that sovereignty rests neither in a divinely-sanctioned monarch nor in individuals who join together to form a society, but rather in “the people” or “the nation,” a kind of collective will in whose name government rules. Paine believed that any institution which did not proceed from the will of the people, no matter how sanctioned by habit and usage, was unjust. What was monarchy, he asked, but a “contrivance” to “obtain money from a nation under specious pretences?” Therefore, he concluded, the nation “has at all times an inherent, indefeasible right to abolish any form of government it finds inconvenient, and to establish such as accords with its interest, disposition and happiness.”
Adams, in contrast, believed, with Locke, that political societies come into being when individuals freely choose to surrender some portion of their sovereignty to representative institutions. In the first of the Publicola letters, he wrote that while the people retain the right to rebel against tyranny, they have delegated to their institutions the work of governing, and thus of improvement. So long as representative institutions operate, he wrote, citizens “will never need to recur to their original character, in order to make any alterations.”
The United States had, of course, gained its independence through rebellion, and had enshrined the right of revolution in the Declaration of Independence. But the Declaration had stipulated that a government must be “destructive” of basic human goods in order to justify rebellion. Adams pointed out that the colonies had rebelled only after patiently enduring decades of tyrannical rule by a sovereign located 3000 miles away. Were the people of England, whom Paine had urged to rise up against kinbg and gentry, comparably oppressed? It is not, he wrote, “a mechanical horror against the name of a king…or the sight of an innocent riband that authorize a people to lay violent hands upon the Constitution which protects their rights, and guards their liberties.”
The historian Gordon Wood has argued that the American Revolution was fought in the name of British constitutionalism by men who believed that Britain had failed to live up to its own principles. That was Adams to a faretheewell. Adams looked to England, not France, as the seedbed of American liberty. He mockingly observed that “The theory of the National Assembly [of revolutionary France] is more remote from the spirit of democracy than the practice of the English House of Commons.”
Like Edmund Burke, the great English conservative, Adams believed that citizens needed to be restrained by institutions. He had absorbed his father’s horror of the mob; as a student at Harvard, he had watched with revulsion as Shays Rebellion convulsed Massachusetts. He considered Paine’s worship of the people a form of lunacy. The great mass of men, he wrote, “are altogether incapable of forming a rational judgment either upon the principles or the motives of their own conduct.” Young Adams was an ardent republican; but he was not a democrat.
The true identity of the author of the Publicola letters became known in a matter of months. The essays were reprinted in London, Glasgow and Dublin; they provoked a response in France. In writing them, Adams had joined the great debate between radicals and liberals—between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians—which divided the Founders. He had made a name for himself, at a precocious age, as a public thinker and a controversialist.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.