The United States came very close to going to war against France in 1798—a conflict that probably would have ended in disaster for the woefully unprepared new nation. In late 1796, France’s revolutionary Directorate had refused to accept a new American minister—a shocking diplomatic insult, and a sign of open hostility. French privateers had begun to seize American merchant ships and auction off their cargoes, while American ships had been embargoed in the port of Bordeaux. Many American were persuaded that the Directorate had established a fifth column of revolutionary sympathizers, including figures like Thomas Paine. On May 16, 1797, President John Adams convened a special session of Congress to warn France against trying to divide the American people, and to propose an accelerated effort to build up a navy.
By this time, John Quincy Adams, age thirty, had already established himself as the country’s most brilliant and penetrating diplomat. Adams was America’s minister to Holland, preparing to move to Portugal. But his father sent him instead to Berlin. The President wrote to his son that he needed to have a “political telescope” trained on the neutral states of northern Europe. Soon the two men had established a flourishing back channel. “Is France to establish a universal Domination over the whole Globe?”, President Adams asked his son in July of 1797.
The younger Adams viewed Napoleon as the Alexander of his day, bent on conquering the world; and, worse still, spreading France’s abhorrent revolutionary principles. Days after the Coup of Fructidor, on September 4, in which Napoleon deposed more moderate members of the Directory in favor of committed revolutionaries, Adams warned his father that “all the preparation possible to meet such conduct on their part must be made.” His mother, Abigail, saw to it that this and other letters were widely re-published, sounding the tocsin about French designs.
The mood in Europe grew darker still. In January 1798, Adams learned that France had issued a decree stating that any ship carrying cargo from England or her colonies would be deemed hostile. France’s goal was to bring England to its knees by choking off imports; and it was prepared to wreck the American economy in order to do so. Adams wrote to Nicholas Vans Murray, his replacement in the Hague, that the time had come to “engraft a military spirit upon our national character and become a warlike people.”
In April, Americans learned that the French foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand had demanded a bribe of 50,000 pounds to receive an American team which had come to negotiate an end to hostilities. The so-called XYZ Affair provoked an explosion of popular feeling. Town councils, merchant societies and local militias drew up resolutions demanding a declaration of war. Congress voted funds for an expanded army and navy and suspended commerce with France and French possessions.
Talleyrand, France’s foreign minister during the quasi-war
The minister to Berlin could barely contain his outrage against Talleyrand. Yet it was precisely at this moment that he began cautioning against war. Adams was a stern realist who knew very well that fighting a war in which you had justice on your side, but not force, was an act of foolishness. In September, Murray wrote to Adams to say that Talleyrand, apparently shocked by Congress’ furious response, had extended a secret peace offering, with no further mention of bribes. Adams wrote to his father to report “a great and important change” in France’s conduct towards the U.S. “In proportion as our spirit of resistance has become manifest, theirs of oppression and extortion has shrunk back.”
The minister’s dispatches helped persuade his father to pull back from the pell-mell rush to war. In a solemn address to Congress December 7, 1798, President Adams declined to seek a declaration of war against France, a decision which infuriated his Federalist allies. The following month, Adams received letters from his son and Murray confirming the new French policy. That very day, Adams told his Secretary of State to prepare for a new round of negotiations. By 1800, the “quasi-war,” as it came to be known, was over. Adam’s defiance of the war fever was a great act of courage. It may have cost him his Presidency, for in 1800 he was to lose to Thomas Jefferson. This act of self-sacrifice would enter family lore. Father and son, noble Romans both, were prepared, indeed eager, to lay down life or fortune for the good of the citizenry.
The more immediate lesson for America’s young diplomat was that what we would today call “diplomacy backed by force” can deter even powerful adversaries. Such a policy requires delicate acts of calibration—which, Adams would have said, is precisely what diplomats do. This is a truth of which idealists who recoil at threats, as well as hawks who consider negotiation an admission of weakness, need to be perpetually reminded.
To the eighteenth-century Calvinists of New England, children were not curly-headed angels but corruptible beings who needed to be saved from mankind’s worst impulses by a rigorous process of moral education. John Quincy Adams had been raised under just such a stern regimen. John Adams had served as his son’s intellectual taskmaster, and Abigail as his hectoring conscience. Abigail once wrote to her son that she would sooner see him die than fall into bad habits while he was in Europe. He was twelve at the time.
John Quincy Adams did not grow up to be a happy man; and when it came time to raise his own children such a man might well have reflected on his own upbringing. But Adams was incapable of finding fault with his parents. In any case, he was no less rectitudinous than they. After his first two sons, George and John, had been born, and he began to turn his thoughts to nurture, Adams, read, and admired, “Discourse on The Education of Children and Youth,” by the early-18th-century churchman Isaac Watts, who railed against “fashionable education,” and came down on the side of “severity” and “rigour.” His wife, Louisa, favored gentle persuasion over harsh instruction. She lost the argument.
George Washington Adams
Adams oversaw the boys’ education from a distance. George had been born in 1801, and John in 1803. During Adams’ tenure in the Senate, from 1803 to 1808, they boys remained with their grandparents and uncles and aunts in Quincy, while their parents spent the winters in Washington. Louisa pined for her children; her husband may have felt the same, but would not have permitted himself to say so. In 1809, when Adams was appointed minister to Russia, he decreed that Louisa and their new-born, Charles Francis, would accompany him, while George and John would stay behind. Louisa was prostrated with grief. Adams could have taken George and left Louisa with the younger boys, just as John Adams had taken the 10-year-old John Quincy to France. It was not, however, a matter for discussion.
John Adams II
Once in St. Petersburg, Adams received glowing reports about George from his mother and his aunt, who raved about his “capacious mind,” his “quickness of apprehension,” his attentiveness, his love of history. Adams nevertheless tried to direct his education from afar. He wrote to his brother Tom to say that he must pay attention to George’s French, but also to his drawing, fencing, shooting. The young man should be inured to labor and fatigue, and avoid all “delicate or effeminate” pursuits. Tom and their father John should subject George to a monthly examination on his studies, one which would test not simply his memory but his understanding. He wrote to George with exactly the sort of warnings he used to receive from his own parents: “I hope to always hear that among your companions, the best boys are your best friends, and I trust you will always be ashamed to let any one of them learn faster or by his good conduct make himself more beloved than you.” He also sent George an extraordinary series of letters on Christianity which must have gone miles over the boy’s head.
The pattern never changed. Adams believed that he could offer his children nothing so precious as the fruits of his own-hard won wisdom. In 1818, back in Washington as Secretary of State, Adams received a letter from fifteen-year-old John complaining of hard treatment from Uncle Tom, who had become his surrogate father. He wrote back: “You boast of your studying hard, and pray for whose benefit do you study? Is it for mine, or for your uncle’s? Or are you so much of a baby that you must be taxed to spell your letters by sugar plums? …If so, I desire you not to write for anything to me.” George got off no better.
Adams worried incessantly that his children would fail, would sully the family name or perhaps even put an end to it. His own brothers, Tom and Charles, had lived dissolute lives. And the pattern was to cruelly repeat itself. Charles Francis would become a celebrated diplomat and author; his older brothers would die young, after hapless lives, leaving John Quincy and Louisa grief-stricken and debt-ridden.
The trajectory of any individual life is a mystery which can not finally be reduced to causes and effects. But it’s hard to avoid the thought that the boys would have had a better chance in life had they spent more time with their parents, as Charles Francis had, or had Adams felt that he could openly show the deep love he felt for them. Charles Francis would speak in later life of the “iron mask” which so often rang down over his father’s features. It’s an image to freeze your blood.
John Quincy Adams was raised to consider self-aggrandizement morally reprehensible. He was also raised to believe that he was destined to play a great role in American life. Adams did not view these impulses as irreconcilable: He would have said that he was ambitious to answer his country’s call for service. By the early 1820s, he had been called to serve as a state legislator, a senator and, finally, Secretary of State. Only the Presidency remained. But other men, including boundlessly ambitious men like Henry Clay, sought the same office. And they were not simply waiting to be called.
Henry Clay, Adams’ rival in the election of 1824
As the election of 1824 loomed, Adams resolutely tended to his diplomatic work. He refused to cultivate friendly newspaper editors, Congressional allies or influential state legislators. In late 1822, Adams’ wife Louisa, who abhorred politics, so lost patience with her husband’s rectitude that she urged him to go to Philadelphia to meet with local power-brokers. Adams would not budge. “There will be candidates enough for the Presidency without me,” he wrote her briskly, “and if my delicacy is not suited to the times, there are candidates enough who have no such delicacy.”
Adams’ friends began to worry about the delicacy gap. In early 1823, Joseph Hopkinson, a prominent Philadelphia judge (Pennsylvania was then the most populous state in the union), wrote in near despair to Louisa that she must persuade her husband to stop blocking every effort by his allies to advance his candidacy. Hopkinson accused Adams of adopting the policy of the wavering Macbeth, when he says, “If chance will have me king, why chance will crown me/Without my stir.”
When Louisa showed the letter to her husband, a combination of literary playfulness and a deep sense of resolution moved him to respond to Hopkinson with a letter he titled “The Macbeth Policy.” Had Macbeth only adhered to such a policy, Adams observed, “no tragedy.” Was this not, after all, the political moral of the play? Macbeth’s musing, Adams wrote, indicates “a remnant of virtue yet struggling in the breast of that victim of unhallowed ambition against the horrible imaginings of that policy by which he finally wins the crown and loses his life and his soul.” Adams felt virtue struggling with ambition inside his own breast. Ambition bade him promise favors to men who could advance his goals, as his friends wished him to do. Such a course was “vitally and essentially corrupt.” He would leave it to men who had no such delicacy.
Adams’ fortunes rose and fell. One leading aspirant, John C. Calhoun, fell out of the race, while a much more dangerous rival, war hero Andrew Jackson, entered the lists. William Calhoun, a self-proclaimed heir of Jefferson, enjoyed widespread support in the South. Adams could no longer delude himself that he would be “called” to the Presidency, as George Washington—and no one since—had been. By March of 1824, his journal records 235 visitors to his home. Some of these men sought reassurances, for themselves or their powerful sponsors. And Adams, obliquely but unmistakably, told them what they needed to hear. Though he did not favor Calhoun for Vice-President, he could, he said, easily see him in his cabinet. What of DeWitt Clinton, the former governor of New York and a pivotal figure in that pivotal state? Adams authorized a friend of a friend of Clinton’s to report that he had “more than once named him to the President, for nomination to important missions abroad.”
Adams was divided against himself, as men like Clay and Crawford were not. He desperately wanted to be President, but with almost equal passion he did not want to want it, or could not accept that he did. In early May of 1824, he confided his inmost feelings to his journal. “Were it possible,” he wrote, “to look with philosophical indifference to the event, that is the temper of mind for which I should aspire; but
Who can hold a fire in his hand/By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?”
The line comes from Richard II. Adams was no Richard, and no Macbeth; but he could not quench the fire of his yearning for an office which, he deeply believed, he had earned through long and selfless service to the nation. He would, with a terrible irony, gain the Presidency only after a bitterly contested vote in the House of Representatives which left him open to allegations of cynical self-dealing. His enemies called his Presidency illegitimate; Jackson would soundly thrash him in 1828.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Adams would have been a happier man if he were less ambitious—or less ambivalent about his ambition.
From the time he was a young man, when the United States constituted a narrow band of territory hugging the Eastern seaboard, John Quincy Adams believed that the country was destined to fill its vast continent. Most of the Founding Fathers shared that vision, unlikely though it then seemed. American foreign policy consisted largely of negotiations with the European powers which occupied that space. France surrendered the vast Louisiana Territory; England yielded up portions of the Northwest and northern New England. When Adams became James Monroe’s Secretary of State in 1817, the great task before him was to move America’s borders southwards, to Florida, and westwards, across the Mississippi.
Much of the remainder of the continent then belonged to Spain, a declining power which had already lost most of South America to republican uprisings. America was a rising power: her citizens were rapidly spreading across the continent, indifferent to national boundaries. Adams, in short, could deal from strength. In late 1817 he began to meet with the Spanish minister, Don Luis de Onis, a conservative monarchist but also a highly pragmatic professional. The Spanish minister offered land already included in the Louisiana Purchase, which Spain disputed, and a sliver of territory west of the Mississippi. Adams rejoined that the U.S. insisted on Florida, and on a western boundary line for the Louisiana Purchase at the slopes of the Rockies. He observed ominously that if Spain didn’t cede Florida it would soon no longer have it to give away, for troops under Gen. Andrew Jackson had seized the northern tier of the territory.
By the summer of 1818, Onis had received new instructions ordering him to surrender Florida in exchange for a clear Western boundary. He visited Adams at the State Department, where the Secretary pulled from the shelf a copy of The Map of The United States and Contiguous British and Spanish Possessions. The Spanish minister pointed to the Mermentau River, which flows from the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles west of the Mississippi; that, he said, was the Louisiana boundary. Adams demanded 50 miles more, to a point beyond what is now Houston. What else does the United States want?, Onis asked sardonically. Adams suggested drawing a line north to the Missouri River, “thence straight to the Pacific Ocean.”
America after the Transcontinental Treaty
It was only a line, then drawn along the 41st parallel; but until that moment no American statesman had ever sought to realize the dream of a continental nation.
Onis was shocked. In a despairing letter to his foreign minister, he wrote, “The Americans believe themselves superior to all the nations of Europe.”
Adams proved utterly ruthless in his pursuit of a maximal settlement. In the last days of 1818, he bluntly informed Baron Hyde de Neuville, the French minister to the U.S. and a key intermediary in the negotiations, that the Monroe Administration was about to recognize the new breakaway republic of Buenos Aires, which would have doomed Spain’s chance of regaining the territory. Monroe had no intention of doing so, and Adams had counseled him not to; but he wanted Onis to fear that his diplomatic mission to the U.S. wound end in disaster unless he capitulated on the treaty.
On January 3, Hyde said that Onis had been authorized to offer the line to the South Sea—the Pacific—but that the U.S. must accept less territory in the West and, above all, forego any recognition of the South American republics. Adams refused to budge. If Onis could not accept those terms, he said, “I hoped he would intreat him not to write me a word more about it.” What Adams didn’t tell Hyde was that President Monroe was so eager for a treaty that he was prepared to accept Onis’ terms on the West. Adams had persuaded the President to let him hold out for more. The French minister begged Adams to make modest sacrifices which Onis could offer as face-saving concessions to the reactionary aristocrats surrounding King Ferdinand VII. Again Adams refused.
On February 18, Onis himself finally came to the State Department—he had been ill—and said that he could accept everything so long as Adams agreed to run boundary lines down the middle of rivers, thus preserving Spanish rights of navigation. President Monroe himself, he said, had agreed to such a stipulation. That was probably true, but Adams said that he was negotiating, not the President.
On February 22, Adams and Onis signed copies of what came to be known as the Transcontinental Treaty. Adams had won Florida; gained undisputed American control of the territory west of the Mississippi which the U.S. claimed from the Louisiana Purchase; and had won recognition of the line to the Pacific at the 41st parallel, present-day Sacramento. It was, Adams felt, the greatest achievement of his life. “The acknowledgment of a definite line of boundary to the South Sea,” he wrote in his journal, “forms a great Epoch in our History.”
Adams felt the hand of Providence behind America’s inexorable westward expansion. From our own distant perspective, we are much more prone to see the aggression and the arrogance of that continental conquest. Perhaps we should say that Adams made a magnificent contribution to a dubious cause. The great diplomatic historian Samuel Flagg Bemis described the Transcontinental Treaty as “the greatest diplomatic victory won by any single individual in the history of the United States.”
After a two-month ocean journey from France, John Quincy Adams arrived in New York on July 17, 1785, one week after his eighteenth birthday. Adams had spent all of his teenage years in Europe, first in Holland, then in Russia, then in England and France. He could have stayed: his father, John Adams, had just been appointed minister to England. But John Quincy planned to go to Harvard, as his father had, and he worried that if he stayed any longer he would become irretrievably European. Adams’ principles were resolutely patriotic, but his habits and tastes had been formed in the great capitals of Europe.
New York was then the capital, and the Congress was in session. Young Adams stayed at the home of Richard Henry Lee, the President of the Congress, as the chief of state was called under the Articles of Confederation, and dined regularly with delegates from Massachusetts and Virginia, including future president James Monroe. He was introduced to every young lady in town, or so it seemed. He heard “Miss Riche” sing “One Fond Kiss Before We Part,” and was so smitten that he put aside the satirical verse he was then composing in favor of something in “an insipid stile of panegyric.” But Adams could not help judging local society by the standards of a Paris salon. Miss Riche, he observed, “is not free from that affectation which some ladies here seem to take for grace.”
Adams had arrived in the company of a young aristocrat, Jacques Le Ray de Chaumont, who planned to visit his own father’s estate near Albany. Chaumont proposed that, rather than reach Boston by stage or ship, the two travel together on horseback. Adams thought this would be a fine way “to form some opinion of the country, and to make some acquaintance which may be of use hereafter.” He bought a horse, and the two young men set off north, speaking French.
The Connecticut River Valley
Adams and Chaumont spent their first night in Rye and then crossed into Connecticut through fields of barley, hay and corn. They rode through Stamford, Fairfield, Norwalk, Stratford. In New Haven, Adams met Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, whom Thomas Jefferson had described to him as “an uncommon instance of the deepest learning without out a spark of genius.” In Hartford he met John Trumbull, author of the epic poem McFingal, of which John Adams was the hero.
Adams had never seen any place in America save his birthplace, Quincy, and Boston. He was struck by the beauty of the Connecticut River valley, which, he wrote his mother Abigail, “deserves the poet’s lays as much as ever the Rhine, the Danube, or the Tiber did.” He was, he added, “never so much delighted with the appearance of any Country, probably because, I never felt so much interested, in any of those I have travell’d through.”
Most of all, though, Adams was struck by American people. New York had seemed to him starchy and ceremonial, but even fifty miles north he noticed a “bluntness, and an assurance,” he hadn’t found there. But the native character was not entirely to his taste. Adams was appalled by the provincialism of townsfolk who knew nothing of the world ten miles away, and was shocked to find a woman of low standing—a woman whose like no gentleman in Holland would consent to be seen with—in “the best Company in the city.”
Like many visitors from Europe before him and after, Adams admired what was “natural” in America while recoiling from its unsophisticated or derivative ways. But Adams was no tourist; he was an American by birth, upbringing and conviction. On August 26, leaving Chaumont behind, he rode to Quincy. Since his parents were in London, he went to the home of Abigail’s sister, Mary Cranch, where he saw Mary and Uncle Richard, and cousins Lucy and Betsy, for the first time since he had been a boy of eleven. They stared at one another, so overcome with emotion that at first none of them was able to speak. He stopped off at his parents’ home, now deserted. He couldn’t bear to stay, or even to describe his feelings in his journal. Instead he wrote, “The day will be forever too deeply rooted in my memory to require any written account of it; it has been one of the happiest I ever knew.”
Adams did, however, head his journal entry with an apposite quotation: “A tous les coeurs bien nés que la patrie est chère,/Qu’avec ravissement je revois ce sejour.”
The couplet, from Voltaire’s play Tancrede, may be loosely translated as, “All of good heart for whom country is dear/Know the joy with which I revisit this room.” Even now, home at last, Adams’ thoughts brought him back to Enlightenment Paris.
Like almost all educated men in New England, John Quincy Adams never doubted that slavery was abhorrent. At the same time, he placidly accepted that little, if anything, could be done to eliminate the practice. Slavery was an evil, but a very remote one. In 1818, when Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign minister, proposed a treaty to enforce the ban on the slave trade, Secretary of State Adams refused to sign, since he feared that Britain would abuse the right of signatories to board one another’s ships in order to “impress” America sailors into the British navy. Adams insisted that “the right to board vessels in peace time is more destructive of human liberty than slavery.”
Adams didn’t have to think about slavery—and then, quite suddenly, he did. In 1820, Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. At that point, half the 22 states were slave, and half free. Missouri would upset that balance. The Congressional debate over the admission of Missouri forced the issue of slavery out of the shadows. Adams privately raged that all the best speakers lay on the southern side of the question. “If but one man,” he wrote in his journal, “could arise with a Genius capable of comprehending, a heart capable of supporting and an utterance capable of communicating those eternal truths that belong to this question…this is the occasion upon which such a man would perform the duties of an Angel upon Earth.”
As a member of President James Monroe’s cabinet—and perhaps also as a man who aspired to succeed Monroe, and knew the temper of the nation—Adams chose to remain silent in public. Yet he could no longer abide the contradictions in his own thought. He picked a fight over slavery in a cabinet discussion, and afterwards spoke of the subject in the course of a long walk with Secretary of War John Calhoun, later to become slavery’s great intellectual champion. Once home, and sitting again in front of his journal, Adams mused on the fact that a man as gifted as Calhoun could sincerely hold such repellent convictions. Transcribing his train of thought as it came to him, Adams wrote that the practice of slavery “taints the very sources of moral principle…perverts human reason, and reduces men endowed with logical powers to maintain that Slavery is sanctioned by the Christian religion. …The impression produced upon my mind by the progress of this discussion is that the bargain between Freedom and Slavery contained in the Constitution of the United States is morally and politically vicious.”
John C. Calhoun, slavery’s great champion
Adams had never said this before. It is quite possible that he had never thought this before. The fact that the Constitution permitted slavery had placed the issue beyond debate for him; no longer. Henry Clay had persuaded legislators to admit Maine as a free state at the same time as Missouri came in as a slave state. Adams recoiled at the so-called Missouri Compromise. He had come to see slavery as a poison eating at the nation’s vitals. A sense of human kinship with enslaved men began to stir in Adams.
In a conversation in late November with a visiting Congressman, Adams spoke feelingly of the exclusion of slaves from every human enjoyment—“from the bed, from the table, and from all the social comforts of domestic life.” Then, carried on by the force of logic and passion, he made an astonishing declaration: “If Slavery be the destined Sword in the hand of the destroying angel, which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of Slavery itself. …calamitous and desolating as this course of Events in its progress must be, so glorious would be its final issue that as God shall judge me I dare not say that it is not to be desired.”
John Quincy Adams had been raised from the earliest moments of consciousness to regard Union as the supreme good. He had devoted his career as a diplomat and a politician to defending that union. Now he was shaken by a dreadful, majestic vision of the destruction of what he held most dear in the name of a yet greater principle. He would not act upon that principle either as Secretary of State or President. But in the last decade of his life, as a member of Congress, he would devote himself to the abolitionist cause. He would become the avenging angel of which he once dreamed.
In September, 1786, John Quincy Adams began his senior year at Harvard. Along with accounts of the drunken revels of a classmate and the election of class officers, Adams took note of a popular insurrection brewing in the towns of central Massachusetts. A mob, complaining of high taxes and crippling debt, had surrounded the Court of Common Pleas in Worcester, forcing the officers of the court to adjourn to a nearby tavern. Adams could not have been less sympathetic. “Citizens,” he wrote, “must look to themselves, their idleness, their dissipation and extravagance, for their grievances.”
Adams was watching the beginning of Shays’ Rebellion, the first popular uprising against the new American government. The Shaysites, named after the leader of the movement, Daniel Shays, were New England farmers and artisans who had been unable to make debt payments owing to a recession and low commodity prices; some had been jailed, and others had lost their property. States had refused their entreaties to loosen credit, and outraged protestors had responded by blocking courthouses to prevent bankruptcy cases from going forward. Militia conscripts in several Massachusetts towns refused direct order from Governor Nathaniel Bowdoin to disperse the protestors.
Shays rebellion was the first crack in America’s post-revolutionary solidarity. By threatening the legitimacy of the fragile union, still governed by the Articles of Confederation, the insurrection turned even the most fiery revolutionaries into defenders of the established order. Samuel Adams, hero of the Boston Tea Party, helped sponsor the Riot Act, which authorized the suspension of habeas corpus. Harvard, the cradle of New England’s elite, knew very well where it stood in a battle between merchants and farmers with pitchforks. Adams’ friend Harrison Gray Otis recruited a light infantry to be put at the disposal of the governor.
Adams had no fortune to protect and no intention of joining a militia. But his father, John Adams, then minister to England, had long instilled in him a horror of the mob.The elder Adams was even then writing A Defense of The Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which sought to counter the radical individualism of Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine by proposing an executive strong enough to curb popular passion. John Quincy’s mother Abigail wrote from London to remind her son that “a popular Tyranny never fails to be followed by the arbitrary government of a Single person.”
The young man scarcely needed reminding, and not only because he was a Harvard man and the son of his formidable parents. Adams had grown up in the great courts of Europe, where he had absorbed ideas very much at odds with the democratic American spirit. The Harvard of the day assigned students to take sides in debates, known as “forensics.” In a forensic over the question of equality, Adams took the view that the laws could offer no protection if every citizen felt free to change them. Government must be entrusted to those who understood best how to govern. “In arguing against equality,” he acknowledged, “I am combating against the sentiments of perhaps a large majority of the inhabitants of this Commonwealth.” But nature herself had created inequality among men, and it was not for man to seek to make it otherwise.
Shays’ Rebellion gathered force throughout the fall. The rioters organized into regiments, hoping to overthrow the Massachusetts government. For months, Adams wrote, no one spoke of anything else. In late November, rumors spread through Harvard that 1500 Shaysites had gathered four miles from Cambridge, prepared to march on the town. Adams, always ready to imagine the worst, saw early signs of national dissipation. In response to another forensic, Adams wrote of “the astonishing decay of public virtue among us.” Only a decade before, men had been prepared to sacrifice all in the name of liberty; in the new age of selfish and contracted principles, “now we hear of nothing but riots.”
In early 1787, the state legislature authorized Governor Bowdoin to declare martial law and to wipe out the rebels. At a skirmish in Springfield, Adams noted with evident relief, a group of rebels had been put to flight. By June, the insurgency had been crushed. Shays’ Rebellion was the first political drama in which Adams had been old enough to take a side. He had unhesitatingly chosen the side of wise rulers against unruly citizens—republicanism, he would have said, against the rule of the mob. For the remaining sixty years of his life, whether in the face of the French Revolution, Jeffersonian populism or Jacksonian democracy, he would stand for constitutionalism, strong central government and a powerful executive.
During the five years he spent in St. Petersburg as the American minister to Russia, John Quincy Adams never ceased to be amazed by the ferocity, and the beauty, of the Russian winter. The temperature often fell to twenty or thirty below zero. Adams, who walked under any and all circumstances, would don his bearskin coat, his fur hat and his thick mittens, and trudge out into the blinding whiteness along the Neva Prospect, alone save for the occasional hunched-over figures shooting by in sleds. After one such jaunt, he noticed that the vapor from his breath had frozen on his cape and his hair, turning both perfectly white. “The same effect,” he wrote, “gives a singular appearance to the men of the Country who wear whiskers on the upper lip. They look as if they were full powdered. Horses which have been driven fast enough to produce a free perspiration are entirely covered with it, and appear white, whatever their real colour is.”
St. Petersburg in winter
St. Petersburg in the winter was a place of marvels. The gaily painted rooftops of the churches and palaces vanished, and the Neva river, frozen as solid as marble, seemed to disappear into the flat vista. The low-wheeled droschkas gave way to sleds, which shot down the broad avenues at astonishing speeds; the vehicles of the nobility were borne along by splendid horses with the gait of greyhounds, one in harness and the other, loosely bound, prancing and curvetting in perfect synchrony.
The court of Tsar Alexander greeted the winter with a great burst of parties, carnivals and masked balls. But the immense whiteness also served as a magical setting for outdoor parties. These were the specialty of the Duc de Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s minister, whom Alexander treated almost as a member of the royal family. No one save the Emperor himself lived as magnificently as the Duc, who kept 65 servants in his retinue and 56 horses in his stable. Both Adams and his wife Louisa were every bit as fond of Caulaincourt as Alexander was. Adams considered him “the most polished and at the same time the most unaffected man that I ever knew.”
The Duc had a splendid country place in Kammeny Ostrov, an island in the Neva delta, just a half-mile from the Tsar’s own palace. In December, 1809, two months after the Adamses arrived in Russia, the Duc invited them to a party there. “We got there about half an hour before dinner,” Adams wrote; “just in time to see a little of the sliding down the hills, and taking part in the amusement.” Several hills had been fashioned from snow and ice; the Duc’s guests climbed into sleds whose runners fit into grooves carved in the ice, and then shot downhill. The guests had arrived in special sledding regalia, “The men with fur-lined Spencer’s and caps, pantaloons over boots, fur-caps, and thick leather mittens. The ladies with fur lined riding-habits.” After dinner, which took place at 4:00, the ice-hills were lighted with lamps and torches, and some of the guests got back in the sleds. But, Adams noted, the thermometer had dropped to fifteen below zero, and everyone headed inside.
Adams and Louisa had watched the whole spectacle from indoors, where there were card games, dice and dancing. (Adams spent the afternoon talking to Baron Blome, the Danish minister.) One of the distinctive features of these winter parties was that the guests, who included Caulaincourt’s mistress, Mme. De Vlodeck, disappeared into dressing rooms, took off their clothes, donned the clothes of the opposite sex, and then danced in their new cross-dressed identity. “Messrs. Rayneval, Rumigny, Lajard, and Loewenstern appeared in female attire,” Adams blandly noted. Louisa was urged to join the fun. Scandalized by a practice that struck her as louche, but also mortified by her very modest wardrobe, Louisa declined. As the evening wore on, the Adamses began to worry that their servants were freezing; Nelson, their black servant, suffered mild frostbite in his toes. They left at 9:00. The corps diplomatique must have had a good laugh at the rigid proprieties of the American minister and his wife.
The Tsar turned against Napoleon the following year, and the Duc knew to leave before he was asked to do so. Adams remained long enough to enjoy senior status at court. He was no match for the French in wealth, title or savoir-faire. And yet by the time he had labored through five Russian winters, he had secured the friendship of the tsar for years to come.
On August 12, 1811, after twelve hours of labor, Louisa Adams gave birth to a girl. Louisa had had so many miscarriages that each live birth felt like a miracle—all the more so since Louisa and John Quincy Adams then lived in St. Petersburg, where he served as minister to Russia. He insisted that the baby be named after her. Adams doted on little Louisa as he never had on his three sons. In November, he wrote to his mother to say, “We are daily seeking for resemblances in her countenance, and associate her in fancy with all our dearest friends—She has the eyes of one; the nose of another, the mouth of a third and the forehead of a fourth, but her chin is absolutely and exclusively her own.”
Louisa largely disappears from Adams’ journal until August 20, 1812, when he made a brief notation in his journal: “Louisa very sick with dysentery.” She recovered, and then the symptoms returned, more violently. Adams was by nature a worrier who saw every skirmish as a harbinger of war; Louisa joked that he became so panicked in the face of her own illnesses as to be practically useless. Now he threw all courtesy aside in his fears for his baby daughter. When he learned that the family’s English physician, Dr. Galloway, was out of town, Adams dispatched a carriage at eleven for a Dr. Simpson, who sent back word that he would come in the morning. Adams then went to the man’s home in the middle of the night, rousted him from bed and dragged him to his daughter’s bedside.
Today, of course, we would treat dysentery with antibiotics, or with oral rehydration. At that time, doctors had no idea what to do, especially with infants. Simpson administered an emetic, to induce vomiting, which would have been useful only if Louisa had swallowed a poison. He and Galloway, when the latter returned, suggested a move to the country. Later they advised the Adamses to bring Louisa back home. They diagnosed a teething problem, and proposed lancing Louisa’s gums to allow her baby teeth to emerge faster. A surgeon was summoned, pronounced the procedure futile—and then administered it the next day. At one point Dr. Galloway shaved Louisa’s head in order to apply a blister, which would bring blood to the surface.
Louisa sat by her baby’s cradle hour after hour, sometimes spelled by her sister Catherine when exhaustion overtook her. Adams tried to work; at this climactic moment in world history, Napoleon had crossed into Russian territory, while the U.S. had declared war on England. But Adams could think only of his daughter, howling with pain. “I have had in the course of the few last days several visitors,” he wrote, “but have hardly the remembrance of their names, or of the occasions of their visits.” Baby Louisa sometimes rallied, and then her condition would worsen again. Adams wrote: “I endeavour to brace my mind by reason and reflection, to an event which I cannot disguise to myself to be probable.”
Adams filled his journal with despairing medical bulletins. September 12: “My dear Child had a quiet and composed Night, but early this morning was seized again with violent Convulsions, which continued the whole day, and announce her approaching dissolution.” September 13: “It appeared scarcely possible that our Child should survive the tortures which she endured throughout this day. September 14: “Renewed blisters, warm baths, and injections of Laudanum and Digitalis have been tried during the last two days, with no favourable effect.” Finally, on the 15th: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. At twenty-five minutes past one this morning, expired my daughter, Louisa Catherine, as lovely an infant as ever breathed the air of Heaven. It becomes me not to murmur at the dispensations of Divine Providence.”
Louisa’s grief at her infant’s death amounted almost to madness. “My heart is buried in my Louisa’s grave,” she wrote in her own journal, “and my greatest longing is to be laid beside her even the desire of seeing my beloved Boys gives way to this cherished hope.” The shadow of her baby’s death would darken the remainder of her long life.
Adams did not, then or ever, seek death. His unshakeable Christian faith protected him from such terrible depths, while his sense of obligation as a public servant compelled him to return to work, and to life. But he had lost a child whom he had loved more unreservedly than he had any other being in his life. “She was,” he wrote several days later, “precisely at the age when the first dawn of intelligence begins to reward the Parents pains and benefits. When every gesture was a charm, every look delight; every imperfect but improving accent, at once rapture and promise. To all this we have been called to bid adieu.”
John Quincy Adams grew up in a household in which it was taken for granted that a man would sacrifice his interests for his principles. His father had risked the wrath of the mob and the respect of his fellow patriots when he agreed in 1779 to serve as the attorney for the commanding English officer at the Boston Massacre. He had outraged his own Federalist party, and perhaps lost his chance to serve a second term as President, by refusing to go to war with France in 1798.
From the moment John Quincy Adams entered the U.S Senate in 1804, he followed his father’s example of independence to an almost reckless degree. He was the only Federalist to vote for the Louisiana Purchase, which New Englanders quite rightly felt would diminish their status by making them a smaller fraction of the country. When England began to threaten war by boarding American ships and “impressing” American sailors, he sided with the Republican administration of Thomas Jefferson, which sought retributive measures. In 1806, Adams agreed to draft legislation establishing an embargo on imported English goods—a disaster for New England’s economy and for the merchants who dominated Massachusetts’ political life. Adams had grown up with these men; they were his closest friends. He was, once again, the only Federalist to vote for “non-importation.”
Tensions between the U.S. and England reached a crisis point in June of 1807, when the Leopard, a British warship cruising the waters off Virginia, fired on the Chesapeake, an American frigate that had refused demands to board, killing three and wounding eighteen. The nation exploded with demands for redress, even war. In Boston, however, the Federalists, some of whom sided with the British, refused to convene a town meeting. Adams agreed to attend a state-wide meeting convened by the Republicans, and helped draft a resolution vowing to support “with our lives and fortunes” whatever measures might be required to defend national honor. The following day, Adams recorded that a friend had told him, “I should have my head taken off, for apostasy, by the federalists.”
The Leopard fires on the Chesapeake
Congress re-convened that December amidst a war fever. Adams’ own position was excruciating. He knew that non-importation had done nothing to curb British hostilities on the high seas, and thus that his continued support for the measure was doing grave damage to New England’s interests and his own for no good reason. He tried, and failed, to loosen the embargo. Nevertheless, when Josiah Quincy, a Federalist Congressman and a kinsman, implored him to recognize the folly of his position and call for end to non-importation, Adams flatly refused. Surrender to the high-handed conduct of America’s former colonial master would divide the nation, he said, and thus terminate “either in a Civil War or in a dissolution of the Union with the Atlantic states in subserviency to Great-Britain.” To avert such an end he was prepared “to sacrifice everything I have in life, and even life itself.”
The martyrdom Adams embraced turned out to be political, rather than personal. In January, he took the extraordinary step of attending a national Republican caucus to nominate the party’s next Presidential candidate. This was such a staggering betrayal of party that his mother, Abigail, wrote to say that his attendance had been “inconsistent both with your principles, and your judgment.” (John Adams, however, said that his son had done rightly.)
The senator returned home in the spring to find that he had become an outcast. The Sale Gazette called him one of “Bonaparte’s Senators.” Harrison Gray Otis, a friend from boyhood, broke off all relations. Adams’ wife Louisa, who spent many of her evenings at the Otis’ fine Beacon Hill home, must have been devastated. And then, in May, 1808, came the final blow: the state legislature, which appointed U.S. senators, chose a committed Federalist as Adams’ successor, though his term had another year to run. Adams sent a terse note resigning immediately.
Adams regretted nothing. In fact, he was enormously proud of the stance he took. In a letter to a former Congressional colleague, he wrote, “I have felt on this occasion a little of the spirit of martyrdom; knowing that my governing motives have been pure, disinterested and patriotic, I can consider every calumny cast upon me, as the tribute of profligate passions to honest principle.”
It is worth recalling that John Adams’ defense of the Redcoats vaulted him into the leading ranks of the anti-colonial movement, while John Quincy’s betrayal of his class endeared him to the ruling Jeffersonians. Both became President despite—or because of—their flinty integrity. Is it possible even to imagine such a path today?