John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States, elected in a "corrupt bargain" when the House of Representatives voted him into office, despite Andrew Jackson winning both the popular and electoral votes.
Adams' presidency was not one for the record books, but his diplomatic career was one for the ages. Join me this week as I dive into the life and career of John Quincy Adams. From the Treaty of Ghent to his opposition to the annexation of Texas, John Quincy Adams was a man of deep conviction which ultimately made him a terrible politician.
Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, August 20, 1790, in Adams Papers Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. (LINK)
Adams, John Quincy. Writings of John Quincy, Adams. United States: Macmillan, 1917.
Hogan, Margaret A. “John Quincy Adams: Impact and Legacy.” UVA Miller Center. University of Virginia. (LINK)
Hogan, Margaret A. “John Quincy Adams: Life Before the Presidency.” UVA Miller Center. University of Virginia. (LINK)
John Quincy Adams, First Annual Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. University of California, Santa Barbara. (LINK)
Levy, M.. "United States presidential election of 1824." Encyclopedia Britannica, April 26, 2017. (LINK)
Remini, Robert V.. John Quincy Adams: The American Presidents Series: The 6th President, 1825-1829. United States: Henry Holt and Company, 2014.
Thomas, Louisa. Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams.New York: Penguin Books, 2016.
U.S. Const. Amend XII. (LINK)
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“I well know that I never was and never shall be what is commonly termed a popular man, being as little qualified by nature, education, or habit, for the arts of a courtier, as I am desirous of being courted by others. Such as I am I envy not the reputation of any other man in the Union. There is not another man in the Union, excepting the Presidents past and present, who received or continues to receive from the people of this country indications of esteem and confidence more distinguished and flattering than I have. With the exception of one signal mark of dissatisfaction from the legislature of my native state thirteen years since, my life has been one continual succession for more than five and twenty years of high, of honorable and important trusts, and of literary and scientific distinctions– all conferred without any of those blandishments by which some others acquire esteem or favors. If ever man had reason to be grateful for the portion of public consideration which has been shown him, it is I, and I trust I am grateful for it.” John Quincy Adams, August 11, 1821.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey Peeps, welcome back.
Last time, I finished up my overview of the life and times of one Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of career diplomat and sixth president of the United States John Quincy Adams.
But what of the main man himself? Who was he? What were some of his accomplishments? Well this week I strive to answer all of that and more.
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Typically when covering the presidents, I tend to focus on telling the story of their administrations. I do this for several reasons; as men of importance who held positions of power, there are several hundred books covering their every move, not to mention other fabulous podcasters like Jerry over at The Presidencies Podcast who do the deepest of dives. I also am a lover of politics and so researching the decisions of any given presidential administration fascinates me.
However, John Quincy Adams requires a different approach. Not only did he have such a long and illustrious diplomatic career, but his presidency was… Well, a failure. And he may have slinked away to the anals of history had he not had a bit of resurgence post presidency with his tenure in the House of Representatives. His life trajectory is interesting in that I often wonder what he would have done or who he would have become had he not been an Adams. But let’s start at the beginning.
John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767 in Braintree, Massachusetts to a completely unknown couple, John and Abigail Adams. Known as Johnny to his family, he was the oldest of the Adams children and as such, was often told he had to set the example. The expectation of greatness was placed upon John Quincy from a young age by both mother and father who pushed young Johnny to make sure he furthered the Adams name in only the most respectful ways. Though he was interested in literature, science and the arts, his birthright, or rather his parents wishes, was to practice law and go into public service.
His education in diplomacy started at a young age, when he traveled with his father overseas at just 10 years old as the elder Adams was tasked with securing French support in their war with Great Britain. John Quincy received the benefit of a formalized education, studying French, Latin and law at the Passy Academy. When Adams sailed back to Europe a second time, this time to negotiate peace with Great Britain, the younger Adams was again brought along, joined by his brother Charles. While living in Amsterdam, John Quincy and brother Charles continued their education at the University of Leiden; however, Charles failed to thrive and was sent home just a year and a half later while his brother remained.
John Quincy felt the pressure to be the best and to bring nothing but respectability to the Adams name. One of the most influential and forceful individuals in his life was mother Abigail, who continued to share her expectations even across the ocean, writing to him quote: “I had much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you have crossed, or any untimely death crop you in your infant years, rather than see you an immoral profligate or a graceless child,” end quote.
His formal education was paused when he was asked to be translator and secretary for Francis Dana, who had recently been appointed as emissary to St. Petersberg. This gave John Quincy the rare opportunity to be free from his overbearing parents while still reaping the benefit of watching diplomacy up close and personal.
He returned to the United States in 1785 and enrolled at Harvard. Though he was an industrious student, he was often self-critical, later lamenting his failure to return sooner feeling it somehow stunted his education. This coming from someone who as a kid was bilingual and witnessed first hand diplomacy.
It was while studying law John Quincy met what is arguably the love of his life. Unfortunately for all involved, her name was not Louisa. Instead, the young Adams fell for a young woman by the name of Mary Frazier. He very much wanted to ask Mary to be his wife, but hesitated given his lack of an established law practice or other consistent means of income. His mother, too, was against a potential proposal, writing to him quote: “never form connections until you see the prospect of supporting a family,” end quote.
While John Quincy did try to convince Mary to accept a prolonged engagement, her family refused and he was forced to end the relationship. Leaving Mary appeared to be one of the biggest regrets of his personal life, as he still reminisced about her and her beauty some fifty years later.
His official diplomatic career began when George Washington appointed him to be the minister to the Netherlands after John Quincy had penned several anonymous articles in support of Washington’s declaration of neutrality during the conflict between France and Great Britain. From historian Robert V Remini, quote: “Washington had noticed John Quincy’s defense and was not only grateful for it, but believed that it helped turn the tide of popular sentiment,” end quote. Prone to self-criticism, John Quincy was initially hesitant to accept the post, worrying it would be seen as nepotism.
Despite his initial misgivings, John Quincy agreed to the position and sailed with brother Thomas in September, 1794. It was during his time as minister that he met and eventually became engaged to Louisa Catherine Johnson. I covered their relationship in significant detail during the two episodes on Louisa’s life, but in summary, theirs was not a relationship based so much in love, but of circumstance. Again from historian Robert Remini, quote: “his feelings lacked passion, but he was of an age when men were expected to marry,” end quote. Just what every woman loves to hear, am I right?
Adams again hoped to delay his marriage until he could return to the United States and further develop a law practice, but Louisa’s mother intervened and the two were wed in July, 1797. Shortly thereafter, John Quincy learned of his new appointment to be minister plenipotentiary to Prussia. While he initially was reassigned to Portugal by Washington, John Quincy’s father changed course upon his election in 1796. Again, John Quincy was uncomfortable with the appointment, which this time was pretty clearly a case of nepotism, but nevertheless, he went ahead and accepted the post.
He successfully negotiated a trade agreement between the two countries, but was recalled by his father shortly after the elder’s loss to Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800. Putting a brief pause on his career in public service, John Quincy returned to the United States and set up a legal practice. This didn’t last long, of course, and he was elected to the Massachusetts Senate in 1802. He ran to be a member of Congress, vying for a spot in the House, in 1803, but his bid was not successful. But not all was lost; John Quincy may not have made it to the House, but a deal was about to be struck to send him to the Senate.
At this point there was still no popular election of Senators as it was decided by the state legislature. In 1803, Massachusetts had two senate seats to fill, but there was a split amongst the Federalists on just who to send to DC. A deal was brokered wherein one faction had two ballots to elect their preferred candidate, Timothy Pickering. If their efforts were not successful, they would support John Quincy only if he agreed to vote for Pickering once in place to fill the second vacant seat. Both Adams and Pickering were elected as Senators.
John Quincy was determined to remain independent and stay above the fray, which only served to alienate both Federalists and Democratic Republicans alike. Writing about his conduct, Adams said quote: “given satisfaction to neither side, and both are offended at what they consider a vain and foolish presumption of singularity,” end quote. It was this independent streak that caused Adams to break with his party and support then president Thomas Jefferson’s embargo against Great Britain, where he assisted in drafting the language. This proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back as the Massachusetts state legislature elected a successor several months before Adams’ term was up; not to further the debacle, Adams resigned his senate seat early on June 8, 1808.
Again Adams returned to the business of practicing law, but would not be out of public service long. After taking office in 1809, President James Madison appointed Adams as the first minister to Russia. Like I mentioned in my episodes on Louisa, the journey was less than easy, but once ashore Adams seemed to make a good impression on the tsar, as historian Robert Remini writes, quote: “they became frequent walking companions, speaking fluently in French about developing events in Europe and about life in the United States,” end quote.
It was while in Russia that Adams negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, bringing to an end the hostilities between the United States and Great Britain. Joined with several other diplomats, Adams entered negotiations in August 1814 and successfully secured the treaty by Christmas eve. Again from historian Robert Remini, quote: “undoubtedly John Quincy Adams’ single most important contribution to the negotiations came with his insistence that the two countries accept the status quo ante bellum, with all other contending issues subject to future negotiation,” end quote. The result was that everything between the U.S. and Britain reverted back to how they were prior to the war. While this may initially seem like a complete waste, it was a major win for the still new nation when you consider they were again faced with one of the largest and strongest forces in Europe.
After his success at the Treaty of Ghent, Adams requested a recall, but was instead asked to be the minister to Great Britain. He remained in the post for two years, before his appointment as Secretary of State under newly elected president James Monroe.
His years of diplomatic experience proved pivotal as he negotiated the acquisition of the Florida territory with the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 and as he assisted James Monroe in his crafting of one of the bedrocks of United States foreign policy, the Monroe Doctrine. The position of Secretary of State was accurately seen to be the stepping stone for the presidency, and so John Quincy believed his time was due as the country prepared to elect the next president in the 1824 contest.
However, there was just one minor problem – and he went by the name of Andrew Jackson. Jackson, a military hero who was known throughout the country, was popular given his victories in battle and, less admirable, his treatment of indigenous americans. The election of 1824 was the first where a majority of presidential electors were chosen by popular vote and not state legislators and the highly admired Jackson won both the popular and electoral votes. John Quincy finished second, William Crawford third and Henry Clay came up the rear, finishing fourth. However, Jackson failed to win a majority which meant that under the 12th amendment, the vote went to the House of Representatives.
The amendment reads, in part, quote, “The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President,” end quote.
Since the House could only vote for president based on the top three contenders, Henry Clay was immediately out of the running. William Crawford had previously suffered a stroke, so the house basically had a choice between the famed General or the obtuse former Secretary of State. Clay, who was the Speaker of the House, held enormous sway in how the election would play out and despised Jackson. So while he likely would have worked hard to make sure he never became president, Clay did not do himself or John Quincy any favors, when he met with him ahead of the House vote.
When John Quincy later announced he would appoint Henry Clay as Secretary of State, that seemed to be all the evidence needed to cry foul play. As Jackson himself put it, quote: “Clay voted for Adams and made him President and Adams made Clay Secretary of State. Is this not proof as strong as holy writ of the understanding and corrupt coalition between them,” end quote. And with that, Adams’ presidency was over before it began, being demonized as emanating from a quote unquote corrupt bargain.
As president, Adams had reasonable and useful initiatives he wanted to pursue including creating a Department of the Interior to handle domestic affairs and establishing a standard for weights and measures. However, every initiative he put forth was blocked or severely delayed by an oppositional Congress. Politics is about building relationships, and John Quincy’s dedication to independence only further proved his downfall as president. As an example of just how tone deaf Adams could be, he took Congress to task during his first annual message, writing quote: “while foreign nations less blessed with that freedom which is power than ourselves are advancing with gigantic strides in the career of public improvement were we to slumber in indolence or fold up our arms and proclaim to the world that we are palsied by the will of our constituents, would it not be to cast away the bounties of providence and doom ourselves to perpetual inferiority,” end quote. As a man who most definitely was not elected by the will of the people, he made a very ill timed argument in saying their will should be ignored. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well.
Adams’ presidency holds a lot of similarities to his father in that they both maintained their predecessor’s cabinet, were undercut by their Vice Presidents and voted out of office after only a single term. And while he resigned himself to leaving public service altogether in the aftermath, history had a different plan and Adams was elected to Congress in 1830, this time to the House of Representatives.
As a member of the house, Adams became a loud and forceful champion against slavery. He was reelected nine times and represented the state of Massachusetts until his death in 1848. Adams remained true to his convictions, speaking out against the annexation of Texas and attempted to manuever around the gag rule prohibiting the debate of slavery in the House. In 1841, he argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Amistad case, representing the African slaves who had mutinied upon their kidnapping, successfully securing their freedom.
In what can only be a moment written for the history books, John Quincy Adams died after suffering a stroke in the house chamber. After collapsing on the house floor, Adams was taken to an office where his reported last words were quote, “this is the end of the earth, but I am content,” end quote.
John Quincy Adams was an intelligent, deeply committed public servant and a man of deep rooted principles. However, he never quite mastered the game of politics at a time when it mattered most, blunting any success he could have had as president. Ultimately it is his work outside of the executive office that secures his place in history.
And I am not entirely done chatting about John Quincy Adams just yet. Be sure to come back next week as I welcome fellow podcaster Kenny Ryan from Abridged Presidential Histories where we are going to dive into both John Quincy Adams and his dad and look at their presidencies and impact. I think you will find the conversation intriguing and I can’t wait to share it all with you.
Thanks peeps. I’ll see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.