John Quincy Adams is my favorite American. He represents an honesty, morality and highmindedness rarely seen in American government since, and practically never seen today. Born into privilege as the son of Founding Father and president, John Adams, he did not need to rely on corporate money to keep his power like leaders of today. He was his own man, always choosing to do what was right over what was popular. We do not hear much about Quincy today, not even from the textbooks, mostly because he represents values totally alien to most of us. We cannot understand someone who did not do things for personal gain. John Quincy Adams is the paragon of public service, a hero whose example is vital to those of us fed up with corruption and propaganda.
He was 26 when President Washington summoned him to be minister to the Netherlands. Newly graduated from Harvard, Quincy was looking forward to the quiet life of a bookish intellectual lawyer. He believed his stint in public service would be temporary and he would soon go back to his reading. But Washington thought he was valuable to America’s cause overseas, since we were trying to get the nations of Europe to recognize the legitimacy of our young country. Quincy had no choice. The most respected man in America believed in him and he was not going to break that trust. From that moment to literally the day he died, John Quincy Adams would serve his country not out of opportunity, but out of duty.
After several successful missions to several European nations, President James Monroe appointed Quincy Secretary of State. He negotiated the Treaty of 1818 with England, the first step in a long rapprochement after fighting them in the War of 1812. Acquiescing in General Andrew Jackson’s illegal raids into Spanish Florida (raids of this type were called “filibusters” at the time), he signed the Adam-Onis Treaty with Spain which transferred Florida to the U.S. This had the effect of making even more of a hero out of Andrew Jackson, something that would come back to bite Quincy later. His greatest success as Secretary of State came when Latin America won their American-inspired revolution against Spain. Spain’s allies in Europe threatened to come to the Americas to get the colonies back, at which point Quincy informed them that the Americas were off limits to further colonization. This would go on to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, which remains a hallmark of American foreign policy until this day. In everything Quincy did as Secretary of State, he kept the long term interests of the United States in mind. He demonstrated an eye for the future that betrayed an intimacy of the past. He had a reverence for knowledge that we do not see in Washington anymore, the type of knowledge that informs quality statesmanship.
It was no surprise that Quincy ran for president in 1824, right on the heels of his accomplished stint as Secretary of State. The previous 3 Secretaries of State (Jefferson, Madison and Monroe) all went on to be president. The Democratic-Republicans were the only party in town and the candidates in 1824 divided over regional lines: Quincy (north), Henry Clay (west), William Crawford (south) and Andrew Jackson (who had mass appeal). Jackson won the popular vote and a plurality of the electoral vote, with Quincy in 2nd place in both regards. However, nobody won the majority of the electors and the election was given to the House of Representatives to decide. Henry Clay was out of the running but he was the Speaker of the House and played the king-maker. He always hated Jackson, thinking of him as a dangerous hothead (an image partially owing to his filibusters into Florida.) Clay swung the votes to make Quincy president, at which point Quincy appointed Clay as Secretary of State (hence naming Clay as his successor). Jackson was outraged. He and his supporters accused Quincy and Clay of a “corrupt bargain”. It would be one of the most destructive accusations on one of the most honest and incorruptible men in history.
As president, Quincy operated in a fog due to the corrupt bargain accusation. The divided Congress and the propagandized public did not offer the support Quincy needed to get things done. For his part, Quincy believed in the self-evident merit of his program, so he felt trying to woo his detractors was beneath him. Quincy wanted a high tariff that would protect America’s embryonic industrial revolution. He got one passed towards the end of his term in 1828. Quincy wanted to use that tariff money, as well as funds from the central bank, to build roads, canals and bridges. He envisioned a nation of industry and commerce woven together by infrastructure. Encouraging people to stay put and not move west would provide the necessary factory workers back east, as well as avoid conflicts with Native Americas. For these reasons, he stopped giving out land to people who wanted to settle the Louisiana Purchase. Quincy’s highest goal was to foster public education and culture by supporting a national university, investments in science and government support of the arts. No president has been as qualified by mental aptitude and experience, or been more motivated to provide enlightened government as John Quincy Adams.
Unfortunately, he did not get a 2nd term. He would square off with Jackson again in his 1828 reelection bid and lose. Charges of the corrupt bargain stuck. Like his father, he would be a one-term president. The father and son Adams were the only 2 presidents of the first 7 to not win a 2nd term. They were both high-minded men who did what was good for the country, meaning they eschewed what was popular for what their integrity told them was right. People in his own age ignored Quincy’s values much as we still do today.
Two years later Quincy won a seat in the House of Representatives, the only former president to serve in the House. It is a measure of his utter devotion to public service that Quincy served in a part of government given the least respect for its association with the common people. It is in the House where Quincy had his most dramatic battles and took his most impassioned stands. He was firmly against President Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal, which promised to remove the “Five Civilized Tribes” living in Georgia to a location west of the Mississippi River. Like many northeasterners at the time, Quincy believed the Constitution should be used to protect Native Americans. He opposed Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act but it passed Congress anyway, leading to the Trail of Tears where thousands of Natives died in a forced march westward. Jackson’s actions represented the rise of a white supremacist ideology that played well in the south and defined American politics until the time of Lincoln. Quincy resisted the rise of white supremacy at every turn, including in its other form: slavery.
John Quincy Adams was set against slavery. He often said he wanted to be known as the worst enemy slaveowners ever had. The problem was that the House had a gag rule that prevented it from entertaining any discussion of ending slavery. Quincy tried to get the gag rule repealed. When that did not work, he introduced a petition to Congress that would force the southern states out of the country because they owned slaves. He was calling the bluff of southerners who kept threatening to secede from the union over the slavery issue. Introducing this proposal would lead to a discussion of slavery and circumvent the gag rule. Southerners moved to have him censured, which put him in the public eye and gave him more of a platform. In the end, the southerners backed out of fear of giving him this platform. It is a measure of Quincy’s integrity that he would put his career on the line to battle the power of slave owners. How many presidents today would risk anything by battling the banks? What is more, how many leaders in our country today would defend a group of black men accused of murder in a court of law free of charge, like Quincy did with the slave rebels of the Spanish ship, Amistad? How many of them would do it out of nothing other than high moral purpose, knowing that most of the country does not tend to sympathize with black men that kill white men? Quincy did all of these things in the early 1800s, making himself the most eloquent and powerful champion of anti-slavery in the United States.
When the United States government inherited the $500,000 (huge money back then) estate of scientist James Smithson in 1835, it was Smithson’s wishes that the government use the money for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” As a member of Congress, Quincy finally saw his opportunity to create an institution to promote the arts and sciences, one of the unfulfilled goals of his presidency. He organized the effort in Congress to make good on Smithson’s wishes, helping to birth what would become the Smithsonian Institution. Until this day, the Smithsonian is America’s unique national treasure. A public institution that represents all the good that enlightened government can do. Quincy also led the fight to build the United States Naval Observatory at the beginning of his presidency, which remains the oldest scientific institution in America. These are physical legacies of John Quincy Adams, much like the Monroe Doctrine is part of his policy legacy. It is tough to imagine any modern political leader driven by a duty to posterity like John Quincy Adams. His vision went well beyond the next election. It was eternity with which he was concerned.
Like many northerners, Quincy opposed war with Mexico as a southern conspiracy to conquer more land in which to extend slavery. As he was about to speak in the House about why he opposed giving honors to veterans of the Mexican War, he suffered a brain aneurism and collapsed. Two days later he was dead. John Quincy Adams occupies a unique place in American history. He surely knew one-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln, making him probably the only historical figure who knew both the Founders and the Great Emancipator. He was the first president to wear pants instead of breaches and he never wore a wig. The oldest surviving photograph of a president shows Quincy with a dour look on his face, hands folded in front of him resting on legs crossed one over the other. Quincy was a transition from old to new. More than a transition from the Founding generation to the Age of Jackson, he was a transition from a spirit of enlightened leadership to a spiritless age when nothing more than leadership itself became the end of politics. From the end of Quincy’s time on, career politicians worked their way up with an eye on the presidency. President Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, was a political operator and machine boss. His presidency was a failure, as were the 6 presidents who followed him. Through lack of leadership (James Buchanan) or myopic leadership (James Polk), they all contributed to the start of the Civil War. We have, in a sense, never fully recovered from having lost JQA.
In the age of million-dollar political campaigns, with all the legalized corruption and propaganda that entails, it is more important than ever to remember the example of John Quincy Adams. While our leaders today are owned, Quincy owned himself. Leaders today act upon poll numbers, Quincy acted upon conscience. The career politicians who now run the country do not see past the next election, Quincy’s vision was eternal. And after their careers are done, our politicians today go work for the wealthiest corporations, making their political careers exercises in courting the elite. John Quincy Adams never stopped being a leader. There was no corporation for him to go to, no tycoon with the ability to make or break him. He was a public servant and he served the public. Rather than pleasing the powerful, John Quincy Adams exalted the humble. Whether it was defending fugitive slaves in a court of law, using the Constitution to protect Native Americans or ensuring that succeeding generations would be able to have access to learning, Quincy always spoke for those without a voice. People who could not give him money or votes benefited from his enlightened leadership. Serving the public started with serving those the least able to serve themselves. We are blessed to have John Quincy Adams in our national story. He and his accomplishments still stand today as a testament to what leadership can be when devoted to the common good. The United States needs models like John Quincy Adams now more than ever. In an era when politicians have written off the least fortunate, JQA serves to remind us of our own duty to the common good.