Wednesday, March 1, 2017

John Quincy Adams by, Paul C. Nagel

John Quincy Adams was in many ways the first resume president. He was the United States's minister to four countries (the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, the United Kingdom), United States Senator from Massachusetts, and Secretary of State before becoming President. After his single term in office, he is famously the only former President to become a member of the House, serving nine terms and seventeen years until his death in 1848. Many people those days, and historians these days, consider him a failure as a President and a curmudgeonly figure, but the outpouring of national grief after his death was surpassed only by Abraham Lincoln's in the 19th Century.

With John Adams as his father and someone as remarkable as Abigail as his mother, Adams was compelled to make something of himself at an early age. He traveled across the ocean to Europe twice before the age of 20, and even traveled from St. Petersburg back to Paris alone at age 14. He became a giant in the political arena, but all he wanted was literary acclaim. JQA loved books, frequently wrote poetry, and constantly lamented to his diary about the lack of time to read and write.

The book is full of great details that I never knew before (or had forgotten). John Quincy Adams served in the House, Senate, and as President, but he was almost a member of the Supreme Court. In 1811, James Madison nominated him for a vacancy on The Court. His approval was almost assured by the Senate, but Adams was serving as ambassador to Russia at the time and declined citing his wife's pregnancy and the hard travel they would have to face to return to Washington. Adams did confide to his brother and his diary that he felt he was too partisan to be an impartial judge, so his wife's pregnancy was simply a convenient cover story. Since he remained an ambassador, he was available to negotiate the treaty that ended the War of 1812 (much like his father negotiating the end of the Revolutionary War)

As Secretary of State, Adams was responsible for writing and promoting what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. He put in place the agreements that established the border between the US and Canada and the annexation of Florida from Spain. He is arguably the most important foreign policy figure in American history.

But he really won the hearts of Americans as a congressman. He was instrumental in directing funds that established the Smithsonian and was one of the most vocal opponents to slavery. Do yourself a favor and watch Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of JQA during the Amsitad case from the 1997 movie.

One of the things that most struck me about this book was how Abigail Adams was presented. In every other book I've read about the founding or the Adams family, she is shown to be a smart, feisty, remarkable woman. It this book, she comes across as an overbearing, hectoring woman constantly fretting about people falling into moral decay. Perhaps it is because most other stories are told through John's eyes, but this one is through the eyes of her son.

Nagel's biography balances JQA's private and public life to provide the reader a good idea of what he was like. There were several points that Nagel constantly repeated (JQA's want of a literary career, his frustrated relationship with his mother) that became grating after a while. However, it didn't detract much from the overall book.

If you're interested in American history, this book is a worthwhile read.

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