Sixth Sense The nation's sixth president comes out of the cold, and into the glow of his rightful legacy

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary

Fred Kaplan (Harper, 2014) 672 pages with notes and index

The historical docudrama, Amistad (1997), directed by Steven Spielberg and for which Anthony Hopkins was a nominee as best supporting actor, was likely the first and, so far, the only Hollywood motion picture in which John Quincy Adams has ever been portrayed. Hopkins played the role of the cantankerous Adams who, at age 74, agreed to help defend the Amistad’s cargo of 53 Africans who were being transported in 1840 between Cuban ports by slave traders. The Africans had mutinied and seized the ship. Subsequently the vessel was overtaken and possessed in American waters by the USS Washington which dragged it to New London, Connecticut. The slave traders falsely claimed they had brought the Africans to Cuba, then a Spanish colony, before 1820 after which date foreign slave trafficking had been outlawed by Spanish and international law.

The traders wanted their “merchandise” back. The putative slaves, however, spoke no Spanish, only an African dialect, and insisted they had only recently been kidnapped and were free persons. Litigated in the American legal system, the case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841 before which Adams, a member of the legal team defending the Africans, passionately argued for two days that principles of justice and liberty conveyed by natural law and the true facts of their captivity demanded the court declare the Africans free persons.

It was Adams’s moment to expound again his opposition to slavery, to mobilize truth against power and to invoke the nation’s founding principles in the cause of justice. He was, on this occasion, not to be disappointed with the outcome. Speaking for a seven-to-one majority, Justice Joseph Story declared “that these negroes ought to be deemed free,” that they had been brought to Cuba illegally and “had never been and were not slaves.” (Quoted in Kaplan, 525) The ruling, however, was narrowly based and in no way affected the legally protected status of slavery in the United States and would so remain until the country came apart, waged a bloody civil war and abolished involuntary servitude nearly a full generation after Adams’ death.

For Adams, the disintegration of the Union he cherished was terrifying to imagine but a development he long believed justly necessary to expel the scourge of slavery. “If the Union must be dissolved,” he punctiliously confided to his diary during the national debate over the admission of Missouri into the Union in 1820, “slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break.”[i]

At the time John Quincy, in the words of his most recent biographer, “was a man of national prominence” having returned three years earlier from representing the United States in Great Britain to become Secretary of State in the new administration of James Monroe. He would succeed Monroe as president in 1825 but, like his father John Adams, would serve only one term. Few Americans recall his presidency; fewer still remember much about the record of his administration, Fred Kaplan notes in an elegantly written, carefully nuanced and extensively researched volume.

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Kaplan is a well-known author of major 19th-century American and British political and literary figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Henry James. His biography of Thomas Carlyle was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize. John Quincy Adams: American Visionary was published last year, and it is a gem.

For Adams, the disintegration of the Union he cherished was terrifying to imagine but a development he long believed justly necessary to expel the scourge of slavery. “If the Union must be dissolved,” he punctiliously confided to his diary during the national debate over the admission of Missouri into the Union in 1820, “slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break.”

Kaplan weaves Adams’ personal life and public career into an interrelated portrait of the man and his times. His singular appreciation of the importance of literature, especially Shakespeare, the theatre and poetry (including that composed by Adams himself) to his subject’s intellect, psyche and convictions about politics, religion, philosophy, love and nature, provides readers with a transparent and penetrating portrayal and assessment of Adams. This exceptional approach modifies conventional depictions of Adams solely as a man of “cold austere and forbidding manners, a gloomy misanthropist,” a description Adams once even applied to himself.

As well he might often have been, given the disappointments and failures he experienced and personal anguish he withstood during his lifetime. Kaplan elaborates, for instance, the burdens of frequent episodes of ill health endured by Adams, his wife Louisa and two of his three surviving sons (a fourth child, a daughter, died at 13 months). Louisa, in particular, suffered recurring, protracted headaches, outbreaks of erysipelas (a skin disease), arthritic attacks and difficult pregnancies (eleven in all, six of which were miscarriages and a still-born). Her frequent illnesses strained the marriage but did not break it. Two of their sons had personal difficulties; one committed suicide, the other died from alcoholism. John Quincy periodically experienced incapacitating eye inflammations and heavy colds. The ailments he overcame, however, and pursued an active and extensive public career until his death at 81.

Adams’ life (1767-1848) spanned the revolutionary war era and early national, antebellum periods of American history. Born in Braintree (now Quincy) Massachusetts, John Quincy received much of his education abroad, especially in France where his father and future president, John Adams, represented the newly independent United States in Paris. It was the first of four times John Quincy crossed the Atlantic, the three other occasions representing his country in the courts of Holland, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain and as head of the American delegation that negotiated the end of the War of 1812 with England. In an age when travel overseas was lengthy and perilous, Adams’ excursions were no small feat.

His travels abroad, Kaplan demonstrates, also matured Adams at an early age, revealing and cultivating a seriousness of purpose. Writing to his brother Charles in July 1778 at age 11, Adams asserted that “[w]e are sent into this world for some end. It is our duty to discover what it is and when once discover it to pursue it with unconquerable perseverance.” (Quoted in Kaplan, 26) Perseverance, Kaplan tells us, was a quality Adams possessed and demonstrated during his crowded and lengthy career.

Long ago Samuel Flagg Bemis chronicled Adams’ accomplishments as Secretary of State: his diplomatic achievements in negotiations with Great Britain in 1818, fixing the boundary of the United States and British North America from the Lake of the Woods to the crest of the Rocky Mountains, joint occupation of the Oregon country and securing American fishing privileges off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland, the extensive discussions resulting in the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 by which Spain ceded Florida to the United States, renounced claims to the Oregon territory and agreed to the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase, extending it to the Pacific Ocean, and the crucial role Adams played in the unilateral formulation and pronouncement of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. The dynamic, dauntless Secretary of State advised Monroe to ignore a British proposal for a joint Anglo-American proclamation. “It would be more candid,” Adams told the cabinet a month before Monroe announced the doctrine, “to avow our principles explicitly … than to come in as a cock boat in the wake of [a] British man-of-war.”[ii]

Shrewdly calculating that the European powers were not likely in any case to intervene in the Western Hemisphere to re-colonize lost territories, Adams crafted the language declaring North and South America off limits to further colonization and rejecting European interference into hemispheric affairs. The United States in turn would refrain from intervention in European affairs except when “our rights are invaded or seriously menaced.” The United States, however, reserved the right and the freedom to expand its own sovereignty and system on the North American continent.[iii] Scholars are unanimous in calling Adams “America’s greatest secretary of state.”[iv]

Yet, as Kaplan writes, Adams came to recognize the limits of American empire as he struggled with such matters as Native American rights. He promoted the primacy of white occupation of land and regarded “active engagement with the earth…a civic and sacred duty” (all too often ignored by white settlers for speculative gain) while claiming Indians did not and would not till the soil if left to themselves. (Quoted in Kaplan, 193) He forcefully and publicly condemned tribal evictions and removal, unfairly negotiated or fraudulent treaties and Indian extermination. Nonetheless, Adams adopted a paternalistic attitude towards the Native Americans, advocating gradual assimilation. He believed only the federal government could protect them. But when president, he was unable to prevent dispossession of tribal lands by whites acting under the guise of states’ rights.

Adams ultimately rejected further American expansion westward because of his opposition to slavery but also because he was appalled by the excesses of uncontrolled laissez faire capitalism that exploited the landscape “at whatever cost to the earth and future generations.” Adams sought instead “some constructive balance between individual enterprise and communal action” in which “governmental leadership and planning” was required.

To his detractors, Adams’ “vision represented everything they detested. It would make government a player in their everyday lives by creating a transportation infrastructure, regulating financial institutions, and supporting education and research. Ultimately, it would be the institutional voice of national values.” Most of all, Adams’ program threatened the Southern system of slavery expansion which he increasingly resisted. The empire, Kaplan concludes, was failing “to prove as noble” as Adams’ vision of it. The persistent optimist failed in his re-election bid in 1828, losing to the Southern-dominated coalition led by Andrew Jackson.

Adams returned to his native Massachusetts where his fellow citizens prevailed upon him to stand as a candidate for Congress. Elected in 1830, he served in the House of Representatives for nine terms, the only former chief executive to serve in Congress, and there he was an outspoken critic of slavery. Recognizing that every issue of the day was inseparable from it and that the South dominated the halls of power, he opposed the three-fifths rule embedded in the Constitution whereby enslaved persons counted for additional electors in presidential contests and for the number of members elected to the House from slave owning states. He realized that the Southern slave owners would never consent to a repeal of the rule. Announcing himself firmly committed to the end of bondage, Adams deliberately escalated the stakes of the slavery controversy, enraging Southern politicians, when, in 1839, he proposed a constitutional amendment “abolishing hereditary slavery in the United States, prohibiting admission of new slave states into the Union, and abolishing slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia.” (Quoted in Kaplan, 494). Blocked by Southern congressmen, the amendment never stood a chance. Nor did Adams succeed in preventing the admission of Texas as a slave state or the war with Mexico that followed. The sole accomplishment, after a decade of effort by Adams and his allies, was the annulment, in December 1844, of the gag rule which had prohibited the introduction of any petition concerning slavery onto the floor of the House of Representatives.

Staunchly opposed to slavery as he was, Kaplan does not avoid confronting Adams’ revulsion against and, one suspects, fear of miscegenation which he argued violated natural law. He approved political equality for black males but drew a line at sexual relations between the races, vehemently castigating sexual exploitation by white slave masters of their female slaves. Nor did Adams favor female suffrage though he intensely supported the right of women, white or black, to petition Congress and publicly express political opinions. His denunciation of slavery’s expansion continued to his death. On Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1848, Adams collapsed at his desk just after speaking against a resolution praising American military victory in the Mexican War, a conflict he had denounced as unconstitutional, unjust and which would destroy the Union. The unrelenting prophet of disunion and visionary of hope died the next day, never having departed the “People’s House.”

Adams’ visionary legacy of a more equitable and just social union was based on his insight that America could not externalize its demons and flaws and must confront the deficiencies of the system it had created and extolled. The greatest threat to the Union, he declared in his best remembered speech on July 41821, “came not from abroad but from within,” the corrupt destruction of the nation’s avowed principles. America’s “glory is not dominion, but liberty,” the scion of the republic intoned. “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.” Were she to act otherwise, he warned, “the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. … She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit. …” Instead, Adams counseled, America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”[v]

The address was an iconic testament to what Adams later called “the summit of my ambition” as is also Kaplan’s superb biography of him.

[1] Charles Francis Adams , Memoirs of John Quincy Adams (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 12 Vols., 1874-1877), Volume V, p. 12, March 3, 1820.

[11] Ibid., Vol. VI, pp. 178-79, November 2, 1823.

[111] President James Monroe’s Seventh Annual Message to Congress, December 2, 1823 in James D. Richardson,

Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1907 (New York: Bureau of National Literature and Art, 1908), Volume II, pp. 209-210.

[1v] For example, Walter LaFeber, editor, John Quincy Adams and American Continental Empire (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965), Preface.

[v] Quoted in Kaplan, pp. 357-359 and reprinted in entirety in LaFeber, pp. 42-46.