In Joseph Ellis’ view, it’s just fine for us to love the Founders, but not for anyone to understand them in ways that might derail the march of progress.
“There has perhaps not been another individual of the human race of whose daily existence from early childhood to fourscore years has been noted down with his own hand so minutely as mine.” Thus wrote John Quincy Adams in his diary in October 1846, sixteen months before his death. That diary is a principal reason why Fred Kaplan’s biography is so big, thorough, and so rich in quotes from the most primary of sources. Since the rest of the folks who mattered in Adams’ life also wrote copiously about matters personal, social, political, and intellectual, Kaplan was able to present J.Q’s life in full, intimate detail.
John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) received his first diplomatic assignment at age 14, having been appointed by George Washington. In his career, Adams represented the United States in Holland, Russia, Prussia, and Britain. He negotiated the extension of the United States to the Pacific and defined the position of Secretary of State. He became the sixth president of the United States and was on intimate terms with every other U.S. president for the Republic’s first forty years. He then served in the House of Representatives until the day of his death. Adams was a political man quintessentially. He is best known as the author of the Monroe Doctrine, which characterized the focus on U.S. interests in American foreign policy in the formative long century from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt.
But J.Q. Adams was remarkable for far more than just his political aptitude. His father John Adams, arguably the most energetic advocate of American independence, Washington’s Vice President and successor along with his brilliant, willful mother Abigail, raised him to a life of intense intellectual, moral, and religious commitment. The man never stopped studying, learning, and teaching – about everything: languages, literature, philosophy science, history. He wrote, delivered, and published countless speeches that were a focus of national discourse. Privately, he wrote profound and often poetic reflections on the true, the good, the beautiful, the awful, and the tragic. His was a life of piety through work. Nor did he ever stop holding himself to the highest standards of behavior, budgeting his time to fulfill piety’s duties to God, family, and country.
Kaplan’ book then, although it is a window on seventy years of American history and treats in some detail most of its foreign and domestic tergiversations, is about these matters only incidentally. It will disappoint those who want to delve into the depths of Adams’ theory and practice of American diplomacy. But Kaplan makes up for his somewhat superficial treatment of these subjects by opening windows into Adams’s thought on literary, religious and social matters. Adams’s discussion of Shakespeare’s Othello and Lear, for example, is an education on the meaning of tragedy, obligation, responsibility, and race – for starters.
The “laws of Nature and Nature’s God”
John Quincy Adams lived and breathed the classics – the Bible, Plato and Aristotle, Thucydides, Cicero, etc. – which he read and re-read in the original languages – as well as the ideas that had impelled the American revolution. Though he deemed absurd to reason the doctrine that the incarnate God’s sacrifice had redeemed all mankind from Adam’s original sin, nevertheless he worshiped and prayed fervently, faithfully, and comfortably at the services of any and all Christian denominations.
America’s founders had spoken of “the laws of nature and in the name of Nature’s God.” God has endowed human beings, exclusively, with the privilege and duty of acquiring knowledge. Accordingly, for Adams the free exercise of reason was “the most human thing in man.” That exercise of “the immortal part of his nature consists of inquiries into the relations between the effects which fall within the sphere of his observation, and their causes, which are unseen.”
This fulfillment of human nature in freedom must begin with education – universal education. That is the human right and duty of women and blacks as well, who are equally God’s rational creatures. But distinguishing as Adams did between natural human rights and what a human community may deem its proper civil duties, he thought it perfectly natural that women’s political influence should be through the men who naturally head families and that slaves – for whose freedom he advocated heroically – were not automatically to be granted the privileges of citizenship.
Thus he reflected that not by chance had Shakespeare made his proud, impulsive, gullible Othello a black man. Nor was Desdemona’s decision, in defiance of her family, to offer herself to a miscegenous marriage incidental to the author’s purpose: to show what happens when passion and power combine against the order of nature and society.
Thus also he distinguished between the rights of the Cherokee Indians to the lands they had “annexed to themselves by personal labor,” and the claim “of a huntsman to the forest of a thousand miles over which he has accidentally ranged inquest of prey,” a claim that would “forbid the oaks of the forest to fall before the axe of industry and rise again to be transformed into the habitations of ease and elegance.” That he could not abide.
The laws of love
This cool statesman seethed with passion. Controlling it required discipline both physical and moral. All his life he rose early and exercised, whether by long walks or horseback rides regardless of weather, or by summer swims. As Secretary of State, as president of the United States, as a congressman unto his seventy ninth year, J.Q. Adams would lay his clothes on a rock by the Potomac, and swim naked. As a young man madly and mutually in love, he had given up the marriage for which he longed with all his heart in obeisance to the principle that no one ought to take on the responsibility of a family until he had proved his capacity to support it independently. For the rest of his life, he struggled to support children, grandchildren and in-laws.
That support’s emotional dimensions may be the biggest surprise that this biography offers the reader. His wife Louisa’s chronic ill health and frequent miscarriages as well as the deaths and failings of his children required lots of it. Often, Adams would express it in poetry tender, and not without literary worth. On their twenty fifth wedding anniversary (they would get to fifty) he wrote:
“Yet while the ecstasies of youth
In blunted senses pall
The heart that leans on love and truth
Is not bereft of all
For him when earth shall pass away
Celestial spheres shall roll
And every sensual joy’s decay
Yield rapture of the soul”
The laws of nations
John Quincy soon learned that keeping the Republic would be no less difficult than it had been to establish it. Safeguarding America from foreign enemies would prove easier than saving it from domestic strife.
Thomas Jefferson’s partisan enmity to George Washington and John Adams, driven equally by ideology, personal ambition, and sectional interests surprised, shocked and saddened John Quincy, as did the equally motivated reaction of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Party. Between 1795 and 1815 both parties threatened and prepared sectional secession. Ever the nationalist, John Quincy quickly made enemies in both. His support of Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase angered Federalists, while his insistence that it be legalized by Constitutional amendment made him anathema to Jeffersonians.
His youthful friendship with Jefferson and Madison however, along with his unique knowledge of languages and experience in European affairs, led to his 1809 appointment as Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia. His good relations with the Tsar, who would become the most powerful man in Europe after Napoleon’s rout, led to his being named to negotiate the end of the War Of 1812. America’s premier diplomat, he became Madison’s Minister to the Court of Saint James and in 1817 James Monroe’s Secretary of State.
J.Q. Adams synthesized the founding generation’s approach to protecting the Republic from foreign nations. Like Washington (and John Jay in Federalists #s 3 and 4) he emphasized peace with any and all nations to be pursued by giving no offense and suffering none, neither granting special privileges nor seeking them. The Monroe Doctrine, his signature achievement, committed the U.S. to disregard matters purely European while affirming America’s inalienable interest in the Western hemisphere’s decision to govern itself in a republican manner. Regrettably, Kaplan’s biography skips over the fact that Adams formulated the Doctrine in part to counter the Tsar’s gratuitous assertion of the monarchy’s moral superiority, that he emphasized America’s commitment to republicanism in his intercourse with the Russian ambassador Baron Tuyl, and that he managed to do so in a manner that strengthened America’s ties with Russia. This was diplomacy at its best. Kaplan mentions that William Seward, who became Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, was Adams’s ardent admirer, but fails to mention that Adams’s diplomacy continued to inspire American diplomats into the twentieth century.
But safeguarding America from internal strife proved to be beyond Adams’s capacity. Never mind disreputable self-seekers like William Crawford and Aaron Burr, or out-of control geniuses like Hamilton, or even charismatic egomaniacs like Andrew Jackson. Even many of those he admired most, John C. Calhoun prominent among them, ended up furthering America’s spiral of strife because of their attachment to their part of the country and to one or the other side in the struggle over slavery. Adams himself, though he despised slavery with all his being, was never an abolitionist.
He was dismayed as Southerners broke from the founding generation’s consensus that slavery was an evil that would pass away in time, and celebrated it as a positive good on which their way of life rested. Devoted to law and to friendship among Americans, he sought in vain for ways to ease out of it. His version of the Thirteenth Amendment would have left slaves in their masters’ possession, but freed their newly born children. The South vilified him and threatened secession. He warned that secession would bring war, and that war would result in slavery’s end – uncompensated, sudden, and violent.
Among the Kaplan biography’s nice touches is its account of Adams’s role in the Supreme Court trial that determined whether the enslaved blacks who had captured the Spanish ship Amistad and come ashore on Long island were legally slaves or free. Reality is more interesting than the politically correct movie version of events: The case, in 1840, turned on whether the blacks had been captured in Africa before or after Spain had outlawed the slave trade in 1820 (or/and the US had done so in 1808). Since none of the blacks knew any Spanish and none had been born before those dates, the physical evidence was overwhelming that they had never been slaves under anyone’s law. But the U.S. Attorney General had provided the lower court with a letter from the Spanish government the translation of which purported to say otherwise. But Adams, knowing Spanish (among many other languages) noticed immediately that the official translation was fraudulent. The Spanish government’s letter supported the physical evidence. In those days, Judges did not like being fooled. The Supreme Court voted 7-1 for freedom. Chief Justice Roger Taney (he of Dred Scott) was in the majority.
When John Quincy Adams died in the Capitol on February 2 1848, junior Congressman Abraham Lincoln was on the special committee that arranged the funeral. John Calhoun, the South’s lion, was a pallbearer.