John Quincy Adams

  • Harlow Giles Unger
  • De Capo Press
  • 348 pp
  • December 31, 2012

This sensitively drawn biography draws heavily on diaries in exploring the darker contours of a tormented figure who was never at peace.

Reviewed by Robert Swan

Consider the following prose:

Dear Sir: I love to receive letters very well; much better than I love to write them. I make a poor figure at composition, my head is much too fickle, my thoughts are running after birds eggs, play and trifles, till I get vexed with myself. Mamma has a troublesome task to keep me steady, and I own I am ashamed of myself. I have but just entered the 3d volume of Smollett, tho’ I had designed to have got it half through by this time. … I wish, Sir, you would give me some instructions with regard to my time & advise me how to proportion my studies and my play … and I will keep them by me and endeavor to follow them. I am, dear Sir, with a present determination of growing better, Yours.

The author of this letter, quoted by Harlow Giles Unger in his excellent biography, was John Quincy Adams. He was just shy of 10 years old when he wrote it, to his father John Adams.

In the great debate between nature and nurture, John Quincy Adams serves as a classic example of parental cultivation as the paramount factor in the creation of personal greatness. Endowed with natural precocity and a keen intellect, John Quincy Adams began life under the direction of a mother and father determined to mold their son into a public servant with the mind of Aristotle, the work ethic of Hercules and a commitment to excellence that would drive him to the apex of American political life.

Unger’s biography makes clear that John Quincy Adams was not only a prodigy of industry and learning; he had a public career any modern politician could only envy: minister to the Netherlands, Prussia, Portugal, Russia and the Court of St. James; secretary of state; senator; member of the House of Representatives; and president of the United States (Unger reminds us that he was offered the position of an associate justice of the Supreme Court but turned it down). He spoke French, Dutch and German, mastered Latin and Greek, and read classics with such facility that he held chairs both in logic at Brown University and rhetoric and oratory at Harvard.

Harlow Giles Unger’s history is triumphal in the great tradition of Whig history. The major events in the life of John Quincy Adams are presented as a kind of manifest destiny in which the downs of his political, personal and social life (including some very deep valleys) were mere speed bumps on his ascent in public life (one of his chapter titles: A Profile in Courage; another: Restoring Peace to the World). This is by no means a criticism. Recent trends in the historiography of the Founding Fathers make it de rigueur to remind us, for example, that Thomas Jefferson was a nauseating hypocrite who penned the Declaration of Independence while keeping slaves and using bonded females for sex. A nuanced approach to history demands no less, but it is refreshing to find an author who, while still rigorous in his use of sources, is a champion for his chosen subject. And this is not to suggest that Unger does not criticize where criticism is warranted; he makes clear that Quincy Adams was an awful president — too rigid, too uncompromising and frustrated by the office (his wife, the wonderful Louisa Catherine, found both the White House and her husband burdensome and depressing during his time in office).

The great strength of Unger’s approach is his extensive employment of diary entries by John Quincy Adams, allowing him to speak in his own voice. He also makes excellent use of the extensive correspondence between Adams and the rest of his family. While some moments of introspection are recorded by Unger — as when Adams is driven to contemplate the significance of religion by witnessing the sudden death, at a New Year’s party no less, of a healthy young army officer who dropped dead in mid-sentence — this is very much a history focused on Adams’s public career.

This is, I think, unfortunate, for Quincy Adams’s diaries make clear that an in-depth exploration of the darker contours of his personality and personal life are essential to understanding the man and his behavior, both in politics and in personal life. He was a tormented individual who was never at peace, and found that his first two sons, George Washington Adams and John Adams II, could never measure up to his standards (no one could have, not even himself). Both of these sons developed into serious alcoholics, and both died young, the former committing suicide in 1828. Unger dispenses with this episode sensitively and includes a diary entry in which Adams expresses the anguish with which he and his wife greeted the news of their son’s death, but quickly moves on to Adams’s election to U.S. House of Representatives. A fuller exploration of the personal side of both Adams and his family would have improved this biography.

However, for anyone looking for a thoroughly researched, entertaining and informative biography of the public life of John Quincy Adams, this is an excellent choice.

Robert Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.

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