John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

John Quincy Adams kept a diary almost continuously from the time he was eleven until his death, giving us a lot of insight into his private life. When he was seven, he watched the Battle of Bunker Hill in which the family physician, Dr. Warren, died. Not long before, Dr. Warren had saved JQA’s finger from amputation.

He considered himself the man of the house during his father’s frequent absences. One responsibility he claimed for himself before he was ten, was riding horseback for several miles to fetch the mail.

Both his parents were stern. The elder John Adams put a lot of pressure on Johnny to prepare for a life of public service when he was just ten. At eleven, his father was called to be an ambassador to France and he took Johnny with. Along the way, the British navy tried to capture them. During a storm, lightning struck three men on deck, killing one while wind carried away the ship’s main topmast.

In Paris, he was enrolled in a boarding school where he excelled. He also fell in love with the theater, which would become a lifelong passion. He later went with his father to Holland. At 13, he was admitted into the prestigious Leyden University. At 14, his education was put on hold when he was sent to accompany a diplomat to Russia to convince Catherine the Great to recognize American independence. The diplomat didn’t speak French and needed an interpreter. They failed to convince Catherine and JQA returned to Holland.

At 18, after seven years in Europe, he returned to America to attend Harvard. He loved the arts, science, poetry, and theater of Europe. America was disappointing in comparison. He considered his tutors at Harvard to be inferior minds and sometimes skipped class to go fishing, a lifelong hobby. He was popular with the ladies and would also stay out as late as 4am dancing.

After graduating, he began to study law at his parents’ insistence, although he’d rather pursue a literary career. His fellow apprentices were all fellow Harvard students. They would stay up late dancing, playing “kissing games” or parading around town playing flutes and fiddles.

His life-long struggle with depression began around this time. He expected too much of himself and wasn’t keen on law. He fell in love with a girl in Newburyport and wanted to practice law there, but his parents insisted he open a practice in Boston, so he did.

When his mother Abigail found out about his love for Mary Frazier, she put a stop to it. He was too young and not wealthy enough to marry yet. He wanted to keep seeing her, but her family wouldn’t let them unless they became formally engaged, which JQA couldn’t do without his parents’ approval. He didn’t mention Mary again for nearly a half a century when he discovered the grave of her daughter. He described her as the most beautiful and most beloved of her sex.

In 1791, he viewed a solar eclipse without a piece of smoked glass, making him nearly blind for months afterward.

His law practice wasn’t going well, but he gained some fame as a newspaper essayist, writing under the pseudonym Publicola. He criticized Thomas Paine’s praise of the French Revolution. He led the opposition when Massachusetts banned theaters and put on illicit performances. He also defended Washington’s decision to remain neutral in the war between France and England when Jefferson and others wanted the US to support France.

His father put a lot of pressure on him to become a great man, but JQA wanted to have a simple life. This was not to be, as Washington wanted him to be the US representative to the Netherlands when he was 27. (His dad the vice president claimed to have nothing to do with the appointment, but he had indeed helped push things along.)

He took his youngest brother Thomas Boylston Adams along as his secretary. During this time, he was called to London to fill in for someone who was away. Here he met his future wife Louisa Johnson, daughter of the American consul. While he was drawn to her intelligence, beauty, and musical skill (she also spoke French, his favorite language), he recoiled from her independent nature, wanting someone more submissive. He was stiff, dominant, and couldn’t take teasing, while she was sometimes lighthearted and impatient with his pretentiousness.

They got engaged, but the marriage was delayed. He got called back to Holland, then was named Ambassador to Portugal by President Washington. He suggested Louisa return to America with her parents, but her father made them get married before he went to Portugal.

He went to London to get married, but his father, who was now president, changed his assignment to be minister to Prussia. He worried people would think he got the assignment due to nepotism and not because he earned it. He was thirty, already with a receding hairline and tendency to stoutness, while his bride was 22. His father-in-law was bankrupt and didn’t pay the promised dowry. After a month-long wedding celebration, his father-in-law returned to America, fleeing creditors. Bill collectors and servants who hadn’t been paid hounded JQA and his wife when they found out.

When the couple arrived in Berlin, he didn’t know German, but he quickly learned and even became a translator of German writings. John devoted much of his time to translating Wieland’s Oberon. However, when he learned someone else had translated it, he put it aside. When it was finally published in 1940, it was praised as one of the best translations by an American scholar. He did other work as well, earning him the title of father of German Studies in America. The couple also visited Silesia, a remote part of Germany rarely visited by tourists and John wrote a travelogue that was hugely popular in America, England, and France.

He wasn’t particularly devout until his thirties when he witnessed a young army officer suddenly fall dead at a party. He realized life could end abruptly and turned to religion.

After numerous miscarriages, a son was finally born in 1801, George Washington Adams. The Prussian monarchy held the Adams in such high esteem, the king ordered all traffic prohibited in the street where Louisa lived to assure perfect quiet during her recovery. JQA enjoyed Berlin and was willing to stay, but one of his father’s last acts as president was to recall him to America.

Back in Boston, he attended the church of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s father and returned to being a lawyer. His friends welcomed him back to the Natural Philosophy Club. They bought scientific books and equipment. At one meeting, JQA took several shocks of electricity which he claimed relieved his muscular distress.

Bored by being a lawyer and seeking the relative leisure of a political job which would give him free time to pursue his scientific and literary interests, he became a state senator, then a US senator. After being elected to the US Senate, he rebuked himself in his diary for not having accomplished enough with his life. He continually criticized himself for “indolence” and wasting time, a repeated theme throughout his life.

His second son, John, was born and baptized by Reverend William Emerson. In Washington, dinners, balls, whist parties, and horse racing were popular (the US government agencies shut their doors in the afternoons so officials could rush to the race track). JQA often played chess with James Madison at parties. DC had no Protestant churches yet, but nondenominational services were held in the Capital and Treasury Building.

Although elected as a Federalist, Adams hated political parties and was determined to be independent, sometimes voting with Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. Adams observed that Jefferson was prone to lying, such as claiming the temperature remained below 0 for six weeks while he was in France or his claim to have mastered Spanish.

JQA hated hypocrisy. He was the only senator to vote against going into executive session (i.e., adjourning early to go to the race track). He deliberately made a nuisance of himself by offering amendments to correct grammar in legislation.

In 1805, he was made professorial chair of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard. He named his third child Charles after his departed brother. He remained a senator, although he voted with the Republicans more than his own Federalist party which now considered him a traitor, leading to him losing his Senate seat.

He returned to being a lawyer and argued the landmark case Fletcher vs. Peck before the Supreme Court.

President Madison made him minister to Russia. Adams made his nephew William Steuben Smith his secretary reluctantly since the young man had recently returned from Venezuela where he’d narrowly avoided being hung for trying to incite revolution.

His wife and two-year-old son Charles went with. Things had changed in the 30 years since he was last in Russia. Americans were no longer ignored. Emperor Alexander I befriended Adams. Gambling on dice and cards was popular, as was sliding down hills of ice sitting on nothing but your clothes. These social events usually lasted until 4am. The dinners were lavish and included numerous courses and alcohol including frozen champagne.

Madison offered JQA a spot on the Supreme Court, but Adams declined. He was bored by law, plus it would have been a pay cut. His daughter Louisa Catherine was born in Russia, although she died of dysentery a year later.

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia (although he was easily repulsed) and Madison declared war on England. Adams had personal drama with servants stealing from him, his coachman arrested for parading around the streets of St. Petersburg in a dress, and his nephew getting his sister-in-law pregnant (he convinced them to marry).

He got Alexander to help release American merchant ships held captive by Denmark. The pacifist emperor also offered to mediate peace between England and the US. Britain turned Alexander down, but was willing to start peace talks in Belgium where JQA traveled next.

JQA had become more short-tempered and less willing to suffer fools as he’d gotten older, which was a disadvantage during the talks. He achieved peace by returning to the status quo before the war, leaving more contentious issues for later. The War of 1812 ended and John was appointed minister to England.

When he and Louisa arrived in England, they saw their two oldest sons for the first time in six years. George was now 14. While in London, JQA wanted to teach his sons how to load and fire a pistol. He failed to notice the pistol already had a charge of powder, so he added a second. When he fired, the pistol erupted in flame and flew ten feet, badly burning his hand and injuring his eyes. Weeks of recovery followed which included applying leeches to his eyelid and consulting with London’s most famous occultist Dr. Travers.

The London years were happy ones once he recovered his sight. He wrote poetry (when separated from his wife by distance, he sent her erotic poems), attended balls, spent time with family, and befriended Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism.

Once Monroe was president, he appointed Adams secretary of state. He turned 50 while sailing back to America. He played chess with other passengers, but his anger made him a sore loser. Although he now held the second-highest position in the nation, he was underpaid, just making $3,500 per year. Since Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were all secretary of state before becoming president, JQA was most likely to be the next president, which put a target on his back.

He oversaw the negotiations for the Treaty of 1818 with England. He was the only cabinet member to approve of Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida. He negotiated a treaty with Spain to buy Florida for $5 million. (Spain surrendered their claim to Oregon as well.)

Travel between Washington and Boston was improved by steamboats, which JQA considered one of the greatest inventions of the modern age. They replaced the ordeal of travel by stage or packet ship.

He was elected to be president of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Bible Society. Congress gave him the assignment to report on standards for weights and measures used in the states and recommend a way to standardize. He went a bit overboard. He gathered data from the states and also engaged in multiple experiments to determine things like the average weight of a kernel of wheat. The report was largely a hymn of praise to the metric system. He claimed adopting the metric system would be a step towards “that universal peace which was the object of a Savior’s mission … the trembling hope of the Christian” and it would “help cast down the Spirit of Evil.”

When Spain was preparing to reclaim former colonies in South America that had declared independence, Adams helped Monroe write the Monroe Doctrine based on a speech Adams had given a couple years earlier. They urged Europe to stop their colonization activities in the Americas.

JQA’s sons disappointed him. George was thirtieth in his class at Harvard and John was 45th, before being denied his degree due to taking part in a riot. 14-year-old Charles was granted only a conditional admission to Harvard due to his poor Latin.

Sometimes JQA would drive the family chaise too fast. Twice in 1823 the carriage was overset and his passengers nearly broke their necks.

When he decided to run for president, Adams wanted Andrew Jackson for his running mate and threw a ball with a thousand guests to celebrate the 9th anniversary of Jackson’s victory during the Battle of New Orleans. While Louisa was escorting Jackson through the house, oil from a lamp spilled on her. Many remarked her being thus anointed was a favorable sign.

The ball was a success, but Jackson still wanted to run for president on his own. He ended up getting the most electoral college votes and the most popular votes, but he didn’t have a majority which meant the House got to decide who the next president would be. Adams ended up winning the presidency because Henry Clay, who also ran for president but didn’t have enough votes to win, saw Adams as the lesser evil and delivered his states to Adams. Adams then chose Clay for his secretary of state, infuriating many.

The Monroes had left the White House a mess. Louisa shrewdly invited members of the public to view the battered furniture the Monroes had left them. In those days, the White House didn’t have plumbing or running water. Cows, horses, and sheep grazed on the grounds. It sat on an often muddy road. Adams got locked out once when the porter disappeared with the key. He made his son John his personal secretary. 

Adams didn’t accomplish much during his four years as president due to a hostile Congress. Jackson resigned his seat in the Senate to begin running for president in the next election. His supporters constantly blocked anything Adams tried to accomplish and made wild accusations in the press. Clay even challenged one of the detractors to a duel.

JQA thought the government had a duty to advance science and proposed the creation of a national university and national observatory. Congress mocked him for this and a few senators even introduced a resolution to indite the president for usurpation of power.

Congress also blocked a pan-American conference and uncontroversial endeavors like negotiating boundaries, improving trade, and recovering losses from the Napoleonic War. They blocked road and canal improvements, a plan to refinance public debt, a national bankruptcy act, and efforts to increase revenue from the sale of public lands.

Back then, any citizen could see the president by simply showing up at his office and he met many interesting characters. He met a man who claimed to be both Saint Peter and the Messiah. Adams even met with George Todson who’d publicly threatened to assassinate him. One guest interrupted a meeting with the secretary of state. Upon learning the man was a dentist, JQA had him extract a decayed tooth and scale off tarter. (There wasn’t a dentist in DC at the time.)

John cultivated silkworms and played billiards in his spare time. He attended three services each Sunday: Unitarian, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian. He went on early morning walks with Chief Justice John Marshall and swam in the Potomac. He almost drowned once when his rowboat sank. He also gardened to distract himself from his cares.

Since Congress blocked everything he tried to do, the only thing Adams really accomplished while president was lowering the public debt from $16 million to under $5 million.

The presidential campaign of 1828 was vicious with slander flying on both sides. Adams’ side claimed Andrew Jackson had an adulterous affair with his wife before their marriage (in fact Rachel wasn’t aware the divorce proceedings from her first husband weren’t complete when she married Andrew.) Rachel died soon after and Jackson held Adams personally responsible for her death, although Adams claimed ignorance of the slander.

Jackson got 56 percent of the popular vote, a huge win. So bitter was the campaign, JQA like his father, didn’t attend his successor’s swearing in. After losing, Adams’ health improved. He began regaining the weight he’d lost in office and appeared genuinely cheerful. He wrote a document denouncing the Federalists who had joined Jackson in slandering him during the campaign. However he ended up not publishing it because his son George committed suicide.

George had gotten a woman pregnant and feared his father’s reaction. His father had put a lot of pressure on him to be great throughout his life, leading him to turn to drinking and gambling. (Adams’ father also made two of his sons alcoholics by putting too much pressure on them.) What’s worse, people tried to blackmail JQA to keep the illegitimate child secret.

John Quincy Adams was elected to the House as a Republican. On the way to Washington, he took the train on the recently built railroad. It had trouble keeping on its single track in the heavy rain, causing several delays. He did however beat Louisa home by an hour (she had grown frustrated with the train and had switched to a carriage).

He joined the Anti-Mason party (perhaps because his enemy Andrew Jackson was a Mason). He wrote a long poem on the conquest of Ireland. He gave a rousing Fourth of July speech and a successful speech for Monroe’s funeral. Later, he nearly died in a railroad accident. He’d never seen such a hideous scene: many men, women, and children bleeding, mangled, and dying. He gave the eulogy for James Madison. He loved doing genealogy.

His second son John, also an alcoholic, died at 31, leaving him $15,000 in debt. He welcomed John’s wife and daughters into his home and turned his finances over to his third son, Charles, to handle.

On a fishing excursion, his hosts introduced him to his new favorite drink: “lemonade” made from a gallon of water, a bottle of Jamaica rum, a bottle of cognac, a bottle of champagne, a pound of sugar, and a pint of lemon juice.

Not a slave holder himself, he previously thought slavery wasn’t that bad. By 1836, he saw it as moral depravity. Plus, most of his enemies who kept him from being reelected were slave owners. He wasn’t exactly an abolitionist, however. He wasn’t in favor of outlawing slavery outright as that would dissolve the Union. He was in favor of a more gradual approach.

In response to a flood of petitions calling for the end of slavery in Washington DC, he House adopted a new procedure called the gag rule which basically said no one could talk about slavery. Adams made it his cause to defend the right to petition. He became such an impassioned, stubborn, radical debater some questioned his sanity.

Also at this time an Englishman named James Smithson left his entire estate, half a million dollars, to enable the US to increase knowledge amongst its citizens. Adams prevented members of Congress from using the money on personal projects. It took many years, but eventually this money was used to create the Smithsonian Institution.

While in Washington at age 70, he was late for a carriage. The horses, spooked by a whip cracking, dashed several blocks before overturning the carriage, breaking it to pieces. If he’d been on time, he might have died. That night, he opened his Bible up to Psalm 20:7 which urges humanity not to trust chariots and horses.

Congress called him the Madman from Massachusetts. He fiercely opposed Texas entering the union as a slave state. When his address was published and widely circulated, it swayed public opinion so much, President Van Buren shied away from making Texas a state.

The family doctor advised him to take three drops of sulfuric acid dissolved in water daily to improve his digestion. Thinking more was better, JQA took five drops instead, causing him to develop blisters on his tongue and giving him a sore throat.

He doted over his granddaughters, teaching them math, astronomy, gardening, and how to read the Bible in French and English. They also liked to plant trees with him. He’d planted hundreds of trees in his life believing it the only sure way to benefit future generations.

Because of his opposition to slavery, he received numerous letters and when he wrote back, his letters would often be reprinted in newspapers, so he had to be careful not to write anything he didn’t want the world to see.

He didn’t like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s speech at Harvard regarding Transcendentalism. He thought it was crazy and he thought Emerson wanted to become the founder of a sect. Perhaps not knowing how JQA felt about him, Emerson included one of JQA’s poems in his anthology Parnassus in 1880.

His granddaughter Fanny died of diphtheria when she was only 9. Several of his religious poems were published in a hymnal. He was a popular orator. Even his enemies sometimes praised his speeches. Many were published. On a visit to America, Charles Dickens visited the Adams house and asked for JQA’s autograph.

Africans took over the Spanish slave ship Amistad and ended up in New York. The lower courts ruled they were people not property, but the Van Buren administration appealed these decisions to the Supreme Court, not wanting to anger slave holders. Adams argued for their release before the court, making a closing statement that was over 8 hours long, and won. The Africans were allowed to return to Africa.

His anti-slavery crusade continued. He brought forth a petition from the citizens of Haverhill, Massachusetts who called for disunion because so much federal money was spent supporting slavery, it put a burden on free states. His enemies accused him of high treason, which turned out to be a mistake. Adams immediately claimed the right to defend himself against charges of treason and spent the next two weeks arguing against slavery. He was called “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”

When Polk became president, he went to war with Mexico in order to take the Texas territory from them. A horrified Adams could do nothing to stop it. Only ten representatives voted with Adams against the war.

At 79, he still swam, took two-mile walks, and took his grandchildren to the circus. His health declined thereafter, and he died at the age of 80, one of his last acts speaking out against the Mexican War on the House floor in 1848. He collapsed on the floor and died a couple days later.

So, how does John Quincy Adams compare to other presidents? Turning to Wikipedia, I learned that while president he did manage to complete some infrastructure projects and expanded American trade. He also suspended the Treaty of Indian Springs after learning that the governor of Georgia had forced the treaty on the Muscogee. He signed a new treaty that allowed the Muscogee to stay, so he was at least against Indian removal.

His opposition to slavery and the war with Mexico are praiseworthy, however that happened after his presidency. Judging him solely on how many lived or died due to his actions as president, there aren’t really any significant amounts of lives saved or lost, making him neither one of the best nor worst presidents.

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