Sunday, July 25, 2010
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life
Paul C. Nagel
Harvard University Press
Nagel's history of this historically controversial president is the most contemporary and best written biography of John Quincy Adams.
The Adams family has to be one of the easiest subjects about which to write a biography. They saved all of their correspondence and it provides a rich, detailed history of the family. All (including the women) were gifted writers and both the legendary Abigail and her daughter-in-law, Louisa, were also gifted with political and social insight.
JQA's childhood is well documented by his father's correspondence as well as his own early diaries. He craved knowledge from an early age and studied in some of the finest schools in Europe while his father served in various diplomatic posts in the early days of the Republic. He enrolled in Harvard and, shortly after graduation, emerged as one of its most distinguished and prolific alumni.
JQA kept a journal throughout his life and it reveals a young man tortured by two obvious personality problems. He was frightened and disdainful of women, and he was full of self-doubt and expressed a great deal of self-ridicule. He set impossibly high standards for himself.
Finding law tedious and time consuming, he entered government service near the top as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. He was a part of the tattered remnants of the Federalist party, but often broke with them on matters of conscience. This earned him many enemies in Boston where old guard Federalists still held sway. By alienating the old guard, Adams ended his senate career after just one term when he was defeated for re-election.
He would then embark on a diplomatic career that would send him to all corners of Europe, including France, England, Germany, and Russia. He was better received than most previous American diplomats, including Timothy Pickering who was a cantankerous, yet highly effective diplomat.
It's in his stint as Secretary of State that we really see JQA's strengths and glaring weaknesses emerge. He was the brains and the architect of the Monroe Doctrine which not only declared an end in European meddling in the Western Hemisphere, but retired the decades battle between the Federalist "Anglophiles" and Democratic "Francophiles".
But his emotional difficulties that would bedevil him for the rest of his life would also emerge during this time. He was not adept at playing political games in the cabinet. Eyeing the presidency, he knew he'd be in a pitched battle with Treasury Secretary William Crawford, who was much more adept at political infighting, and Henry Clay, who wielded great power as Speaker of the House. Adams had already alienated Clay by being named Secretary of State -- a position that Clay coveted to position himself for a presidential run.
His 1824 election to the presidency over Henry Clay was a matter of some controversy since, because of the divided nature of the Electoral college, the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. Political maneuvering by Adams' allies in New York carried the day for him.
Nagel only devotes one chapter to the Adams' presidency. He says this is because they were the most miserable years in the Adams' family life. JQA was mentally and emotionally ill-equipped to serve as chief executive. He was dogmatic, cantankerous, and politically unskilled. He faced a hostile Congress that thwarted every initiative he put forward.
Adams sought major federally-funded interior improvements == including roads and canals. Congress wasn't biting. He had a grander vision of scientific research and higher education being funded by the federal government. His ideas were scoffed at as "visionary" and ridiculous.
Adams suffered through horrible bouts of depression in his White House years. His two oldest sons were major disappointments, having fallen prey to the Adams' family's greatest adversary for generations -- alcohol. They caused him and Louisa great worry for years before they both met young deaths.
Adams was crushed by the Democratic wave of 1828, and was relieved to be released from his duties. His years off were full of grief as he lost his two sons, found himself near bankruptcy, and unable to focus in his idle time. He decided a re-entry into politics was just the solution for what ailed him and he ran and won an election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
While he served in the House, he enjoyed being a pain in the ass to his colleagues. He took up unpopular causes, made strident speeches, and made motions that irritated even his fellow Whigs. While not a particularly effective legislator, he was a gifted orator and a courageous (if not always correct) iconoclast.
Reading David McCullough's treatment of Adams followed by Nagel’s biography of his most famous son is reading the history of a political dynasty every bit as powerful and commanding in the 19th century as the Kennedys were of the 20th. Perhaps a better comparison is to the Bush family which dominated the last twenty years. JQA’s children would go on to hold important positions in government, but never rise to nearly the stature of their father or grandfather. Prescott Bush was a U.S. senator, father of a president, and grandfather of a president and the governor of a major state. While I seldom will write off an entire family’s future in politics, it would be a safe bet that the last Bush administration has damaged the Bush brand beyond repair much as the tribulations of Teddy Kennedy sullied that family and as much as the presidency of JQA ended his family’s dominance of the political landscape of America.
If you tour the U.S. Capitol today, the tour guide will take you to the old House chamber. On the floor is a mark where Adams' desk was placed. Approximately 40 feet away, is another mark on the floor where members of the Democrats would frequently gather to discuss legislative strategy during House sessions. If you stand at Adams desk, you can hear clearly the conversation going on some 40 feet away from you due to the strange acoustics of the chamber. Adams often feigned sleep at his desk whilst listening to his enemies plot against him. It was at that desk that Adams would be stricken by a stroke and die shortly thereafter.
Nagel's book is awfully thin on policy and politics. He is nearly as masterful as David McCullough in bringing to life this member of America's first political dynasty. Nagel draws heavily from JQA's journal to paint a portrait of this sensitive and temperamental statesman.
Also examined and intriguing is the relationship between JQA and his mother. Abigail was terribly domineering and JQA often avoided corresponding with her for fear of some sort of reprimand. The matronly Abigail did not care for Louisa when he brought his young bride back from Europe. However, time wore the edges off of the relationship and Abigail and Louisa eventually became close.
This is an entertaining and engaging book. However, I would recommend it with a companion book. John Quincy Adams by Robert V.Remini is dedicated almost exclusively to the JQA presidency. Nagel's examination of JQA's tenure in office is entirely lacking. Only with Remini as a companion does Nagel's book give you the complete picture of John Quincy Adams.