Book Review: “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit” — A Sympathetic Look at a New England Aristocrat

James Traub has admirably captured the man inside the public figure, giving us a view of a typical New England grandee, puritanical at his core, molded as a traditionalist republican with no love for pure democracy.

John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub. Basic Books 620 pp. $35.


By Thomas Filbin

Writing the life of John Quincy Adams (JQA hereinafter), sixth president of the United States, has one immediate obstacle; his personal and public lives are nearly coterminous, so any biography runs the risk of reading like one long resume. Indeed, starting as a teenaged unofficial secretary to his father, John Adams, the second president, when the elder was envoy to France, to his death at the age of  80 as a sitting congressman from Massachusetts, there was hardly a period when JQA was not engaged in political affairs. That said, he was at heart an immensely private person, more a scholar and a scold than a glad hander, which makes his election as chief executive all the more improbable.

James Traub has admirably captured the man inside the public figure, giving us a view of a typical New England grandee, puritanical at his core, molded as a traditionalist republican with no love for pure democracy, convinced that governing was intended for the class born and bred for it. In describing himself, JQA once wrote: “I am a man of reserved, cold austere and forbidding manners; my political adversaries say a gloomy misanthropist, and my personal enemies, an unsocial savage.”

Educated by tutors and in letters and languages as he travelled abroad, he also spent time in Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. Coming home to be finished at Harvard, he qualified to practice law and married, but his heart was in government. After serving as a congressman and senator from Massachusetts (moonlighting as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at his alma mater when the senate was not in session), he resumed his diplomatic career under Madison and Monroe, serving as minister to Russia and then Great Britain, before becoming Secretary of State in 1817. Madison thought so highly of JQA that he nominated him for the Supreme Court, but he declined. Traub explains the decision: “Adams viewed a Supreme Court judgeship as a gloriously upholstered prison cell with a lifetime sentence.”

Running for president in 1824, he drew fewer popular and electoral votes than Andrew Jackson because of Henry Clay’s presence as a spoiler but, when the House of Representatives had to settle the contest, Adams won, his victory plagued by the charge that a corrupt bargain had been reached, given that Adams subsequently appointed Clay his Secretary of State. JQA’s sole term as president was neither splendid nor disastrous. He furthered the building of roads and canals, and was interested in such standards of civilization as an astronomical observatory. The leisure hours of a diplomat had made him something of a natural philosopher and in the spirit of the time that gave birth to eccentric hobbies. Traub enumerates: “He became fascinated, then obsessed, by the variation among the weights and measures of various nations. The actual height or weight or volume denoted by terms of measurement had not yet been fixed…. This fact did not seem to bother most men, but it consumed Adams.” Adams admitted himself that the hours of the day could be quickly consumed by such digressions: “Any occupation to which a spur of inclinations impels me operates as a sort of compulsion upon me, and leaves me no longer master of my own time.”

The office of president then was scarcely what it is now: with no White House staff, Adams’ son John ran errands and doubled as his secretary. The president’s day was taken up with minutiae. He signed every warrant and military commission, appointed postmasters, and was bombarded with solicitations and requests for favors. Traub notes that “On one not atypical day in late 1826 when he was hoping to finish his annual message to Congress, he received a visit from a Mrs. Weeden, who said that if she couldn’t pay her rent, her landlord would seize her furniture.” Seemingly august, the office was at times nothing but a thankless occupation. By 1827, congress was in the hands of JQA’s opponents, and he felt stymied.

Jackson ran for president again in 1828 and defeated JQA handily, relegating him to the list of one term presidents denied a repeat engagement. Not to be out of the game thenceforth, he ran for congress from Massachusetts and served for 17 more years until his death, breaking the tradition of ex-presidents retiring to their farms and writing their memoirs.

His post-presidency was perhaps the most illustrious period of his career: he fought to accept the Englishman Smithson’s bequest and create the Smithsonian as an independent, non-political institution, and more famously, represented the mutinous slaves of the ship Amistad before the U.S. Supreme Court and secured their freedom.

Historian James Traub

Historian James Traub

As a husband and father, JQA was strict and traditional. Louisa, his devoted wife, suffered from health problems, including depression. She endured several miscarriages and the death of a one year old daughter. JQA, unlike his father, who treated Abigail Adams as an intellectual equal, could be condescending and cold when warmth and empathy were in order. Ever the stoic, death and misfortune for JQA were to be endured in silent suffering, not remonstration or outburst. His descendants, including Charles Francis Adams, diplomat, historian, and writer extraordinaire, give some credit to the notion that meritocracy has its virtues.

In the crypt of the Unitarian church in Quincy Center, a solemn but simple structure of gray Quincy granite, lie in repose John Adams, his wife Abigail, their son John Quincy Adams, and Louisa. The second and sixth presidents of the United States were similar in many ways: Puritans through and through, devoted to probity, learning, seriousness, and modesty in their personal and public lives. JQA was more successful as a diplomat, and indeed is considered the true author of the Monroe Doctrine. His famous quote that (America) “…goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” should be carved in that same Quincy granite and given to all prospective presidents. His suspicion that aspirations to empire and world power would come to no good end have proven accurate.

Like Jimmy Carter, another one term president, JQA’s life is more celebrated for the things not connected to his presidency. Traub’s insight into this figure of the early republic is sympathetic but realistic. “We are all Jacksonians – all democrats,” he notes in the book’s introduction, but this republican, anti-democratic strain… “represents a defunct evolutionary line in American political life.”

Plato’s notion of paternal, brainy guardians must have been an attractive model for the early presidents; given our age of Trump-ian popularism perhaps there will be a reaction, a return to some sort of high-minded standard. But there will never be another John Quincy Adams as president; the age of television would preclude a short, bald, didactic moralist from ascending the ladder to chief magistrate. JQA in the 21st century would be a professor who sends learned, protesting epistles to the newspaper editor, hoping to rouse a readership of the concerned and the patriotic to action.

Thomas Filbin has reviewed books for The New York Times Book Review, the Boston Sunday Globe, and The Hudson Review.

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