My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I picked
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel
John Quincy Adams – Lived 1767-1848 ; President from 1825-1829
John Quincy Adams is often seen a bit enigmatically. He doesn’t have the same resume as the other early Presidents, it seems, nor does he have a long list of sterling accomplishments to solidify his legacy. Yet what I discovered when reading this biography by Paul C. Nagel is that appearances, as always, are not as they seem. John Quincy Adams (hereafter JQA) was a phenomenally interesting person, and a truly effective person of state, if not the flashiest President of his time.
Most obviously, JQA was the son of President John Adams. He greatly admired his father, though as I observed in the look at John Adams, his father was something of an absentee father. Some of the personality traits of the father passed to the son, and at times JQA seemed aloof and uncaring of the problems of even those close to him. One example is that when he was engaged to his wife, Louisa, he wrote urging her to break off the engagement if she felt it would be better for her. I suspect that Louisa did not take the letter as kindly as it may have been intended. In any case, even in his early life, he traveled to Europe to study abroad. Later, he became the United States Foreign Minister to Russia. He was supremely successful in this role and Louisa certainly contributed to some of this success. One example of the difficulty facing him in this role would be to look at the budget. The French Minister to Russia had a budget of about 300,000 per annum, while JQA’s own budget was $9,000. Despite this, JQA formed close ties with the Czar and managed to leverage this advantage for the sake of the young United States.
Throughout his period as Foreign Minister and for much of his life, JQA struggled financially, unable to ever seem to stay out of debt. Late in his life, he allowed his surviving son, Charles Francis Adams, to take over his finances. However, JQA never seemed to be comfortable with his financial situation, and this serves as one example of his overarching personality trait of being quite ambitious. He longed to be likened to Cicero or Aristotle and counted among the greatest minds of all time. Yet, he constantly felt frustrated at his own perceived lack of ability and knowledge. Ironically, late in life he complained that his diary would never be seen as a great work of humankind, yet his journals have survived largely intact to become one of the most important early records of the United States. His ambition was perhaps his greatest trait and flaw, as it both encouraged him in endeavors at which he would succeed and led him to be somewhat vindictive and uncooperative in the political sphere.
I already noted his success in Russia, but JQA also negotiated peace with Britain after the War of 1812, settled disputes over borders both north and south, drafted the Monroe Doctrine which would, obviously, get credited to Monroe, and was overall a complete success as Secretary of State and diplomat. His foreign policy was decidedly in line with republican (not to be confused with Republican) ideals of the time, pushing policies that attempted to expand the borders and influence of the United States while also showing a commitment to independence and individualism. It was a tough balance, and speaking of policy in such general terms doesn’t seem wholly accurate or decisive. Moreover, whether one agrees with the Monroe Doctrine and its broader ramifications or not, it is clear that JQA was highly influential on the shaping of US foreign policy.
As President, JQA faced vigorous opposition of his embittered political opponents. He had big ideas, including trying to expand on both the arts and various areas of learning at the Federal level and encouraging spending in various areas. But again and again his opponents in Congress thwarted him. Frankly, the part of the biography covering JQA’s Presidency was perhaps the least interesting, if only because it was filled with the kind of seeming obstructionism that often has played into current politics as well.
After he was President, JQA continued to make huge impacts on public policy. He argued in favor of the Africans in the Amistad case and powerfully condemned his contemporaries on the issue of slavery. Interestingly, Nagel argues that JQA’s initial movements towards abolitionism may have been, in part, influenced by the fact that so many of his opponents while he was in the White House were in favor of slavery. However, it would be tough to fully buy into that argument as his family didn’t own slaves and had other abolitionists therein. It seems more likely to me that JQA simply bought more into abolitionism as he grew older. Regardless of his motivations, he became a powerful spokesperson for abolitionism as a Representative from the state of Massachusetts. His most cogent arguments included a frank mockery of the notion that the U.S. could affirm that all people are created equal while also holding slaves. He continued his push to attack slavery in sidelong fashion throughout the rest of his life.
The sidelong approach to slavery was seen, in part, by his constant arguments for the right to petition. He continued to defend the right of people to petition the government, which had been scaled back at least in part alongside a gag order on discussing slavery. That is, the U.S. Congress had effectively issued a blanket gag order on slavery such that it could not be directly disputed or debated. Abolitionists constantly wished to petition the government, but they were not allowed to do so. JQA took up the mantel of arguing in favor of the right to petition, despite its notorious unpopularity at the time. Eventually, he managed to help get the gag order removed, setting the stage for broader debate and eventual emancipation (not without the Civil War, of course).
I’ve not had a President as difficult to rank as John Quincy Adams yet. That’s not saying much because I’m only at #6, but I always assumed John Quincy Adams was kind of a footnote to history. Moreover, after reading the biography it seems his Presidency may not have been very effective, but that was hardly his own fault. He was a phenomenally important foreign minister and congressman before and after his Presidency, respectively. It’s very tough to judge him so far as the definitive list goes, but I’ll have to try. Whatever one’s view of his Presidency, he was a fascinating, amazing public figure who is well worth studying.
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life is a fantastic biography of a fascinating person. I truly had no idea John Quincy Adams was interesting at all and frankly figured he’d be nowhere near as interesting as his father or any of the other early Presidents. However, reading this biography completely changed my view of this complex person.
THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*
My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!
1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.
2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.
3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.
4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.
5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.
6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.
*Rankings not definitive
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