John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan, review by Carl Caton
He was a poet, a Harvard professor, a translator of Greek and Roman historians, a diplomat, a multilinquist, a husband and father, Secretary of State under James Monroe, and a nine term member of the US House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams was all of these, as well as the sixth President of the United States. In his new biography, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, Fred Kaplan has given us a deep and engaging look at one of America’s most learned and accomplished figures, a man who stood for his principles, even (or especially) when they caused him to lose political and personal support.
The son of John Adams, the second US President, John Quincy grew up in the revolutionary period of our history, and as an eleven year old accompanied his father to Europe in 1778 when John Adams was appointed to the three man commission to Paris during the war for independence. John Quincy was to spend the next five years in Europe, gaining a classical education from Leiden University as well as from tutors, diplomats, and the wide circle of his father’s contacts. Three of those years were spent as private secretary to the US commissioner to Russia. On his return to the newly independent US, John Quincy, now fluent in several languages, graduated from Harvard and entered the practice of law.
While John Quincy was establishing himself as a lawyer and family man, the country was struggling to create a government that could survive the disparate pressures between the agrarian and slave-holding southern states and the industrial and mercantile northern states. As the mostly northern Federalists contested the issues, John Quincy sided with his father and the Federalists, and became a staunch anti-slavery advocate. The federalist philosophy was deemed, by the southern states, a threat to slavery by virtue of a strong central government. Adams was a tireless, and eventually successful, foe of the “gag rule”, which for years prohibited the topic of slavery even being mentioned in the US House of Representatives.
Although it is Monroe who is known for the Monroe Doctrine concerning outside interference in the Americas, it was John Quincy Adams, as Monroe’s Secretary of State, who was the true author.
Thanks in part to the diary that John Quincy maintained for most of his life, much is known about him and his times. However, he belongs, as Kaplan says, to the netherworld of unknown presidents, overshadowed in the public mind by his predecessors and successors, especially Andrew Jackson. In the end, the policies espoused by John Quincy Adams became the policies of Lincoln and the Republican Party.
Adams served his country until the very end, dying of a stroke suffered at his desk in the House. Thanks to Fred Kaplan, we have an account of the life of an under-appreciated American giant.