|JOHN QUINCY ADAMS
His Father’s Son
John Quincy Adams once wrote, “I cannot escape my destiny. . . . I am bound to my parents by more than ordinary ties.” He was the only son of a president ever to rise to the presidency, and he did so almost in spite of himself. A recluse by nature, always more respected than loved, he described himself as a “cold” and “silent animal.” “I well know that I never shall be a popular man,” he wrote. “I have none of the honey which is the true flycatcher.”
Adams was raised at the family homestead in what would later be known as Quincy, Massachusetts. With his famous father off helping run the country during the Revolutionary War, his mother became the dominating influence in his early life. When, at age eleven, he accompanied his father on a diplomatic mission to Europe, she tried hard to maintain her maternal control over him. “[My son] must never disgrace his mother,” Abigail Adams wrote in a letter. “For dear as you are to me, I had much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean . . . than see you an immoral profligate or a graceless child.” John Quincy’s father also put enormous pressures on him to succeed. “You came into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre,” he once lectured. “And if you do not rise to the head of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness and slovenliness.”
In his twenties, in part to please his parents, John Quincy accepted an appointment as America’s minister to Holland. While abroad, he met and proposed marriage to Louisa Johnson, the daughter of the U.S. Consul in London. He himself admitted that he was marrying the wealthy heiress in part to support him in his literary pursuits once back in America. But when Louisa’s family declared bankruptcy in 1796, the stiff-lipped young ambassador went through with the marriage anyway. “I have done my duty—rigorous, inflexible duty,” he wrote. “I am as happy as a virtuous, discreet and amiable woman can make me.”
John Quincy’s methodical approach to life served him well in his work. In time President Washington called him “the most valuable public character we have abroad.” And when John Adams became president in 1797, his son was elevated to the position of minister to Prussia.
In 1801, with his father’s retirement from the presidency, John Quincy returned to the United States to settle down on the family homestead. “I never can find contentment . . . at a distance from my parents,” he wrote. “I feel an attachment to these places more powerful than to any other spot upon earth.”
While he was away, tragedy had struck the family. John Quincy’s younger brother Charles had succumbed to alcoholism. An angry John Adams had refused even to visit his dying son, branding him “a mere buck and beast” and utterly renouncing him. Unable to live up to the family ideal, Charles had become its first victim.
Fearing the pressures that had destroyed his brother, John Quincy vowed he would never enter politics—he would rather “clean filth off the streets.” But the family destiny proved impossible to resist. Elected to the upper house of the Massachusetts legislature in 1802, one year later he won a seat in the U.S. Senate. And in 1809, he was named minister to Russia by Republican president James Madison.
It was John Quincy, widely recognized as the country’s most skillful diplomat, who negotiated the close of the War of 1812. In recognition of his accomplishments after eight years overseas, he was named James Monroe’s secretary of state.
He proved himself to be brilliant in this role, perhaps the finest secretary of state in American history, toiling over complex negotiations involving boundary disputes and the acquisition of Florida. And he became the chief architect of the Monroe Doctrine. “Of the public history of Mr. Monroe’s administration,” he wrote, “all that will be worth telling to posterity has been transacted by the Department of State. . . . I might confidently say by me.”
In 1823 Adams’s name was put forward as a candidate for president. When no victor emerged in the electoral college, John Quincy, who had run second to Andrew Jackson in the popular vote, was named president by the House of Representatives. He was one of the brightest men ever to enter the high office and his administration was marked by its bold initiatives. He advocated federally funded roads, canals, river widenings, and harbor works. And in a visionary program far ahead of its time, he called for the creation of a national observatory. In foreign affairs, he became known for his patient negotiations, concluding more commercial treaties than any president prior to the Civil War.
But Adams’s basic independence and arrogant manner overshadowed his many achievements. Over his years in office, he became vilified as one of the country’s most unpopular presidents ever. “[I am] reproach[ed as] a gloomy misanthropist [and] an unsocial savage!” he wrote. “But I am not formed to shine in company, nor be delighted with it. . . . I have no powers of fascination.”
In early July 1826, Adams received a letter from Massachusetts, announcing that his father’s health was rapidly sinking. The President reached the family homestead on July 13, six days too late for his father’s funeral. Dazed, he wandered through his father’s house. “Everything about the house is the same,” he wrote. “I was not fully sensible of the change til I entered his bed-chamber. . . . That moment . . . struck me as if it had been an arrow to my heart. . . . The charm which has always made this house to me an abode of enchantment is dissolved; and yet my attachment to it . . . is stronger than I ever felt it before.”
John Quincy descended into a profound depression, and the remainder of his presidency was desperately unhappy. Two years later, the hugely popular “people’s candidate,” Andrew Jackson, defeated Adams by a large majority “My own career is closed,” John Quincy wrote dejectedly. “The sun of my political life sets in the deepest gloom.”
His hopes now focused on his own children, all three of whom he had largely ignored during the past two decades. “My sons have not only their own honor but that of two preceding generations to sustain,” he wrote.
For years, though, he had had troubles with his offspring, none of whom had distinguished himself academically. “I had hoped that at least one of my sons would have been ambitious to excel,” he had written. “[But] I find all three coming to manhood with indolent minds. . . . [It is a] bitter disappointment.” When he learned that his oldest son George had begun drinking heavily, as well as gambling and womanizing, he wrote, “I have
been horror struck at your danger. May I remind you of the blood from which you came.” But when he demanded that George come to talk over his life, his confused and despairing son leapt to his death from aboard a steamboat. “Oh! My unhappy son!” Adams wrote. “What a paradise of earthly enjoyment I had figured . . . as awaiting thee and me. It is withered forever.”
A year later Adams was still depressed. “No one knows . . . the agony of mind that I suffered,” he wrote. “[It was like] roasting to death by a slow fire.” It was his religious faith that finally brought him around. That, and a distinct honor awarded him in 1831 by the people of Massachusetts, who elected him as a representative to the U.S. Congress. He became the only ex-president ever to serve in the House of Representatives. “No election or appointment ever gave me so much pleasure,” he wrote. “My election as president was not half so gratifying.”
And so commenced the final chapter in John Quincy’s long life. He served in Congress for the next seventeen years, becoming the most passionate and respected liberal voice in Washington. He spoke out on Indian rights, on the advancement of science, on freedom of speech, on the evil of slavery. But in his family life, problems continued. In 1834 his second son, John, died, also from alcoholism. That left only his youngest son, Charles Francis. “All my hopes . . . in this world are now centered upon him,” Adams wrote.
“[I would] die despondent if I were under the conviction that no remaining drop of my father’s blood transmitted through me would survive.” The family name would continue on through Charles Francis, who would go on to become a U.S. congressman.
John Quincy once swore he would die in the pursuit of duty, and in 1848 he received his wish, suffering a fatal stroke on the floor of the House of Representatives. To the end, it was his family that had kept him going. That, and a lifelong ambition that destroyed so many other Adamses—to have earned the right to be called his father’s son.