The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Adams, John Quincy

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
947960The Encyclopedia Americana — Adams, John Quincy

ADAMS, John Quincy, American statesman, 6th President of the United States, son of John Adams: b. in Brain tree, Mass., 11 July 1767; d. Washington, D. C., 23 Feb. 1848. At 10 he accompanied his father on his first embassy to France, and was placed at school near Paris. He returned with his father in about 18 months; but soon went back with him to Europe, and attended school in Holland and at the University of Leyden. At 15 Francis Dana, his father's secretary of legation, who had been appointed minister to Russia, took him with him as his private secretary. After 14 months' stay in Russia, where Catherine refused to recognize Mr. Dana, he traveled back alone through Sweden and Denmark to The Hague. Soon after his father's appointment as ambassador at London in 1785, he returned home to complete his studies, as he believed “an American education to be the best for an American career,” a coolly judicious choice for a lad of 18. He was graduated at Harvard in 1788, entered the office of Theophilus Parsons (q.v.), and in 1791 was admitted to the bar. He now began to take an active interest in politics. He wrote a series of letters to the Boston Sentinel under the signature of “Publicola,” in reply to Paine's ‘Rights of Man,’ and in 1793 defended Washington's policy of neutrality under the signature of “Marcellus.” These letters attracted attention, and in 1794 Washington appointed him minister to The Hague. In 1798 he received a commission to negotiate a treaty of commerce with Sweden; and traveling through Silesia wrote an account of it which was published in London, and later translated into German and French. On Jefferson's accession to the presidency he was recalled and resumed law practice.

In 1802 he was sent to the State Senate; the next year to the United States Senate in place of Timothy Pickering, leading Hamiltonian. But the Hamilton-Adams feud (see Adams, John) had split the party into rancorously hostile halves, and Mr. Adams was practically “boycotted” by the dominant section of his own party, as being an Adams, with an ingenuity of indecent insult curious to read of; still worse was it when Pickering was made his colleague by the other faction at the next vacancy. It was good training for the great career of his later life; he was not the man to conciliate his foes, and soon made the breach irreparable by breaking away from the party policy. Through life any action which strengthened the United States, or increased its dignity in the eyes of the world, or simply “showed fight” for any purpose, met with his heartiest approval and warmest support, even though fathered by his worst enemies; and he first supported (with some reservations) Jefferson's Louisiana purchase, — precisely in the line of the former Federalist policy and the nature of the party, but now fought by them as Jefferson's, — and in 1807 took a far more radical step. The action of France and Great Britain in plundering American commerce for evading their mutual blockade laws, and of the latter in impressing American citizens under pretense of their being English runaways, had enraged the country, but it was helpless against both and felt not strong enough at the time to fight either; finally the outrage of the Leopard on the Chesapeake (see the latter name) roused the Republicans to fury, and even many of the Federalists. But the leaders of the latter sympathized with England's difficulties in the war with Napoleon, would do nothing to embarrass her and even defended the Leopard's action. Mr. Adams was as hot as any Republican; he tried to have the Boston Federalists hold a meeting and pledge the government their support in any measures to curb British insolence, and on their refusal attended a Republican meeting and was put on a committee to draft such resolutions. The Federalists were soon compelled by popular feeling to do likewise, and Mr. Adams also drafted resolutions there. At the extra session of Congress in October the Embargo on all American shipping was passed, to see if England could not be starved into better behavior; half ruining New England, most of whose capital was invested in commerce, and injuring Americans much more than the enemy. Mr. Adams was a member of the committee which reported the bill, and earnestly advocated it, — not because it went as far as he liked, but as preferable to showing no resentment whatever, and all the Federalists would permit. The execrations leveled at his father for the French mission, and the charges of sectional and party treachery, were repeated on the son; political literature for half a century was glowing with the acrid polemics on the subject, and the prime object of his grandson Henry Adams's ‘History’ is to exculpate him. His term in the Senate was to expire 3 March 1809; in the preceding June the Massachusetts legislature elected James Lloyd to succeed him, as an insult, which he accepted and at once resigned. Meantime he had been made professor of rhetoric at Harvard and delivered lectures there. The next month he declined a Republican nomination to the House.

On Madison's accession in 1809 he at once appointed Mr. Adams minister to Russia; the Senate for some months refused to confirm the nomination, but at length yielded, and he passed four and one-half years there. In the peace negotiations with England over the War of 1812, he was a commissioner with Gallatin and Bayard, and again defeated assaults on the American fishing rights like his father. The treaty is usually considered a humiliating fiasco for America; but it is significant that the British press considered it a surrender on their side, and especially reviled Mr. Adams for his share in it. Visiting Paris, he was made commissioner to negotiate the American-English commercial treaty signed 13 July 1815. Meantime he had arrived in England, 26 May, and received the news of his appointment as minister to that country. The synchronism of wars, treaties and ministerships between father and son is so curious that in ancient history it would be treated as indubitable confusion of persons.

Eight years later, after leaving America, Mr. Adams was recalled to it as secretary of state under Monroe, inaugurated March 1817. His greatest achievement was the treaty with Spain ceding Florida to the United States for $5,000,000, to be used in paying American claims against Spain; and rectifying the boundaries of Louisiana and Mexico. His utter independence of personal against national considerations is singularly shown in his support of Jackson for invading Spanish Florida and hanging Arbuthnot and Ambrister; he hated and despised Jackson, who surely had violated all international law, but had roughly vindicated United States rights and put down dangerous intrigues with savages, and Mr. Adams vigorously defended him. Adams was the author of the “Monroe Doctrine,” and though he never dreamed of its later interpretations would not improbably have sympathized with them. He also drew up a report on weights and measures which is still a classic, and shows an almost incredible amount of investigation. An ultimately far more important question came up over the admission of Missouri as a slave State. The Missouri Compromise (q.v.) had been passed and put before Monroe for signature, but he submitted to his Cabinet the questions whether Congress had a constitutional right to prohibit slavery in a Territory, and whether the prohibition of slavery “forever” in the territory north of Mason and Dixon's Line meant while it remained a Territory or thereafter. The Cabinet was unanimous in the affirmative on the first question; Mr. Adams was alone in declaring that “forever” included statehood also.

In the presidential election of 1824 there was no electoral majority: Andrew Jackson had 99, Mr. Adams 84 (a remarkable vote considering his ungracious manner, gift for making enemies and refusal to do anything to promote his election), William H. Crawford 41 and Henry Clay 34. Crawford was put out of the field by a paralytic stroke. As Clay could not be elected, his supporters cast their votes for Adams as preferable to Jackson; the former represented the same public policy as theirs, he was the ablest public official in the country and not personally hostile to Clay, while Jackson was regarded as an ignorant and violent demagogue. Mr. Adams was elected, and made Clay secretary of state, a place to which Clay's talents and position gave almost a prescriptive claim. The Jacksonians denounced this as a corrupt bargain to defeat the people's will, and absurdly gave it the name of the unsavory English “Coalition,” a catchword which was an efficient party weapon for many years. Mr. Adams' administration had no dramatic events. Its policy was based on a new division of parties. The Federalists were dead, consequently their opponents were dead also, and the new division was into National Republicans, afterward Whigs, and Democratic-Republicans, or Democrats; the former favoring internal improvements, a national bank and high tariffs, the latter opposing them. In reality, the division was between the preferences of the capitalist class and the masses; and the vast overplus of the latter in the South, now concentrated on Jackson instead of a threefold split (they had given almost none to Adams), carried him in four years later by 178 to 83. Much is always made of the hostility of the northern commercial classes whose trade the tariff was intended to cut down, of the southern planters who would lose as consumers while having nothing to protect as producers, and the Jacksonian bribe and threat of “spoils”; but by the figures they cost Adams nothing.

Mr. Adams retired, as he supposed, from public life. But in 1831 the constituency of his district around Braintree elected him a member of Congress on the Anti-Masonic ticket (see Anti-Masonry; Morgan, William); and though that party soon died, his immense ability and unique power in Congress kept him there till his death. By a singular fortune, he owes by far his greatest fame to this relatively small position after his crowning office was laid down. Belonging to no party, a political Ishmaelite, of the loftiest patriotism and the highest integrity, but scornful of nature and irritable in temper, rousing every demon of hatred in his fellow-members, in constant and envenomed battle with them and more than a match for them all, the “old man eloquent” was for many years a storm centre of wonderful picturesqueness. But his repute is not a mere political curio: he had the fortune to take his place at the very outset of the struggle of the slave oligarchy to suppress free speech and writing on the slavery question, and crush political liberty to uphold slavery. He fought the attempt unflinchingly year after year by purely legal methods, upholding the right of petition as indefeasible under any government or for any purpose, — he did not hesitate to submit a petition from Virginians praying for his own expulsion as a nuisance, — and consequently a right of slaves or of others in their interest; and with little sympathy for the anti-slavery cause as such, became by force of circumstances its mightiest champion. He died of a stroke of apoplexy on the floor of the House. Consult ‘Writings of John Quincy Adams,’ edited by W. C. Ford (New York 1917).

Forrest Morgan,
Connecticut Historical Society.


Sixth President of the United States