John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life — Paul C. Nagel (President #6)

jqadams

 

Day 12 • 8½ pages

Work and home demands have kept me from my minimum 20 pages per day today, and means I have read 8½ pages total the last two days. I will try to make up for it in the next couple of days.

I am starting this book (for the purposes of the new blog) on page 215, and ending today on 223. John has returned to Paris while journeying from Russia to his new post in London, traveling part of the way on a ship named after his father. I would think that would be a pretty cool experience for JQ, except that he spent most of his life to that point trying to get out of his John Adams’ shadow. Among the entertainments while in France, a visit to the castle of the Marquis de Lafayette, who will soon make his farewell tour of the United States. The more I read in other biographies about Lafayette, the more I want to read one about him. I have a good one on my to-read list, Lafayette, by Harlow Giles Unger.

John helped finalize the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 with the same policies that were in place before it started–but with an American capital to rebuild–seen as a victory for the US. His amazing résumé continues to grow.

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Day 13 • 24½ pages

I have found a love of statistics, and to some extent, trivia about two of my favorite subjects: Baseball and US Presidents. My wife hates it, so I get to talk about it here.

Today’s text confirmed for me what I had suspected, the unusual fact that our SIXTH president’s wife was the FIRST presidential spouse to live in the White House for her husband’s entire term. The city was not yet built in George Washington’s time, and was not ready (and barely) for John Adams to move into until his third year in office. Thomas Jefferson was a widower in the President’s House, James Madison was burned out of it in the War of 1812, and repairs did not allow James and Elizabeth Monroe to move in until late in his first year.

I found it incredible that Abigail Adams influenced two later presidents to give jobs to her family members, but that her son could not be moved to do so in his new office of Secretary of State. I think those apron strings are cut!

It saddens me how quickly JQA became a target of unfairness–during the so-called “era of good feelings,” no less–because of the aspirations of those he worked with. Monroe’s cabinet should have been a “dream team,” perhaps the strongest one the nation had seen to that point. But if nothing else, something politicians are great at is messing things up.

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Day 14 • 20 pages

The metric system can save us from the devil. That thought was quite a surprise! JQA’s report on weights and measures sounds like the most detailed and boring book ever written! But if it made him happy, I accept it.

I like that Nagel mentioned John’s receipt of a stray vote that prevented Monroe from unanimous re-election. I also like that Adams opposed the Missouri Compromise, a deal that put my home state on the wrong side of history.

For the first time since starting my trip through the lives of all the presidents, I felt a real connection to the history I was reading, when John became a fan of steamboat travel. Being from St. Louis, I grew up in an area greatly affected by steam-powered traffic on the Mississippi, so it was easy for me to visualize the vessel on which he journeyed from Washington to Massachusetts.

I was sad that he seemed to pay little notice of the death of the legendary First Lady, his mother, Abigail in 1818. But it was somehow appropriate anyway. Also sad is knowing that his father would deteriorate substantially and not live very much longer, either.

My favorite line today was the humorous (and unintentional) use of alliteration when John was referring to Washington society’s petty social expectations as a, “paltry passion for precedence.”

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Day 15 • 27 pages

If I am ever asked what contest between former presidents I would most like to see, I think at this point I would have  to say a swim-off in the Potomac by JQA and JFK.

John’s comment about the swine farm could  similarly apply to the politically ambitious in Washington: “Not cheering either to the sight or to the scent.”

His noble aspiration to, “bring the whole people of the union to harmonize together,” is one echoed by many presidents before and after him, and achieved by none. There are just too many of us and too many opinions to harmonize.

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Day 16 • 33 pages

“My life must be militant to its close.”

I am unwrapping the injustice of a presidency doomed to failure by popular opinion before it even began. Adams became the second president to win the office via the House of Representatives, after Andrew Jackson claimed both the most popular and most electoral votes, though because there were four candidates, even Jackson did not take the required electoral majority.

While unfair to the highly qualified and dedicated Adams, I can appreciate what 1820s Americans would have been feeling: An exciting personality, the nation’s first big war hero since George Washington, and someone neither from New England nor Virginia, had been defeated through technicality by a government insider who had spent most of his life on another continent while failing repeatedly to make a private-sector career in America.

Nagel’s apologetic introduction of the chapter as a necessarily brief commentary on JQA’s presidency was followed by talk about the endless and unrestricted line of visitors to the Executive Mansion, and about trips home, but nothing on any significant event in which Adams played a role. It seems the most noteworthy thing about his time in office is that he became president at all. Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the story is that all of the grand desires he called out in his first Congressional address, torn asunder by colleagues, the press, and the people, are things we have and take for granted today. The country simply wasn’t ready for for his ideas, and wasn’t ready for another Adams.

I found Nagel’s description of the events of July 4, 1826, the most clever of the ones I have read so far:

The nation was much stirred by the news that the two principal authors of the Declaration of Independence should be recalled by God on the nation’s fiftieth birthday.

Both Thomas Jefferson and the senior John Adams, as well as JQA himself, had been diplomats overseas, a job in which being recalled means you are either fired, or needed in some other capacity and must go home.

I am heartbroken for John, as his insignificant presidency is nearly bracketed by his father’s death, and then his eldest son’s.

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Day 17 • 23 pages

A sturdy white oak.

It is hard to fathom how JQA, twice ousted from elected office, constantly disrespected by colleagues and the press, and hard-pressed to find anything noteworthy he had accomplished as a politician, would come up with this phrase: “Public affairs… afford me rather relief and relaxation from these heavier domestic and personal afflictions.” That meant he had some really bad stuff going on at home.

I love how John’s opinion of President Jackson is revealed on page 343:

“He is one of our tribe of great men who turn disease to commodity, like John Randolph, who for forty years was always dying.” According to Adams, Jackson was “so ravenous of notoriety that he craves the sympathy for sickness as a portion of his glory,” willing even to allow talk of his “chronic diarrhoea.” He predicted that the president would “crawl” back to Washington, disappear briefly into the White House, and then emerge, “never in better health and spirits.”

Louisa’s description of her husband’s resolve to their only remaining son, Charles: “Your father is a sturdy white oak and not to be crashed by the reptiles who envy his talents and would destroy him if they could.”

It sounds as though in the next chapter, he will be doing the destroying…

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Day 18 • 16 pages

Finally, John is thriving, never more popular at home, and newly reelected to the House. Yet I find that I can’t be too happy for him, as he has emerged on the wrong sides of the slavery and women’s rights issues–if only to sustain a fight.

I enjoyed reading about the origins of the Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of a bequeathal by British friend James Smithson.  I am also glad that Adams led the effort to keep the funds directed toward the cause for which it was intended.

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Day 19 • 15 pages

I am realizing that John is possibly the most notable politically active septuagenarian since Benjamin Franklin, and continue to find it astounding how a man who had so often been beat up in his chosen career seemed to find additional strength each day in his old age. He turned around, to be the slayer of the “slavocracy,” provoking the ire of southern states at every opportunity, despite the “gag rule” on the subject of human bondage. With each page I read he becomes a bigger hero to the rights of all men, even defending the Africans of the Amistad before the Supreme Court.

I am pushing with his family for John to complete a biography of his father, but it appears that is not likely to ever happen. I am happy that he looks forward to finally having a friend in the Executive Mansion with the election of William Henry Harrison,  yet I know that only more death awaits, to take another jab at John’s hope and optimism.

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Day 20 • 35 pages

I finished the text today, as I had a day off from work and was close enough to the end to see the light. It was a difficult for me, at this time, to read such detail of the deterioration of the health of John Quincy Adams. Yet I took inspiration from his drive to keep going until the very end, and only hope I can somehow manage that when my time comes around. Although I would like to retire at some point–I’m not sure Adams knew what retirement was.

He continued on in an effort to salvage his name in history, and he has more than done that. I couldn’t help but think that he was likely the most prominent politically-active septuagenarian since Benjamin Franklin. Then he turned 80 and kept going. I also thought about how he could stand beside Lincoln in American history as a formidable opponent of slavery.

As usual, I got choked up as I read of his passing, this time influenced by the unexpected celebrations he encountered as he traveled to Cincinnati and elsewhere. I thought about how hard that trip was for him physically, and how easy his last journey was, from Washington to Quincy where he finally would lay at rest.

It is a strange roller-coaster ride of emotion, getting to know someone intimately; watching them grow from childhood (or sometimes infancy) to adulthood, and then fading from this world to the next, all in a short three to four weeks of my time. Losing friends is hard. Meeting and losing them in the same month is inexplicable.

JQ is the sixth president of whom I have read a biography, and the seventh key American historical figure (including Franklin) in the last 12 months. I am gaining an invaluable perspective on what it was that made these men great, and not-so-deep down, I feel a wish to join them in their notoriety. Maybe in my next life…

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One thought on “John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life — Paul C. Nagel (President #6)

  1. Pingback: Presidential Biographies – Today in My Book

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