The John Quincy Adams Years

john quincy adamsJohn Quincy Adams is one of the least appreciated figures in American history, but he had an enormous impact on the growth of the nation. He pursued an extraordinary career, first serving his father, President John Adams, as a personal secretary. He was ambassador to the Netherlands, Great Britain and the first American minister to Russia. His achievements as a diplomat were extraordinarily influential in shaping American foreign policy during the early decades of the Republic. He was a congressman, senator, diplomat, secretary  of state, Harvard professor, abolitionist, and sixth president of the United States. His diary is an extraordinary chronicle of the years in which he lived.

Adams has been regarded by some historians is perhaps the most intelligent man ever to serve as president. His wife Louisa Catherine Johnson, whom he met in England, was the only First Lady of the United States ever born outside the country. Although little known, his performance in the Amistad case, showcased in the film by Steven Spielberg in which he was played by Anthony Hopkins, did bring him to the attention of thousands of people who probably knew little or nothing about him. He was also the only president to serve in the House of Representatives after his years in the White House. His efforts toward the abolition of slavery as a representative from Massachusetts were notable. In the Amistad case, Adams was the first and only former president to argue before the Supreme Court.

John Quincy Adams Diplomat

John Quincy Adams is best regarded for his service in the cause of American diplomacy. As noted above, he served in numerous diplomatic posts, and was heavily involved in some of the most important foreign policy decisions of the early Republic. As Secretary of State during the Monroe administration, he negotiated several important treaties, including the Adams-Onis Treaty with Spain and the treaty of 1817 that secured the border between the United States and Canada westward to the Oregon Territory. He was the chief voice in formulating the well-known Monroe Doctrine, a concept to which several presidents have referred during times of crisis.

The Election of 1824: A “Corrupt Bargain”

John Quincy Adams was the last president elected by the House of Representatives. With the vote split among four candidates in 1824, none had enough electoral votes for victory. It was also one of the last elections where almost all votes were cast by state legislators, not by the people. That would soon change. As James Monroe's presidency moved through its second term, in the absence of any clearly defined party five regional candidates emerged as contenders for the election of 1824:  John C. Calhoun of South Carolina; John Quincy Adams, Monroe's secretary of state; Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans; Henry Clay of Kentucky, the “Great Compromiser”: and William H. Crawford of Georgia, former Minister to France and Monroe’s secretary of the treasury.  An illness eliminated Crawford, and Calhoun, still a relatively young man, withdrew early in the game and ran for vice president under Adams and Jackson. He was elected both times.

With a divided vote, no candidate won a majority in the electoral College; thus the election was moved into the House of Representatives, the last time that has occurred. In the actual election Jackson received about 151,000 popular votes and 99 electoral votes; Adams received over 110,000 popular votes and 84 electoral votes. Henry Clay came in a distant third in both categories. It is worth noting that the population of the United States at the time was about 12 million, which shows that in many states the people still did not vote for the presidential electors.  State legislatures decided the issue of presidential electors.

With majorities in both electoral and popular votes, Andrew Jackson felt he was entitled to the presidency.  But behind the closed doors of the House of Representatives the deliberations produced a different result.  John Quincy Adams was elected president, and he soon named Henry Clay to be his secretary of state.  Since every prior president except Washington and John Adams had served as Secretary of State, the office seemed to be a direct pipeline to the presidency.  Thus charges were brought that Clay and Adams had struck a “corrupt bargain,” allowing Adams to gain the presidency, although no corroborating evidence has ever been found.  John Quincy Adams was known for his scrupulous honesty, but it is clear that Jackson and Clay had sharp political differences.  In any case it is generally accepted that Clay's influence as speaker of the house was decisive.

John Quincy Adams as President.

John Quincy Adams is one of a number of Americans who served as president and whose presidency was not his greatest achievement. Adams has been called by a number of historians America's greatest diplomat; he served in a number of important diplomatic posts and negotiated several treaties.  In addition, his probable authorship of the Monroe Doctrine is generally seen as a credit. Following his presidency, John Quincy Adams was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served for 18 years, becoming a strong opponent of slavery and an outspoken critic of those who refused to debate the issue of slavery in the Congress.  His argument before the United States Supreme Court and the famous Amistad case is held up as a brilliant exposition of the meaning of freedom in America.

Adams hoped to make his presidency a tribute to the idea of nationalism, but the boldness of his program exceeded his political ability to bring about.  He often appeared insensitive to public feelings, and he failed to use his power to build support for his programs. He refused patronage on honorable grounds and left civil servants in office unless they could be removed for cause. He favored the “American System,” of Henry Clay and went far beyond what others had proposed went far beyond others— calling for federal initiatives in astronomy, education, the arts, agriculture, sciences, and so on. His nationalist approach aroused much states’ rights opposition. Followers of Adams and Clay became National Republicans and later Whigs during the Jackson years. Jackson’s men became Democratic Republicans and called themselves Democrats.

President Adams also sought to prove the American economy. He supported internal improvements, such as the building and extension of roads and canals. He also signed the controversial Tariff of 1828, a protective tariff which was opposed by Southerners. His support of those measures was a significant contribution to the enormous growth of the American economy during the early decades of the 19th century.

See Section on American Economic Growth

Congressman John Quincy Adams

One great irony in the life of John Quincy Adams is that despite his many years of public service, his most ardent the desire was to return to his home in Massachusetts where he could relax and read. But in 1830, restless and bored, he decided to run for the House of Representatives. He was elected nine times and served for 17 years. It was on the floor of the House on February 21, 1848, that he suffered the massive stroke that killed him.

Adams used his term in Congress to fight slavery, an institution that, like his mother and father, he had opposed for most of his life. Southern members of Congress had instituted a “gag rule” in an attempt to stifle discussion of the slavery issue. Adams vigorously opposed the gag rule and worked diligently against the proslavery southern faction of the House. It was an open fight that lasted for years. The proslavery advocates worked to censure Adams for his stance, but this served merely as an opportunity for him to continue his argument in favor of abolition.

Adams argued that slavery was immoral, a violation of the principles on which the nation was founded, namely, that all men are created equal. His opposition to slavery also made him an opponent of the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War. He argued that both could eventually lead to the division of the nation and Civil War. After winning reelection to Congress on one occasion he said that he would endeavor to “bring about a day prophesied when slavery and war shall be banished from the face of the earth.” Time and again he condemned “false and heartless doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin.” Historians have argued that not only did Adams predict the coming of the Civil War, but his ardent arguments in favor of abolition helped bring it about.

Broadening Of Democracy after 1815

Many state Constitutions were liberalized 1816-1830, gradually eliminating property qualifications, taxpaying for voting, religious qualifications for office, etc. Electors were more and more elected by people, not legislatures. Although the nation’s founders believed that “democracy” contained dangerous impulses, by the 1830s the term had become more acceptable and applicable to American institutions. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed the decline of deference and the elevation of popular sovereignty in America—“self-made” men could now rise in stature. Each individual was to be given an equal start in life, but equality of opportunity did not mean equality of result. The American people were happy to accept a society of winners and losers.  

As states eliminated property requirements for manhood suffrage, public involvement in politics swelled, and a permanent two-party system became the standard forum for the exchange of political ideas. It became understood that a “loyal opposition” was essential to democratic government. Economic questions (prompted by the Panic of 1819) and the proper role of the federal government in business matters were major concerns that assisted the rise in popular political interest. Workingmen’s parties and trade unions emerged as workers became convinced that the government should protect the rights of labor as well as those of the producers. Offices that had been appointive—such as judgeships or the electoral college—were made elective.  

Abolitionists sought an end to slavery and supported civil rights far free African Americans and women. The major parties gave little thought to extending rights to anyone other than adult, white males, however, and it was left to other, more radical, parties to argue the cause of African-Americans, women, and working people.  

The greatest change took place in the style of politics. Professional politicians emerged, actively seeking votes and acting as servants of the people. Men such as Martin Van Buren in New York extolled the public benefits of a two-party system, and political machines began to develop on the state level. National parties eventually developed—the Democrats and the Whigs, many of whom who later evolved into Republicans. Although political parties often served special economic interests, it should be remembered that American politics always retained a strong republican ideology and that all parties sought to preserve equality of opportunity. The National Republicans and Democrats differed on whether this could be done best with or without active intervention by the national government.

Social equality was the dominant principle of the age. Special privilege and family connections could no longer be counted on to guarantee success. Industrialization, however, perpetuated inequality, not in the traditional sense of birth or privilege, but in terms of wealth and attainment. Despite persistent and growing economic inequality, Americans generally believed they had created an egalitarian society, and in many ways they had. Political equality for white males was a radical achievement, and Americans came to prefer the “self-made” man to one who had inherited wealth and refinement. The egalitarian spirit carried over into an attack on the licensed professions, and it was believed that any white male should have a chance to practice law or medicine, whether or not he was trained.

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