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John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit

by James Traub

Reviewed by Dr. Geraldine Nussbaum, Historian and Jewish educator

John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit
by James Traub
640 pages, Basic Books

FEBRUARY 23, 1848

These words, which appear on John Quincy Adams’s tombstone, were written by Massachusetts Sen. Daniel Webster. As James Traub explains it in “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit,” Adams was a nationalist who represented not just one part of the United States, but the entire country. He may have been born a citizen of the Northeast, but he evolved into a citizen of America.

In David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, the father, he pointed out that “with change accelerating all around, more and more we need understanding and appreciation of those principles upon which the republic was founded. What were those principles that so many risked everything for, fought for and died for? What was the source of their courage? Who were these people? I don’t think we can ever know enough about them.”

James Traub “answers” McCullough by bringing us closer to knowing who these people were. He “walks” in Quincy’s shoes and takes us along. Traub poured through the diaries of John and Abigail; John Quincy and his wife, Louisa.  Each was a prolific correspondent, who wrote their spouses –constantly-during their many separations. Abigail frequently remained in Braintree alone while her husband was in Washington, and Louisa was on her own in Russia for a year while John Quincy was summoned to Ghent to resolve the War of 1812.

Traub allows us to “accompany” him back to 1775 when Abigail Adams took the 7-year old John Quincy, by the hand, and climbed the hill near their farm to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill. More than 70 years later, that child was eulogized as the last link to the Founding generation, and the “missing link” – as Traub sees it – between the creation of America, and start of the ramp up to the Civil War.

James Traub is a journalist and scholar who specializes in international affairs, but Adams is his debut book about an historical figure. Apparently, he chose Quincy Adams because his life truly defined his time and beyond. Quincy was barely walking when his parents started planning his future for a position in public life. Did they do the right thing? He grew up with “almost” no childhood, because it was assumed he could do anything – even be president. And, he did.

Ironically, John Quincy never thought of himself as particularly successful despite impressive curriculum vitae: Minister to the Hague, Emissary to England, Minister to Prussia, Massachusetts State Senator, United States Senator, Minister to Russia, Head of the American Mission to negotiate peace with England after the War of 1812, Minister to England, Secretary of State under President James Monroe, and member of the House of Representatives until his death in 1848. And with all this, Quincy judged himself more severely than his enemies.

Quincy was complex, and until the publication of this masterful opus, he has remained relatively obscure. Ask students today (of all ages through college) about Quincy and see how little they know. After Traub’s book (which should be required reading for all Honors classes in secondary school, beyond, and especially, for future teachers of Social Studies and History), all students should recognize that Quincy was a brilliant thinker, tactician and problem solver. He was one of America’s great Secretaries of State, who literally expanded the footprint of America by negotiating with England for the joint occupation of the Oregon country; he also obtained Florida from Spain and honed the Monroe Doctrine. Some have even claimed it was more Adams’ policy than Monroe’s.

The adult Quincy was a meld of his parents. Like his father, Quincy disliked compromise. They were vestiges of the Puritan tradition. John Adams was certainly a Founding Father, Traub suggests that Quincy was the last person associated with them. Quincy inherited his father’s moral and intellectual standards, and as a result found most people disappointing. He enjoyed arguing his elders into submission, and he had a temper; unlike his father, he was harsh with women, especially his wife, Louisa.

John Quincy wanted to be president. Monroe and Jefferson had transitioned into the office easily from their Secretary of State responsibilities. But for Adams it was not so effortless. He had competition and he didn’t care much for campaigning. He managed to win the presidency, but Andrew Jackson, who had been a rival, started planning (or rather plotting) to take the presidency in the election of 1825. Well aware that Congress would oppose him, Adams proclaimed in his first Annual Message a federal program to construct a network of highways and canals, an infrastructure that would unite the sections of the country, using funds from the sale of public lands. He urged the country to develop the arts and sciences through the establishment of a national university, the financing of scientific expeditions, and building an observatory. His years in Europe made him realize that competing and excelling in these orbs would establish America as a respected nation.

Adams’s critics claimed that such undertakings were unconstitutional. They did not hesitate to rebuff his ideas or hurl insults. Four years later Adams lost to Andrew Jackson, but Quincy’s agenda eventually went on the national docket, some of which he lived to see.

After his defeat, Adams returned to Braintree expecting to spend the remainder of his life farming and reading. But in 1830 the Plymouth district elected him to the House of Representatives, where he remained – until his 1848 death – fighting against slavery that year he collapsed in the House of Representatives from a stroke, and died two days later. Abraham Lincoln lifted him from the floor, carried him into the Speaker’s Room, and continued his campaign against slavery. When Adams was brought to his final resting place, the Reverend William Lunt said, “Where in history, can you find so glorious a history assigned to a single life?”

John Quincy Adams was one of John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” for “his acts of astounding integrity in the face of overwhelming opposition.”

Dr. Geraldine Nussbaum is a historian and a Jewish educator.

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