John Quincy Adams’ Early Life
Born on July 11, 1767, in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams was the second child and first son of John and Abigail Adams. As a young boy, John Quincy watched the famous Battle of Bunker Hill (June 1775) from a hilltop near the family farm with his mother. He accompanied his father on a diplomatic mission to France when he was 10, and would later study at European universities, eventually becoming fluent in seven languages. Adams returned to Massachusetts in 1785 and entered Harvard College, graduating two years later. He then studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1790, after which he set up a law practice in Boston.
As a young lawyer, Adams wrote articles defending the neutrality policy of George Washington’s presidential administration regarding the war between France and Britain in 1793. In 1794, Washington appointed him as a U.S. minister to the Netherlands. After the elder John Adams was elected president in 1796, he made his son minister to Prussia (Germany). Before leaving for Berlin, John Quincy Adams married Louisa Catherine Johnson, whom he met in London (she was the daughter of the American consul there). Tragically, the couple would suffer the loss of three children–a daughter in infancy and two sons in adulthood–and by some accounts it was a largely unhappy match.
Adams Returns to the U.S.
After John Adams lost the presidency to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, he recalled John Quincy from Europe; the younger Adams returned to Boston in 1801 and reopened his law practice. The following year he was elected to the Massachusetts State Senate, and in 1903 the state legislature chose him to serve in the U.S. Senate. Though Adams, like his father, was known as a member of the Federalist Party, once in Washington he voted against the Federalist Party line on several issues, including Jefferson’s ill-fated Embargo Act of 1807, which greatly harmed the interests of New England merchants. He soon became estranged from the Federalists–then led by Alexander Hamilton, a political enemy of his father’s–and came to abhor party politics. Adams resigned his Senate seat in June 1808 and returned to Harvard, where he had been made a professor.
In 1809, President James Madison called Adams back into diplomatic service, appointing him ambassador to the Russian court of Czar Alexander I. While in St. Petersburg, Adams observed Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and later the withdrawal of the French army after that great conflict. Meanwhile, war had broken out between the United States and Britain, and in 1814 Madison called Adams to Belgium in order to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. John Quincy Adams then began serving (like his father before him) as U.S. minister to Great Britain; his son, Charles Francis Adams, would go on to hold the same post during the American Civil War.
From Diplomat to President
In 1817, President James Monroe named John Quincy Adams as his secretary of state, as part of his efforts to build a sectionally balanced cabinet. Adams achieved many diplomatic accomplishments in this post, including negotiating the joint occupation of Oregon with England and acquiring Florida from Spain. He also served as the chief architect of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine (1823), which aimed to prevent further European intervention or colonization in Latin America by asserting U.S. protection over the entire Western Hemisphere.
In 1824, Adams entered a five-way race for the presidency with two other members of Monroe’s cabinet–Secretary of War John C. Calhoun and Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford–along with Henry Clay, then speaker of the House, and the military hero General Andrew Jackson. Adams carried the New England states, most of New York and a few districts elsewhere, but finished behind Jackson (who won Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and most of the West) in both the electoral and popular votes. For the first time in U.S. history, however, no candidate received a majority of electoral votes, and the election was decided by the House of Representatives. Speaker Clay threw his support behind Adams, who won the presidency and later named Clay as secretary of state. Jackson’s supporters raged against this “corrupt bargain,” and Jackson himself resigned from the Senate; he would again seek the presidency (successfully) in 1828.
John Quincy Adams in the White House
As president, Adams faced steadfast hostility from the Jacksonians in Congress, which perhaps explained his relatively few substantive accomplishments while in the White House. He proposed a progressive national program, including federal funding of an interstate system of roads and canals and the creation of a national university. Critics, especially Jackson’s supporters, argued that such advancements exceeded federal authority according to the Constitution. The Erie Canal was completed while Adams was in office, linking the Great Lakes to East Coast and enabling a flow of products such as grain, whiskey and farm produce to Eastern markets. Adams also sought to provide Native Americans with territory in the West, but like many of his initiatives this failed to find support in Congress.
Up for reelection in 1828, Adams was hurt by accusations of corruption and criticism of his unpopular domestic program, among other issues; he lost badly to Jackson, who captured most of the southern and western votes. Adams became only the second president in U.S. history to fail to win a second term; the first had been his own father, in 1800. He retired to private life in Massachusetts only briefly, winning election to the House of Representatives in 1830. He served as a leading congressman for the rest of his life, earning the nickname “Old Man Eloquent” for his passionate support of freedom of speech and universal education, and especially for his strong arguments against slavery, the “peculiar institution” that would tear the nation apart only decades later. After suffering two strokes, Adams died in 1848, at the age of 80.