John Quincy Adams Biography: Sixth President of the United States

Updated on July 23, 2018
John Quincy Adams at age 29.
John Quincy Adams at age 29.

Introduction

John Quincy Adams was taught at an early age by his parents to be a public servant, and indeed he did become one, serving as the secretary to the American envoy to Russia at age fourteen, and literally dying on the floor of the House of Representatives when he was well into his eighties. As the eldest son of the prominent politician and U.S. President, John Adams, he grew up in a fervent political climate, accompanying his father in diplomatic missions and forging his own path in diplomacy and public administration. Besides serving for years as a diplomat, minister, and ambassador to foreign countries, Adams had a successful career on the national scene as U.S. Senator and Congressman. He is known for his systematic and consistent fight against slavery, but also for his ability to negotiate favorable treaties with the great powers of the world, such as Britain, Russia, and Prussia. Adams would go on to serve as the sixth president of the United States and finish his career in the House of Representatives.

Early Life

John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, as the son of John Adams and Abigail Smith Adams from Massachusetts. At the time of his birth, his father, John Adams, had a seat as Selectman for the town of Braintree and later served as a diplomat, eventually being elected the second United States president.

Growing up in the heated climate of the American Revolution, John Quincy Adams had patriotism instilled in his blood. As the son of a politician and diplomat, he witnessed directly the birth and growth of his nation, even watching the Battle of Bunker Hill from a hill near his house. Much of his adolescence was spent overseas as he joined his father’s diplomatic delegations to France and the Netherlands, acquiring from an early age practical diplomatic experience. While in Europe, Adams attended prestigious schools in Paris, France, and Leiden, Netherlands. He acquired excellent fluency in the French language and learned conversational Dutch. Upon his return to the United States in 1780, Adams started to keep a regular diary, a habit that he maintained for the next 60 years.

In 1781, despite being only fourteen years old, Adams became the private secretary of the American envoy to Russia, Francis Dana, to whom he had to provide his services as a translator of French. This was the first small step of what would later be his long and prodigious international career. When the mission in St. Petersburg ended, Adams traveled through Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, before meeting his father again in France. Without holding an official position, Adams took part in the negotiations for the signing of the Peace of Paris. Meanwhile, his father was appointed U.S. minister to Great Britain, but instead of joining his father, young Adams returned home to Massachusetts, with the goal of resuming his studies at Harvard College. In 1787, Adams graduated from Harvard, after acquiring an excellent knowledge of classical studies and becoming fluent in Latin and Greek. From 1787 to 1789, Adams studied law under Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport, a small town in Massachusetts.

John Quincy Adams Video Biography

Diplomatic Success

In 1790, John Quincy Adams was admitted to the Massachusetts bar and while practicing in Boston, he devoted his free time to writing political and social commentaries in newspapers. Mainly, he wrote about his support for the neutrality policy adopted by the George Washington administration in regard to the French-British War of 1793. Reading the articles, the president became convinced of Adams’s political intuitions and offered him a position as United States minister in the Netherlands. Adams began thus his diplomatic career at The Hague, where his main responsibility was to keep the American government informed regarding diplomatic and military activities in Europe, especially as the revolutionary movement in France exploded into war.

Adams’s diplomatic responsibilities soon extended beyond his posting at The Hague. In 1795, he traveled to London and was involved in the negotiations of the Jay Treaty between the United States and the British Foreign Office. His remarkable aptitude for diplomacy impressed George Washington who considered him the most important Foreign Service officer of his administration. Trusting his professionalism, Washington later appointed Adams minister to Portugal. However, in 1796, John Adams replaced Washington as president and changed his son’s appointment, sending him to Prussia instead of Portugal.

In 1797, before taking his position in Berlin, John Quincy Adams married Louisa Catherine Johnson, daughter of American statesman Joshua Johnson and Katherine Nuth. Louisa was a highly educated and charming woman, with extensive knowledge of music, literature, and languages, and she accompanied her husband in all his travels in various European countries. Up until 2017 when Melania Trump became the First Lady, Louisa Adams had held the distinction of being the only foreign born First Lady of the United States.

As a diplomat in Berlin, Adam managed to negotiate a favorable treaty of trade and amity with Prussia. However, his father recalled him from Europe at the end of his father’s presidential term in 1800. By the end of the next year, young Adams had already been elected to the Massachusetts Senate. From there, his political ascension was quick and in 1803, he was elected to the United States Senate, as representative from the state of Massachusetts. Besides his political preoccupations, Adams also thought rhetoric and oratory at Harvard College between 1806 and 1809.

In the U.S. Senate, John Quincy Adams was generally regarded as a Federalist like his father, but he soon realized that his views were not aligned to the party’s policy. When the purchase of Louisiana created strains in the Senate because many Federalists were against it, Adams supported the purchase even though he hadn’t been in Washington to give his vote for ratification of the treaty. He later sided with the Federalists against President Jefferson who wanted to pass a bill that gave him unwarranted powers over the newly purchased territory. In 1807, Adams supported the president’s idea of an embargo to stop international commerce and force Britain to acknowledge the rights of the United States. Adams insisted on prompt action and the Senate quickly approved the embargo bill, even though the Federalists fought vehemently against it. Overall, the bill was not appreciated anywhere in New England because it suppressed the region’s economic progress. His support for the bill brought Adams’s demise from the Senate. Since the Massachusetts legislature was controlled by the Federalists and Adams became very unpopular among them, they chose a replacement for him several months before the end of his term. Finding himself alone and powerless, Adams resigned in June 1808 but maintained his political aspirations intact. When the Republicans formed their own political structure, Adams decided to ally himself with the emergent party and support James Madison as a presidential candidate.

Despite his failure in the Senate, Adams regained his political power when President Madison appointed him the first official United States ambassador to Russia. Adams was received warmly by Russian Tsar Alexander I, especially since the monarch had already decided to develop closer commercial relations with the United States. While living at the tsar’s court, Adams witnessed Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the disastrous end of this army. In 1812, when the conflict between the United States and Britain escalated to war, Adams was in Saint Petersburg, discussing with the Russian officials the possibility of the tsar becoming the mediator that could end the conflict. While President Madison accepted the proposal and appointed Albert Gallatin and James Bayard as U.S. delegates to Russia to help Adams, the British refused to discuss the proposal.

At the end of his diplomatic term in St. Petersburg, Adams visited Paris, right in time to witness the return from Elba of a defeated Napoleon. From Paris, he traveled to London in 1814 and served as leading negotiator in the signing of the Treaty of Ghent that settled the War of 1812. His colleagues considered him ill-tempered and rude, but he was instrumental in negotiating a lasting peace between the United States and Great Britain. Shortly after, Adams was appointed U.S. minister to Great Britain, a position that his father had held.

Portrait of Louisa Adams (1821–26)
Portrait of Louisa Adams (1821–26)

Secretary of State (1817-1825)

In 1817, Adams returned to the United States and due to his extensive experience in foreign services, President James Monroe appointed him secretary of state.

From his new position, Adams was responsible for negotiating the Adams-Onis Treaty, which settled the acquisition of Florida. After the United States bought Louisiana, all succeeding administrations tried to purchase Florida as well, but the negotiations with the Spanish government brought no results. With his diplomatic experience, Adams finally convinced the Spanish minister to sign a treaty with the United States. Spain agreed to relinquish all claims to territory east of the Mississippi River while the United States gave up on the territory that is now Texas. Adams was also a leading figure in setting the terms of the Treaty of 1818 with the British government, which established the northern boundary of the U.S. to the Rocky Mountains.

In his outstanding record of achievements, one of Adam’s most significant contributions to public service was the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine. After several Latin American colonies of Spain declared their independence, President Monroe gave a speech to Congress, crafted by Adams, in which he declared that the United States would not accept any European country to occupy the emergent nations in Latin America. The Monroe Doctrine became the most important foreign policy of the United States with lasting effects even in the 20th century.

I am a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners: my political adversaries say, a gloomy misanthropist, and my personal enemies, an unsocial savage. With a knowledge of the actual defect in my character, I have not the pliability to reform it.

— John Quincy Adams

President of the United States

At the end of President James Monroe’s second term, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, and Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford hoped to succeed him at the White House. Among the candidates were also Speaker of the House Henry Clay and General Andrew Jackson. Jackson received the highest number of electoral votes (99), followed by Adams (84) and Crawford (41), but since no one obtained a majority, the House of Representatives had to choose between the first three candidates with the highest number of votes. Losing his chance of winning the presidency, Clay decided to endorse Adams, who instead offered him the position of secretary of state. While this enabled Adams’s victory, it also brought him the hate of Jackson’s supporters, who thought that Clay and Adams had made a “corrupt bargain”.

Despite his many years of political success, John Quincy Adams discovered that as a president, he could not achieve as much as he wanted, especially because of his need for independence and his lack of interest in developing key relationships with influential statesmen. The fierce opposition of Jackson’s group of supporters and Adams’s lack of confidence turned his presidency into a sour battle. Adams was aware that he was not a charismatic person who could move crowds, but he had many progressive ideas which he knew would benefit the country. He proposed the creation of a national university and the development of the country’s infrastructure, but even though his initiatives were valuable, Congress failed to offer Adams the support he needed to implement his ideas.

In 1828, after a ruthless campaign, Adams lost the election to a second presidential term to Andrew Jackson, a man he intensely disliked. Besides their different political agendas, Adams believed that Jackson was an uneducated and uncultured man whose rise to prominence was a disgrace. As Adam’s second term ended he said, “The greatest change in my condition occurred…which has ever befallen me – dismission from the public service and retirement to public life.”

Before and after Adam’s presidency, his personal life also went through some turbulent episodes. His aloof and reserved personality played a key role in the unpleasant evolution of his marriage with Louisa. Moreover, he suffered bouts of depression, and many of his political opponents regarded him as a misanthropist.

The relationship between Adams and his wife went through crushing tension when two of their three sons died tragically in adulthood. Their eldest son, George Washington Adams, committed suicide after a life of gambling, alcoholism, and scandalous affairs. Their second son, John Adams II, died of alcoholism. Only their third son, Charles Francis Adams, followed his father’s footsteps, becoming an influential American politician and serving as the U.S. minister to England during the American Civil War. Adams and his wife also had a daughter who died in infancy.

Portrait of John Quincy Adams by George Peter Alexander Healy.
Portrait of John Quincy Adams by George Peter Alexander Healy.

Return to Congress

By 1829, the rift between Adams and Jackson’s supporters had grown even bigger and Adams decided to retire from public life. However, his retirement was brief, and he returned to politics with greater energy. With the support of the Anti-Masonic group, Adams won a seat to the House of Representatives in 1830, where he served until his death in 1848. John Quincy Adams holds the distinction of the only former president to serve in Congress.

While a second career in Congress after presidency may have seemed like a drawback, Adams took his responsibility very seriously and managed to accomplish as much as a Congressman as he did as a diplomat. The hope for a second term at the White House as the nominee of one of the emerging parties, including the Anti-Masonic Party, the National Republican Party, or the Whig Party, remained present in his political aspirations but gradually, his interest in the presidency withered.

In Congress, Adams became a fierce militant against slavery. In 1839, he proposed a constitutional revision aimed at drastically reducing slavery according to a series of gradually implemented steps. However, the “gag rules” forbade the topic of slavery in the House of Representatives, thus Adams’s amendment was not even proposed for debate. Without feeling dissuaded, Adams began a prolonged and strenuous fight to repeal the gag rules. He wanted to regain people’s right to petition for the abolition of slavery, and he concentrated all his energy and force in achieving this goal. Adams claimed that the gag rules were violating the First Amendment to the federal Constitution and this contention gave him the power to resist the attempts of fellow Congressmen to silence him on the matter. Each year, Adams presented to Congress an increasing number of antislavery petitions that he would receive from people from over the Northern states. Despite the resent and denunciation of his opponents, he remained firm in his position and after years of struggle, Adams won the repeal of the standing gag rule in 1844.

Besides his efforts to support the antislavery movement, Adams was also a fervent supporter of arts and sciences, always talking about the need for enterprise and innovation. He was responsible for developing the Smithsonian Institute as the legacy of the Englishman James Smithson, who had left his immense fortune to the U.S. government.

Death and Legacy

On February 21, 1848, John Quincy Adams’s tumultuous life ended dramatically. While debating the situation of the Mexican-American war veterans in Congress, Adams suffered a cerebral stroke and fell unconscious on the floor. Some fellow congressmen claimed that as Adams collapsed to the floor in the House he said, ‘This is the last of earth – I am composed.” Taken to the Speaker's Room in the Capitol Building, he died two days later in the presence of his wife.

Many believe that Adams’s most significant accomplishments happened before and after his presidency. His spirit of independence, intelligence, and diligence never got him the credit he deserved because of his aloof and austere personality. Although he failed to appeal to the affections of people in ways that other presidents had done, he was always concerned about their welfare – a true public servant until the very end.

References

Whitney, David C. and Robin V. Whitney. The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives, from George Washington through Barack Obama. 11th Edition. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. 2012.

Hamilton, Neil A. and Ian C. Friedman, Reviser. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.

Questions & Answers

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      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        8 months ago from Raymore, MO

        Thanks. JQ Adams sure had an interesting life. Traveling Europe at such a young age must have been exciting.

      • Sharlee01 profile image

        Sharlee 

        8 months ago

        Very well done a always...

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