John Quincy Adams; by request

Via wikimedia commons

Via wikimedia commons


In every portrait taken at every age, his eyes just snap with intelligence. To look at John Quincy Adams is to acquaint oneself with lightening held barely in check.

He was not a man in love with the idea of being loved. He abhorred small talk and trends. Although a gifted linguist who served successfully as a foreign diplomat, it was his pragmatism more than his populism that garnered respect. Perhaps that preference would be valuable to the nation in 21st century American politics.

In John Singleton Copley’s portrait Adams is undeniably handsome but the young man in we see here – who graduated from Harvard College in two short years – seems anxious to break the pose and move on; you can envision him walking through the frame, exit, stage right, to get on with more important matters. In this he reminds me of Bobby Kennedy. Sitting for this daguerrotype (earliest photography) shortly before his death, the eyes still snap; the man seems disinterested in mere fripperies.

via wikimedia commons

via wikimedia commons

As a boy he watched the Battle of Bunker Hill with his mother, at a discreet distance from the fighting. Like his father he never owned a slave and never liked slavery. He loved free speech, both in concept and in practice. He skinny-dipped in the Potomac. For all his diplomatic skills, he was never one to glad-hand. An all-night pizza-and-bull session – had pizza been available in his day – would have held no allure. Attempting to explain his disinterest in crowd-pleasing he wrote, “I have no powers of acclimation.” He acknowledged that some called him a “gloomy misanthrope.”

Adams got the presidency on a technicality and wrote of the office:
“I can scarcely conceive a more harassing, teasing, wearying condition of existence.” If the foibles and nattering ankle biters were that annoying 200 years ago, imagine him being president in the day of internets, blogs, “netroots”, “wingnuts” and 24-hour-always-hungry news networks.

Perhaps it is the technology of the age that has brought affability and a gift for hucksterism to the fore in politics, and rendered them supremely consequential. I wonder how the giants who formed our nation would fare, these days, hunkering down with Chris Matthews and Barbara Walters. Would Ben Franklin’s genius be undermined or enhanced by insta-media? Would John Adams be considered too crotchety, like Bob Dole? Would George Washington be considered too staid? Would Thomas Jefferson have to endure the wrath of Keith Olbermann for daring to play his violin while something was left unresolved in the nation? Would any of them get elected under the intense scrutiny of our age, wherein – as Don Surber notes here – so many are so easily scandalized?

Failing at his bid for re-election, Adams went home to Massachusetts for just a year, then went back to congress – where he stayed for another 17 years – a powerhouse nicknamed “Old Man Eloquence.” He died at age 80 saying, “This is the end of earth; I am content.”

I look at John Quincy and think, “I’d like to talk to you, to make your acquaintance, to know what you thought about things, then…what you’d think of things, now.”

To which he would probably reply, with brow barking, “stop daydreaming, girl, and do something sensible!” I need to read a good biography of the man.

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  • Catherine

    I read McCullough’s biography of John Adams, JQA’s father, which contains plates of various portraits over time, and I noted the same kind of eyes! Even when he was very old – almost 90 – in one portrait, I was startled to see his piercing, intelligent eyes – so full of life!

    A chip off the old block!

  • Patti

    Even though it’s not a biography per se, Arguing About Slavery by Miller gives great insight into the man John Quincy Adams, the hero of the book. It would make a fabulous movie. It has all the elements of Wilberforce.

  • dellbabe68

    Thank you for this post. I’m aIways interested in early American history and I can’t say I know much about JQA.

  • Mark

    John Quincy, like his father, was a one-term president. Both of them lacked the grace to stick around for the inauguration of the man who succeeded them in the White House. A poor reflection on Northern hospitality…

  • J

    Congressman Pence took to the floor of the House late one night to tell the story of JQ Adams reading letters from his constituents about slavery (topic forbidden from discussion in the House). Using this technicality, he influenced a young congressman sitting at the back of the House…..Abraham Lincoln.

  • Gayle Miller

    We were discussing the corruption (perceived by my carpool mate) of all politicians back to the founding of the Republic this morning (traffic was all messed up due to the rain). His contention was that George Washington was a hopeless screwup and was only the CIC due to the fact that he was upper class, and that Aaron Burr tried to overthrow the Republic while he was vice president. And that Benjamin Franklin founded a newspaper to destroy JQA.I find that a lot of people read fictionalized accounts of historical figures and believe every word! Thus, many people believe in all the nonsense in the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons books – when they are fiction, kids, fiction!

  • Betty

    An excellent JQA bio:

    “John Quincey Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life”
    by Paul C. Nagel

  • mrp

    From what I’ve read, JQ Adams and his pa were fiercely anti-Catholic.

    On a related note, Bishop John England (Diocese of Charleston) gave a notable address in the chamber of the US House of Representatives in 1826. Is there an online transcript?

  • Susan K.

    I just finished a biography of Samuel Adams:
    Father of the American Revolution, by Mark Puls. He was a firecracker, a second cousin to John Adams, and focused like a laser on liberty.
    What am impressive family..the Adams family. Though not perfect, they had this nation’s liberty running in their veins.

  • Catherine

    Re: John Adams’ anti Catholicism.

    He wasn’t too opposed to attending a Catholic mass while he went to a constitutional convention in Philadelphia. He admitted that it was beautiful and deeply spiritual, but he also noted that he thought most Catholics there had no clue of what was going on.

    I fear the same can be said today.

  • thud

    Susan K…agreed…Gomez was always my favourite.

  • MissJean

    “A poor reflection on Northern hospitality…”

    No more than burning churches reflects poorly on Southern etiquette. Really, sir, how big is that brush you’re using to paint everyone north of the Mason-Dixon? ;)

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  • Mimsy

    I am reading the letters of John and Abigail Adams to each other. Let me tell you, JQ’s mom was amazing!

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