Thursday, February 12, 2009

Let's get ready to rumble with J. Q. Adams

I can see folks checking out this blog, seeing the title of this post, and then saying, "let's see what comes up on Google's I'm feeling lucky search today." Let's face it, a post about John Quincy Adams would not seem to cause a rapid increase in one's pulse and I’ve pondered for a while even doing it. Our sixth president, and son of the second, he was one of the least popular. There are good reasons he has not had his David McCullough, Ron Chernow or Doris Kearns Goodwin. He didn't lead the country in a war, was by my lights, almost certainly depressed and doesn't seem particularly loved by most Americans of his time.

It was somewhat surprising then that his diary, kept for over a half century, is so interesting and has been mined by so many authors.

A little time spent with him and his father would lead you to conclude that they had several overwhelming characteristics in common – they were both highly educated, intensely curious and pompous asses. JQA, and that was how he regularly signed his name, was not someone I’d want to have dinner with, particularly if I knew he was going to write about me later. We should be happy he kept his diary though as we get to eavesdrop on a long formative period of our country – the late 18h to the mid 19th centuries - by a man intimately involved with his times. Men who were giants in their time besides his father, and whose names still resound – Jefferson, Hamilton, Burr, Madison, Webster, Clay, Jackson and Calhoun still walk the earth in the pages of his private memoirs. JQA was extremely literate and quite possibly the most educated men ever to hold the presidency. Feel free to argue that, but he certainly is in the uppermost bracket.

Surprisingly, even when solemn, and he was virtually always solemn, he was not a boring writer, although highly stylized. His diary, usually found in truncated form, is like a delicious holiday trifle – you can dive in wherever you want and find something interesting. Take this strangely formal description of the duel between Burr and Hamilton, which popped up when I opened the book to a random page the first time (Nov. 5, 1804):

“The Vice-President, Mr. Burr, on the 11th of July last fought a duel with General Alexander Hamilton, and mortally wounded him, of which he died the next day. The coroner’s inquest on his body found a verdict of willful murder by Aaron Burr, Vice-President of the United States. The Grand Jury in the County of New York found an indictment against him, under the statute, for sending the challenge; and the Grand Jury of Bergen County, New Jersey, where the duel was fought, have recently found a bill against him for murder. Under all these circumstances Mr. Burr appears and takes his seat as President of the Senate of the United States.”

Although Hamilton was a royal thorn in his father’s side when he was president a few years earlier and even tried to prevent him from being elected in 1796 and 1800, JQA recorded it as if he is writing an impartial history of the United States. It appears to me, that although he was writing a private diary, he presumed it would be read someday by the public, just as his father and Thomas Jefferson knew their own correspondence and writings would one day be left to posterity. Thus, he explains many things that a diarist would ordinarily not bother with as if he were instructing one of his classes at Harvard.

It is not clear to me whether JQA was drawn to the presidency himself by ambition, a sense of entitlement or duty. Perhaps this entry from when he was still relatively young is a clue though (July 11, 1812):

“I am forty-five years old. Two-thirds of a long life are past, and I have done nothing to distinguish it by usefulness to my country or to mankind. I have always lived with, I hope, a suitable sense of my duties in society, and with a sincere desire to perform them. But passions, indolence, weakness, and infirmity have sometimes made me swerve from my better knowledge of right and almost constantly paralyzed my efforts of good. I have no heavy charge upon my conscience, for which I bless my Maker, as well as for all the enjoyments that He has liberally bestowed upon me. I pray for his gracious kindness in future. But it is time to cease forming fruitless resolutions.”

He does keep from his diary, and therefore us indirectly, many signs of deep emotion, particlarly once youth had passed, at least where it might be affectionate or tender. Expressing criticism came much easier to his pen. When hearing about one man’s attempt to replace an older man in a diplomatic post, he commented (March 18, 1820):

“There is something so gross and so repugnant to my feelings in this cormorant appetite for office, this barefaced and repeated effort to get an old and meritorious public servant turned out of place for a bankrupt to get into it, that it needed all my sense of the allowances to be made for sharp want and of the tenderness due to misfortune to suppress my indignation.”

Fortunately, he didn't suppress his indignation in his diary or it wouldn't be so much fun. I was tickled by his use of “cormorant,” a water fowl, to describe such a negative feeling. Without doing too much research (Wikipedia only), it appears to have been held "unclean" in the old testament and was used by Milton as a satanic representation of greed. Good luck using that metaphor today.

Years later, after another famous duel (see my October 2nd, 2008 post for a little discussion) he was able to express praise for the deceased, but then, just when you think he is going to go make the leap to genuine emotion, he turns to social commentary (March 22, 1820):

“Before I left my house his morning to go to my office, W. S. Smith came in and told me that Commodore Decatur had just been brought in from Bladensburg, mortally wounded in a duel with Commodore James Barron, who was also wounded, but not dangerously. . . The nation has lost in him one of its heroes – one who has illustrated its history and given grace and dignity to its character in the eyes of the world. . . The sensation in the city and neighborhood produced by this catastrophe was unusually great. But the lamentations at the practice of dueling were, and will be, fruitless, as they always are.”

As he showed at Decatur’s funeral, he seemed to prefer the quick cutting remark to the blunt instrument (March 24, 1820):

“John Randolph was there; first walking then backing his horse, then calling for his phaeton, and lastly crowding up to the vault as the coffin was removed into it from the hearse – tricksy humors to make himself conspicuous.”

It wasn’t all politics. Some of it is recreational. It is hard to imagine that so few Americans swam in those days, but they didn’t. JQA took lessons while secretary of state to President Monroe (July 8, 1823):

“Swam with Antoine in the Potomac to the bridge – one hour in the water. While we were swimming, there sprang up a breeze, which made a surf, and much increased the difficulty of swimming, especially against it and the current. This is one of the varieties of instruction for the school. It sometimes occurs to me that this exercise and amusement, as I am now indulging myself in it, is with the constant risk of life. Perhaps that is the reason why so few persons ever learn to swim; and perhaps it should now teach me discretion.”

Possibly, he not only didn’t learn anything, but promptly forgot the episode, because only two days later he wrote (July 10, 1823):

“Swam with Antoine to and from the bridge, but as the tide was strongly rising, we were full three-quarters of an hour in going to it, and not more than twenty minutes in returning. This was one of my swimming lessons, and a serious admonition to caution.”

It makes me wonder, did he write the first entry at the time it happened, and then some days or even a week went by before he went back and caught up, perhaps covering the same event a second time on a different date by accident. Pure speculation, of course. I have to admit, although it is easy to see JQA as just an old fussy prig, swimming for over an hour, including against the tide, is quite impressive.

General Jackson and JQA were political enemies and both took it personally. In 1824, Jackson won the popular and electoral votes by a good margin (there were two other candidates), but as Jackson did not have a majority of electoral votes, it went to the House of Representatives, which chose JQA. This was the first time in our history that the winner lost. Adams was quite conscious of what this meant to him (December 31, 1825):

“The year has been the most momentous of those that have passed over my head, inasmuch as has witnessed my elevation at the age of fifty-eight to the Chief Magistracy of my country; to the summit of laudable, or at least blameless, worldly ambition; not however, in a manner satisfactory to pride or to just desire; not by the unequivocal suffrages of a majority of the people; with perhaps two-thirds of the whole people adverse to the actual result. Nearly one year of this service has already passed, with little change of the public opinions or feelings; without disaster to the country with an unusual degree of prosperity, public and private.”

This lack of public support weighed on his mind, and he had even mentioned it in his inaugural address. I note that his father, although quite elderly, had the pleasure of seeing his son become president in 1824. The Adams’ scion would die on July 4, 1826, the same day as Jefferson, after watching his son have two years of as miserable a presidency as he himself had suffered. The Adamses were undoubtedly great men in most senses, but in both cases, their enemies made it uncomfortable and unrewarding.

JQA perhaps comes closest to expressing something akin to emotion at the death of his own 91 year old father, admitting to “anxiety and apprehension” when he tried (and failed) to make it home in time for a last visit. Although he made a few references to his father’s greatness, and expressed admiration and slightly veiled affection for him, it so often seemed to come back to being all about him rather quickly (July 14, 1826):

“It is repugnant to my feelings to abandon this place, where for near forty years he has resided, and where I have passed many of the happiest days of my life. I shall within two or three years, if indulged with life and health, need a place of retirement. Where else should I go? This will be a safe and pleasant retreat, where I may pursue literary occupations as long and as much as I can take pleasure in them.”

A week later (July 21, 1826), he makes note that when his father died, he had (mistakenly) said “Thomas Jefferson survives” but the last word was indistinct. Jefferson basher that I am, I like to imagine the competitive Adams really said, “(Why won’t) Thomas Jefferson . . . die” Almost certainly wishful thinking on my part. As Jefferson and Adams had patched up there friendship some 14 years earlier, and engaged in affectionate correspondence thereafter, I suppose the witness had it right.

As his presidency progressed, JQA's unhappiness seemed to deepen (March 5, 1827):

“I was from ten this morning till ten at night never five minutes without one or more of these marginal notes [from congressmen]. And I can scarcely conceive a more harassing, wearying, teasing condition of existence. It literally renders life burdensome. What retirement will be I cannot realize, but have formed no favorable anticipation. It cannot be worse than this perpetual motion and crazing cares. The weight grows heavier from day to day.”

One of the problems with being president, and which remains so today, is alienation from one’s friends. It can be a lonely job (March 18, 2007):

“There came on this morning a heavy storm of rain, which detained me from attendance at church. I finished a long letter to Albert Gallitan. I write few private letters, and those under irksome restraints. I can never be sure of writing a line that will not some day be published by friend or foe. Nor can I write a sentence susceptible of an odious misconstruction but it will be seized upon and bandied about like a watch-word for hatred and derision. This condition of things give style the cramp. I wrote also the weekly letter to my son. These at least will escape the torture of the press.”

If you think that was depressing, try this cheery entry which shows off his lack of what mortal men might call normal human compassion (March 29, 1827):

“Hearing the clock strike at the half-hour, I rose, believing it between four and five. After rising, I found it was an hour earlier; but I beguiled the tediousness of time with occupation. Wheaton came to expose to me his penury and distress. He told me that he was seventy-three years of age; that he began with the American Revolution; that he received in the course of it many dangerous wounds. He was one of the clerks in the Land Office, and is among those recently dismissed from it, to starve with a daughter who has a worthless husband – worse than dead—and four small children, all destitute even of bread. He has almost totally lost his memory, and has long been unable to perform any duty at the Land Office; but his removal from it has placed him in a pitiable condition, and his appeal to me was pathetic, not without tears.”

He lost to General Jackson by an embarrassing amount in 1828. At the time, he was the only president since his father not to win a second term. Shouldn’t he have been happy to be free of the “arduous duties” he referred to in his inaugural speech? In answer, let’s look at his reaction to his fortuitously running into a Jackson subordinate after he was out of office, who would not only become Jackson’s vp, but president after that (June 8, 1829):

“Rode the ten-mile round before breakfast. Met Mr. Van Buren riding also his horse, and we stopped and exchanged salutations. Van Buren is now Secretary of State. He is the manager by whom the present Administration has been brought into power. He has played over again the game of Aaron Burr in 1800, with the addition of political inconsistency, in transferring his allegiance from Crawford to Jackson. He sold the State of New York to them both. His first bargain failed, by the turn of the choice of Electors in the Legislature. The second was barely accomplished by the system of party management established in that State; and Van Buren is now enjoying his reward. His pale and haggard looks show that it is already a reward of mortification. If it should prove, as there is every probability that it will, a reward of treachery, it will be but his desert.”

Looks like he took it personal to me. It would be unfair not to give JQA credit for nuance and sometimes it was more difficult to tell when he liked someone or not (April 2, 1834)

“James Blair, a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina, shot himself last evening at his lodgings at Dowson’s, No. I, after reading part of an affectionate letter from his wife, to Governor Murphy, of Alabama, who was alone in the chamber with him, and a fellow-lodger with him at the same house. . . Poor Blair! Blair was a man of amiable natural disposition, of excellent feelings, of sterling good sense, and of brilliant parts, irredeemably ruined by the single vice of intemperance, which had crept upon him insensibly to himself till it had bloated his body to a mountain, prostrated his intellect, and vitiated his temper to madness. He had paid three hundred dollars fine for beating and breaking the bones of Duff Green because he had charged the Union party of South Carolina with being Tories; he had discharged a pistol at an actress in the theatre at Washington, from one of the boxes; he had within the last ten days given the lie to Henry L. Pinckney while speaking in his place at the House of Representatives; and he was in the constant habit of bringing a loaded pistol with him to the House. The chances were quite equal that he should have shot almost any other man than himself.”

Fortunately, he was not Blair’s eulogist. It is well known he did not like Jackson at all. Although he would sometimes back him politically when he agreed with him, even after he lost to him, he did not have a lot of nice things to say about his successor (November 11, 1836):

“Jackson came in upon the trumpet tongue of military achievement. His Presidency has been the reign of subaltern knaves, fattening upon land jobs and money jobs, who have made him believe that it was a heroic conception of his own to destroy the Bank of the United States, and who, under color of this, have got into their hands the use of the public moneys, at a time when there is a surplus of forty millions of dollars in the Treasury.”

Jackson (for another day) irritates me, although he was a much more important president, but JQA's opinion is much more enticing to me when discussing Jefferson. Forgive me for the long quote below, but Adams speaks for me so precisely, I can’t help myself (August 29, 1836):

“To refresh my memory on these subjects, and to retrace the history of those controversies more accurately, I read over the portion of Jefferson’s correspondence during that period, published by his grandson. It shows his craft and duplicity in very glaring colors. I incline to the opinion that he was not altogether conscious of his own insincerity, and deceived himself as well as others. His success through a long life, and especially from his entrance upon the office of secretary of State under Washington until he reached the Presidential chair, seems, to my imperfect vision, a slur upon the moral government of the world. His rivalry with Hamilton was unprincipled on both sides. His treatment of my father was double-dealing, treacherous, and false beyond all toleration. His letter to Mazzei, and his subsequent explanation of it, and apologies for it, show that he treated Washington, as far as he dared, no better than he did my father; but it was Washington’s popularity that he never dared to encounter. His correspondence no published proves how he dreaded and detested it. His letter to my father, at the first competition between them for the Presidency, the fawning dissimulation of his first address as vice-President to the Senate, with his secret machinations against him from that day forth, show a character in no wise amiable or fair; but his attachment to those of his friends whom he could make useful to himself was thoroughgoing and exemplary. Madison moderated some of his excesses, and refrained from following others. He was in truth a greater and a far more estimable man.”

I can't agree with him that Madison was the more estimable, as he seemed to me to be Jefferson's creature throughout his life, but I leave it aside. It often seemed a little difficult for JQA to speak entirely admiringly of anyone outside his family. Here he is on some famous personages (August 2, 1849):

“A young man, named Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a classmate of my lamented son George, after failing the everyday avocations of a Unitarian preacher and school master, starts a new doctrine of transcendentalism, declares all the old revelations superannuated and worn out, and announces the approach of new revelations and prophecies. Garrison and the non-resistant abolitionists, Brownson and the Marat democrats, phrenology and animal magnetism, all come in, furnishing each some plausible rascality as an ingredient for the bubbling cauldron of religion and politics.”

Here’s his take on another name you will recognize and hear a lot about this very year (February 14, 1844):

“At the House, Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, and author of the majority report from the Committee on elections, had taken the floor last evening, and now raved out his hour in abusive invectives upon the members who had pointed out its slanders, and upon the Whig party. His face was convulsed, his gesticulation frantic, and he lashed himself into such a heat that if his body had been made of combustible matter it would have been burnt out. In the midst of his roaring, to save himself from choking, he stripped and cast away his cravat, unbuttoned his waistcoat, and had the air and aspect of a half-naked pugilist. And this man comes from a judicial bench, and passes for an eloquent orator!”

JQA died the year after Lincoln joined the U.S. House of Representatives, and we are spared his views on the gangly westerner. My guess is he would not have been flattering, even if he found him “amiable”. But now that I have picked on JQA a bit, I do want to say that his sitting in congress for 17 years after his presidency without seeming concern of “demotion,” his gallant defense of the slaves from the ship, Amistad, his magnificent battling of the slave power in congress, are not just impressive, but worthy of great praise. His compassion for the slaves themselves sometimes pierced through his normal formality like a ray of sunshine through a window in a dark room. Even his usual stately language surrenders to Hemingway like sentences (January 23, 1844):

“A poor negro came almost in a state of distraction, to implore me to save his wife from being sold away. I asked him, how I could do that? He said, by purchasing her myself for $400. I told him that was impossible. The poor fellow went away in despair.”

Perhaps he merely became more sympathetic and humble as he found his owning powers failing (February 20, 1841):

“The arrangements had been made for the funeral of my poor, humble, but excellent friend Jeremy Leary. I walked to the capitol this morning, with a spirit humbled to the dust, with a hearted melted in sorrow, and a mind agitated and confused.”

I’ve sought to entertain here and perhaps arouse some interest in JQA's diary and really don’t mean to disparage someone who I believe was one of the best secretaries of state, diplomats and congressmen we have ever had in this country. No attempt to be comprehensive in deed or thought is made, and I note that I made no reference to his deep religiosity and little to his seemingly acute depression, both which resonate throughout the diary.

His presidency was actually not in any sense troubled or disgraceful. Perhaps it is just for lack of the right biographer that it seems so uneventful now. But, probably most unfortunate for him in terms of posterity, he was placed in the path of Andrew Jackson, who was a freight train of a man and who could not have been more overtly different or more popular than JQA was.

It is now ironic that the mild “improvements” that JQA wanted accomplished by government were so polarizing to his adversaries during his time, as they are no doubt spinning in their graves over the present government’s spending and intrusion into public matters. Perhaps they just saw the camel’s nose under the tent.


  1. Anonymous8:54 AM

    JQA - an underrated, and under researched American patriarch - great quotes and and a very interesting subject. Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to bash you for referring to James Madison,one of the most under appreciated founding fathers, as "Jefferson's creature". You make it sound as though he lived in a barn and had hooves. Shame, shame.

  2. What? I don't get bashed for my Jefferson remarks? I'm strangely disappointed.

    James Madison was a great man too in his own way (of course, if you block out the whole slavery thing). Madison and Hamilton were both brilliant, but, Hamilton was his own man, Madison wasn't. I'm not sure if psychologically he could have become so, but, if he could, he would have been a much greater man.

    Thanks for the comment. I'm having a great time perusing the diary in leisurely moments and recommend it to any buffs.

  3. Nicee this article was quite interesting and a pleasure to read.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .