John Quincy Adams
Sixth President of the United States
“The best guarantee against the abuse of power consists in the freedom, the purity, and the frequency of popular elections.”
–John Quincy Adams
“To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is . . . the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind. It prolongs life itself and enlarges the sphere of existence.”
–John Quincy Adams
Fred Kaplan’s book on John Quincy Adams is well worth the read. Covering the life of the sixth U.S. president, the book gives an extensive, in-depth exploration into this complex, highly moralistic man. All but raised in Europe, particularly France, Adams possessed a vastly different perspective on American democracy than most of his fellow countrymen. Kaplan allows the reader to get inside Adams’ mind and figure out how those differences impacted his life, his presidency and his career as a public servant.
At times pedantic in the information Kaplan conveys, his book still helps the reader realize that Adams was a quandary, hard to understand and even harder to know. At times Kaplan digresses and includes information that leaves the reader wondering what his point actually is, but his information is exhaustively researched and provides a comprehensive picture of Adams. The book is not an easy read. Kaplan provides a great deal of information and there is a lot to process. But it is worth the investment, as a means of gaining an appreciation for the early stages of the problems the country faced, as well as an exploration into the chasm of slavery that would ultimately rupture into a war that would all but tear the country apart.
Kaplan excels in demonstrating the expansive degree that Adams’ foreign education impacted every aspect of his life. Adams’ early education, before his return to Harvard for his law degree, was completed in France. This expanded Adams’ perceptions, and moved him beyond the rural, highly religious background engendered in the United States. But with the guidance of his father, Adams grew into a strong personality, who valued the importance of religious values and morality, but the education of the scientific, thinking mind. While not ultimately subscribing to any one religion or advocating divisive religious dogma, Adams would have fit well in today’s society. He demonstrated a strong conviction to non-judgmental acceptance of all religious beliefs. Known to have attended all kinds of religious services, of many different religions, he was one of the forerunners to today’s civil rights proponents.
This same conviction of equality manifested in his conviction to the abolition of slavery. Born and raised in Massachusetts, and educated primarily in other countries, where slavery was predominantly abolished, Adams abhorred the practice. He was able to look towards the future and where slavery would ultimately lead, if it could not be dealt with in the early days of his political career. He used this insight, among other volatile issues, to catapult his career into not only the office of the president, but combustible stints in the legislature, which bookended his administration.
What I found interesting about Adams is his passion for the political process. Only a one term president, like his father – Adams found his true passion not in the presidency – but in congress. Adams actually built an entire second career as a U.S. Representative following his presidency in a position, I feel, he was born to fill. While much of Adams’ early life as a gifted diplomat would define him as a person, it was his passionate service in the House of Representatives where he found his true calling. This position, as well has his defense in relation to the Amistad incident provides a nice capstone to Adams’ career and demonstrates the extent of his conviction to the ideas of freedom and equality he spent his life learning.
One thing that Kaplan emphasizes throughout his writing is the importance that learning and education played in Adams’ life. Adams was committed to life-long learning. From my reading, I came away feeling that Adams never experienced anything from which he didn’t find a learning opportunity. Gifted in capitalizing on that learning, Adams was able to draw on his knowledge in every experience of his life. A passionate reader like his father, Adams took education to a different level. He sought out new opportunities and worked to learn every last lesson they could provide. As a diplomat,
Adams didn’t just play the role in each of the countries he would ultimately serve, but he exerted himself to learn their languages and customs. Completely conversant in French, he was actually able to conduct all interactions with other nations in this language – as the language of diplomacy at the time — without the need of interpreters. He was also proficient in Latin, Spanish and even some German. In addition to the languages, Adams took the time to understand the cultures of the nations where he lived for so many years.
Ultimately capitalizing on that understanding as a president, Adams was able to avoid confrontation with other countries, due to his gifted ability in identifying with their individual needs and expectations.
While these abilities had the tragic consequence of alienating him from some in the United States, it made him a stronger advocate for many of the controversial causes of his day. But this also made his dealings with some of the expansion issues challenging, as he proved more attuned to the needs of those alienated or even outside of the American culture than the American crisis itself fomenting from within. It was this disconnect that, at least I feel, limited him to only one term as president. But it also helped him become a highly effective Representative, in a time that the division in the country was starting to make its presence known.
This is a book that is a great read, particularly today as the divisions within our nation are once again making themselves felt. As we are continuously reminded that fault lines in the American culture can have lasting, destructive consequences, Kaplan’s book gives us a great reminder that there are ways of dealing with these divisions. The book also acts as a clarion call in relation to the need to deal with the divisions now, before the damage is so pervasive that the results will inevitably end badly. Adams served as a voice to the American culture of his day – to look beyond the isolated view of the American experience. He demonstrated throughout his life, the need to work together to effectuate government that works for the good of the people, and not against the society it supports.