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date: 15 August 2020

Adams, John Quincyfree

(11 July 1767–23 February 1848)
  • Mary W. M. Hargreaves

John Quincy Adams.

From a painting by George Peter Alexander Healy.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-117119 DLC).

Adams, John Quincy (11 July 1767–23 February 1848), secretary of state, sixth president of the United States, and U.S. congressman, was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, the son of John Adams (1735–1826), second president of the United States, and Abigail Smith Adams (Abigail Adams), noted letter writer. Adams’s New England birth and his position as the eldest son in a distinguished family strongly influenced his life. His parents set perfectionist goals for him with the expectation that he would achieve distinction through strong moral commitment and assiduity in public service. Responding to these pressures, Adams was hard-driving and ambitious, introspective, and severely critical in his judgments of himself and others.

Through his father’s involvement in the American Revolution and the establishment of the new nation, the boy matured in an environment committed to patriotic nationalism that transcended regional particularism. An exceptionally broad educational background promoted this perspective. When he was but ten years old, he accompanied his father to Europe on a diplomatic mission. John Quincy attended schools in France and Holland, served as secretary to Francis Dana during negotiations in Russia from 1781 to 1783, and filled the same role for his father during arrangements for the Peace of Paris, which terminated the American Revolution. Returning home in 1785, he graduated in 1787 from Harvard College, studied law, and began practice of that profession in Boston in 1790.

Young Adams found the law tedious, but in 1794 President George Washington appointed him minister to the Hague, in Holland. During an extended visit to London the following year, he met and courted Louisa Catherine Johnson (Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams), daughter of the American consul. Born in London and educated at a Roman Catholic school in France, Louisa was a talented musician and fluent in French, assets that contributed to the young couple’s popularity in court circles. Married in July 1797, Adams was shortly thereafter transferred to Berlin, where the couple remained until the elder Adams’s defeat in the presidential election of 1800.

With a wife and the first of three sons, John Quincy resumed practicing law in Boston. Disgusted by the “filth of faction,” to which he attributed his father’s political rejection, he at first foreswore politics. But within a few months he was elected to the state senate as a Federalist, and the following year he sought election to Congress in opposition to the Republican incumbent. Although then defeated, Adams was selected by his legislative colleagues as U.S. senator in 1803.

Adams’s independence in voting on political issues quickly disconcerted Federalist leaders. He was one of only two Federalists to approve the purchase of Louisiana, and he supported President Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to uphold neutral rights during the war between Britain and France. When he endorsed resolutions of a Republican caucus protesting the British attack upon the Chesapeake in 1807, he was dropped from the Federalist senatorial ranks. He thereupon published a pamphlet refuting criticism of the Jeffersonian embargo legislation and explaining his belief in independence in voting. In response, the Massachusetts legislature met in special session to select his senatorial successor nearly a year before the expiration of his term. Adams immediately resigned. His acceptance of appointment by President James Madison (1751–1836) as minister to St. Petersburg in 1809 evoked severe criticism, even from his parents. Adams defended his action, however, as one of principle against political factionalism.

He achieved some trade concessions while in Russia and served as an intermediary in Czar Alexander’s effort to mediate a peace ending the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. While the British declined Russia’s intervention, they agreed to direct negotiations, in which Adams served as one of the five American commissioners. During the discussions held at Ghent, Adams argued strongly to obtain renewal of fishing privileges for Americans in the waters between Newfoundland and Labrador. When he proposed as an equivalent extending British navigation rights on the Mississippi River, quarreling within the American delegation between Adams and the Kentuckian Henry Clay nearly disrupted the negotiations. The decision to set aside both issues, as well as most of the precipitating causes of the war, satisfied neither one, but when Clay proposed rejecting the treaty, Adams subordinated his sectional interests to the more immediate national need for peace.

At this time he was transferred from the ministry at St. Petersburg to that in London. The delay caused by the move occasioned his absence during the opening of negotiations by the other commissioners for a commercial convention that was concluded in London in 1815. Thinking again of New England’s interests, Adams was dissatisfied that the discussions were initiated under a stipulated omission of trading privileges with the British West Indies. Once more, however, he yielded and signed the agreement, partly because it embraced the concept of reciprocity as a fairer trading base than the more common most-favored-nation provision.

In 1817 President James Monroe named Adams as secretary of state. There his independence of judgment and the skill with which he exercised it established him among the most outstanding to have held that office. In a convention with Great Britain in 1818 he obtained the much desired privileges of fishing off Newfoundland and the Magdalen Islands and of drying and curing the catch on designated coastal areas of Newfoundland and Labrador. At the same time the northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase was defined as extending along the forty-ninth parallel of latitude from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains, and the parties agreed to joint occupation of the Oregon country for the next ten years. In the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, Spain delineated the western boundary of Louisiana and ceded the Floridas, legitimating the occupation of West Florida, which Adams with some embarrassment had defended to the Russian czar in 1810 as rightfully encompassed in the bounds of Louisiana.

The Florida negotiations markedly demonstrated Adams’s diplomatic talents. He alone of Monroe’s cabinet had defended General Andrew Jackson when, in pursuit of raiding Indians in 1818, Jackson occupied the town of Pensacola, captured the Spanish fort of St. Marks, and executed two British merchants for inciting Indian attacks. Arguing that the incident was the inevitable consequence of authority too weak to maintain order, Adams warned the Spanish that they must either provide a force sufficient for protection or cede the territory as “derelict.” Under the resulting agreement the United States acquired the Floridas by assuming indemnity claims of American citizens against Spain amounting to $5 million and by accepting a western boundary to Louisiana based at the mouth of the Sabine River, thus relinquishing vague claims to Texas.

The latter concession again outraged Clay and his western supporters. The criticism was compounded when Adams withheld recognition of the independence of Spain’s rebelling American colonies pending a long-delayed ratification of the Florida treaty. Shortly after the treaty was ratified, however, he not only extended the desired recognition but also championed the policy known as the Monroe Doctrine, enunciated in the president’s annual message of 1823, which projected U.S. leadership in closing the New World to further European intervention. Once more Adams was assuming an independent course, rejecting a British proposal for a joint pronouncement that President Monroe had initially favored after consultation with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Adams was reluctant to tie the action of the United States to British policy considerations, and he shrewdly discounted the danger of European intervention in support of Spain’s claims.

Adams was less successful in resolving the British restrictions on West Indies trade. In 1818 Congress enacted countervailing legislation in an effort to open commerce. It was effective to a degree; in 1822, under pressure from island planters, Britain authorized direct traffic of designated produce to certain ports while retaining protective duties. Although the concessions opened a market for agricultural produce from the American middle states and back country during a depression, they did not permit the importation of fish and salted provisions or the indirect shipping that primarily concerned New England. Adams’s response retained discriminatory duties on British vessels unless American ships and goods were admitted to the colonial ports with no higher charges than those on British vessels and the same goods imported “from elsewhere,” that is, indirectly. There the negotiations were suspended.

Throughout Monroe’s second term Adams vied with Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Secretary of the Treasury William Harris Crawford, and Speaker of the House Clay for the presidential succession. In 1822, however, General Andrew Jackson, who had previously shown little interest in civil affairs, emerged as a candidate whose military prowess held great popular appeal. By the election of 1824, old political organizations were disintegrating. When none of the candidates attained a majority of votes in the electoral college, the three leaders—Jackson, Adams, and Crawford—became the nominees for election by the House of Representatives. There, with the vote unitary by state delegations, Adams received the requisite majority of thirteen votes; Jackson won seven votes, Crawford, four. Adams carried all the New England states and had expanded his personal base by sympathetic support for the politically ostracized leadership in Illinois and assurances that in making appointments he would no longer proscribe Federalists, who were strong in Maryland and New York. But without the votes for Adams by Clay adherents who represented Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio, his attainment of the majority would have been protracted and uncertain.

At least as early as the previous October, perhaps as early as June, Clay had voiced to friends his intention to support Adams if he were not himself a candidate. He regarded Jackson’s autocratic tendencies as a menace to civil authority, and he viewed Crawford’s health, following a paralytic stroke in the autumn of 1823, as too limiting for public office. Adams’s revised stand in recognition of Latin American independence had, on the other hand, eliminated a major area of their disagreement. When Clay’s friend Robert P. Letcher in mid-December discussed with Adams the differences arising at Ghent and learned that Adams no longer harbored ill will, there remained little basis for contention. On internal improvements, a protective tariff, and support for mercantile concerns, Adams held views that Clay had long espoused. These two leaders shared a focus on national development that differed radically from the increasingly states-rights particularism of the other candidates.

That the Kentuckian who had so frequently opposed Adams’s policies extended his endorsement of the New Englander gave rise to charges of “bargain and corruption” even before the House vote. Clay immediately called for a congressional investigation. When, however, the Pennsylvania congressman George Kremer, who had first published the accusation, denied that he had meant to imply “corruption and dishonor” and refused to appear before the House committee, the inquiry was tabled.

The partisan activity embarrassed Adams, who frequently castigated himself for excessive ambition. He also recognized pragmatically that the defeated candidates would unite against his administration. Yet after long consideration and consultation with President Monroe, he offered the post of secretary of state to Clay, who accepted. Having supported Adams’s election, Clay argued that he could not well refuse to serve with him, affording a sectional balance for the New Englander’s administration. The decision, nevertheless, provided the basis for political attack even more destructive than that which had ended the career of Adams’s father.

In his inaugural address Adams promised to continue Monroe’s programs and pleaded for united support of the policy of postwar neonationalism. His “American System” called for national economic growth based on interlocking sectional diversity. Commerce, foreign and domestic, was fundamental to the approach.

Adams directed much of his attention to foreign affairs. Upholding the principle of neutral trading rights in wartime, his administration successfully supplied assistance in half-a-dozen instances where American citizens sought compensation for confiscations under the edicts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the decrees of warring Latin American states. The main body of claims for French spoliations remained unresolved, but the diplomatic pressure kept them alive and at the forefront of Franco-American relations. A convention with Great Britain in 1826 also compensated Americans for slaves and property seized by British raiders during the war years.

Following a generalized invitation opening trade on a reciprocal basis under legislation of 1824, the Adams administration negotiated more commercial treaties than any other prior to the Civil War. Direct trade under the new arrangement had already been opened with several nations before Adams assumed the presidency. It was now extended to others, and Adams gave particular emphasis to expanding the provisions to encompass indirect commerce. The latter proposal was incorporated in a revision of the general legislation of 1828, but in the meantime agreements on that basis were concluded individually with Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Hanseatic cities, and, most notably as a model of the goals sought for commerce within the Americas, with the Central American Federation. The commercial convention with Great Britain signed originally in 1815 was extended indefinitely; trade treaties with Austria and Brazil awaited only ratification; arrangements under somewhat less favorable terms preserved commercial relations with the Netherlands and France that were threatened with disruption; and efforts to negotiate agreements with Mexico and Turkey, although remaining in abeyance, appeared promising.

But while the treaties with Scandinavian countries had opened their West Indies islands reciprocally to both direct and indirect trade by American vessels, the problem of establishing indirect or even generalized direct trade with the British West Indies continued. When the Adams administration in 1826 finally proposed resuming negotiations under instructions acceding to the British terms of 1822, it was informed that Britain had revised its policy. The British withdrew the proposal without notifying the Americans and redirected their efforts to liberalizing trading with the new Latin American states. Exports from the United States to the Caribbean continued with scant reduction by transshipment through entrepôts, but politically the episode generated severe criticism, particularly from agricultural districts, assailing the delayed negotiations.

Administration supporters attributed the new British intransigence to divisions in American congressional support made evident during the spring of 1825. Adams’s decision to send ministers to Panama to participate in a congress of American states called by Simón Bolívar had provided a rallying base for opponents of the administration. Southern leaders fearful that the congress would entail recognition of the republic of Haiti, and opponents generally of the administration’s Latin American interests, challenged the president’s authority to make such appointments. While the mission was ultimately approved, controversy so delayed the ministers’ departure that the congress adjourned before they arrived. Action that Adams had viewed as a gesture of good will had instead generated a bitter debate provoking not only the domestic embarrassment of a duel between Clay and Senator John Randolph (1773–1833) of Virginia, but also foreign outrage at the publicly voiced racial insults in reference to assembly participants. A British agent at the congress had little difficulty convincing the delegates that the contemplated U.S. participation was self-serving. The episode was one of several during the administration that made clear the limited applicability of the Monroe Doctrine.

Adams’s pragmatic conception of the hemispheric relationship was made manifest in his policies toward Cuba. Under his guidance the Monroe Doctrine had cautiously renounced the intent to interfere with existing European possessions in the New World. Fearful that continuing warfare between the Latin American states and Spain might provoke an attack upon Cuba, the administration attempted both to restrain military venturism by Mexico or Colombia and to promote Spanish recognition of their independence. The first goal was amply defined in the instructions carried by the ministers to the Panama Congress. A limitation in support for winning recognition of the new Latin American states was, however, revealed by the American minister to his Spanish counterpart in Madrid when he explained that preferential trading privileges for the mother country “did not accord precisely with the President’s view” as a bargaining consideration. Adams was more concerned to protect equal access for U.S. commerce with the former Spanish colonies than to assure their independence.

Much as the administration sought to expand foreign commerce, its contribution was most notable in stimulating domestic trade. Public funding, financed by tariff revenues and public land sales, was directed to a vast program of road and canal construction, harbor improvement, and removal of river snags. Adams also hoped to raise tariff levels to protect home industry, contributing to urban growth and a market for agricultural products. To facilitate the interchange, the administration would maintain sound money and credit arrangements, regulated through the operations of a national banking system.

Adams’s efforts to promote internal improvements dated from 1807, when he had presented in the Senate a resolution urging preparation of a comprehensive plan for such development. Although the measure was not then approved, it led a year later to Albert Gallatin’s report on “Roads and Canals” and ultimately to construction of the National Road. Under Adams’s administration the Army Corps of Engineers was assigned survey and construction work to aid civil projects. The administration also provided financial support by allotting public lands in alternate sections along canal routes in several western states and by purchasing canal stock for similar undertakings in eastern areas where land grants were no longer feasible. Adams was particularly pleased that under his administration funding was finally achieved and ground broken for construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The widespread distribution of public works was the most popular program of his presidency.

Nevertheless, particularistic interests joined in opposition to the administration. Adams’s view that the public lands were a public trust to be utilized as a capital reserve ran counter to western proposals for preemption of holdings at a fixed minimum price, rather than by auction, and for gradual reduction of prices when lands remained unsold. Southerners and westerners saw his action to protect the Creek Indians from a treaty violation by Georgia authorities a restraint upon access to Indian lands elsewhere. State and local bankers criticized the administration’s reliance upon the Bank of the United States in support of a national credit structure. Even efforts to lower government interest costs by refunding the public debt were opposed by the argument that the bank, as the only prospective nonforeign bidder, would liquidate its domestic loans in order to meet specie requirements in payment of the foreign bondholders. Political opponents framed tariff legislation so that administration proposals designed to protect developing industry were expanded to cover a wide range of agricultural products, thus raising costs of raw materials needed in fabrication. Cooperating in this stratagem to embarrass Adams’s adherents in the upcoming presidential election, southern leaders, who generally opposed a protective tariff, rejected all moderating amendments, in the expectation that administration forces would ultimately bear the onus of repudiating their own program recommendation. When, instead, they accepted this “Tariff of Abominations,” South Carolinians threatened nullification.

The outcome of the 1828 election had been foreshadowed by the administration’s defeat in the congressional elections of 1827, as it lost control of both the House and Senate. Adams had refused to dismiss government appointees “without just cause” and had retained many whose political opposition was damaging to his efforts. He campaigned little for reelection. He would not even appear in celebration of the beginning of the Pennsylvania Canal, where it was thought his fluency in German might attract support. “Electioneering,” he explained, ran counter to his principles. While Clay struggled to organize their followers, Adams could hold neither the expanding West nor the Ohio Valley transitional zone. Jackson electors carried all but New England, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.

Adams was unhappy in retirement. His wife maintained that he had an “insatiable passion” for political office and controversy. He did not relish the art of politics, but he did enjoy the prominence of public office and fiercely resented what he called a “conspiracy of power,” by which he and his father before him had been denied reelection while four Virginia presidents had served double terms. Local Republican leaders who tried to persuade him to become a congressional candidate in 1830 found that he was not reluctant to serve in the legislature, provided he were “handsomely chosen.” Although his family strongly disapproved, Adams was delighted when he was elected by 71 percent of the vote. His program suited the demands of increasingly industrialized New England, and over the next seventeen years he was regularly reelected to Congress, with support levels ranging as high as 87 percent of the vote during the Jackson administrations.

During the early 1830s Adams was actively involved in the Antimasonic movement, attacking the elitism and political control identified with the fraternal order. In his view the protest represented a liberal wing of the National Republicans, opposing both the Jacksonians and the High Federalists of an earlier day. Political maverick that he was, however, he broke with the National Republican–Whig leadership to support Jackson’s vigorous stand against the French delay in providing compensation for Napoleonic spoliations, and he remained publicly neutral during the presidential election of 1836.

The domestic program for which he labored remained primarily the American System of his presidency. As chairman of the Committee of Manufactures in 1832 he introduced a tariff measure that eliminated some of the more objectionable features of the 1828 tariff, notably through duty reductions on raw materials while continuing protectively high duties on cotton and woolen goods and rolled iron. He vehemently opposed the compromise tariff of 1833 with its across-the-board reductions to meet the demands of South Carolina nullifiers.

As a member of a special committee appointed by the Jacksonian Speaker of the House in 1832 to investigate the Bank of the United States, he drafted a lengthy minority report assailing the attack on the bank. He contended that the attack rested less upon traditional arguments over constitutional strict construction than upon the competitive interests of speculative and fiscally irresponsible banking rivals. When he was subsequently denied the opportunity to speak in protest of Jackson’s removal of public deposits and their redistribution among politically selected “pet banks,” Adams published his remarks in a pamphlet suitable for widespread dissemination.

His concern for support of large-scale public improvements remained the core of his program. He accepted the compromise Whig endorsement of a permanent preemption law for sale of public lands in 1841 but only in exchange for western support of the distribution of the treasury surplus for funding of internal improvements. When the price of southern consent to a tariff measure was a restriction upon such distribution if the tariff rose above 20 percent ad valorem, he rejected even the Whig tariff proposal of 1842.

Beginning in 1835 Adams initiated a campaign against southern political influence that was to continue the remainder of his life. On policy grounds he believed that the alliance in sectional bargaining between proponents of cheap land for the West and low tariffs for the South doomed the American System. His concern was fueled on a personal basis by conviction that the governmental dominance of southern leaders rested largely upon augmentation of their representation under the three-fifths clause of the Constitution. His decision to oppose this force was triggered primarily by a legalistic defense of constitutional democracy rather than humanitarian considerations.

Coincidentally, however, he became a leader of congressional opposition to the institution of slavery. With scathing invective he relentlessly seized every parliamentary opening for nine years to oppose application of the “gag rule” that prevented congressional acceptance of antislavery petitions. Triumphant in that stand at the session beginning in December 1844, he had also won acclaim in March 1841 when, nearly a quarter century after he had given up active legal practice, he had participated in the successful Supreme Court defense for a group of slaves taken into custody after a shipboard revolt and the seizure of the Spanish vessel Amistad. For yet another six years he struggled, again successfully, to block enactment of legislation counteracting the decision by compensating owners of the vessel. Meanwhile, he protested both the annexation of Texas and the U.S. war with Mexico as measures to expand southern power. His last congressional action before suffering a fatal stroke at his seat in the House of Representatives was a vote of “no,” objecting to a proposal rendering thanks to various military officers for services during the Mexican conflict.

Adams, who recognized himself as “a man of reserved, cold, austere and forbidding manners,” had found great satisfaction in a congressional career that brought him plaudits among slavery opponents as a popular hero, “Old Man Eloquent,” “Defender of the Rights of Man.” Historically, however, his reputation rests most firmly on the policies he pursued as diplomat and president. Aptly characterized by one biographer as “an Independent Man,” Adams was a poor politician, unwilling to cater to popular interests and reluctant even to compromise. But sound judgment and a strong commitment to public service led him to formulate and stubbornly adhere to views of public policy that over the years have won strong approval. His primary concern was to elevate the national stature in the international community—in foreign relations, in commerce and industry, and even as a scientific and cultural contributor. The American System, translated into party platforms of the Whig and successor Republican parties, in large measure shaped the course to national maturity after 1860.


The main body of Adams’s papers, covering family manuscripts dating from 1639 to 1889, is located in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, and is available in major research libraries on microfilm. The papers are in process of publication by the Belknap Press of Harvard University. Still useful is the more limited compilation, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, ed. Charles Francis Adams (12 vols., 1874–1877).

Marie B. Hecht’s biography, John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man (1972), is particularly useful for detail on Adams’s early career. For narrative skill and policy analysis, despite strong bias and some inaccuracies, the two biographical volumes by Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (1949) and John Quincy Adams and the Union (1956), remain basic. Paul C. Nagel, Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family (1983), gives insight into the psychological and emotional pressures of Adams’s family background. Studies by Mary W. M. Hargreaves, The Presidency of John Quincy Adams (1985), and Leonard L. Richards, The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams (1986), provide extensive detail on the specific phases of Adams’s career.