Harlow Giles Unger
cover of John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

by Harlow Giles Unger

Published by Da Capo Press

Introduction to John Quincy Adams

He served under Washington and with Lincoln; he lived with Ben Franklin, lunched with Lafayette, Jefferson, and Wellington; he walked with Russia’s czar and talked with Britain’s king; he dined with Dickens, taught at Harvard, and was American minister to six European countries. He negotiated the peace that ended the War of 1812, freed the African prisoners on the slave ship Amistad, served sixteen years in the House of Representatives, restored free speech in Congress, led the antislavery movement . . .

. . . and . . .

He was sixth President of the United States.

John Quincy Adams was all of these things—and more.

A towering figure in the formative years of the United States, John Quincy Adams was the only son of a Founding Father and President to become President himself, and he was the first President to serve in Congress after his presidency. The oldest son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams seemed destined for greatness from birth.

His mother’s Quincy forebears had stormed ashore in the Norman landings at Hastings in 1066 and rode to Runnymede in 1215 to force King John to sign the Magna Carta.

His father not only served as the nation’s first vice president and second President but helped draft the Declaration of Independence, enlisted George Washington to lead the Continental Army, secured the foreign aid that won the Revolution, and drafted nine of thirteen state constitutions after independence.

Pushed by his parents to climb the heights of their ambitions for him, John Quincy Adams surpassed their expectations—not, ironically, as President of the United States but as American ambassador to six European nations, a fearless secretary of state, a powerful voice before the Supreme Court, a fighting senator and congressman, and America’s first champion of human rights and foe of injustice. He served the American people for two-thirds of a century under ten Presidents—besides himself.

Sent to Europe by President James Madison, John Quincy Adams negotiated the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812. Later, as President James Monroe’s secretary of state, he engineered the seizure and annexation of Florida and wrote the core provision of the Monroe Doctrine ending foreign colonization in the Americas.

An eloquent lawyer, he argued brilliantly before the Supreme Court to prevent Congress from criminalizing political dissent. In another case before the high court, he won freedom for kidnapped Africans on the slave ship Amistad, saving them from a life of bondage. A strong supporter of scientific advances, he was the first American President to have his face and figure impressed for posterity by a startling new process called photography.

As an independent congressman, John Quincy Adams scorned party affiliations, helped found the Smithsonian Institution, defeated state efforts to nullify federal laws, and forced the House of Representatives to restore free speech and citizens’ right to petition Congress. During his sixteen years in the House, he was argumentative and politically unpredictable but consistent in his fierce and constant defense of justice, human rights, and the individual liberties that his father and other Founding Fathers had fought for and won in the American Revolution.

With support from Illinois freshman congressman Abraham Lincoln, John Quincy Adams forced the House of Representatives to repeal the so-called Gag Rule that banned debate over slavery. He then stunned Congress—and the nation—by demanding that Congress extend constitutional liberties to Americans of African descent by abolishing slavery.

A witness to sixty-five years of critical American history, John Quincy Adams bequeathed to the nation one of its most important literary and historic treasures—his diary. Started when he was only ten, his eyewitness account remains the most complete, personal, day-to-day record of events and life in the New World and Old, from the 1770s to the 1840s—14,000 pages in all, dating from the eve of the Revolutionary War to the eve of the Civil War.

A sweeping panorama of American history from the Washington era to the Lincoln era, the story of John Quincy Adams follows one of the greatest, yet least known, figures of the early republic, beginning with a boy’s-eye view of the slaughter on Bunker’s Hill and a precocious teenager’s dinner conversations with Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette, and other eighteenth-century luminaries. From age ten to his late seventies, Adams describes his adventures crossing the Atlantic through storms and British cannon fire; his travels across Europe; his life as a Harvard student and professor; his early romances; his marriage and warm family life; and his contacts with an incredible number of giants in American and European history: John Hancock, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Napoléon, the Duke of Wellington, Czar Alexander I, King George III, and many others—including his own illustrious father and mother, John and Abigail Adams.

His diary reveals the surprising twists in negotiations that ended the War of 1812; the vicious, behind-the-scenes machinations of the “barbarian” Andrew Jackson to undermine the John Quincy Adams presidency; and his tragic loss of two beloved brothers, two sons, and a cherished infant daughter.

And near the end of his life, John Quincy Adams risked death to lead the antislavery movement in the House of Representatives. With a roar that still echoes under the Capitol dome, he demanded passage of the first federal laws to abolish slavery in the United States. He died on the floor of the House of Representatives, fighting for the rights of man.

John Quincy Adams was one of the most courageous figures in the history of American government, ranking first among the nine great Americans whom John F. Kennedy singled out in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Profiles in Courage. He will almost certainly rank first in the minds of readers of the pages that follow.

Copyright Harlow Giles Unger