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Political Phoenix

Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade

By Joseph Wheelan
Perseus Publishing, 2008

Since Rome was the greatest example of a republican government history had to offer the early generations of Americans, it’s no surprise that many early political leaders of the fledgling United States looked to the personalities and stories of antiquity for wisdom and guidance. The most emblematic of these stories, especially for the presidents of the United States’ dawning years, was the tale of Cincinnatus, a former consul who was called away from his farm during an emergency, invested with absolute authority to defend Rome, and within sixteen days defeated the enemies that threatened his country. Then, just as quickly, he yielded power back to the Senate and returned home to take up his plow once more.

As a soldier and the only American who could have made himself king had he wished, George Washington must have invested special significance in the story of Cincinnatus. When he chose to adhere to the Roman general’s example by walking away from power and settling into private retirement in 1797 he left a blueprint for leaving the national stage to those who came after him.

John Quincy Adams, on the other hand, had always admired and tried to emulate a different Roman statesman: his hero, Cicero. As Joseph Wheelan puts it in his new book Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade, after his failed 1828 presidential re-election bid, Quincy Adams retreated into a brief and morose retirement, in which he:  

completed a ten-month project of reading in the original Latin all of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s known writings, lamenting the time he had wasted earlier in his life reading translations. In studying Cicero, Adams found “there is sometimes so much in it of painful reality that I close the book,” he confided to Charles Francis [his son]. “I watch with his sleepless nights, I hear his solitary sighs. I feel the agitation of his pulse, not for himself, but for his son, for his Tullia [Cicero's daughter], for his country.” The Roman conservative’s 57 orations, nearly 800 letters, and his philosophical writings, all in perfect Latin prose, revealed him in the various roles of consul and statesman, and private citizen and philosopher. Immersing himself in Cicero so soon after his own removal from public life, Adams was struck by the similarities in their thinking, and the parallels between his own situation and Cicero in retirement at his Tusculum estate: As the “military chieftain” Andrew Jackson had supplanted him, so had the triumphant Julius Caesar caused Cicero’s withdrawal; as Adams mourned his lost son [George Washington Adams], so had Cicero grieved for his dead daughter.

As Quincy Adams began struggling with the idea of re-entering public life, a decision he knew meant defying the legacy of none other than the premiere deity in America’s pantheon, he drew strength from Cicero. Quoting the ancient politician he wrote:

Defendi rempublicam adolescens; non deseram senex. (I will not desert in my old age the Republic that I defended in my youth.)

It’s with this diary excerpt that Wheelan, a former Associated Press reporter and editor, sets the stage for his book. The premise of the work is an examination of John Quincy Adams’ nine terms as a Representative of Massachusetts’ 12th (later redrawn as the 8th) District in the House of Representatives after serving as Commander in Chief. As with his father, John Adams, whose reputation has finally begun to be repaired with time, the failure of Quincy Adams’ presidency has for many years obscured an otherwise remarkable life as a public servant and diminished his legacy as one of the United States’ most able and successful statesmen. Undoubtedly, Mr. Wheelan hopes to reverse this unfortunate perception in his brisk and lively history by emphasizing the later career of this truly remarkable man.

For a modern observer, perhaps a former president with a public life-after-office isn’t all that striking and doesn’t seem particularly note worthy. After all, since leaving office Jimmy Carter won a Nobel Peace Prize, and a few years back George H. W. Bush teamed up with Bill Clinton for tsunami relief. Since then Clinton has, to put it mildly, simply refused to go quietly and has launched a global initiative to end world poverty in 2006, written two best-selling books, and can regularly be seen on the stump for his wife in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. But for the most part, despite sometimes lending their celebrity to worthy causes, modern post-presidential careers have been unable to shake off the impression of being somewhat insincere, narcissistic attempts to influence a legacy, not demanding nearly as much self-sacrifice as self-aggrandizement. Nor do they require the individual to adjust from life at the top of the political totem to life at the bottom—the modern ex-presidents can ensure they remain a big fish by choosing what ponds they enter. When considered in this light, John Quincy Adams’ unique odyssey from defeated president to freshman congressman becomes an oddly inspiring story of dedication and public service.

The portrait of Quincy Adams that emerges from Wheelan’s book is that of a complicated man who is very much his father’s son, someone who is hypersensitive to external criticism yet possessed of an intense self-critical, puritanical streak. Judging himself as an older man, he wrote:

Through how many scenes of good and of evil fortune have I since [childhood] passed!…how many of overruling passion! And how few of virtuous self-denial and of disinterested exertion for the good of my fellow-creatures! I cannot say, like Rousseau of Geneva, that I am prepared to present myself before the throne of Omnipotence with my confessions in my hand and affirm that no better man than myself ever lived.

Quincy Adams was a man who achieved a level of success (political, diplomatic, scholarly) that most could only dream of yet suffered periodic bouts of deep self-loathing and depression. Literally up to the day he died, for over half a century, he served his country and his people, yet he perennially claimed that he longed for retirement. He was a man whose public life as a defender of the first amendment and whose opposition to slavery was as heroic as his private life was tragic. He would be the last to survive of his siblings, losing two of his brothers as well as two of his three adult sons to a combination of mental disease and alcoholism (all told, nine more of his children would perish before age two).

He was a gruff, curmudgeonly New Englander, whose dogged independence and inflexible principles failed to ingratiate him to many of his contemporaries. Wheelan aptly describes Quincy Adams as “politically tone deaf” and his inability to go along to get along was his greatest limitation. Aware of this limitation, he once lamented,

I leave nothing to live after me but aims beyond means and principles too pure for the age in which I have lived.

Above all his other attributes towers the magnitude of his intellect. With a mind as inquisitive as Benjamin Franklin’s, Quincy Adams was fascinated by botany, horticulture, silviculture (the cultivation of trees) and astronomy. His devotion to the sciences is evident in his stewardship of an enormous bequest to the United States by James Smithson that today would be valued at $11 million. As Chairman of the House’s special committee to oversee the money he would shepherd it away from various schemes and pork projects and helped ensure it was put to it’s intended use, “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” in the foundation of the Smithsonian Institute.

He was also a first rate scholar, who Wheelan suggests likely possessed a photographic memory. Jefferson once said of him, “he has a pointed pen.” and prior to embarking on a public life he had flirted with becoming a writer but ultimately determined he was too opinionated to be a good historian. He did, however, author an epic poem, Dermott MacMorrough, and as testament to his voracious mind owned nearly 6,000 books and was reputed to have “the best library possessed by any individual in America, not excluding that of Thomas Jefferson.”

An excellent window into this great mind, which Wheelan uses liberally throughout his book, is Quincy Adams’ exhaustive 50-volume diary that he began at age twelve in 1779 and would faithfully write in over the next 68 years. The vibrancy and wit of Quincy Adams that shines throughout Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade is undoubtedly the result of Mr. Wheelan’s wise choice in letting “Old Man Eloquent” speak for himself as often as possible. By doing this he allows the reader to feel at times almost personally connected to Adams, sometimes hoping for his success, sometimes worrying about him, sometimes enjoying his triumphs, all in a more immediate way than some other format might have allowed.

To tell this story, Wheelan traces Adams’ history from his childhood in order to display the personal and ideological growth he undergoes over the course of his long career, as it builds to what for most would be an apogee: winning the presidency. At a glance, one cannot help but be struck by the breadth of his accomplishments, and the author does a fine job of impressing upon the reader the enormity of his subject’s genius.

Growing up with the Revolution, Quincy Adams accompanied his father to Europe for the second time in 1779. At age 14, he set off for St. Petersburg with family friend and diplomat Francis Dana to serve as his secretary and translator at the court of the Tsarina, Catherine the Great. Eventually he would rejoin his father in Paris, where he struck up friendships with prominent revolutionaries, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

He would come into his own during the waning years of the Washington administration, where political division began boiling to the surface. In 1791 he established himself as an essayist under the nom de plum Publicola, going toe-to-toe with Thomas Paine when he unleashed a series of articles criticizing Paine’s The Rights of Man as well as chastising Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. In a private note of approval for The Rights of Man that appeared as its introduction in a new printing that year, Jefferson had said Paine’s work was a repudiation of “the political heresies that have sprung up among us,” and Wheelan tells us how Quincy Adams, believing Paine’s assertions to be wrong-headed and viewing Jefferson’s comments as a personal slight against his father, shot back:

Publicola sarcastically reminded Jefferson, without actually naming the “heresy hunter,” that Americans have “a full and entire freedom of opinion” and “have not yet established any infallible criterion of orthodoxy, either in church or state.” He suggested that before Paine was enshrined as “the holy father of our political faith, and this pamphlet is to be considered as his Papal Bull,” that its contents should first be examined.

Recognizing Publicola’s talent (his identity was a well-known secret), the Washington administration awarded the young man a position in the diplomatic corps as minister to the Netherlands. During his seven years in Europe he would travel to England to help finalize the Jay Treaty, where he met his future wife Louisa, and also served as a minister to Prussia, where Louisa gave birth to their first child after five miscarriages.

Recalled to the United States by one of his father’s final acts as president, Quincy Adams embarked upon a public life in his own right and in 1803 he briefly found himself in the United States Senate. The brevity of his tenure there was due to his obstinate refusal to submit to the narrow confines of party dogma. Considering himself “a man of my whole country,” he was just as likely to support the Federalists who dominated his home state’s legislature as he was the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. As Wheelan succinctly puts it, “Adams was now a pariah, despised by Federalists – not altogether trusted by Republicans.”

The reward his independence earned him, particularly because of his support of the Embargo Act, was that almost a year before it would become necessary the Massachusetts state legislature announced it had chosen his replacement for the next term.

James Madison’s administration however, would remember to reward him for what Wheelan describes as Quincy Adams’ political “self immolation” over the thorny Embargo issue by appointing him ambassador to Russia, where Quincy Adams would witness Napoleon’s invasion. His eight years in Europe would also find him in Ghent to negotiate the treaty ending the War of 1812, before President James Monroe tapped him to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of State. During his tenure at the State Department, Quincy Adams implemented modern systematized record keeping, acquired Florida and normalized the western border of the Louisiana Territory in the Adams-Onis Treaty, and engineered one of the most important statements of American foreign policy ever written, The Monroe Doctrine. Wheelan tells us how Quincy Adams left his imprint upon this seminal statement:

In just three paragraphs of his fifty-one-paragraph message to Congress, Monroe outlined the three tenants of the Monroe Doctrine, as it would one day be called. The tenet positing no future colonization was Adams’s signal contribution, excerpted by Adams from a letter he had written…and shared with Monroe, who used it word-for-word: “The American Continents by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future Colonization by any European power.

Quincy Adams became president in 1824 but his administration would never escape from beneath the shadow of the alleged “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay to secure the White House. It is tragic that perhaps the most well-prepared man to ever assume this nation’s highest office would do so at a time in which his vast experience would serve as more of a hindrance than a help. He had been brought up in an age of gentlemanly politics – an age that Wheelan explains was rapidly fading:

Adams disapproved of the emerging new way of conducting politics, which he believed wrongly pandered to popular opinion while devaluing principles. Of course, this revolutionary change put Adams at a severe disadvantage, for he fairly bristled with eighteenth-century principles from both sides of the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian divide, but lacked a common touch…. Nearly overnight, Adams’s belief that the president was “the first guardian of public morals” had been made obsolete by a new political age that would reward the inspiring stump speaker and the backroom coalition-builder.

What proceeded was a painful succession of failures, as Adams’s antiquated beliefs precluded him from acting with the requisite vigor needed to advance his breathtakingly far-sighted “Liberty with Power” national agenda, which consisted of a bundle of internal improvements: roads, canals, and a national university and observatory. His presidency floundered and his noble ideas withered. Here’s Wheelan quoting a passage from Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life to emphasize how large an opportunity the country had missed:

Adams was the last nineteenth-century occupant of the White House who had a knowledgeable sympathy with the aims and aspirations of science, or who believed that fostering the arts might properly be a function of the federal government.

To which Wheelan adds, “Adams would have no governmental counterpart as a promoter of science until Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901.”

Mercifully, Quincy Adams’ term came to an end in 1828 when Andrew Jackson swept into the White House. But his political exile wouldn’t last long, and by 1831 at the age of sixty-four he would sit in the House of Representatives as a freshman congressman. His years of service here would be marked with tenacity and courage as he underwent a personal transformation that would make him one of the earliest and most vocal public figures to take up the abolitionist cause. However his arrival at that position was only gradual, as Wheelan describes it:

It came to him in December 1835. The South’s suppression of the abolition societies’ mass mailings and Southerners’ indignant defense of their prerogatives as slaveholders had exhausted his former tolerance for the institution of slavery. Rumblings that they might next suppress the right to petition impelled him finally to act.

Indeed, Quincy Adams seemed to reserve special scorn for the Gag Rule that was instituted in 1836, which in effect forbade any debate about the issue of slavery. As ridiculous as it seems today for some to suggest that our representatives not discuss issues such as torture or war, so this rule seemed wrong to Quincy Adams, who recognized that ignoring an evil would not make it go away but only cause it to fester. Of this attempted embargo on the first amendment he would declare:

Freedom of speech is the only safety valve, which under the high pressure of slavery, can preserve your political boiler from a fearful and fatal explosion.

Through numerous examples Wheelan shows us how Quincy Adams butted heads with partisan and regional interests to curb the expansion of slavery and to preserve the rights of free speech and petition for the redress of grievances and how, in the process,

Adams had become the de facto chief spokesman for many of those denied a voice in government – abolitionists silenced by the Gag Rule, slaves, Indians, and finally women. One may ask why Adams took on this role, but a better question is, Why did he have no company? Almost alone among his fellow congressmen, all a generation his junior or more, Adams believed in and upheld the principles of the Founding fathers, embodied in the individual liberties of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, in the soaring words of the Declaration of Independence and in the antiquated ethic, which went by the board with his father’s defeat in 1800, of nonpartisanship and selfless public service.

In taking up these noble causes he infuriated many, and his enemies twice, unsuccessfully, attempted to censure him. He continued being what Wheelan referred to as the “lightning rod of congress” until one February day in 1848, during a House session, he began to convulse in his seat and lost consciousness. His fellow congressmen moved the 81 year old to a sofa in the Speaker’s chambers where he, fittingly, expired two days later.

Disappointing aspects of Wheelan’s book are few and have less to do with what he’s written then with what he’s omitted. One example is Wheelan’s treatment of the relationships between Quincy Adams and his parents, which I feel comes off as one-dimensional, with John and Abigail being unfairly portrayed as overbearing and rather cold. In this regard, Wheelan focuses on quotes like this from Abigail:

For as dear as you are to me, I had much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you have crossed, or any untimely death crop you in your infant years, rather than see you an immoral profligate or a graceless child.

And this from John Adams, telling his son,

if you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness and obstinacy.

While his parents did say these things to their children, Wheelan places too much emphasis on their roles as disciplinarians. If this is Wheelan’s full assessment of what it was like to grow up in the Adams household, it stands in stark contrast to the standard treatments rendered by other histories, which have portrayed the family in a much warmer light, describing John Adams as a particularly doting father.

This might have simply been a matter of interpretation if Wheelan had not referred to sources that hint at warmer familial relations – only to not fully explore the avenue. From this example and similar false-starts that pop up throughout the book a clear pattern emerges; it becomes apparent that this is no literary shortcoming on Wheelan’s part but rather an unfortunate byproduct of his book’s extremely selective focus. Quincy Adams led an extraordinary and full life, and Wheelan’s stated aim is to concentrate only on the last portion of it. This will naturally leave the reader, myself included, wanting more. And the feints toward fuller detail might well reveal a similar yearning on Wheelan’s part, which is perhaps inevitable. If the goal of Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade is to be a narrow study of Adams’s post-presidential, congressional career as the title suggests, it misses the mark. It’s inherently something more, a de facto biography in spite of itself, and my most serious critique of Wheelan is really of his choice to whittle down Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade into a 260-page analytical history instead of allowing it to flower into the authoritative however-many-page biography it so clearly wants to be.

Nevertheless, this is an overwhelmingly enjoyable read, enthusiastically recommended, especially if you only know John Quincy Adams as a Founding Father’s son, or as the poor fool who stood in the way of Jacksonian democracy, or just as the old man Anthony Hopkins played in the movie Amistad. There is so much more that is worth knowing about this man who in his own time had become a yardstick for measuring how much and how quickly the United States had departed from what the Founders had envisioned. Wheelan eloquently elaborates on this point:

Following the unsuccessful censure attempt in 1842, Adams’s congressional colleagues increasingly began granting him the same iconic respect that Adams’s countrymen were according him. During the Roaring [18]40′s, the Industrial Age gained momentum in America with its steamships, railroads, the telegraph, and the penny press. As often happens in times of rapid change, there was an upwelling of nostalgia for a bygone era – in this case, the war for independence and the nation’s founding, which were fading from memory. Books written about that era, such as Washington and His Generals, became best-sellers as people sought to learn more about American independence. Thus, it stood to reason that the public would revere the last connection with that golden age, John Quincy Adams, still serving his country fifty years after President George Washington sent him to the Netherlands. And so, with his powers rapidly ebbing, Adams became, of all things, a living symbol.”

And to all those who share an appreciation for honor, dedication to duty, and an abhorrence of partisanship, his life continues to be symbolic even if his example of a flinty unwillingness to bend to the popular wind, but always to reason – seems outdated and hopelessly idealistic. Unfortunately, profiteering, megalomania, and military adventuring will be more seductive to the less introspective in any age. Nevertheless, Quincy Adams waged his morally courageous existence according to the better angels of our nature, and Wheelan’s excellent book captures him soldiering on, right up until the end.

___
Thomas J. Daly graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Rowan University in New Jersey. He dreams of one day hosting his own program on the History Channel.

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