Book Review: John Quincy Adams – Militant Spirit
by James Traub
Basic Books, 2016
To the small and very welcome renaissance in the biographical study of John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa is now added John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub, who teaches foreign policy at New York University – a specialty readers will probably feel in this book even if they don’t know it, since Traub concentrates on the ample cosmopolitan dimensions of John Quincy’s life with an greater acuity than any of the recent books about the man.
It’s a fascinating life story to tell regardless of where a biographer places the emphasis, of course. John Quincy was not only the son of Founding Father John Adams but also for many years his helper despite being only a boy, and his term as the young country’s sixth president happened at an unenviable hinge-point in American history. And perhaps most remarkably of all, he served for 17 years in Congress after he left the presidency, confronting the growing and restive power of the country’s slave states with a flinty grandeur that was only unevenly appreciated at the time.
Throughout it all, he was what Traub convincingly describes as “a hard man” (“He did not aim to please, and he largely succeeded”), someone who faced the world unbendingly and seldom attractively – the kind of man, in fact, who seems in hindsight an impossible fit for the presidency, or at least for the getting of the presidency. Traub captures this incongruity well:
Adams did, of course, want to be president, but only on his own terms. Perhaps he wished, like Cicero, to be chosen by popular acclaim. But the vinegary secretary of state was hardly the man to be hurrahed to the presidency. His two immediate predecessors had become president, but Adams could no longer count on that effortless path to the highest office; his rivals for the job would fight for it, whether he would or not. Adams stirred less enthusiasm than some of those rivals and was less prepared to campaign for the job than were some of the others. In a more democratic era, Adams would have had little chance to become president. Luckily for him, he came along at the last moment when an unpopular man who refused to court public opinion could still win the highest office.
(The reference is a bit puzzling – outside of his dreams, Cicero was never chosen by “popular acclaim” for anything in his life – but the general point is well-taken, although it’s perhaps less aware of Calvin Coolidge than it should be)
But although Traub is very good at personalities, he’s even better, as noted, in painting a picture of America on the world stage, groping for a sense of its own identity in a rapidly changing world. It can’t be said that John Quincy handled many of those changes well, but nor can it be said he particularly cared to; he was far more a public moralist like his father than he was a public visionary like his boyhood mentor Thomas Jefferson, and in either case, Traub again states the issues at stake very vividly:
What kind of nation was America to be? Virtually all Americans believed that their country was different in nature from the nations of Europe, for it had been founded on principle, not conquest. How was a principled power to behave in an unprincipled world? The United States would not seek colonies, as European powers did. Would it permit them to survive on its own continent? Would it seek to evict them? America’s great and successful experiment with republicanism had inspired brave men to fight for their freedom elsewhere in the world. What would Americans say when they asked for help? “Go thou and do likewise,” John Quincy Adams had proclaimed at the end of his July 4 oration – go, that is, and seize power from tyrants.
John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit has been oddly and unevenly served by the normally-conscientious folks at Basic Books. Despite its obvious merits and scholarly aspirations, the book was allowed to go to press without a bibliography, for instance, and although it sports an attractive cover designed by Chelsea Hunter, Gilbert Stuart is never mentioned as the actual painter of the dust jacket’s brilliant portrait. But even so, this is a fine addition to the newly-swelling ranks of JQA biographies, and one of the finest political lives to appear so far in 2016.