The Presidents: John Quincy Adams

Dear old dad gets the books and the miniseries and Paul Giamatti and everything, but what about John Quincy Adams? There have only been two instances in our nation’s history when a father and son both ascended to the Presidency. In both instances, both father and son were considered significantly less than ideal Chief Executives. We are currently experiencing the second instance when the Presidency of George W. Bush has been so atrocious that he has actually managed to make his father look positively statesmanlike in comparison. John Quincy Adams was not nearly as bad a President as George W. Bush, but perhaps it would be wise to take as the lessons of history that concept that we should never again elect the son of a former President. Then again, maybe the third time will be the charm.

John Quincy Adams was pretty much groomed to become President even before the office was created. He was a Harvard graduate, a lawyer and a diplomat who had learned much not only from his father, but many of the founding fathers he’d had access to as a young man. John Quincy Adams had been essential to James Monroe in the drafting and implementation of the Monroe Doctrine which essentially stated that Europe would be best served by keeping their imperialist aims toward the western hemisphere in check. His position as Secretary of State in the Monroe Cabinet had groomed him to run for President back when that position was seen as a natural stepping stone to the Oval Office.

Quincy ran an infamously prickly race against Andrew Jackson and in a precursor of things to come, the man with the more famous name lost the popular vote, but still managed to claim victory. No candidate actually had garnered enough electoral votes to stake the claim toward victory and so the Presidential race was decided in the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams won by a single vote after a notorious bargain with fellow candidate Henry Clay who had his eye on winning that stepping stone position in an Adams Cabinet.

John Quincy Adams immediately faced opposition from the Jacksonians who were rightly bitter about the way the election was handled. Andrew Jackson may have lost the election but he still retained significant power and influence and Adams found himself fighting against his supporters throughout his term. It wasn’t just Jackson’s backers that Adams had to fight against. The bargain struck between Adams and Henry Clay had left a bad taste in the mouths of many, even some of his own supporters. In addition to having to deal with this issue, the Adams Presidency was marked by his own failings as a leader. He was hardly what you would term an electrifying personality and much like his father he almost immediately seemed outdated and old-fashioned. This was in stark relief to Andrew Jackson who just so happened to be one of the most charismatic politicians in American history. The contrast between the war hero Jackson with his thick head of hair and the bald and introverted John Quincy Adams was not lost on anyway and right from the beginning it seemed obvious that a mistake had been made. He quickly lost the confidence of the Congress and the nation and essentially served as a caretaker President occupying the position in between men of flair and leadership, just like his father had been between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

There was never any question as to the 1828 election. Jackson blew Adams away both in the popular and electoral vote and quickly proved that the bargain to get Adams the Presidency four years earlier had been a huge mistake. Like a handful of other Presidents, John Quincy Adams’ stature grew once he exited the White House. He has never been retrofitted as a great President, but he grew to be admired for his honestly and judgment. And, of course, he established himself as someone to be admired by virtue of his role in defending the African slaves who revolted aboard the Amistad. At long last John Quincy Adams revealed to the American public that he was proponent of freedom and a firm believer in the foundations of civil liberties toward all men that the United States had allegedly been constructed upon.