Sunday, July 8, 2012


A review of Paul C. Nagel’s John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1997)

(Rating 4 of 5)
There is a phrase in the United States that asks, “How good does one have to be in order to bad in the NBA?”  The answer to this question is “pretty damn awesome!”  To be bad in the NBA, the MLB, or the NFL one has to be an incredible ball player.  Only by being great at the lower levels can one find the opportunity to be bad as a professional. 

            I think you can take this same view with American statesmen and the presidency.  The American presidency is the highest office that any American can possibly obtain.  If an American becomes the President he (or, someday, she) has their picture in the back of every U.S. history textbook, their names are added to the president rap, and presidential history buffs such as myself make it a point to learn interesting details about their lives.  In order to become president the statesmen have to use the electoral process to convince the nation that they should be the leader.  Even presidents who achieve the presidency through vice presidential succession do so because to be elected vice president is to be elected stand-by leader[1].  Just doing that is amazing. 

            In some ways my analogy fails because I would not say the presidency was the professional level but rather the presidency, Congress, state governors, and Supreme Court justices are all part of that professional league.  The presidency is simply an instant ticket to the Hall of Fame located in the back of American history textbooks. Yet someone can become president and be considered a failure because their administration was unsuccessful.  And that, why factual true, is morally wrong.  Yes, it is hard to imagine Millard Fillmore as a winner, but men like Herbert Hoover who had public careers that were enormously beneficial to the nation should not be written off as failures.  
young John Quincy Adams

            John Quincy Adams is one of these individuals.  He was serving his country since he was a boy when he worked for his father on the elder Adams' foreign ministries during the American Revolution.  He would rise to be a senator, a diplomat in his own right, and at the peak of his first career he would become the Secretary of State.  
JQA as Secretary of State

            Adams would emerge as one of the greatest to occupy the office of America’s top diplomat.  As the Secretary of State, Adams would be responsible for one of the greatest—if not most cited—diplomatic achievements in U.S. history: the Monroe Doctrine.

            “Amid this hue and cry, Adams calmly insisted that it would be wiser if the nation remained alone in warning the world that the Western Hemisphere was on longer to be intruded upon.  He added that if Europe should tamper with strivings for independence in Latin America, the United States must consider such action as hostile.  He proposed the same response to Russia’s encroachment in the Northwest quarter.” (p.270) 
President James Monroe under whom Adams excelled
          Much like the next son of a president to become the President, John Quincy Adams election was mired in controversy.  Failing to win the electoral or popular vote the election was decided by the House of Representatives in which Adams would prevail but paid a terrible price.  As President of the United States he got off to a bad start and never recovered.  All because of a perceived bargain made with Henry Clay. 

            “Nevertheless, despite Clay’s merits, giving the Kentuckian the second most important office in the national government showed JQA’s political ineptness.  Since the new president had a long record of doing what he thought was right in the face of warnings, his action was not surprising.  What was surprising was that Clay, normally so shrewd, accepted the position.  For the rest of his life, he readily admitted that joining the Adams administration was the stupidest act of his career.” (p.298) 
Henry Clay whom Adams was accused of having a 'corrupt bargain' with by the Jacksonians
          Two years after being tossed out of office in ‘the Revolution of 1828’ Adams would begin a new career as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  As a congressman, he would lead battles that were controversial in his day: over slavery and war.  He would also have a long-standing impact in helping to create the Smithsonian. 

            “Consequently, Adams was outraged when, after sharp debate, the House of Representatives adopted a new parliamentary procedure in May 1836 that became known as the gag rule.  He had done what he could to oppose approving the rule, which decreed that all petitions or memorials touching in any way on slavery would be laid on the table without being printed, discussed or referred to committee.  Southern congressman had demanded the rule after the anti-slavery movement began flooding Congress with petitions calling for the ending of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia.  Adams had found his mail bulging with them.” (p.355) 
            Nagel’s book however is not just about Adams’ public career—as the title suggests—it is also about his private life.  His family relationships with his parents, spouse, and children are all heavily featured in this book.  

            What I find really interesting however is Adams’ religious beliefs. Although a lifelong Christian he had a strong disrespect for those who considered other supernatural beliefs and he also when confronted with some tenets of his own faith he had a hard time accepting them. 
            “Inevitably, his scriptural meditation brought him to an element of Christian doctrine that always upset him: was Christ sent by God to atone for humanity’s sins?  ‘I cannot believe it,’ he said of atonement.  ‘It is not true.  It is hateful.  But how shall I contradict St. Paul?’  He wished the Calvinist ministers would leave him in peace.  Inn his last years, he was even more impatient with those clergymen who habitually declared their congregants to be standing on the brink of Hell.  He could not conceive of how persons of decent character would gather each Sunday in church to be treated like the vilest malefactors.  ‘It seems to me as if the preacher considered himself a chaplain to a penitentiary, discoursing to the convicts.’
            Would that clergy could stress the moral teachings of the New Testament, for Adams said here was where he had come to build his faith—which he now summarized with remarkable succinctness: ‘I reverence God as my creator.  As creator of the world.  I reverence him with holy fear.  I venerate Jesus Christ as my redeemer; and, as far as I can understand, the redeemer of the world.  But this belief is dark and dubious.’”(p.407)   
            Paul Nagel has written a good little book about a great American.  Much more than just a failed president he was an incredible statesman whose contributions can still be felt to this day.         

[1] Even the appointed vice president, Gerald Ford, achieved the vice presidency through the confirmation of the people’s representatives in Congress. 

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