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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 680

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This is the grave of John Quincy Adams.

Born in 1767 in Braintree, Massachusetts, as everyone knows Adams grew up at the right hand of his famous revolutionary father, learning and bringing desperately needed skills to the table as a political and diplomatic leader in the United States. He accompanied his father to Europe in 1778, where the young boy worked as an underling in the diplomatic missions of the time and studied languages and the classics. By 1781, only 14 years old, he was the secretary of Richard Dana on the latter’s diplomatic mission to St. Petersburg. He returned to the U.S. in 1785, enrolled as a junior at Harvard and finished there in 1787. He opened a legal practice in Boston, following in his father’s footsteps.

But this was no Boston lawyer. He could not avoid politics. He found himself on the Federalist side of the growing party divide, attacking Edmond-Charles Genet, when he stirred trouble as representative of the French revolutionary government to the U.S. Washington appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands in 1794, where he worked to secure much needed loans for the impoverished new nation. He married Louisa Johnson, the British-raised daughter of an American merchant, while in London in 1797. The year before that, Washington moved Adams from Amsterdam to Lisbon. And when his father became president, John Quincy was named ambassador to Prussia. There he worked on a new trade agreement with the Prussians, though was unable to work out some planned agreements with the Swedes.

When John Adams lost his reelection bid in 1800, John Quincy’s diplomatic career came to a halt and he returned to Boston. He was a strong Federalist, but started moving toward the Jeffersonians by the mid 1800s, disliking the extremism of some of the Federalists and their obsequious relationship with the British, who the experienced diplomat did not trust. He was sent to the Senate in 1803, but so infuriated the Federalists by supporting Jefferson’s foreign policy goals, including the disastrous Embargo, that the Massachusetts legislature named his successor months before the actual election for said legislature. Stung, he resigned in 1808. He left the Federalist Party in that year and was neutral for awhile.

Adams remained busy while figuring out his place in American politics. He argued Fletcher v. Peck in front of the Supreme Court, the first case that ruled a state law unconstitutional. Adams sided with the federal government on that case. When James Madison became president in 1809, he asked Adams to serve as Minister to Russia. He agreed and returned to diplomacy. This meant that he was in Russia when Napoleon invaded. Madison liked Adams so much that he offered him a Supreme Court seat in 1811, but Adams turned it down after the Senate had confirmed him without his knowledge, preferring to stay in St. Petersburg.

Adams worried about the U.S. entering a war with Britain. He was not high on his own supply like Clay and Calhoun and the other nationalist War Hawks. He knew the U.S. was weak and he knew just how strong the British were. When the War of 1812 broke out, Tsar Alexander attempted to mediate the conflict. This took a long time to come to fruition, but Adams was in Europe the entire time and was one of the lead negotiators of the Treaty of Ghent to end the war, along with Albert Gallatin and James Bayard, and later Jonathan Russell and Henry Clay. It wasn’t that easy. The British initially attempted to treat the U.S. as the loser in the war and offered harsh terms. The Americans rejected it. Then the Navy won the Battle of Plattsburgh and the British backed off to a status quo antebellum position, which was basically the final agreement in what was a pointless and stupid war for the U.S., which left it lucky to still exist. In 1815, Madison named Adams Ambassador to Britain, where he worked on the aftermath of the war, getting prisoners of war freed and working out a trade agreement.

In 1817, the Virginia Dynasty continued with the election of James Monroe. Wanting a northerner to be Secretary of State, which was unquestionably the second most important position in the governments of the Early Republic, he named Adams to the position. He stayed there for the full 8 years. He was the real author of the Monroe Doctrine, demanding Europe not recolonize the newly freed Latin American republics. He negotiated the Adams-Onis Treaty that brought Florida into the U.S. after Andrew Jackson‘s personal invasion of it. He also played a critical role in the agreement with the British to settle on the 49th parallel as the border with the Canada to the west of the Great Lakes. Adams was deeply enmeshed in the internal battle to replace Monroe, along with Treasury Secretary William Crawford, and War Secretary John C. Calhoun. The Era of Good Feelings was held together with spit and twine.

The Election of 1824 is well-known because it was so divided, without anyone winning a majority of the Electoral College. When Adams won in Congress despite Andrew Jackson having the plurality of the new popular vote, after Henry Clay threw his support to the former, Jackson cried Corrupt Bargain after Adams named Clay Secretary of State. The idea of Adams being corrupt is fairly unbelievable. He wasn’t interested in politics in that way. Adams was of the previous generation, where the Best Men were named to the important spots. A lot of the Founders saw Adams as the last of their kind, with the next generation being venal and dim. Their view of politics was rooted in unrealistic 18th century fantasies. But Clay was qualified for the position, having been at Ghent, and Adams and he shared somewhat similar politics. For everyone from Thomas Jefferson to John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson was anathema, the uneducated military man set to take over a republic.

Well, Jackson may not have been educated, but he wasn’t stupid. He was a lot better at politics than Adams. In a different era, Adams might have made an outstanding president. He understood how to build a nation. That his proposal for a national university was hooted down as a laughing stock says about everything one needs to know about this dumpster fire of a nation, then and now. His internal improvements agenda was critical to building a quality infrastructure in the sprawling young nation. The American System should have made sense to basically everyone. Alas, it did not. He proposed a Naval Academy; the House defeated it because it didn’t want to spend the money. He urged a Department of Interior to oversee an aggressive new development agenda, but that had to wait too. He fought for a national bankruptcy law, but couldn’t get that passed either.

The Adams presidency was entirely wrapped up in the development of the Democratic Party around the figure of Andrew Jackson, though with Martin Van Buren as the brains of the operation. Van Buren and his forces took control of Congress in 1827 and passed the Tariff of 1828 that was probably intended to make Adams look bad. But Adams signed it, infuriating the South and creating the framework for the upcoming Nullification Crisis during Jackson’s presidency. And then Adams lost decisively in 1828 to Jackson.

After leaving the White House, Adams considered retiring from public life. But was increasingly disgusted by the Democratic Party and Jackson himself. Jackson’s Spoils System was absolutely anathema to men like Adams. So instead, he became the greatest ex-president in American history, something that only Jimmy Carter has even approached. I had hopes for Barack Obama in this regard, but alas. In 1830, he went right back into the House. Of course, he was only one of many in the House, but his stature made him a leader. Speaker of the Andrew Stevenson named Adams the chair of the Committee on Commerce and Manufacturers as a way to stop him from starting trouble by keeping him busy with the tariff. But as a Jacksonian, Stevenson overthought it. This placed Adams as the head of the committee that the South hated during the Nullification Crisis, making the ex-president a national player once again. Moreover, Calhoun and the South’s reaction to the tariff made Adams extremely alarmed about the rise of southern extremism.

Adams had always opposed slavery. And he worried about slave expansionism. In his epic diary, he wrote about the Missouri crisis:

The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls. In the abstract they admit that slavery is an evil, they disclaim it, and cast it all upon the shoulder of Great Britain. But when probed to the quick upon it, they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vainglory in their condition of masterdom. They look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee’s manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat negroes like dogs. It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice: for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?

But it wasn’t until the Nullification crisis that Adams really spoke these concerns out loud. He started having antislavery petitions read in Congress. In 1836, this led the southern dominated Congress to issue the gag rule that banned the reading of these petitions. So Adams, being an obstinate man, continued to break the law in ways that he knew would provoke the most violent reactions from southerners. He basically kept up the debate about slavery in the House at a time when most people wanted to sweep the question under the rug. Adams feared Texas annexation in 1836 because of how it would inflame questions about slave expansion, about which he was of course completely correct. In 1841, he joined Lewis Tappan and Ellis Gray Loring in defending the Africans in the case of U.S. v. The Amistad. He won that legendary case, allowing Anthony Hopkins to play him in a bad Spielberg movie 150 years later. Adams also led the struggle to get the Smithsonian Institution established after James Smithson dropped his will on the underfunded U.S. government. The Jackson administration invested the money for it in bad bonds (shocking!) and the whole project nearly died, but Adams secured the funding from Congress for it.

Adams strongly opposed the Mexican War, that unjust war to expand slavery that led to the outright theft of half of Mexico by the Polk administration. In 1848, with the war just ended, there was a vote on honoring the military officers who fought in the war. Adams stood up to yell his “NO” vote and collapsed with a cerebral hemorrhage. He died two days later, at the age of 80.

John Quincy Adams is buried in United First Parish Church, Quincy, Massachusetts. He’s been there since 1852, but that was the 3rd resting place for him. He was first buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington for the obvious reason of needing to do something with the body. Then he was moved to where his parents rest in Quincy. But his son Charles Francis Adams had the church built the basement vault for John and Abigail and John Quincy and Louisa.

If you would like this series to visit other presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Henry Harrison is in North Bend, Ohio and Andrew Johnson is in Greeneville, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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