Category: Stonewalled Visionary
Term in Office: 6th President, 1825-1829
Political Party: Democratic-Republican
Home State: Massachusetts
Here we are, our very first presidential evaluation. With 41 administrations to rank and evaluate, I am starting in the exact middle, #21, and am slowly working my way toward the very top and the very bottom, revealing my choices along the way.
John Quincy Adams was one of our most worldly, experienced, and intelligent presidents, yet his administration is most charitably described as “average.” He came to the presidency with a fuller resume than anyone I can think of– he was a senator from Massachusetts (his vote for the Louisiana Purchase, virtually alone among the Federalists, the moribund party to which he then belonged, earned him a chapter in John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.) But in diplomacy, he excelled– he had been, under various presidents, Minister to the Netherlands, Minister to Prussia, Minister to Russia, negotiated the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, Minister to England, and most importantly of all, Secretary of State, where he helped President James Monroe craft his eponymous doctrine. With a lucrative pre-and post-presidential career, John Quincy Adams was possibly the only man in American history who was acquainted with each of our first 17 presidents (insofar as it is possible to be acquainted with oneself.) What follows is an unfortunate narrative of how one of the smartest, most ethical men to serve as president just could not accomplish his bold vision of a unified, interconnected, and truly national United States.
I have placed John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, as our most average chief executive– #21 with exactly 20 presidents rated higher, and 20 rated lower. The Adams presidency is a difficult one to get a handle on; I study this stuff professionally, and I still have a hard time remembering significant legislation that happened on his watch. What most people remember about Adams the Younger is his election, possibly the most controversial in American history. In 1824, four different viable candidates ran for president, each from the only game left in town, the Democratic-Republican Party of Jefferson’s design. There was Adams running, of course, but also Andrew Jackson, hero of the common man; William Crawford, presently the Secretary of the Treasury and heir apparent to the Virginia dynasty; and finally, Henry Clay, the roguish Speaker of the House, popular in the West. No candidate came anywhere close to a majority in the electoral college, and in the popular vote, Jackson came out on top with an unconvincing 35%. With the election thrown into the House of Representatives, only the top three contenders- everybody but Clay- could be chosen. The Clay and Adams factions, fearing Jackson and cognizant of Crawford’s recent debilitating stroke, joined forces, throwing the election to Adams. When Clay was given the prize cabinet post of Secretary of State, a “corrupt bargain” was alleged between the two men.
While there is no convincing evidence of a quid pro quo between Adams and Harry of the West, there was nothing at all wrong with Adams, the silver medalist in the electoral and popular vote counts, being made the winner– nothing compelled the House to pick the plurality selection. Instead, it is perfectly sensible for the factions to form a sort-of coalition government so that a majority might be reached. Adams and Clay joining hands as one another’s second choices is entirely legit– countries with multiparty systems behave this way all the time. For Adams to have then offered Clay the Secretaryship of State is also consistent with Adams character. He always gave the job to the best man, and Clay was the most obvious and qualified candidate for the position, bargain or no.
But it is the appearance of illegitimacy that ground the Adams presidency to a halt before it began. His opponents never forgave Adams for prevailing in the House, and made every effort to thwart him. Wild, unfounded rumors surrounded Adams– that he was a drunkard, a monarchist, and had even procured comfort women for a visiting Russian delegation during the Monroe years. He was charged with spending money frivolously, although he lived a life of relative New England frugality. It appears that he did not even sit for a portrait during his time at the White House; most portraits you see of Adams were commissioned during his “retirement” in the Senate. (He did, though, enjoy madeira wine, and spent $50 to install a billiards table in the White House.)
More seriously, his political program was never given the chance to succeed. An ardent nationalist, Adams foresaw future greatness for the United States– not as a geographical monolith encompassing the Americas, but as an economic powerhouse, and republican beacon to the rest of the world, leading by example. His first Annual Address to Congress laid out an ambitious program- national roads, canals, observatories, universities, dotting the landscape and binding the nation together by physical byways and scientific cooperation. Little of this was directly provisioned in the Constitution, but much of it was necessary to pull the U.S. out of its provincial stupor. Like Clay, he was an advocate of the “American System”, seeing the United States not as a loose band of sovereign confederated territories, but as a series of interlocking parts, each performing a function in service of a grander design. Internal improvements would facilitate trade between the West, the South, and the North. A strong Bank would make credit widely and reliably available for further development, and an industrialized North could provide markets for raw Southern cotton. That we effortlessly think of the U.S. as a cogent nation with a set of common interests today demonstrates just how perceptive the younger Adams was.
What followed was a sad four years of Adams’s opponents waiting out the clock, shooting down his proposals, and otherwise baiting him with “Sophie’s choice” laws. Adams’s plan for canals, observatories, and other internal improvements was openly mocked, especially his grandiose description of national observatories as “lighthouses of the sky.” His opponents, particularly in the South and the West, saw these proposals as the harbingers of a leviathan federal government that would eat away at states’ rights. His attempt to foster pan-American unity by allowing U.S. participation in Simon Bolivar’s Panama Conference was shot down by Southern congressmen, wary that the proceedings might indict the practice of slavery. The most damaging episode involved what became known to posterity as the “Tariff of Abominations.” Adams favored a robust tariff to stimulate Northern industry as it developed, and protect it from European industrial juggernauts– it was the WD-40 of his and Clay’s American System. Goaded by Martin van Buren, Congress baited Adams by offering an absurdly high and inconsistent tariff, in effect offering Adams two unsavory choices: sign a deeply flawed mockery of a tariff into law, or use the veto and get no tariff at all. Adams elected to go with the former option, igniting a flurry of opposition in the not-at-all industrialized South, who relied on foreign markets for cotton. This would set up the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina during Andrew Jackson’s watch.
Adams deserves his greatest share of credit on human rights. Ahead of the curve and ahead of his time, he opposed slavery and its expansion, although his duties as president prevented him from acting too strongly on those grounds. His Indian policy was probably the most humane of the early presidents, and he sided with First Nations residing in Georgia, when Governor Troup attempted to evict them in favor of white settlers. (This laudable action would have a rather sad conclusion during Jackson’s presidency.)
JQA probably edges out Jefferson as our nation’s most book-smart president, mastering a bevy of languages, and writing well-received books on weights and measures, as well as political theory. All of this vaunted intelligence worked against him; encapsulated in the world of Enlightenment-era closed rational systems, and classical Aristotelian ideals, he just was not programmed to deal in the messy, highly irrational, backwoodsy democracy of the New World. A rhetorician in an age of parades and baby-kissing, he was of an age where the most eminent and qualified governed- not the most popular among the rabble. Too honest in some ways for his own good, he was unwilling to use patronage to reward friends and keep enemies out of power. Like his father, he was slow to fire his opponents when they were his subordinates, and he was perhaps the last president to he reward offices almost entirely on the grounds of merit. One of his greatest biographers, Samuel Flagg Bemis, writes: “no serious scholar can doubt that the government of the United States during the administration of John Quincy Adams operated on a high plane of civil service and economy. The merit and standards of his appointments contrast with the spoils system, which his successor would revive and perfect in the name of retrenchment and reform.” While this is praiseworthy to an extent, it also meant that many cabinet offices and more petty functionary positions were held by his enemies, and his orders were not always heeded.
Adams was, in short, the right man at the wrong time. Perhaps Adams could have written a philosophical treatise on the dangers of faction and party, but he couldn’t have convinced anyone to go along. In an age of plebiscite democracy, he came from an eminent New England family, and was the son of a former president. In an era of states’ rights, he argued powerfully for nationalism. Although one of the most disciplined and hardest-working presidents, he governed, rather than practiced politics– and you ultimately need to practice politics and get down into the gutter sometimes to survive in the American political system. It is easy for some historians to over-appraise Adams because of his accomplished curriculum vitae and his stellar post-presidential career as a relentless opponent of slavery and his defense of the Amistad’s escaped captives. By restricting our gaze to his term in office, though, you have a presidency with lots and lots of good ideas, but an inability to muster, cajole, wheel, and deal to see them through. Just imagine what we could have done with a national university, or preeminent science institutions in Jacksonian America, where so many discoveries were ripe for the picking! It’s a shame, really, that you couldn’t merge Adams and Clay. If you could blend Adams’s work ethic, intelligence and human rights chops with Clay’s charm, political instincts, and ability to work with Congress, while retaining the nationalist vision of both, you could have had an astoundingly good presidency.
Stay tuned, because #20 is coming next– and it will surprise and shock!