By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Harlow Giles Unger
Narrated by: Johnny Heller
In the shadow of highly successful fathers, the only light for sons and daughters seems to come from mothers. Harlow Unger’s biography of John Quincy Adams reflects on the great accomplishments of a son who endeavors to equal or eclipse the success of his history-making father. Rarely does one find a son that has accomplishments equal to or greater than a famous father.
It appears that John Quincy is being perfectly groomed to be a future President of the United States. One senses, from Unger’s review of letters between J. Q. and his father and mother, that his mother instills confidence in her son that is often criticized by a loving father. Without a mother’s instilled confidence, John Quincy may never have shined through his father’s towering shadow.
Unger’s history of John Quincy Adams seems to show this sixth President of the United States is most often on the right side of history. (The most glaring exception may be support of American’ Indian rights, a subject not addressed by Unger’s research; i.e. history shows that Indian rights were continually violated by the government in-spite of J. Q.’s disagreement.) Adams abhorred slavery, argued for abolition, insisted on American’ neutrality unless sovereignty is at risk, supported the Louisiana Purchase, believed in America’s manifest destiny, and acted from personal conscience. John Quincy Adams is shown as his own man; i.e. like his father, John Quincy always based his actions on personal judgment, rather than public opinion. J. Q. Adams’ personal and political decisions are founded on a storied international career and a remarkable education; i.e. an education that ranged from an academy near Paris, to the University of Leiden in Germany, to graduation from Harvard College in the United States.
J. Q. Adams begins his career as a diplomat by accompanying his father to France when he is 10 years old. His facility with languages is stimulated by experience and internalized academic discipline. At the age of 14, Quincy becomes secretary and translator for the American Emissary to Russia. Though J. Q.’s experience is dismal because the Emissary is ignored by Russian royalty, it offers Quincy an opportunity to learn a new language with first-hand experience of Russian culture. Later in life, with his appointment as U.S. Minister to Russia, he is personally welcomed by Czar Alexander the First.
Unger explains, despite abhorrence of slavery, John Quincy becomes friends with Czar Alexander I. In Czar Alexander’s time, anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the Russian people were serfs (unfree peasants) treated as assets of property when sold.
(Nearing the end of John Quincy’s life, he and two fellow attorneys defend the Amistad slaves before the Supreme Court to win their freedom.)
Quincy maintains American’ neutrality and manages to get agreement from the Czar to allow American ships to use Russian ports during America’s war with Britain in 1812. President Madison calls on John Quincy to negotiate a peace in 1814. It becomes known as the Treaty of Ghent and ends America’s last war with Britain.
The irony of Unger’s biography is that John Quincy Adams’ Presidential qualification is greater than anyone since George Washington but he is generally an ineffectual and forgotten President. His replacement is Andrew Jackson, born in America to a recently immigrated Scots-Irish farming family. Jackson is poorly educated but popularly supported for being the winner of the Battle of New Orleans. Today’s American President appears to some as Jacksonian in character.
Jackson is characterized as the great Indian fighter of America. He supports, signs, and enforces the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that relegates American’ natives to reservations that become unreliable havens for displaced and popularly reviled Indian’ tribes. Jackson is also remembered by history as the President who dismantled the Second Bank of the United States that regulated the banking industry. Soon thereafter America fell into its first great recession.
President John Quincy Adams argued for greater government involvement in public works at the expense of higher taxes. Adams refuses to countenance a “spoils system” to appoint friends to high office based on patronage. However, Unger explains that the appointment of Henry Clay as Secretary of State alienated many of Adam’s supporters. Clay is a close friend of John Quincy. Secretary of State is perceived by the public as the most common road to the Presidency. Many objected to Clay’s manipulation of the electoral process because it subverted the popular vote allowing Adams, rather than Jackson, to become the sixth President of the United States. Clay’s appointment as Secretary of State appears to be a corrupt bargain by and for Adams to get elected.
To suggest Adams meant the appointment to be a corrupt bargain belies his life history. In the next election, Quincy is defeated by Jackson. Ironically, most historians argue that Jackson is the real progenitor of the American’ spoils system.
John Quincy Adams is at Bunker Hill in Boston as a child, at the beginning of America’s revolution. His father is the second President of the United States. He became a United States Minister to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, the Court of Saint James, a U. S. Senator, a U. S. Representative, a Constitutional lawyer, and a President. John Quincy Adams appears to be the most well prepared human in the world to become leader of his country but he fails to get enough public support to be popularly elected. One might say the same for Donald Trump except that his father was not John Adams. Trump is not prepared to lead a country.
John Quincy Adams seems to have been a very great and good man who had the courage to stand up for human rights. In a limited sense, J. Q.’s transition to Jackson reminds one of Obama’s transition to Trump except that John Quincy only serves one term to Obama’s two.