Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams
by Harlow Giles UngerUnger_JQA_mech.indd

Many years ago when somewhat lost in life, I chanced across an audio book version of David Mcculloch’s biography on John Adams. It left a great impression on me, especially because of the sheer humanity of its central figure. Here was a man who, while he could often be disagreed with, seemed to breath the same air as the rest of us, rather than floating above it all as Jefferson and Washington at times seemed to.

I’d thus long been intrigued by the story of his son also becoming President, but it was not till I learned (Via Robert Kagan’s excellent book Dangerous Nation) that John Quincy Adams played an even more important role in starting the national debate about slavery in the early 18th century. The fires for change John Quincy Adam’s lit would not be extinguished until the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

While perhaps not a first rate biography, Harlow Giles Unger has produced a highly readable, engaging and important book on an oft overlooked figure. So often is it wondered how the US managed to produce such figures of genius at the time of its revolution, Quincy Adams was perhaps the last of these towering figures whose life and experience tells the story of how the aristocratic elite slowly came to pass from American political life.

As with his friend Thomas Jefferson, Quincy Adams may have been President, but this is almost among the least of his achievements. He joined his father’s ambassador trips to Europe at 10, aged 14 he worked as an aide and translator to the US ambassador to Russia. He continued serving as a diplomat (often leading US delegations and key missions) until returning to the US in his 50s to serve as a leading Constitutional scholar, Secretary of State and finally a completely ineffectual President.

Indeed it’s almost charming how bad a President was Quincy Adams given his expansive talents and experience. As Unger notes, perhaps no man was more prepared for the Presidency yet achieved so little.

Yet in one of the great revivals of political history, Quincy Adams returns, at first hesitantly, to the Congress and finds his true voice and calling: To preserve his nation via the eradication of slavery. He did so in the party of no man but himself. With enemies so high on every side the Congress for many years had an instituted Gag Rule preventing him from speaking. But still he found ways to continue his campaign for change.

John Quincy Adams is the man who links the two great tales of US history, the Revolution and the End of Slavery. He served both causes and helped establish the latter as an inevitable and necessary condition of the full completion of the former.

In a scene as if written by Shakespeare (or even some two-bit hack for it is almost too perfect) Quincy Adam’s end came during a roll call on the floor of the House of Representatives. He had indeed given his life for his country and his principles.

Quincy Adam’s deserves a fuller telling than it has received, but hopefully this book, at an easy 300 pages of clean prose can help to revitalise interest and encourage some other scholar to create the full modern volume which is so richly deserved.

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