In my opinion, John Quincy Adams is one of the most misunderstood men in American history. Although he was reviled as a President of the United States, he was highly respected as an accomplished statesman and congressman. Harlow Giles Unger attempts to shed light on America’s sixth President in his book John Quincy Adams.
Here is a brief summary of the book from the publisher:
Born to Founding Father John Adams, handpicked by President George Washington to serve American interests abroad, and voted to the presidency, John Quincy Adams shaped and guided the United States throughout his life. He served as minister to six European countries, a Congressman for sixteen years, and the sixth President of the United States. As a champion of human rights, he led the anti-slavery movement, saved free speech and the right to political dissent in Congress, and ended the War of 1812.
In John Quincy Adams, noted historian Harlow Giles Unger chronicles the life of this astounding man, from his childhood amidst the chaos of revolution and British occupation to his death during Congressional debate, defending the integrity of the country he loved. John Quincy developed a passion for fighting injustice while in Europe serving as a secretary to Francis Dana, a Continental Congress delegate and signer of the Articles of Confederation. Only a teenager at the time, he observed slavery in Poland and autocratic rule in Russia that denied its citizens freedom. Later in life, he would fight against these injustices at home, defending self-liberated slaves from prosecution due to their mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad.
Unger writes about a man who was full of contradictions. Quincy Adams was highly educated and from the upper class, but he respected the freedoms for all and defended the ideals of democracy. He believed in the ideals of democracy, but he was unwilling to adapt to the changing nature of democratic elections in America – he refused to campaign in his election for president. This stance hurt him in his bid for re-election because his opponent (Andrew Jackson) skewered him and Quincy Adams did nothing to defend himself or attack Jackson’s stances.
I think the strongest part of the book covers Quincy Adams’ career before and after his presidency. At an age when most children were still in their parents’ supervision, Quincy Adams as a young teenage was attached as a secretary to an American diplomat to Russia. This began an impressive early career as a diplomat for the fledgling United States.
After Quincy Adams’ presidency, he was elected as a representatives from Massachusetts to Congress. Quincy Adams became a champion of the people – I mean all the people if the United States. As Unger points out, Quincy Adams represented the interests of his constituents in Massachusetts, but also those who were not recognized as citizens (slaves). Unger explains how Quincy Adams was one of the first abolitionists in Congress and how his actions annoyed the pro-slave Congressmen to no end. His constant agitation against the Gag Rule, which prevented the discussion of slavery in Congress, brought him into constant conflict with the pro-slave Congressmen.
To emphasize Quincy Adams’ lackluster presidency, Unger devotes only 20 pages out of 300 to his presidency. Some may feel that this glosses over Quincy Adams’ accomplishments in his presidency, but Unger basically states that there were no real positive accomplishments.
Unger produces a wonderful tribute to one of the greatest defenders of freedom in our nation’s earliest years.