The second child and eldest son of two remarkable parents, John Quincy Adams was born in 1767 at Braintree (later Quincy), Mass. Precocious, he attended private schools and absorbed Revolutionary ideas, as well as a lifelong anti-British attitude, from his father. The youth spent the period 1778-85 in Europe, where his diplomat-father was assigned. The experiences of John Quincy there were broad and cosmopolitan, and he quickly achieved exceptional maturity for his age. He was formally educated in Paris, Leyden, and Amsterdam, but probably learned even more from his elders.
Mingling in diplomatic circles and holding discussions with Franklin, Jay, and Jefferson, young Adams acquired an interest in a wide range of subjects and became an accomplished linguist as well as an avid diarist. In 1781 when he was a mere 14-year-old, he became secretary to the first U.S. diplomatic agent to Russia. Back in Paris, he witnessed the signing of the Treaty of 1783.
When his father was assigned to London in 1785, John Quincy returned to the United States and matriculated at Harvard. Graduating in 2 years, he read law at Newburyport, Mass., won admittance to the bar in 1790, and set up practice in Boston. During the next 4 years, he also wrote on political topics, mainly in defense of Washington's administration, in which his father served as Vice President.
Washington then appointed Adams as Minister to Holland (1794-96). From 1797 to 1801, under his father, he served as Minister to Prussia. In the former year, he married Louisa C. Johnson, daughter of a U.S. consular official whom he had met earlier while in London on diplomatic business. They were to have three sons, including Charles Francis, and one daughter.
Returning to Boston in 1801, John Quincy resumed his law practice. The following year, failing to win election to the U.S. House of Representatives, he entered the State senate, soon followed by service in the U.S. Senate (1803-8). His independent actions, however, cost him the support of the Federalist Party and in 1808 he resigned from it and the Senate. Although he was later to become affiliated with the Democratic-Republican, National Republican, and Whig Parties, he was to exhibit individualistic political tendencies for the rest of his life.
Adams moved back to Cambridge, where 2 years earlier he had accepted a position as professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard (1806-9). While Minister to Russia (1809-14), under Madison, in 1811 he turned down a Presidential offer to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1814 he and four other commissioners negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. Subsequently he served as Minister to Britain (1815-17).
Back in the United States, in the period 1817-25 Adams made a notable mark as Monroe's Secretary of State. Among his other accomplishments, he was instrumental in the acquisition of Florida from Spain, arranged for joint Anglo-American occupancy of Oregon, gained Spanish recognition of U.S. claims to the Pacific Northwest, and helped formulate the Monroe Doctrine.
In 1824 Adams barely won election to the Presidency because of extreme factionalism in the one existing party, the Democratic-Republican. Three opposition candidates came to the fore from the South: William H. Crawford of Georgia, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, and Henry Clay of Kentucky. Although Jackson won a plurality of the electoral votes, none of the four candidates obtained the required majority. In the subsequent maneuvering in the House of Representatives, Clay, who had drawn the least number and disliked Jackson, threw his support to Adams. When the latter appointed Clay as Secretary of State, Jackson's followers charged that the two had made a "corrupt bargain."
Despite his unsubstantial mandate, Adams advocated a bold program of domestic reform. To spur commerce, he urged the utilization of Federal funds to build a comprehensive system of roads and canals. As a means of stimulating manufacturing, he recommended a high protective tariff. He also stressed the need for Government encouragement of the arts and sciences, including establishment of a national university, erection of an observatory, and financing of scientific expeditions.
Because of the prevailing belief in a minimal governmental role in economic affairs, as well as opposition from constitutionalists and States righters, Adams' proposals failed to stir the public. Also his defense of Indian rights in Georgia, disdain of States rights, and distaste for slavery offended many groups. Even his nonpartisan appointments yielded him little credit.
By the time Adams sought reelection in 1828, his followers had coalesced with those of Clay to form the National Republicans. They encountered the superbly organized campaign apparatus of Jackson, whose party retained the Democratic-Republican name. In a mud-slinging contest, Adams met a disastrous defeat. Aged 61, he returned to his beloved "Peacefield," Mass. That same year, his 28-year-old son, the eldest, George Washington Adams, died under tragic circumstances.
Nevertheless, Adams inaugurated a distinguished 17-year career in the House of Representatives (1831-48)the only ex-President to serve in that body. He won the epithet "Old Man Eloquent." Always an opponent of slavery, hopeful of eventual emancipation but not a rabid abolitionist, he fought against the extension of slavery into the western Territories and took other steps against the institution. He also protested the Mexican War (1846-48).
On the other hand, Adams pushed the advancement of science. He sponsored establishment of the Smithsonian Institution (1846), continued to advocate a Federal astronomical observatory, and favored the standardization of weights and measures. Somehow, during these years he also worked on his father's papers, wrote three volumes of poetry and two biographies, and sat on the Harvard board of overseers.
During a debate in February 1848, the 80-year-old Adams suffered a stroke in the House Chamber and died 2 days later.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004