- - Thursday, September 20, 2012

By Harlow Giles Unger
Da Capo Press, $27.50, 364 pages

In 1766 there was an estimated population of 2.5 million people in the 13 British Colonies in America. If you remove the women and children and then the Tories with their women and children, you had no more than half a million males, most of whom were semiliterate agriculturists. A small group of well-educated lawyers and occasional government officials helped hold the country together, and from that group came the men we know as the Founding Fathers. They produced two world-famous documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which were considered models for the democracies that came into existence in the two centuries that followed.

In “John Quincy Adams,” Harlow Giles Unger gives us the biography of one of the great intellects of that era, our sixth president, and son of the second, and how he interacted with both his fellow Americans and the foreigners with whom he was assigned to deal.

In correspondence from both John and Abigail Adams to their precocious son, it is clear that they expected him to become not only one of the foremost learned figures of his country, for which they loaded him up with languages both ancient and modern, but also one of the leading political figures who, from the study of ancient regimes, could devise and implement a system of justice and honesty. Surprisingly, the young Quincy went along with their plans. He even seemed to enjoy them. He read an enormous number of books, mastered languages, scouted new fields of study and never complained of the academic overload.

In 1777, the Continental Congress awarded the title of commissioner to Adams senior and asked him to go to Paris to assist the American contingent there in securing aid. There was a feeling that Benjamin Franklin was enjoying himself too much and that Arthur Lee was a probable British agent. What was needed was a straightforward, honest representative.

The family was delighted at the thought of Paris but soon learned that Congress had only enough funds for the commissioner and not for the entire family. After much thought, it was decided that young Quincy should go with his father while the rest of the family remained in America. Thus began an extraordinary education in foreign affairs and diplomacy for the preteen that his father could not have planned better. The first academic requirement was for him to learn French, which he did with his usual speed and precision. At the age of 14, Quincy was asked to be the French interpreter for Francis Dana, who had been named envoy to czarist Russia. They went to St. Petersburg, wasted a great deal of time trying to see Russian officials who did not want to see them and then finally ventured home.

In his teenage years, Quincy matured greatly, helping his father in various diplomatic efforts and mixing socially with older members of the American community in Europe. Finally, however, he realized the necessity of some formal university training and applied for admittance to Harvard, his father’s alma mater. Harvard’s president conducted the admission interview and after a few brief questions posed in both Greek and Latin turned him down, suggesting he return in the spring after further study.

This rejection so shocked Quincy that he could barely speak of it, but it did introduce him to arbitrary power that was more often unjust than otherwise. In time he returned, was admitted and then graduated, but he never held Harvard with the respect his father did. After graduation, he studied law, passed the bar exam and opened an office in Boston, where he sat and sat but no clients came. He then wrote a series of articles for newspapers in which he stated that in the coming conflict between England and France, clearly about to happen, the United States was not obliged to assist France but should remain neutral.

His opponents included Thomas Paine and his old mentor, Thomas Jefferson. George Washington, who certainly did not want any more wars, was impressed by Quincy’s ability and appointed him to be America’s envoy to the Netherlands. At last, he had a job with a salary. In Europe, Quincy became respected for his learning and even captured an English girl to be his wife, but when Jefferson defeated Adams senior’s bid for re-election to the presidency, Quincy was called home.

In Boston he practiced law with considerable success and taught law part time at Harvard. He impressed the new president, James Madison, so much that he was named minister plenipotentiary to Russia, where he and his wife became close friends of the czar and czarina. When James Monroe replaced Madison, Quincy was recalled to Washington and made secretary of state, in which position he formulated the Monroe Doctrine, which helped maintain an enduring peace throughout the Western Hemisphere.

In time, he replaced Monroe as president, a natural succession in those days, but found his new position frustrating. He was not a party man, and so no one owed him political favors. His main focus was to improve the country’s infrastructure, but he often found he could not secure enough congressional support because of countervailing regional differences. He lost his bid for re-election, as expected, but rather than retire to his farm, as his father did, he won a seat in the House of Representatives. There he continued to fight for all he had stood for, and in particular, against the evils of slavery. He died while giving a strong anti-slavery speech in the House, and the whole nation mourned, even his enemies.

John Quincy Adams was irrevocably honest, tremendously well educated and, if at times ignorant of the emotions that move people and nations, an exemplary leader in the conduct of foreign affairs. We should be grateful to Harlow Unger for his detailed biography.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer.

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