JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: AMERICAN VISIONARY
By Fred Kaplan
Harper, $29.99, 672 pages
When Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared the Monroe Doctrine, a pillar of U.S. foreign policy in name if not strict practice for nearly two centuries, officially a dead letter, he noted that it bore the name of the president who proclaimed it. The doctrine’s true author, however, was James Monroe’s secretary of state, John Quincy Adams.
Mr. Kerry can perhaps be forgiven because few American statesmen have managed to remain as obscure as Adams while compiling such an impressive record of public service to the American nation. The son of Founder and President John Adams, Quincy Adams held virtually every important foreign policy post a weak, young republic surrounded by powerful, hostile neighbors could offer. (Not until 1844 would the United States relax its guard enough to elect a president neither a general nor very senior diplomat.) In addition to key diplomatic posts, he would be elected to the U.S. Senate, named secretary of state and finally, best Andrew Jackson for the presidency in 1824. After his defeat in their rematch four years later, Adams would launch a second political career, in the U.S. House of Representatives, almost as impressive as his first.
His presidency, traditionally viewed by historians as a failure, has led him to be overlooked. More recent scholarship, however, is reassessing the younger Adams’ role in America’s story.
In “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary,” Fred Kaplan presents as well-written, comprehensive and highly satisfying account of Adams’ personal life and career as we have in print. In his view, previous biographers have omitted “key elements of personality, talent and vision,” and, as a result, “fail[ed] to see Adams whole.” Mr. Kaplan emphasizes the literary skill he rightly sees as core to Adams’ identity, as well as what he calls Adams’ “American vision” for “a prosperous country acting as a single entity devoted to improving the life of its people through national projects,” such as a more robust infrastructure and better regulated financial system, and by playing a role in the creation of educational, scientific and artistic institutions.
To give us the totality of Adams’ life, Mr. Kaplan covers its periods without discrimination. He devotes as many pages to his four-year presidency as the four years during his father’s presidency, or either term during which he was secretary of state. Mr. Kaplan nicely balances Adams’ personal travails, loves and losses with his intellectual and public life, providing just enough historical background to allow us to understand his actions on matters ranging from the delicate negotiations to acquire Florida to opposing as unjust and unconstitutional the Mexican War without turning it into a “life and times,” in which the subject disappears into the background for pages on end. He analyzes Adams’ state papers at length while also making use of the burgeoning Adams family papers, more and more of which are being made accessible to scholars.
Despite his impressive research, Mr. Kaplan appears as perhaps not entirely at home with the complexities of law and politics in the Colonial and early republic periods. For instance, when characterizing the opposition to Adams’ policies, Mr. Kaplan sometimes speaks of 19th-century Americans in 21st-century terms. They become essentially libertarians who value “individualism” and “unregulated entrepreneurship” over “social community” and “beneficial regulation.” Mr. Kaplan seems to not fully appreciate the depth to which many Americans in the early 19th century simply identified more strongly with their states and localities, or the degree to which the nation was simply replacing the Adams’ style of politics with the mass democratic politics of the Jackson era. Finally, Mr. Kaplan’s description of Adams as subscribing to the concept of a “living Constitution” (as opposed to simply having the same broad understanding of federal powers as Washington, Hamilton and Marshall) makes it unclear whether Mr. Kaplan understands the phrase as most lawyers do.
When he wrote his multivolume biographies of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman explicitly set out to do so thorough a job that no one would ever need to write another. Today, we’d view this aspiration as quaint, realizing that there is no “definitive” work of history because our perception of the past is being constantly reshaped by current events. Mr. Kaplan explains his new work through the lens of the relevance of Adams’ policies to today’s politics.
However, who John Quincy Adams was is perhaps more interesting and important for us to contemplate than a particular set of policy views formed during a much different time in our nation’s history. In spending much of his life abroad separated from family, often serving an administration of a party not his own, and putting the Union before his own policy predilections, even when it came to something as important to him as slavery, he exemplified a conception of statesmanship that will always be in as short a supply as it is greatly in demand.
Alec Rogers was senior counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.