In this elegant study, Kaplan (Emeritus, English/Queens Coll.; Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, 2008, etc.) portrays our sixth president as a deeply literary man, devout husband, orator, diplomat and teacher who had grand plans for the country’s future, including the building of national infrastructure and the abolition of slavery.
Indeed, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) was concerned about America’s loss of innocence in its rapid expansion and growing distance from its foundational ideals. A prodigious, gifted writer, he worried about “the internal health of the nation,” with the squabbling between the Republicans and Federalists during the contested presidential elections, the addition of slave states to the union and the War of 1812, which had revealed the country’s evolution into “a parcel of petty tribes at perpetual war with one another.” Like his father, Quincy Adams was Harvard-educated, a lawyer and inculcated to answering the call of his country, despite his own wishes. For example, he was appointed to diplomatic posts (his first training being next to his father in Paris from the age of 10) at The Hague and St. Petersburg. Yet the wandering life suited this restless intellect, and he even rejected a Supreme Court nomination since he fashioned himself a man of action and, moreover, was the only ex-president to serve in Congress (from his home state of Massachusetts). A loyal, loving husband to foreign-born, French-speaking Louisa, he lost all but one son during his lifetime. He was also tainted by the hint of a “corrupt bargain” in trading electoral votes for elevating Henry Clay to secretary of state, and he was hounded out of the presidency by his political opponents led by Andrew Jackson. However, his argument in defense of the Amistad prisoners before the Supreme Court in 1841 was a powerful plea for the cause of justice. Kaplan ably navigates his subject’s life, showing us “a president about whom most Americans know very little.”
A lofty work that may propel readers back to Quincy Adams’ own ardent writings.