A neglected president receives his due as a statesman and practical politician.
John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), writes Unger (American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution, 2011, etc.), bridged the years between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He ate with Charles Dickens, ended the War of 1812, shaped the ever-so-slightly misnamed Monroe Doctrine, taught at Harvard, and was one of the most prominent abolitionist leaders in the years preceding the Civil War. On top of that, his father was the nation’s second president. So why is he not better known? The short answer is that he didn’t trumpet his own accomplishments. The longer answer is that American history is so badly taught these days that it seems surprising that anyone remembers Washington, much less Millard Fillmore. Unger’s bracing, readable text is a remedy. In the early chapters, the author explores the difficult job of being first son to the Massachusetts first family. In one telling anecdote, John Adams demanded that the boy be admitted to Harvard as a junior or senior, given “his mastery of two classical and three modern languages, and his command of an enormous body of classical and modern literature, philosophy, and science.” The doting aside, Adams fils soon cut a political figure all his own, deftly serving as a diplomat and analyst of what today we would call geopolitics. His fruitful term as ambassador to the court of the tsar even led his compatriots in Washington to call him an alien, “especially after John Quincy began walking in the winter weather wearing his exotic Russian fur hat and great coat.” Unger writes appreciatively of Adams’ considerable accomplishments, even if the voters of the president’s own time were less generous, turning him out of office in favor of the restive war hero Andrew Jackson.
A fine examination of a life, well deserving a place alongside David McCullough’s study of Adams père.