A biography focused on a statesman’s career during a period of profound political change.
With at least five books about John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) published in the last five years, it’s difficult to accept the idea that Adams has been “lost” to history. Among those books were two comprehensive biographies by Fred Kaplan and James Traub, an examination of Adams’ education, and a perceptive biography of his wife, Louisa, in which, of course, Adams himself was an omnipresent character. Cooper (Emeritus, History/Louisiana State Univ.; Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era, 2008, etc.) distinguishes his biography by focusing on “the context of the developing forces and changing values taking place in American politics during his lifetime,” which Adams “both embraced and resisted.” With this aim, the author pays little attention to his subject’s marriage (Louisa, portrayed as sickly, is pushed to the background) or family (the death—possibly suicide—of his dissolute son George, for example, is dispatched in a paragraph). Like other biographers, Cooper portrays Adams as stubborn, ambitious, and a “patrician intellectual” who disdained calling public attention to himself—even by campaigning for office—and was happiest keeping his voluminous diaries. After a career as a statesman, he acceded to the presidency but, like his father, was not re-elected to a second term. He watched with dismay the rise of Andrew Jackson, whom he considered corrupt, ignorant, and opposed to the “energetic federal government” that Adams championed. Jackson’s election, Cooper asserts, “signaled the beginning of a popular politics buttressed by organized, vigorous political parties.” The author astutely traces Adams’ connection to two rising factions, the Antimasons and Whigs, and, as a congressman, his efforts to halt slavery, which he believed could be accomplished through “a gradual, ordered process.” He struggled with his alignment with abolitionists, fearing that their cause might “ruin him politically,” but he eventually concluded that slavery would not be purged from the Union “until it goes down in blood.”
A thorough but not groundbreaking biographical investigation.