north precinctof Braintree, Massachusetts (now Quincy)
Buried at Quincy, in a crypt at United First Parish Church.
Mr. Adams is the most valuable public character we have abroad ... there remains no doubt in my mind that he will prove himself to be ablest, of all our diplomatic corps.
— George Washington in a letter to John Adams, 1797
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John Quincy Adams, eldest son of John Adams and sixth president of the United States, was born on 11 July 1767 in that part of Braintree that is now Quincy, Massachusetts. He was named after John Quincy (1689–1767), his mother’s grandfather, who was for many years a prominent member of the Massachusetts legislature. In 1778, and again in 1780, young Adams accompanied his father to Europe, studying in Paris in 1778—79 and at the University of Leiden in 1780. That same year he began to keep that diary which forms so conspicuous a record of his doings and that of his contemporaries.
Early Years, Government AppointmentsIn 1781, at the age of fourteen, he accompanied Francis Dana (1743—1811), American envoy to Russia, as his private secretary. However, Dana was not received by the Russian government, and in 1782 Adams joined his father at Paris, where he acted as
additional secretaryto the American commissioners in their negotiation of the treaty of peace which concluded the American Revolutionary War. Instead of accompanying his father to London, he, of his own choice, returned to Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard College in 1787. Three years later was admitted to practice at the bar and at once opened an office in Boston. A series of papers written by him in which he controverted some of Thomas Paine’s doctrines in the Rights of Man, and later another series in which he ably supported the neutral policy of the administration toward France and England, led to his appointment by President Washington as minister to the Netherlands in May 1794. There was little for him to do at the Hague, but in the absence of a minister at London, he transacted certain public business with the English foreign secretary. In 1796 Washington appointed him minister to Portugal, but before his departure, his father John Adams became president and changed his destination to Berlin (1797). While there, he negotiated a treaty of amity and commerce with Prussia (1799). On Thomas Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800, the elder Adams recalled his son, who returned home in 1801. The next year, he was elected to the Massachusetts Senate, and in 1803 was sent to Washington as a member of the U.S. Senate.
From Federalist to RepublicanUp to this time, John Quincy Adams was regarded as belonging to the Federalist party, but he now found its general policy displeasing to him, was frowned upon as the son of his father, by the followers of Alexander Hamilton, and found himself nearly powerless as an unpopular member of an unpopular minority. He was not now, and indeed never was, a strict party man. On the first important question that came before him in the Senate — the Louisiana Purchase — he voted with the Republicans, regardless of the opposition to it of his own party. In December 1807 he warmly seconded Jefferson’s suggestion of an embargo and vigorously urged instant action, saying
The president has recommended the measure on his high responsibility. I would not consider, I would not deliberate; I would act!Within five hours the Senate had passed the Embargo Bill and sent it to the House. The support of a measure so unpopular in New England caused him to be hated by the Federalists and cost him his seat in the Senate. His successor was chosen on the 3 June 1808, several months before the usual time of filling the vacancy, and five days later Adams resigned. In the same year he attended the Republican congressional caucus which nominated Madison for the presidency, and so definitely joined the Republicans. From 1806 to 1809 Adams was professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard. In 1809 President James Madison sent Adams to Russia to represent the United States. He arrived at St. Petersburg at the moment when the Tsar had made up his mind to break with Napoleon. Adams therefore met with a favorable reception and a disposition to further the interests of American commerce in every possible way. On the outbreak of the war between the United States and England in 1812, he was still at St. Petersburg. In September of that year, the Russian government suggested that the Tsar was willing to act as mediator between the two belligerents. Madison precipitately accepted this proposition and sent Albert Gallatin and James Bayard to act as commissioners with Adams; but England would have nothing to do with it. In August 1814, however, these gentlemen, with Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell, began negotiations with English commissioners which resulted in the si of the Treaty of Ghent on the 24 December of that year. After this Adams visited Paris, where he witnessed the return of Napoleon from Elba, and then went to London with Henry Clay and Albert Gallatin, where they negotiated a
Convention to Regulate Commerce and Navigation(1815).
Secretary of State for MonroeSoon afterwards he became U.S. minister to Great Britain — as his father had been before him — and as his son, Charles Francis Adams, was after him. After accomplishing little in London, he returned to the United States in the summer of 1817 to become Secretary of State in the cabinet of President James Monroe. As secretary of state, Adams played the leading part in two most important episodes: the acquisition of Florida and the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine. Ever since the acquisition of Louisiana, successive administrations had sought to include at least a part of Florida in that purchase. In 1819, after long negotiations, Adams succeeded in bringing the Spanish minister to the point of signing a treaty in which the Spaniards abandoned all claim to territory east of the Mississippi, and the United States relinquished all claim to what is now known as Texas. Before the Spanish government ratified the treaty in 1820, Mexico, including Texas, had thrown off allegiance to the mother country, and the United States had occupied Florida by force of arms. The Monroe Doctrine rightly bears the name of the president who in 1823 assumed the responsibility for its promulgation; but it was primarily the work of John Quincy Adams. As Monroe’s second term drew to a close, there was a great deal of competition among his official advisers, three of whom — Secretary of State Adams, Secretary of War Calhoun, and Secretary of Treasury Crawford — aspired to succeed him in his high office. Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson were also candidates. Calhoun was nominated for the Vice Presidency. Of the other four, Jackson received 99 electoral votes, Adams 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37; as no one had a majority, the decision was made by the House of Representatives, which was confined in its choice to the three candidates who had received the largest number of votes. Clay, who was speaker of the House of Representatives, and had for years assumed a censorious attitude toward Jackson, cast his influence for Adams and thereby secured his election on the first ballot. When a few days later Adams made Clay the Secretary of State, the wholly unjust and baseless charge of
bargain and corruptionfollowed, and the feud thus created between Adams and Jackson greatly influenced the history of the United States.
From President to CongressmanUp to this point Adams’s career had been almost uniformly successful, but his presidency (1825—29) was in most respects a failure, owing to the virulent opposition of the Jacksonians. In 1828 Jackson was elected president over Adams. It was during his administration that irreconcilable differences developed between the followers of Adams and the followers of Jackson, the former becoming known as the National Republicans, who with the Anti-Masons were the precursors of the Whigs. In 1829 Adams retired to private life in Quincy — but only for a brief period. For in 1830, largely by Anti-Masonic votes, he was elected a member of the House of Representatives. On its being suggested to him that his acceptance of this position would degrade an ex-president, Adams replied that no person could be degraded by serving the people as a representative in Congress or, he added, as a selectman of his town.
Fight to Repeal the
Gag Rulesis one of the most dramatic contests in the history of Congress. The agitation for the abolition of slavery, which really began in earnest with the establishment of the Liberator by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831, soon led to the sending of innumerable petitions to Congress for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia — over which the Federal government had jurisdiction — and for other action by Congress with respect to that institution. These petitions were generally sent to Adams for presentation. They aroused the anger of the pro-slavery members of Congress, who, in 1836, brought about the passage of the first
Gag Rule,— the Pinckney Resolution — presented by Henry L. Pinckney of South Carolina. It provided that all petitions relating to slavery should be laid on the table without being referred to committee or printed; and, in substance, this resolution was re-adopted at the beginning of each of the immediately succeeding sessions of Congress. The Patton Resolution was adopted in 1837, the Atherton Resolution, or
Atherton Gag,in 1838, and the Twenty-First Rule in 1840. Adams contended that these
Gag Ruleswere a direct violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, and refused to be silenced on the question, fighting for repeal with indomitable courage, in spite of the bitter denunciation of his opponents. Each year the number of anti-slavery petitions received and presented by him increased; perhaps the climax was in 1837, when Adams presented a petition from 22 slaves. When threatened by his opponents with censure, he defended himself with remarkable keenness and ability. At each session, also, the majority against him decreased until in 1844 his motion to repeal the Twenty-First Rule was carried by a vote of 108 to 80 and his battle was won.
Death and AppraisalOn the 21 February 1848, after having suffered a previous stroke of apoplexy, he fell insensible on the floor of the House of Representatives’ chamber. Two days later died. Few men in American public life have possessed more intrinsic worth, more independence, more public spirit, and more ability than Adams. But throughout his political career he was handicapped by a certain reserve, a certain austerity and coolness of manner, and by his consequent inability to appeal to the imaginations and affections of the people as a whole. He had, indeed, few intimate political or personal friends, and few men in American history have, during their lifetime, been regarded with so much hostility and attacked with so much rancor by their political opponents.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.
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