The Overlooked Greatness of John Quincy Adams


John Quincy Adams was, arguably, the greatest public servant in the history of the United States. Over his 50 year public career he served, consecutively, as Minister to the Netherlands, US Senator, Minister to Russia, negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 and Minister to Great Britain.  He was a two-term Secretary of State and, in 1825, became the sixth President of the United States.  Two years after his 1828 defeat by Andrew Jackson, Adams won his seat in the House of Representatives.  Here he served for the next 18 years, until suffering a stroke on the House floor in 1848.

Adams benefited uniquely from his father’s insistence upon a first-hand education for him in the courts of Europe – at no little risk at a time when international travel was a daunting proposition. He also imbibed from his father a dedication to principle which transcended political considerations. His personality was austere and distant, and he never pandered to public opinion. He never received the public recognition or sustained popularity of Jefferson, Jackson, Monroe, Madison or others among America’s early political leaders, but his legacy is as enduring, if not greater, than any of his contemporaries.

Adams knew Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette, Madison, Monroe as well as Jackson, Calhoun, Clay, Van Buren and Webster.  He was the last president with a direct link to The Founders and viewed politics as gentleman’s club.  In 1828, he lost to Andrew Jackson who used a sophisticated party machine to reach the broad masses.  “The politics of our time really began at this moment – a combination of parties directed by political professionals, vigorous, even raucous, campaigns, legions of voters demanding attention and candidates striving to connect with those same voters.”

This SDG, using as our guide, William Cooper’s The Lost Founding Father John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics, will view John Quincy Adams in the context of the his time and the great political and social changes from the birth of our nation to the eve of civil war.  

Weekly Topics

 Week 1 - 1767-1794: “To Bring Myself into Notice”, Chapter 1

Travel with John Adams to France, Spain, England and Holland.  At 14 to Court of Catherine the Great as French translator.  Paris with Lafayette and Jefferson.  Harvard.  Law studies.  Shay’s Rebellion.  The Constitution.  Publishing as Publicola.  Nomination as American minister to Netherlands.  Ambition, education, heritage and opportunity.

Week 2 – 1794-1808 – “Only Virtue and Fortitude”, Chapter 2

John Quincy begins a formal diplomatic service in a Europe convulsed by the French Revolution.  Marriage.  Prussia.  Fatherhood.  US Senator.  Louisiana Purchase.  Harvard professor.  “I find little to censure in what I did, nothing in what I intended.”

Week 3 – 1808-1817 – “Let There Be…No deficiency of Ernest Zeal”, Chapter 3

Supreme Court Argument.  Minister to Russian court of Tsar Alexander I.  Personal tragedy.  Nomination to Supreme Court.  War of 1812.  Treaty of Ghent.  Paris for Napoleon’s return.  Minister to Great Britain  “the continued consciousness of purity in my motives and, so far as it has been or may be deserved, the approbation of my countrymen.”

Week 4 – 1817-1820 – “Perhaps the Most Important Day of My Life”, Chapter 4 pp 143-177

Secretary of State.  Monroe’s Cabinet.  Adams-Onis Treaty.  Missouri Compromise.  “ My system of politics more and more inclines to strengthen the union and its government.”

Week 5 – 1820-1824 – “Perhaps the Most Important Day of My Life”, Chapter 4 pp 177-205

Transatlantic slave trade and Britain.  July 4th address.  Monroe Doctrine.  Weights and Measures.  Presidential Politics.  Clay, Crawford and Calhoun.  Louisa as dedicated hostess.  “[America] does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Week 6 – 1824-1828 – “To Meet the Fate to Which I am Destined”, Chapter 5

Adams Ball for Jackson.  Bitter Presidential electioneering.  Election thrown to House.  The Corrupt Bargain.  First message to Congress and Adams’ vision for America.  Anti-Adams Alliance.  Texas.  Tariff of Abominations.  Patronage  Defeat. “The sun of my political life sets in the deepest gloom.”

Week 7 – 1829-1833 – “An Overruling Consciousness of Rectitude”, Chapter 6

A scholar’s life.  Election to House.  Antimasonry.  Congressional life.  Open opposition to Jackson.  The Bank War.  Nullification.  Compromise of 1833.  “[his] anxiety to be right upon every point is inexpressible.”

Week 8 – 1833-1838 – “The First and Holiest Rights of Humanity”, Chapter 7

Whig party.  More tragedy.  Election of 1836.  Abolition movement.  Presentation of petitions.   Racism.  Amalgamation.  Gag Rule.   Battle with Southerners.  Dueling.  Smithsonian.     “Am I gagged or am I not?”

Week 9 – 1838-1843 – “On the Edge of a Precipice Every Step That I Take”, Chapter 8

Amistad.  Latimer petition.  Abolitionist cause.  Anti-Texas campaign.  Elections of 1840 and the death of a President.  Charles Dickens.  Triumphant western tours.     “His spirit did not sink.”

Week 10 – 1843-1848 – “Our Country…Is No Longer the Same”, Chapter 9 and “Proceed – Persevere – Never Despair” Coda

Adams’ censure trial in House.  Texas annexation.  Election of 1844.  Gag rule rescinded.  Expansionist fervor.  Oregon question.  War with Mexico.  Wilmot Proviso.  Physical decline.  Death.  Massive outpouring of esteem.   “This is the end of earth, but I am composed.”


William J. Cooper, Jr., The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics (Liveright, 2017)