John Quincy Adams, the son of the second President of the United States, became the sixth President of the United States. But the road to that prize was anything but smooth. Jane Hampton Cook, author of American Phoenix, tells how this formidable and intimidating man overcame every obstacle in his path.
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Imagine your father expected you to grow up to be President of the United States.
Now imagine you did.
That was John Quincy Adams.
His father, John Adams, was a leading figure in the American Revolution and the second President of the United States.
That’s a lot to live up to.
But John Quincy did it… and more.
Born on July 11, 1767, near Boston, he grew up in a time of turmoil. At the age of seven, in 1775, he watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from a hilltop near his family home.
In 1778, Congress sent his father to Paris to help convince the French to support the American War of Independence. John Quincy traveled with him – a ten-year-old diplomat in training.
And what a training it was.
For the next seven years, in addition to France, John Quincy lived in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Russia, and Sweden, learning first-hand the art of diplomacy.
By the time he returned to the United States in 1785 at the age of 18, he had absorbed not only the customs of these countries but learned to speak their languages as well.
After graduating from Harvard, he took up the law. But reading legal documents all day bored him to tears. The world was changing fast, and he wanted to be in the middle of it.
Which is right where he landed.
George Washington — who always had a keen eye for exceptionally talented young men — appointed him the American ambassador to the Netherlands. That subsequently led him to the court of Russian Czar Alexander I, and then to the court of British King George III.
He reached the peak of his diplomatic career in 1814, when he negotiated the end of the disastrous War of 1812, between Great Britain and the United States.
Although the British as the stronger power, had the leverage, Adams and his colleagues held their ground. The final settlement, named the Treaty of Ghent after the Belgian city where it was signed, was essentially a wash for the British, but a victory for the Americans, who, from their point of view, had defeated the British a second time.
Adams now stood alone as America’s foremost diplomat.
When his friend James Monroe became president in 1817, he appointed Adams Secretary of State. The two men forged a highly productive partnership.
Their most lasting accomplishment was the Monroe Doctrine, issued in 1823. The doctrine announced that America would not permit European colonization in the Western Hemisphere. Although the doctrine bears the name of the fifth president, it originated with his Secretary of State. It remains a fundamental principle of American foreign policy.
Adams’ many accomplishments made him the logical successor to Monroe.
But the hero of the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, begged to differ. In the 1824 presidential election, Jackson ran against Adams.
Jackson won the popular vote but couldn’t secure a majority in the Electoral College. This forced the decision as to who would be the next president into the House of Representatives.
When Henry Clay, the influential Speaker of the House, threw his support to Adams, the son of the second president became the sixth president.
Adams had achieved his ultimate goal.
It brought him nothing but misery.
His ambitious agenda — to build a national system of roads and canals, establish a national university, and expand foreign trade — got nowhere.
Jackson’s allies in Congress — soon to call themselves Democrats — blocked him at every turn.
The presidency revealed Adams’ weakness as a politician. Brilliant and forward-looking, he was a man for the people, but not a man of the people. In the 1828 election — a rematch with Jackson — Adams, opted to remain above the fray. But that was the style of yesterday. This time the charismatic general won easily.
Adams left the White House a dejected figure, lamenting, “The Sun of my political life sets in the deepest gloom.”
As it turned out, a new phase of his illustrious career was beginning.
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