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In his father’s shadow

A look at John Quincy Adams

Created date

November 6th, 2014

Few figures in American history have possessed a pedigree as illustrious as John Quincy Adams. His father was a member of the first Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, vice president under George Washington, and later, Washington’s successor as the nation’s second president.

John Quincy was at his side for most of these milestones, especially the American Revolution. He was witness to the British blockade of Boston Harbor, the Battle of Bunker Hill; he was with his father and Benjamin Franklin as the two forged an alliance with France.

This was just a prelude to his own momentous contributions to the burgeoning democracy that his father had helped create. And readers can watch it all unfold in Fred Kaplan’s John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (HarperCollins, 2014).

Born in 1767, John Quincy was the oldest of the four Adams children and the one in which John and Abigail vested many of their hopes and expectations. A bookish youngster, he naturally took to the rigors of honor and duty: he studied diligently, assisted his father in his diplomatic endeavors, and proved an apt pupil at Harvard.

To be sure, he greatly admired his father both for his personal example and his accomplishments, but he also lived in his shadow. The latter fact has ruined many children who grew up in the wake of a parent’s fame.

John Quincy, however, drew inspiration from it.

His mother and his father were fountains of love, knowledge, and advice. They encouraged their son to fulfill his responsibility as an American, and in heeding this recommendation, he became something of a paradox.

Kaplan illustrates this particularly well, showing how Adams got lost in the transition from principles to parties in American politics. Indeed, John Quincy was not a man who voted the party line but rather his conscience.

Dying political breed

Even in his own time he belonged to a dying breed, which explains, in part, why he was a one-term president. Politics in the 1820s had become more about winning than morality, and John Quincy’s refusal to relent is what made him great.

Such traits come through with crystal clarity in the hands of an experienced biographer like Kaplan, who, with an eye for the truly human, cinematic details, crafts a portrait of Adams that is rich in personality and dimension.

In doing so, he reminds us of why we all should know this man—a president who, until now, has been too often overlooked. 

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