Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Impact and Legacy

Although a great secretary of state and a man eminently qualified for executive office, John Quincy Adams was hopelessly weakened in his leadership potential as a result of the election of 1824. Most importantly, Adams failed as a President principally because he was a poor politician in a day and age when politics had begun to matter more. He spoke of trying to serve as a man above the "baneful weed of party strife" at the precise moment in history when America's "second party system" was emerging with nearly revolutionary force. Also, his idea of the federal government's setting a national agenda, while a lofty and principled perspective, was the wrong message at the wrong time. As a great visionary, Adams was out of touch with political reality. And he seemed incapable of or unwilling to learn from defeat. He impressed people as a man more in step with the Federalist past than with the majoritarian attacks on elitism so powerfully expressed by Andrew Jackson.

Fortunately for Adams, he had a public career both before and after his White House years. As a diplomat, he set the essential marks of American foreign policy for the next century: freedom of the seas, a halt to further European colonization in the Western Hemisphere, continental expansion, reciprocal trade, and isolationism from European affairs. His formidable skills as an international diplomat ushered in two generations of peace with Europe.

As the only President to serve in an elected office after his presidency (outside of Andrew Johnson's brief tenure in the Senate), Adams can be seen as the embodiment of the partisan but principled politician who focused on the antislavery movement as the means of challenging Jacksonian democracy. The same high-minded and rigidly uncompromising stance on moral issues that so weakened his effectiveness as a President served him well as a representative in Congress. In taking up the battle against slavery, Adams greatly redeemed himself in the eyes of history for his failure as a President to shape or reflect a national consensus.