Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

Reared for public service, John Quincy Adams became one of the nation's preeminent secretaries of state but proved the wrong man for the presidency. Aloof, stubborn, and ferociously independent, he failed to develop the support he needed in Washington, even among his own party. Faced throughout his term with organized opposition from the Democrats—who were committed to limiting Adams to a single term and replacing him with Andrew Jackson—Adams refused to forge the political alliances necessary to push his ideas into policy. His father, President John Adams, had also ignored the political side of the office and served only one term. History repeated itself with his son: John Quincy Adams lost his reelection bid to Jackson in 1828.

Worldly Upbringing

John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, the son of a father who would serve in the Continental Congress and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. When John Quincy was ten, his father was posted to Europe as a special envoy of the revolutionary American government, and John Quincy accompanied him. For the boy, it was an incredible introduction to the courts of Europe and the practice of diplomacy. For seven years, except for a few months back in Massachusetts, John Quincy lived in Paris, Amsterdam, and St. Petersburg. He was a student at the University of Leiden for about a year when, because of his excellence in French, he was asked to serve as secretary and translator for Francis Dana, posted as emissary to St. Petersburg from 1781 to 1783. John Quincy returned to Paris in 1783 to serve as secretary to his father through the negotiation of peace ending the American Revolutionary War and, in 1785, returned home to complete his education at Harvard College. He graduated two years later. During this period, John Quincy began keeping a diary, and he maintained it from 1779 until 1848, shortly before he died.

Admitted to the bar in 1790, Adams practiced law in Boston. In 1794, President George Washington appointed him minister to the Netherlands, where he served with distinction until 1797. He also reencountered the woman he would marry, Louisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of an American merchant living abroad. Adams had first met Louisa in France when he was twelve. For months while in London on diplomatic assignment, Adams visited her family nightly, always leaving when the daughters sat down at the piano to play and sing—he disliked the sound of the female voice in song. Despite his taste in music and some reservations from his parents who did not think his son should have a foreign-born wife, the two were married in 1797.

Political Trials and Tribulations

After an assignment as the minister to Prussia from 1797 to 1801, Adams returned home and won election to the Massachusetts legislature. In 1803, the legislature appointed him to the United States Senate (senators were not chosen by popular vote until 1913). As a senator, he supported Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase, one of only two Federalists to do so, and also endorsed other Democratic-Republican projects, including the Embargo Act of 1807. These actions led the Federalist-dominated Massachusetts legislature to decline to return him to the Senate, and Adams immediately resigned his post. He then switched his allegiance to the Democratic-Republican Party.

In 1809, President James Madison named him the first U.S. minister to Russia and later also assigned him to head the five-person delegation empowered to negotiate a peace agreement ending the War of 1812. The treaty, universally seen as a victory for the young American nation, was signed on December 24, 1814, and Adams was subsequently posted to the English court for two years.

With the election of James Monroe to the presidency, Adams came home to become secretary of state, arguably his period of greatest accomplishment. He played a major role in formulating the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European nations not to meddle in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. He also negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty with Spain, which extended U.S. boundaries to the Pacific Ocean and ceded Florida to the United States. During his eight years as secretary of state, he built a powerful and efficient American diplomatic service.

Bitter Fight for the White House

In the presidential election of 1824, four men campaigned: former Secretary of War William H. Crawford of Georgia, House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky, General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, and John Quincy Adams. All were nominally Democratic-Republicans, and Crawford won the party's congressional caucus nomination, but at a time when the caucus system was being called into question as undemocratic.

The 1824 presidential election was a landmark one, the first in which popular vote actually mattered. Eighteen states had moved to choose presidential electors by popular vote while six still left the choice up to the state legislature. After a fierce campaign, Jackson took a plurality in the popular vote, followed, in order, by Adams, Clay, and Crawford. In the electoral college, however, Jackson had thirty-two votes fewer than he needed to prevail. Acting under the Twelfth Amendment, the House of Representatives met to select the President. Speaker of the House Clay threw his support behind Adams and gave him the election by a single vote. Soon thereafter, Adams named Clay secretary of state. It was a bad beginning for the Adams presidency. Jackson resigned from the Senate and vowed to unseat Adams in 1828.

Adams believed strongly that it was constitutional and appropriate for the federal government to sponsor broad programs to improve American society and prosperity. He backed Henry Clay's proposed "American System," envisioning a national marketplace in which North and South, town and country, were tied together by trade and exchange. To realize this vision, Adams proposed to Congress an ambitious program involving the construction of roads, canals, educational institutions, and other initiatives. Lacking congressional allies, however, Adams was unable to maneuver most of these programs into law. Congress also blocked many of his foreign initiatives. His support of the so-called Tariff of Abominations of 1828, which protected American interests but caused higher prices, cost him popularity among the voters.

By 1828, Andrew Jackson had been campaigning for three years. He characterized Adams's election as a "corrupt bargain" typical of the elitist eastern "gamesters." Following a campaign marred by vicious personal attacks—Jackson's wife was called an adulteress, Adams was accused of procuring prostitutes for the Russian czar—Jackson won in a landslide.

Post-White House Career

John Quincy Adams had one of the most politically active post-presidencies of any U.S. President. Two years after his defeat, Adams ran for Congress from his home district in Massachusetts. He accepted the nomination on two conditions: that he would never solicit their votes and that he would follow his conscience at all times. He served nine consecutive terms in the House of Representatives, earning the nickname "Old Man Eloquent" because of his extraordinary speeches in opposition to slavery. He was instrumental in ending the "gag rule" that prohibited debate on slavery in the House of Representatives and also continued to champion internal improvements for the country. Historically, Adams has won more acclaim for this long congressional career than for his presidency. He suffered a stroke on the floor of the House on February 21, 1848, and died two days later.