A Reference Resource
John Quincy Adams
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.
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.
John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, in the village of Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, a few miles south of Boston. His early years were spent living alternately in Braintree and Boston, and his doting father and affectionate mother taught him mathematics, languages, and the classics. His father, John Adams, had been politically active for all of John Quincy's life, but the calling of the First Continental Congress in 1774 marked a new stage in John Adams' activism. The older Adams would go on to help lead the Continental Congress, draft the Declaration of Independence, and oversee the execution of the Revolutionary War. He was also absent from his children's lives more often than he was present, leaving much of their raising and education to their mother, Abigail.
In the first year of the war, young John Quincy Adams feared for the life of his father and worried that the British might take his family hostage. Indeed, when John Adams signed his name to the Declaration of Independence, he committed an act of treason against England, an offense punishable by death. For John Quincy, these years were actually the beginning of his manhood, and he recalled later in life feeling responsible—as the eldest son—for protecting his mother while his father attended to the business of revolution. John Quincy witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill with his mother from the top of one of the Braintree hills and regularly saw soldiers passing through his hometown. The Revolutionary War was not some distant, theoretical event but an immediate and frightening reality.
Grooming for the World Stage
From ages ten to seventeen, Adams experienced an incredible European adventure that prepared him for his later career in the foreign service of his country. In late 1777, John Adams was posted to Europe as a special envoy, and in 1778, John Quincy accompanied him to Paris. Over the next seven years, John Quincy would spend time in Paris, the Netherlands, and St. Petersburg, with shorter visits to England, Sweden, and Prussia. The young Adams experienced his first formal schooling at the Passy Academy outside of Paris where—together with the grandsons of Benjamin Franklin—he studied fencing, dance, music, and art. The Adamses remained in France for a little over a year and then returned home for some three months.
When John Adams was again posted to Europe in November 1779, tasked with negotiating the peace with Britain, he returned with his sons John Quincy and Charles, reaching Paris in February 1780 after a harrowing journey in first a leaky ship, then overland on mules from Spain. John, recognizing that there was little likelihood of peace negotiations, decided in the summer of 1780 to relocate to Amsterdam along with his sons, both of whom briefly attended the University of Leiden. Charles proved unhappy in Europe and was sent home after a year and a half. Around the same time in 1781, John Quincy's education was interrupted when Francis Dana, the newly appointed U.S. emissary to St. Petersburg, asked that John Quincy, then fourteen years old, accompany him as translator and personal secretary. A year later, John Quincy traveled alone for five months from St. Petersburg to The Hague, the Dutch seat of government, to rejoin his father. When he returned to America in 1785, Adams enrolled in Harvard College as an advanced student, completing his studies in two years.
After college, Adams studied law and passed the Massachusetts bar exam in the summer of 1790. While preparing for the law exam, he mastered shorthand and read everything in sight, from ancient history to popular literature. He especially enjoyed the humorous novel Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, which he deemed "one of the best novels in the language." Always in awe of Thomas Jefferson, a close friend of his father and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Adams considered Jefferson's Notes on Virginia a brilliant piece of writing.
As a young man, Adams stood apart from his age group. He took no part in the usual college pranks nor did he think much of his teachers—many of whom were less well read and had less worldly experience than he had. But Adams did have an appreciative eye for young women. His first love, at age fourteen, was a French actress whom he never met personally but dreamed about after seeing her stage performance. During his legal apprenticeship, John Quincy fell deeply in love with a young woman he met in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he was studying law. The romance lasted for several months before his mother, Abigail Adams, persuaded him to put off marriage until he could afford to support a wife. John Quincy agreed, and the two drifted apart. It was a parting that he always regretted, but it demonstrated a character trait in Adams that accompanied him throughout his life: his respect for the opinions of his parents.
From 1790 to 1794, Adams practiced law with little success in Boston. As a new, young lawyer competing for clients with far more established and senior men, he had difficulty attracting paying clients. Not even the fact that his father was now vice president of the United States seemed to help. When not practicing law, Adams wrote articles in support of the Washington administration and debated the political issues of the day with his fellow lawyers. Finally, in 1794, just as John Quincy's law career was beginning to make headway, President George Washington, appreciative of the young Adams's support for his administration and aware of his fluency in French and Dutch, appointed him minister to the Netherlands. It was a good time for the young diplomat. He carefully managed the repayment of Dutch loans made to America during the American Revolution and sent well-regarded official reports to Washington on the aftermath of the French Revolution.
A Moody Suitor
While traveling in France as a young boy, John met Louisa Catherine, the four-year-old daughter of Joshua Johnson, an American merchant who had married an Englishwoman and was then living in Nantes, France. Years later, in 1797, when Louisa had grown into a pretty 22-year-old woman, she and Adams met again. Now he was a 30-year-old diplomat and the son of the President of the United States. She was living in London, where her father served as the American consul, and Adams had been sent to London from The Hague to exchange the ratifications of the Jay Treaty. The Johnson family provided the social center for Americans in London, and Adams regularly visited. In time, he began to court Louisa, dining nightly with the family but always leaving when the girls began to sing after the evening meal—Adams disliked the sound of the female voice in song. Louisa found herself intrigued by her moody suitor. The two were married on July 26, 1797, over the initial objections of Adams's parents, who did not think it wise for a future President to have a foreign-born wife.
Right around the time of their marriage, John Quincy was appointed U.S. minister to Prussia, where he remained until his father lost his reelection bid for a second term as President in 1800. The Adamses returned to the United States in 1801 with their son George Washington Adams, and John Quincy threw himself into local politics, winning election to the state senate. Then the Massachusetts legislature appointed him to the U.S. Senate in 1803.
Career in Diplomacy
As the U.S. senator from Massachusetts, he shifted from his nominally Federalist position to support the Democratic-Republican administration of President Thomas Jefferson. He supported the Louisiana Purchase, one of only two Federalists to do so, and the imposition of the Embargo Act of 1807 against foreign trade. In 1808, the Federalist-controlled Massachusetts state legislature was infuriated by Adams's pro-Jeffersonian conduct and expressed their displeasure by appointing Adams's successor nearly a full year before Adams's term was complete. Adams promptly resigned and subsequently changed his party affiliation from Federalist to Democratic-Republican.
Shortly after the loss of his Senate seat, President James Madison appointed Adams the first U.S. minister to Russia. Although Adams had previously expressed negative feelings about Russia as a nation of "slaves and princes," he soon developed a strong personal attachment to Czar Alexander, whom he admired for his willingness to stand up to Napoleon. While in Russia, Adams persuaded the czar to allow American ships to trade in Russian ports, and when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, Adams's dispatches home provided Madison with detailed and perceptive accounts of the war.
In 1814, President Madison appointed Adams to head a five-person delegation to negotiate a peace agreement ending the War of 1812 with Britain. It was an auspicious group of Americans who met in Ghent, Belgium: Special Envoy John Quincy Adams, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, Senator James A. Bayard of Delaware, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and U.S. Minister to Sweden Jonathan Russell. The treaty negotiations took five months, resulting in an agreement to end the fighting and restore all territory to the status quo at the beginning of the war. No mention was made of the issues that had started the war, such as the impressment of American seamen or the rights of neutral commerce. Still, the treaty was a significant victory for the United States: the young nation had engaged the greatest military power in the world without conceding anything in return for peace. The treaty was signed on December 24, 1814, two weeks prior to the great victory of U.S. forces over the British at the Battle of New Orleans. Word did not reach America of the treaty until mid-February, and the Senate ratified it unanimously on February 17, 1815.
Madison subsequently posted Adams to England for two years. With the election of James Monroe as President, Adams accepted appointment as secretary of state, serving from 1817 to 1825. During his long tenure as head of the State Department, he compiled an impressive record of diplomatic accomplishments. At the top of the list stands his role in formulating the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European nations not to meddle in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. Although Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had advised President Monroe to issue the proclamation in a joint statement with Britain, Adams—understanding the diplomatic symbolism involved—persuaded Monroe to make a unilateral and independent statement as a mark of U.S. sovereignty in the hemisphere.
Secretary of State Adams also successfully negotiated U.S. fishing rights off the Canadian coast, established the present U.S.-Canadian border from Minnesota to the Rockies, formulated a pragmatic policy for the recognition of newly independent Latin American nations, and achieved the transfer of Spanish Florida to the United States in the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. This treaty also fixed the southwestern boundary of the United States at the Sabine River (in present-day Texas) and removed Spanish claims to Oregon. Adams also halted Russian claims to Oregon. Within the State Department, he appointed staff on the basis of merit rather than patronage, and upon his election as President in 1824, he left behind a highly efficient diplomatic service with clear accountability procedures and a system of regularized correspondence in place.
The Campaign and Election of 1824
Although John Quincy Adams should have been the heir apparent to the presidency as James Monroe's secretary of state, the year 1824 was a political turning point in which none of the old rules applied. Four other men also wanted to be President, each with substantial regional backing. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina had served as secretary of war in the Monroe administration and had support from slave owners in the South but he needed support from outside the region to be a viable candidate. The politically ambitious and able William H. Crawford of Georgia enjoyed the support of party regulars in Congress—especially Senator Martin Van Buren of New York—as well as substantial footing in Georgia. Crawford had served as secretary of war and of the treasury in the two previous administrations. His main drawback stemmed from his explosive temper, which had alienated a number of fellow political leaders including President Monroe. The two men had almost engaged in a fistfight in a cabinet meeting before Crawford gathered his wits enough to apologize. Thereafter, the two men seldom spoke to one another.
The most visible candidate was House Speaker Henry Clay. A leading War Hawk during the War of 1812, Clay had a power base in Kentucky, was a gifted public speaker, and had support for his so-called American System of protective tariffs and federally sponsored internal improvements. His high-profile advocacy of these issues made him a familiar name in much of the country. Although he was well known, his clear identification with the war and nationalism weakened his roots in the South, which was beginning to fear supporting anyone for President who was not a slave owner or a supporter of states' rights.
Then there was General Andrew Jackson from Tennessee, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson's reputation as an Indian fighter and western expansionist, owing to his military escapades in Spanish Florida (see Jackson biography, Life Before the Presidency section), gave him national standing above all other candidates. It also helped that Jackson could enter the race as an outsider, a defender of the Republic who had risked his life in service of his nation. In fact, his supporters talked about him as another George Washington. Few experienced politicians, however, expected Jackson to win if any of the opposing candidates could broker a cross-regional coalition that would unite either the West or the South with New England or the mid-Atlantic States.
Such a coalition was no easy task to achieve. After all, the 1824 election occurred in a day and age when a new political electorate composed of regionally focused voters had only recently been empowered with the franchise. Since 1820, the old political caucus method by which the congressional leaders nominated presidential candidates had fallen into disrepute. This was principally because the old caucus system failed to connect with the wishes of the new voters, the tens of thousands of males who had been enfranchised by the removal of property ownership as a criterion for white male suffrage. This new climate looked to regional endorsements of candidates by state conventions or state assemblies, which meant that regional popularity, rather than congressional intrigue, would drive the nomination process.
Although Adams was a centrist politician of sorts—a Jeffersonian-Federalist, to coin a new term—many Americans still identified him as a New Englander and as the son of the old Federalist leader John Adams. Additionally, many staunch Democratic-Republicans blamed Adams and his supporters for having transformed the party of Jefferson into a disguised form of Federalism under the rubric of "National Republicans." Southerners, moreover, objected to Adams because of his moral opposition to slavery. They remembered his criticism of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as a proslavery conspiracy, and they suspiciously recalled Adams's efforts to include language opposed to the international slave trade in the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812.
Four Democratic-Republican Candidates
In the summer of 1824, an unofficial caucus of less than a third of the congressmen eligible to attend nominated Crawford for President. Supporters for Adams denounced the caucus bid, and the Massachusetts legislature nominated Adams as their favorite-son candidate. The Kentucky legislature did the same for Clay. Both nominations followed the pattern set by the Tennessee legislature, which had nominated Andrew Jackson in 1822. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina dropped out of the presidential race by announcing his bid for the vice presidency, a move that both Adams and Crawford endorsed. Because all four candidates were nominal Democratic-Republicans—the Federalist Party had disintegrated by this point—the election would be decided without reference to party affiliation.
As the campaign progressed, Jackson emerged as the man to beat. The size of his rallies in key swing states—Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, New York, and New Jersey—far surpassed or rivaled those for Clay and Adams. In this first election in American history in which the popular vote mattered—because eighteen states chose presidential electors by popular vote in 1824 (six states still left the choice up to their state legislatures) —Jackson's popularity foretold a new era in the making. When the final votes were tallied in those eighteen states, Jackson polled 152,901 popular votes to Adams's 114,023; Clay won 47,217, and Crawford won 46,979. The electoral college returns, however, gave Jackson only 99 votes, 32 fewer than he needed for a majority of the total votes cast. Adams won 84 electoral votes followed by 41 for Crawford and 37 for Clay.
Jackson was the only candidate to attract significant support beyond his regional base. He carried the majority of electoral votes in eleven states: Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Adams won all six of the New England states plus New York. Crawford and Clay carried only three states each—Delaware, Georgia, and Virginia for Crawford and Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio for Clay.
Acting under the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution, the House of Representatives met to select the President from among the top three candidates. Henry Clay, as the candidate with the fewest electoral votes, was eliminated from the deliberation. As Speaker of the House, however, Clay was still the most important player in determining the outcome of the election. The election in the House took place in February 1825. With each state having one vote, as determined by the wishes of the majority of each state's congressional representatives, Adams emerged as the winner with a one-vote margin of victory. Most of Clay's supporters, joined by several old Federalists, switched their votes to Adams in enough states to give him the election. Soon after his inauguration as President, Adams appointed Henry Clay as his secretary of state.
A "Corrupt Bargain"?
Jackson could barely contain his fury at having lost the election in what he claimed was a "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay to overturn the will of the people. To most Jackson supporters, it looked as if congressional leaders had conspired to revive the caucus system, whereby Congress greatly influenced—if not determined—the selection of the President. Jackson laid the blame on Clay, telling anyone who would listen that the Speaker had approached him with the offer of a deal: Clay would support Jackson in return for Jackson's appointment of Clay as secretary of state. When Jackson refused, Clay purportedly made the deal with Adams instead. In Jackson's words, Clay had sold his influence in a "corrupt bargain."
Clay denied the charges, and while there certainly had been some behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Clay to push the vote to Adams, it most likely reflected Clay's genuine doubts about Jackson's qualifications for the office. In assessing the odds of successfully forwarding his own political agenda, Clay questioned Jackson's commitment to the "American System" of internal improvements. On the other hand, Clay knew that Adams had supported it consistently over the years. Also, the loss of three states that Jackson had won in the popular vote—Illinois, Maryland, and Louisiana—due to the defection of congressmen who supported Adams suggests that more was involved in the outcome than the political maneuvering of one man. Enraged, Jackson resigned his seat in the Senate and vowed to win the presidency in 1828 as an outsider to Washington politics.
The Campaign and Election of 1828
Within months of Adams's inauguration in 1825, the Tennessee legislature nominated Andrew Jackson for President. Over the next three years, Jackson put together a highly disciplined grassroots campaign with one goal: to defeat John Quincy Adams in a rematch that would pit "the people" against Adams. Jackson issued so-called memorandums (a misuse of the word that endeared him to his growing western constituency) in which he outlined the erosion of representative power over the last decades at the hands of "gamesters" like Clay and Adams. In Jackson's mind, the "corrupt bargain" was just one of a number of such schemes. Jackson claimed that the Panic of 1819, a devastating economic collapse, had resulted from (1) a conspiracy of disreputable creditors and the Bank of the United States, (2) the unpaid national debt, (3) the political swindlers in office from Madison through Adams—schemers who would be turned out with a Jackson victory—and (4) the backstairs dealings of "King Caucus" to select a President in defiance of popular opinion.
While Jackson issued his statements and traveled the nation rounding up support, his most brilliant lieutenant, Martin Van Buren of New York, assumed the duties of a campaign manager. Van Buren had switched allegiance from Crawford to Jackson shortly after the election of 1824. His efforts thereafter were focused on securing a victory for Jackson in the popular vote. Van Buren's strategy was to portray Jackson as the head of a disciplined and issue-oriented party that was committed to states' rights and the limited-government ideology of the old Jeffersonian Republicans.
In the year before the 1828 election, Van Buren's organizational efforts began to create a new political entity that would come to fruition in the 1830s. For the 1828 election, Van Buren focused on linking the opponents of federalism in the North and South into a coalition that he envisioned as the heir to the old Jeffersonian Republican Party. In his mind, victory for this new movement would protect slavery in the South, ensure the legitimacy of majority rule based upon direct voting for candidates by the electorate, and guarantee preservation of the Union, with states' rights as the fundamental basis of American liberty. When he won the support of Vice President John C. Calhoun and powerful Virginia political leaders, Van Buren effectively laid the basis for a party system that would endure until the Civil War. (Calhoun was moving away from his postwar ideology of nationalism to a states' rights conservatism that was more reflective of his region's fear of abolitionism, costly internal improvements, and high protective tariffs.)
While Jackson and Van Buren organized, Adams diligently carried out the duties of the presidency, refusing to prepare himself or his supporters for the coming contest. Adams did not remove even his loudest opponents from appointive office and hewed to the old-fashioned notion that a candidate should "stand" for office, not "run." When the election campaign officially began, Adams's supporters formally adopted the name National Republicans in contrast to Democrats, trying thereby to identify themselves accurately with the link between old-style federalism and a new nationalistic republicanism. Jacksonians, on the other hand, argued for a new revolutionary movement that rested on a firm faith in majoritarian democracy and states' rights—ideas that were not always compatible.
Personal Campaign Battles
Although issues clearly separated the candidates along lines more distinct than any since the election of 1800, the campaign itself was highly personal. Indeed, it was the first campaign in history to use election materials such as campaign buttons, slogans, posters, tokens, flasks, snuffboxes, medallions, thread boxes, matchboxes, mugs, and fabric images so extensively. Almost all of these campaign trinkets depicted some aspect of the candidate's popular image. Jackson's status as a war hero and frontiersman played far better with the public than Adams's stiff-looking elder statesman stance.
Neither candidate personally campaigned in 1828, but their political followers organized rallies, parades, and demonstrations. In the popular press, the rhetorical attacks reached a level of cruelty and misrepresentation not seen since the election of 1800. Jackson was accused of multiple murders, of extreme personal violence, and of having lived in sin with his wife, Rachel, who herself was attacked as a bigamist. Adams, on the other hand, was attacked for his legalistic attitudes, for his foreign-born wife, and for reportedly having procured young American virgins for the Russian czar as the primary achievement of his diplomatic career. Adams's critics referred to him as "His Excellency" while Jackson came under attack as an ill-mannered, barely civilized, backwoods killer of Indians.
In a masterstroke of popular politics, the Jacksonians made good use of the general's nickname, Old Hickory. He had earned the name because he was reputed to be as tough as hickory wood. To publicize his image, Jackson supporters put hickory poles all over the country, distributed hickory toothpicks and canes, and served up barbecues fired by hickory chips.
The branding of Jackson's wife as an "American Jezebel" and convicted adulteress—because she had married Jackson before her divorce from an earlier marriage had been finalized—surprisingly backfired as an election strategy. It unleashed a backlash against Adams for humiliating a woman who had lived for 40 years as the devoted wife of General Jackson, for grossly violating the general's privacy and honor, and for applying narrowly legalistic pronouncements in place of common sense. To countless Americans, Jackson's duels, brawls, executions, and unauthorized ventures represented the victory of what was right and good over the application of stiff-minded and narrowly construed principles. The attacks simply enhanced Jackson's image as an authentic American hero who had drawn upon his natural nobility and powerful will to prevail against unscrupulous political foes, educated elitists, the pride of the British army, and "heathen savages"—often at the same time.
The campaign turned out more than twice the number of voters who had cast ballots in 1824—approximately 57 percent of the electorate. Jackson won the election in a landslide, and by a wide margin of 95 electoral votes. Adams carried New England, Delaware, part of Maryland, New Jersey, and sixteen of New York's electoral votes—nine states in all. Jackson carried the remaining fifteen states of the South, Northwest, mid-Atlantic, and West. Incumbent Vice President John C. Calhoun won 171 electoral votes to 83 for Richard Rush of Pennsylvania, Adams's running mate.
The "American System"
President John Quincy Adams wholeheartedly supported the role of the federal government in the sponsorship of projects and institutions designed to improve the conditions of society. He had no constitutional doubts about the authority of the President and Congress to construct a system of internal improvements, ranging from roads and canals to harbors, bridges, and other public works. In this, he supported the "American System" first proposed by Henry Clay while Clay was Speaker of the House. The general plan rested upon the notion of a self-sufficient, but regionally specialized, national economy. Both Adams and Clay believed that a factory-based northern economy would provide markets for southern cotton and western foodstuffs. In exchange, the South and West would purchase northern manufactured goods. Alexander Hamilton had proposed a similar idea in the 1790s, only to be blocked by southern opponents who believed that such a national economic network of interdependent parts would enhance the power of the federal government.
In his first annual message to Congress, President Adams presented an ambitious program for the creation of a national market that included roads, canals, a national university, a national astronomical observatory, and other initiatives. Many congressmen, even his supporters, had trouble with his proposals. His critics challenged the supposed arrogance of a President who had been narrowly elected by the House. In their minds, Adams was not entitled to act as though he had received a national mandate for action. They mockingly criticized his observatories as Adams's "lighthouses of the skies."
Others pointed out that the President's internal improvements would benefit some parts of the nation more than others and bring the federal government into regional affairs. Nevertheless, through the use of military engineers for survey and construction operations, public land grants, and governmental subscription to corporate stock issues, the administration achieved considerable progress in support of harbor improvement and road and canal development. Some of the specific projects included extending the Cumberland Road into Ohio with surveys for its continuation west to St. Louis, beginning the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, constructing the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal and the Portland to Louisville Canal around the falls of the Ohio, connecting the Great Lakes to the Ohio River system in Ohio and Indiana, and enlarging and rebuilding the Dismal Swamp Canal in North Carolina.
The Tariff of Abominations
Henry Clay's ardor in support of protective tariffs was well known, but there was considerable uncertainty regarding Adams's views. His New England constituency was divided between long-standing concern for promotion of foreign commerce and newly developing interest in protection of domestic industry. A further complication was the fact that administration supporters had lost control of Congress in the election of 1826. Senator Martin Van Buren had supported William H. Crawford for the presidency in 1824, opposed Adams's election, and remained hostile to the administration throughout Adams's tenure. Recognizing the divisions that marked the Adams administration's position on the tariff, Van Buren led a campaign designed to set high tariffs to protect mid-Atlantic and western agricultural interests—levies on raw wool, flax, molasses, hemp, and distilled spirits. In the end, Congress forced Adams to accept a stricter tariff than he would have preferred by refusing to consider more moderate proposals. Adams had to choose between a stringently protective tariff or no tariff at all, and Adams accepted the former.
The Tariff of 1828 had new rates that were particularly restrictive of textile imports and damaging to a market of British manufacturers upon whom southern planters were dependent. One southern legislature after another denounced the tariff as unconstitutional, unjust, and oppressive, and the Virginia legislature called it the "Tariff of Abominations." (See Jackson biography, Domestic Affairs section, for a more detailed discussion of this tariff, which required implementation after Adams left office.) Vice President Calhoun's opposition was so strong, he condemned the tariff and drafted the South Carolina Exposition, asserting the right of a state to nullify federal laws that were obviously harmful to state interests.
John Quincy Adams's administration achieved a mixed record in foreign affairs during his presidency. On the one hand, it substantially opened up trade through commercial treaties with a variety of nations, including Austria, Brazil, the Central American federation, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, which granted the United States reciprocal trading rights. Adams arranged to extend indefinitely a commercial convention with Britain and resolved outstanding questions regarding British seizure of property during the War of 1812.
On the other hand, President Adams was prevented from resolving the ongoing issue of trade with the British West Indies, and rivals in Congress were determined to deny him any mark of success and thwarted his other efforts. For example, when the new Latin American republics, which had formerly been Spanish colonies, convened a congress in Panama to promote cooperation in the Western Hemisphere, they logically asked for delegates to attend from the American President who had authored the Monroe Doctrine. When Adams requested funding to send two delegates, southern congressmen strongly objected. The new Latin American nations had outlawed slavery, and southerners feared that the conference might call for a united stand in favor of emancipation everywhere in the hemisphere. Others did not like the idea of American ministers' meeting with black and mixed-race foreigners on equal terms. Jacksonian supporters in Congress eagerly joined with southerners to withhold funding for the delegation until the convention had ended.
Also, Adams had resolved many foreign affairs issues that might have engaged him as President when he served as Monroe's secretary of state. He had already secured the disarmament of the Great Lakes, fishing rights off of Canada, a U.S.-Canadian boundary, the accession of Florida, and a U.S.-Spanish border west of the Mississippi River giving America strong claim to the Pacific Coast in the Northwest. These were all issues that previously had brought the nation into open conflict with Britain. The resolution of these concerns, which had dominated American foreign policy for so many years, meant fewer projects for the State Department to tackle during the Adams administration.
After his defeat by Andrew Jackson in 1828, John Quincy Adams refused to attend the victor's inauguration, just as his father had boycotted Thomas Jefferson's in 1801. He wrote in his diary that "The sun of my political life set in the deepest gloom." Filled with sadness for the nation, Adams stayed in Washington for a few months before returning to his hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts. Deeply bored by retirement and still hoping to be politically engaged, the former President promptly agreed—over his family's objections—when neighbors asked him to run for Congress from his Massachusetts district. He set two conditions, however: he would never solicit their votes and he would follow his conscience at all times. His election was one of the greatest satisfactions in Adams's life.
Antislavery Congressional Career
Adams served nine post-presidential terms in Congress from 1830 until his death in 1848, usually voting in the minority. He supported the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, opposed the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico, and struggled for eight years to end the House's notorious "gag rule," which tabled without debate any petition critical of slavery. Adams attempted to read into the record at every opportunity the hundreds of antislavery petitions that abolitionists around the country sent him on a regular basis. The House finally relented and repealed the rule in 1844.
As one of the House's most articulate and forceful spokesmen against slavery, Adams earned the nickname of "Old Man Eloquent." Whenever he rose to speak, especially in his twilight years, silence swept over the chamber as congressmen turned their attention to the former President. In 1841, Adams argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court to win freedom for slave mutineers aboard the Spanish ship Amistad. The Africans had mutinied against their Spanish captors on the high seas and were then captured by an American warship off Long Island. The court ruled that the mutineers were free men because international slave trade was illegal under British and U.S. law.
Keeping in character with Adams's devotion to education and the sciences, he championed the bequest of James Smithson of England, who willed $500,000 to the United States for the creation of an institution dedicated to knowledge—later called the Smithsonian Institution. At the age of seventy-six, in 1843, Adams also traveled to Cincinnati to officiate at the laying of the cornerstone of the Cincinnati Observatory.
On February 21, 1848, a severe stroke hit John Quincy Adams just minutes after he cast a loud vote in opposition to a motion to decorate certain Army officers serving in the Mexican War. It happened on the House floor in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Two days later, he slipped into a coma moments after reputedly uttering a final sentiment: "This is the end of earth, but I am content." On February 23, 1848, at the age of eighty, the former President died. For two days, mourners filed by his open casket in a House committee room. His body was ultimately interred next to his parents, John and Abigail Adams, beneath the First Congregational Church in Quincy. The man whom many historians consider the most learned person ever to have served as President left his 8,500-volume library and personal papers, as well as his home and lands, to his only surviving son, Charles Francis Adams. He divided the remainder of his estate between his wife, daughter-in-law Mary Catherine Hellen Adams (widow of his second son John Adams II), and granddaughter Mary Louisa Adams.
During their years in the White House, President Adams and his wife Louisa seldom spent much time together. Except for breakfast and an occasional dinner, during which they both read papers and rarely talked, they often went for weeks without much communication. And by his second year in office, they began taking separate summer vacations. For John Quincy Adams, regularity in life was lifted to obsession. He wrote in his diary every day from his twenty-ninth birthday until his death. As President, he rose precisely at five A.M. (4:15 in the summers), made his own fire, read his Bible, and then took a morning walk or a swim in the Potomac. His biographer, Paul C. Nagel, reports one notable instance when, while swimming, Adams and his manservant found an old boat tied at the bank. Adams suggested that they row across the river and swim back. Halfway across, the boat capsized and the men jumped overboard, losing their clothing. The servant donned soaked garments and returned to shore for help. Adams, unclad, sat on a rock to wait. Five hours passed before the servant came back. Afterward, Louisa scolded him, and Adams's physician advised less hazardous exercise, but the swimming continued, only somewhat moderated by John Quincy's developing interest in botanical research in the White House gardens.
Besides swimming, Adams enjoyed shooting billiards (he installed the first billiard table in the White House), reading, observing nature, domesticating wild plants, walking, horseback riding, attending the theater, and partaking of fine wines. He hosted wine samplings and prided himself on his ability to identify rare spirits.
Perhaps one of the most cultivated and educated men to serve as President, Adams was not especially religious. He formally joined the Unitarian branch of the Congregational Church once he took office, and he attended church every Sunday. But he questioned the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and the Bible as divine revelation. For him, Christ was a savior sent by a supreme being to preach peace on earth and the natural equality of all mankind.
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.