John Quincy Adams: Life Before the Presidency

John Quincy Adams: Life Before the Presidency

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.