John Quincy Adams Biography: Sixth President of the United States

Updated on September 20, 2019
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Doug West is a retired engineer, retired small business owner, and an experienced non-fiction writer.

John Quincy Adams was taught by his parents from an early age to be a public servant, and indeed he was. He served as the secretary to the American envoy to Russia at age fourteen and literally died on the floor of the House of Representatives at age eighty. As the oldest son of the prominent politician and U.S. president John Adams, he grew up in a fervent political climate, accompanying his father on diplomatic missions, and ultimately forged his own path in diplomacy and public administration.

In addition to serving for years as a diplomat, minister, and ambassador to foreign countries, Adams had a successful career as a U.S. senator and congressman. He was known to be an ardent opponent of slavery, but also for his ability to negotiate favorable treaties with the great powers of the world, such as Britain, Russia, and Prussia. Adams would go on to become the sixth president of the United States and finish his career in the House of Representatives.

Early Life

John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, to John Adams and Abigail Smith Adams from Massachusetts Bay Colony. At the time of his birth, his father, John Adams, had a seat as selectman for the town of Braintree (later renamed Quincy) and later served as a diplomat, eventually being elected the second United States president.

Growing up in the politically charged time of the American Revolution, John Quincy Adams had patriotism instilled in his blood. As the son of a politician and diplomat, he witnessed directly the birth and growth of the nation, even watching the first major battle of the American Revolutionary War, the Battle of Bunker Hill, from a hilltop near his house. Much of his adolescence was spent overseas as he joined his father’s diplomatic delegations to France and the Netherlands; there, he acquired practical diplomatic experience that would serve him the rest of his life. While in Europe, John Quincy attended prestigious schools in Paris, France, and Leiden, Netherlands. He became fluent in the French language and learned conversational Dutch. Upon his return to the United States in 1780, John Quincy started to keep a regular diary, a habit he maintained for the next 60 years.

In 1781, despite being only fourteen years old, Adams became the private secretary of the American envoy to Russia, Francis Dana. John Quincy provided his services as a translator of French. This was the first small step of what would later be his long and extraordinary international career. When the assignment in St. Petersburg ended, Adams traveled through Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands before meeting his father again in France.

Without holding an official position, Adams took part in the negotiations at the signing of the Peace of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War with Great Britain. Meanwhile, his father was appointed U.S. minister to Great Britain, but instead of joining his father, young Adams returned home to Massachusetts to complete his studies at Harvard College. In 1787, Adams graduated from Harvard College, after acquiring an excellent knowledge of classical studies and becoming fluent in Latin and Greek. From 1787 to 1789, Adams studied to be a lawyer under Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport, a small town in Massachusetts.

Diplomatic Success

In 1790, John Quincy Adams was admitted to the Massachusetts bar and while practicing in Boston, he devoted his spare time to writing political and social commentaries for newspapers. Mainly, he wrote about his support for the neutrality policy adopted by the administration of President George Washington regarding the French-British War of 1793. Reading the articles, the president became convinced of Adams’s wise political insights and offered him a position as United States minister in the Netherlands. Adams began his diplomatic career at The Hague, where his primary responsibility was to keep the American government informed regarding diplomatic and military activities in Europe, especially as the revolutionary movement in France exploded into war.

Adams’s diplomatic responsibilities soon stretched beyond his posting at The Hague. He traveled to London in 1795 and was involved in the negotiations of the Jay Treaty between the United States and the British Foreign Office. His skill at diplomacy impressed George Washington, who considered him the most important Foreign Service officer of his administration. Trusting his competence, Washington later appointed Adams minister to Portugal. In 1796, John Adams replaced Washington as president and changed his son’s appointment, sending him to Prussia instead of Portugal.

In 1797, before taking his position in Berlin, John Quincy married Louisa Catherine Johnson. She was of English birth and the daughter of American consul Joshua Johnson and Katherine Nuth, living in London. Louisa was a highly educated and charming young woman, with extensive knowledge of music, literature, and languages. She accompanied her husband in all his travels in various European countries.

The United States Senate

As a diplomat in Berlin, Adams managed to negotiate an advantageous treaty of trade and amity with Prussia. His father recalled him from Europe at the end of his presidential term in 1800. John Quincy and Louisa returned to America and by the end of the next year, young Adams was elected to the Massachusetts Senate. From there, his political ascent was rapid and in 1803, he was elected to the United States Senate, as a representative from the state of Massachusetts. Besides his political career, Adams also taught rhetoric and oratory at Harvard College between 1806 and 1809.

In the U.S. Senate, John Quincy Adams was generally regarded as a Federalist like his father, but he soon realized that his views were not aligned with those of the party. The purchase of the Louisiana territory created tensions in the Senate because many Federalists were against it, but Adams supported the purchase even though he hadn’t been in Washington to give his vote for ratification of the treaty. He later sided with the Federalists against President Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to pass a bill that gave him unwarranted powers over the newly purchased territory.

In 1807, Adams supported the president’s idea of an embargo to stop international commerce and force Britain to recognize the rights of the United States. Adams insisted on prompt action, and the Senate quickly approved the embargo bill, even though the Federalists fought passionately against it. Overall, the bill was not favored in New England because it suppressed the region’s economic progress. His support for the bill brought Adams’s downfall in the Senate.

Since the Massachusetts legislature was controlled by the Federalists and Adams became in opposition to them, they chose a replacement for him several months before the end of his term. Finding himself alone and powerless, Adams resigned in June 1808, but maintained his political aspirations. When the Republicans formed their own political structure, Adams decided to ally himself with the nascent party and support James Madison as a presidential candidate.

Despite his failure in the Senate, Adams regained his political stature when President Madison appointed him the first official United States ambassador to Russia. Adams and Louisa received a warm welcome from Russian Tsar Alexander I, especially since the monarch had already decided to develop closer commercial relations with the United States. While living at the tsar’s court, Adams witnessed Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the calamitous end of his army. In 1812, when the conflict between the United States and Britain escalated to war, Adams was in St. Petersburg, discussing with the Russian officials the possibility of the tsar becoming the mediator that could negotiate an end to the conflict. President Madison accepted his proposal and appointed Albert Gallatin and James Bayard as U.S. delegates to Russia to assist Adams; however, the British refused to discuss the proposal.

At the end of his diplomatic appointment in St. Petersburg, Adams visited Paris, right in time to witness the return from Elba of a defeated Napoleon. From Paris, he traveled to London in 1814 and served as the lead negotiator in the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which settled the War of 1812. His colleagues considered him ill-tempered and rude, but he was influential in negotiating a lasting peace between the United States and Great Britain. Shortly after, Adams was appointed U.S. minister to Great Britain, a position his father had held.

Secretary of State (1817-1825)

In 1817, Adams returned to the United States and, because of his extensive experience in foreign services, President James Monroe appointed him secretary of state. In his new position, Adams was responsible for negotiating the Adams-Onis or Transcontinental Treaty, which settled the acquisition of Florida. After the United States bought the Louisiana Purchase territory, all succeeding administrations had attempted to purchase Florida, but the negotiations with the Spanish government brought no results. With his diplomatic expertise, Adams convinced the Spanish minister to sign a treaty with the United States. Spain agreed to relinquish all claims to lands east of the Mississippi River while the United States gave up on the territory that is now Texas. The Adams-Onis Treaty was an outstanding victory because it gave the United States a natural boundary from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. By coming up with the idea of moving the country’s boundary towards the Pacific, Adams proved his political savvy, and his accomplishment marked a key milestone in the continental expansion of the United States.

In his outstanding record of achievements, one of Adams’s most important contributions to public service was the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine. After several Latin American colonies of Spain declared their independence, President Monroe gave a speech to Congress, crafted by Adams, in which he declared that the United States would not accept any European country colonizing the emergent nations in Latin America. The Monroe Doctrine became an important foreign policy of the United States with lasting implications even in the twentieth century.

President of the United States

At the end of President James Monroe’s second term, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, and Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford all hoped to become the next president. Speaker of the House Henry Clay and General Andrew Jackson also sought the office. Jackson received the highest number of electoral votes, followed by Adams and Crawford, but since no one obtained a majority, the House of Representatives had to choose between the three candidates with the highest number of Electoral votes. Realizing he had no chance of becoming president, Clay decided to endorse Adams, who in turn offered him the position of secretary of state. While this enabled Adams’s victory, it also brought anger and resentment from Jackson’s supporters, who thought that Clay and Adams had made a “corrupt bargain.”

Despite his many years of political success, John Quincy Adams discovered that as president, he could not realize his many goals because of his need for independence and his lack of political savvy in developing key relationships with influential statesmen. The fierce opposition of Jackson’s supporters and Adams’s lack of confidence turned his presidency into a bitter time for him and Louisa. Adams was aware that he did not have a captivating personality that could move crowds, but he had many progressive ideas he knew would benefit the country. He proposed the creation of a national university and the development of the country’s infrastructure. Even though his initiatives were valuable, his many opponents in Congress failed to offer Adams the support he needed to implement his ideas.

In 1828, after a brutal campaign, Adams lost the election to a second presidential term to Andrew Jackson, a man he disliked intensely. Besides their different political agendas, Adams believed that Jackson was an uneducated and uncultured man whose rise to power was a disgrace. At the end of his second term he said, “The greatest change in my condition occurred…which has ever befallen me—dismission from the public service and retirement from public life.”

During Adams’s presidency, his personal life also went through some turbulent episodes. The harassment by his opponents and personal attacks during his presidency played a key role in the marital problems that developed between himself and Louisa. By the end of his presidency, they were taking separate vacations. Moreover, he suffered bouts of depression, and many of his political opponents regarded him as a recluse.

The relationship between Adams and his wife went through a very turbulent time when two of their three sons died tragically in adulthood. Their firstborn son, George Washington Adams, possibly committed suicide after a life of gambling, alcoholism, and scandalous affairs. Their second son, John Quincy Adams II, died of complications from his alcoholism. Only their third son, Charles Francis Adams, followed his father’s footsteps, becoming a prominent American politician and serving as the U.S. minister to England during the American Civil War. Adams and his wife also had a daughter who died in infancy while they were in Russia.

I am a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners: my political adversaries say, a gloomy misanthropist, and my personal enemies, an unsocial savage. With a knowledge of the actual defect in my character, I have not the pliability to reform it.

— John Quincy Adams

In Congress

After his one term in office, John Quincy and Louisa decided to retire to Massachusetts and from public life. His retirement was brief, however, and he returned to politics with greater enthusiasm. With the backing of the Anti-Masonic group, Adams won a seat to the House of Representatives in 1830, where he served until his death in 1848. Adams holds the distinction of the only former president to serve in Congress.

In his second career as a congressman, he took his responsibility very seriously and managed to make several notable accomplishments. His hope for a second term at the White House as the nominee of one of the emerging parties, including the Anti-Masonic Party, the National Republican Party, or the Whig Party, remained, but withered with time.

In Congress, Adams became a fierce opponent of slavery. In 1839, he proposed a constitutional amendment that no one born in the United States after 1845 could be a slave. However, the “gag rules” didn’t allow the topic of slavery in the House of Representatives, thus Adams’s amendment was not even proposed for debate. Without feeling deterred, Adams began a prolonged and strenuous fight to repeal the gag rules. He wanted to regain people’s right to petition for the abolition of slavery, and he concentrated all his energy on achieving this goal. Adams claimed that the gag rules were a violation of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution, and this contention gave him the power to resist the attempts of fellow Congressmen to silence him on the matter. Each year, Adams presented to Congress an increasing number of antislavery petitions that he would receive from people in the Northern states. Despite the resentment and criticism of his opponents, he remained firm in his position and after years of struggle, Adams won the repeal of the standing gag rule in 1844.

In addition to his efforts to support the antislavery movement, Adams was also a fervent supporter of the arts and sciences, always talking about the need for enterprise and innovation. He was responsible for developing the Smithsonian Institute as the legacy of the Englishman James Smithson, who had left his enormous fortune to the U.S. government.

Death and Legacy

On February 21, 1848, John Quincy Adams’s unbridled life ended dramatically. While debating the situation of the Mexican-American war veterans in Congress, Adams suffered a cerebral stroke and fell lifeless to the floor. Some fellow congressmen claimed that when Adams collapsed to the floor in the House he said, “This is the last of earth—I am composed.” Taken to the Speaker's Room in the Capitol Building, he died two days later in the presence of his wife and fellow congressmen.

Many believe that Adams’s most significant accomplishments didn’t happen during his years as president, but during his time as a diplomat and as a member of the House of Representatives. His spirit of independence, intelligence, and diligence never got him the credit he deserved because of his reserved and serious personality. Although he failed to appeal to the affections of people in ways that other presidents did, he always worked to serve his country—a true public servant until his final day.

References:

Hamilton, Neil A. and Ian C. Friedman, Reviser. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.

Remini, Robert V. John Quincy Adams. Times Books. 2002.

West, Doug. John Quincy Adams: A Short Biography – Sixth President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2018.


Whitney, David C. and Robin V. Whitney. The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives, from George Washington through Barack Obama. 11th Edition. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. 2012.

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