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John Quincy Adams: “Steady, Active, and Industrious” (Part I)
by Hugh Fitzgerald
This July 11 marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of John Quincy Adams. On that day, Robert Spencer offered an appreciation at Jihad Watch of our sixth president, who had such a remarkable understanding of Islam. It might be instructive to know a bit more about J. Q. Adams, about both the breadth of his experience and the depth of his education, that help to explain that understanding. He turns out to have been remarkable in a dozen directions, our greatest scholar-president, our greatest historian-president, our most successful diplomat and, next only to Lincoln, the sturdiest of our Presidential moralists.
The first thing that strikes one about John Quincy Adams is his incredible energy, physical and mental. As diplomat, lawyer, statesman, politician, as Senator, President, and finally as Congressman, as professor and orator and writer, he needed all of that energy with which he had fortunately been endowed, because he was constantly active, fulfilling both the high tasks he had been assigned, and those he had not been given, but dutifully took on nonetheless.
Until his old age, he woke every day between 5 and 6, walked four miles whatever the weather, then read several books of the Bible, usually in English, but often, too, in Greek, or French. He then set to work, which for Adams meant reading of all kinds — literature, law, moral philosophy, current events, but above all, the study of history. He knew at least six foreign languages. He was fluent in French and Dutch, having learned French as a child and kept it up when he spent time in Paris with his father between 1778 and 1779, and again in 1783, even attending a French Ecole de mathematiques. When his father was assigned to be Minister to the Netherlands from 1780 to 1782, John Quincy accompanied him, and became fluent in Dutch. He insisted in later life on maintaining his Dutch, long after he would have had any professional need. When he was appointed Minister to Prussia, he immediately began diligently to study German, and did acquire a working knowledge but not, he recognized, the fluency he had in French and Dutch. With German too, he kept at it, long after he had left the Berlin legation, translating German texts to keep up the language.
Throughout his life, too, he continued to study the two classical languages, Greek and Latin, that he had begun to study, with private tutors, as a young boy. Upon entering Harvard (from which he graduated in two years), he had already translated Virgil, Horace, Plutarch, and Aristotle, and within six months had memorized his Greek grammar and translated the New Testament. In later life, he added to this long list of linguistic accomplishments the study of Italian, lamenting that he had no one with whom to speak the language, and thus was not satisfied with his own performance. He far outstripped all other American presidents but one in his knowledge of languages: that one was Jefferson, who had studied five languages to Adams’s six, but appears to have been truly fluent only in French. John Quincy Adams was a deeply cultivated man, who never stopped his studies, including that of languages.
That study sensitized him, even more than he already was, to subtle linguistic differences, sharpened his own sense of language, and ensured that he would use his native English with heightened tact and delicacy. Later, when he served in Congress, he would earn the title of “Old Man Eloquent.”
But he was not just a supremely gifted orator. During a life full of remarkable incident and high responsibility, John Quincy Adams managed to find time to make daily entries, often very long, in the diary that he began keeping diligently at the age of 12. Ultimately he left 51 fat volumes, 14,000 pages, of his daily activities, including discussions with other, often celebrated, political figures, notes on his reading, and his observations on men and events — a keeping of the historical record, as the history happened to someone smack in the middle of it all. He was thus, in addition to being a diplomat, statesman, Senator, Congressman, and President, also a historian, who has left us the greatest diary, both in mass and substance, in American history. Recording a span of sixty-eight years, from 1779 to 1848, it is the most significant contemporaneous work of history of the young Republic that exists.
John Quincy Adams’s experience of the wider world began at an early age, for his father, John Adams, was for half-a-century at the center of American political life, and often took his son with him on his missions, and shared his own observations with his precocious son. John Adams served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he encouraged his fellow delegates to demand independence from Great Britain. John Adams helped Jefferson compose the Declaration of Independence. He later helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the Revolutionary War. He then served as Washington’s Vice President for two terms, and then, as his successor, as America’s second President.
In fulfilling several important diplomatic missions abroad, in London, Paris, and the Netherlands, John Adams was accompanied on these trips by his son, beginning when John Quincy was eleven years old. John Quincy was with his father in Paris in 1779, with him in the Netherlands from 1780 to 1782 (where the elder Adams secured a two million dollar loan from Amsterdam bankers), and in 1783, served as his father’s secretary in Paris, where the elder Adams had gone to negotiate, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, the Treaty of Paris that ended the War for Independence. Franklin enjoyed talking with the boy, impressed both with his store of knowledge and his comprehension. John Quincy Adams was then all of fifteen. Also impressed with John Quincy Adams, somewhat later, was President Washington, who in 1794 appointed Adams, then 27 years old, to be Minister to the Netherlands, a post his father had held 12 years before. By that time, John Quincy Adams had a good deal of diplomatic experience under his belt. He had not only accompanied his father on important diplomatic missions, beginning at the age of 11, but also accompanied Charles Dana, the American chargé d’affaires at the legation in St. Petersburg, to serve as his private secretary and translator from the French. He was 14 years old at the time. Twenty-eight years later, he would return as the American Minister to Russia, serving for five years (1809-1814), and becoming quite friendly, as his diary notes reveal, with the Tsar himself.
John Quincy Adams thus was an eyewitness to how the American republic came to be, initially as a precocious child, sometimes hearing stories from his father, and later observing directly, his father’s activities, from his intervention at the Continental Congress, to his role in helping compose the Declaration of Independence, to his obtaining funds for Washington’s army from bankers in Amsterdam, right through to the part John Adams played in negotiating the Treaty of Paris that ended the War for Independence. John Quincy Adams knew, too, that the Constitution of the United States itself was modeled on the state constitution of Massachusetts, which had been written solely by his father in 1780. Through his father, John Quincy Adams was present at every step of the creation of the modern world’s first democracy.
Before he was thirty, J. Q. Adams had already lived in all the most important European capitals: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, St. Petersburg, had observed their societies, met their important men, studied their varied political systems, from the absolute monarchies of Russia and Prussia, to the less-absolute monarchy, tempered by the power of its nobles, of pre-Revolutionary France, to the mixed constitution (with both a monarch and both Houses — Lords and Commons — of Parliament) of Great Britain, to the republic (since 1581) of the Netherlands, which was the European country whose political system was closest to the American experiment. He thus could ponder the virtues and defects of these different political systems, not just from books but from direct observation. What shared values were necessary to form a nation? What were the advantages of democracy over a monarchy? What were the dangers of a professional political class? Ought there to be any brake on the popular will, and if so how, in terms of political institutions, could this best be achieved?
It is remarkable, in retrospect, how reluctant John Quincy Adams was early on to remain in public life; he enjoyed the life of the scholar, and the family library in Braintree. He had to be convinced by his father to accept the position Washington offered, as Minister to the Netherlands. Later, Washington would describe him as “the most valuable of America’s officials abroad.” From then on, his life was one long series both of high appointments and elected offices. When abroad, he always seemed to end up as a witness to history. He was present when the Treaty of Paris was negotiated. He was the minister to Russia, when Napoleon’s Grande Armee invaded the country with 600,000 men, and he was still there when Napoleon left Russia in defeat, with only 30,000 men still in battle formation. He happened to be in Paris precisely during the period of the Hundred Days of Napoleon’s return from exile.
Adams’s diaries provide glimpses into a very different, much more intimate world of diplomacy. In St. Petersburg, he would go out for a walk and run into the Tsar, with whom he would chat — in French, of course, the language of diplomacy. By now, he was America’s most experienced diplomat, having been Minister to the Netherlands, Prussia, and Russia. He was called back from Russia to undertake a new task, to negotiate the treaty which would end the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. The resulting Treaty of Ghent reestablished the status quo ante bellum in the relations of the parties, and there were no territorial changes. But the Americans could be well satisfied with an outcome that recognized the United States as having fought to a draw the strongest military power in Europe.
At this point, Adams might well have retired to his study in Braintree. But when President Monroe asked him to become his Secretary of State in 1817, he did not refuse. In that post, he was a whirlwind of activity. He successfully negotiated a treaty with Great Britain in 1818, which resolved long-standing boundary issues between the United States and British North America over the disputed region of the Pacific Northwest known in America as Oregon Country. Now that territory would be shared between the United States and Great Britain. That would have been accomplishment enough. But much more was to come.
Adams’s most important achievement as Secretary of State was the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, by which the United States gained all of Florida from Spain, and the border with New Spain was fixed, all the way to the Pacific. The Adams-Onis treaty has been described as “the greatest diplomatic victory ever won by a single individual in the history of the U.S.” It did not only obtain East and West Florida for the United States, but fixed the western boundary of the United States with New Spain. This boundary now began at the mouth of the Sabine River, and established that river as the eastern border of Texas. The boundary with New Spain ran at a northwest angle until it reached 42 degrees north latitude. It then followed this line of latitude as the northern border of California, west to the Pacific Ocean. Territory lying east and north of this line belonged to the United States; territory lying west and south of this line belonged to Spain. In addition, the United States made provision of five million dollars to pay off claims by Spain for damage done by American settlers in Florida.
As Secretary of State, Adams went from triumph to triumph. Having almost single-handedly established both the borders with New Spain and, in the northwest, with Great Britain, he then suggested, and outlined the contents, of what would become known, not quite accurately, as the Monroe Doctrine. This was a statement included by President Monroe in his annual address of 1823, that any efforts by European nations to take control of any independent state in North or South America would be viewed as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” At the same time, the doctrine noted that the U.S. would recognize, and not interfere with, existing European colonies; nor would it meddle in the internal concerns of European countries.
Adams served as president for one term (1825-1829). As Secretary of State, he had accomplished so much in foreign affairs — the Treaty of 1818 with Great Britain, the Adams-Onis Treaty, the Monroe Doctrine — that there was not much left to do. Among his diplomatic achievements as president, however, were treaties of reciprocity achieved with a number of nations, including Denmark, Mexico, the Hanseatic League, the Scandinavian countries, Prussia, and Austria.
He did turn most of his attention to domestic affairs, and accomplished much in building domestic infrastructure. In his four presidential years he made considerable progress in support of harbor improvements and road and canal development. Some of the projects he fostered 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. He also managed to reduce the national debt by two-thirds, from $15 million to $5 million. A record to remember.
When presidential historian Richard Norton Smith was recently asked who was the most science-friendly president, he answered, “I’d name John Quincy Adams as the most science friendly president. He’s regarded by many as the legislative father of the Smithsonian. He took great heat politically for proposing a national observatory — a ‘lighthouse of the skies’ in his lovely, hugely disputed phrase — and he was an amateur scientist/botanist himself … a true intellectual who had a broad vision of government’s responsibilities to promote the pursuit of knowledge.” He didn’t manage to get congressional approval for the national university he wanted, but the founding of the Smithsonian gave great impetus to the national promotion of science.
In Indian affairs, which were becoming a national issue, he was noticeably sympathetic to the Indians. He opposed the aggressive westward expansion at the expense of the Indians, who were beginning to be forced to leave their ancestral lands and move to the west, where they were given other, largely uninhabited land, byway of compensation. Adams did not support this policy of taking Indian lands and moving them to the west. Nor did he mince words. He called the American policy toward the Indians — specifically, the Creek Nation — “fraudulent and brutal.” Later, when he was in Congress and asked to serve on the Indian Affairs Committee, he declined: “It is among the heinous sins of this nation,” Adams wrote in his diary in June 1841. “I turned my eyes away from this sickening mass of putrefaction, and asked to be excused from serving as chairman of the committee.”
Adams’ final great achievement was when, still a Congressman, he took up the cause of 53 black slaves from Sierra Leone who had been sold in the slave market of Havana, and then managed to overpower the captain and crew of the Spanish slave ship in which they were being transported, the Amistad, before that ship, in turn, was seized by an American revenue cutter off Long Island, and the Africans taken prisoner. The details of the case are complicated, but its essence is simple: should the Africans be kept as slaves or be freed? Adams, always a firm opponent of slavery, presented the case for the Amistad rebels before the Supreme Court, and convinced the majority, with his mastery of the law, his moral sense, and his eloquence, that it had been illegal to seize the Africans in the first place from their homes in Sierra Leone. The Court ordered that they be freed and sent back to Sierra Leone, which was done. Thus did “Old Man Eloquent” win one of the most important legal — and moral — victories for the abolitionist cause.
It is important to realize that among his many achievements, John Quincy Adams was the greatest defender, in his day, both of Indian rights and of African slaves. His denunciation of Islam does not contradict, but rather, is consonant with those views, and springs from the same sources of moral indignation. It is telling that so many who hail him for his role in standing up for the Indians or, more often, for his central role in obtaining freedom for the slaves in the Amistad case, are silent about his views on Islam. They don’t want to discuss them or draw attention to them. This is because they do not know quite know what to make of them, don’t know how to explain away such cogent and unyielding criticism. They don’t allow themselves to see John Quincy Adams’s criticism of Islam not as an aberration but, rather, as fully in accord with his defense of human rights. He regarded Islam, and Muhammad, with horror. To discover that the undeniably great liberal defender of the rights of oppressed minorities turns out to have been such an implacable enemy of Islam can discombobulate those who assume he would have been a defender of Muslims and of Islam. For some, it doesn’t compute. But that’s only because it is their moral calculator — and not that of the morally steadfast John Quincy Adams — that needs fixing.
First published in Jihad Watch.