John Quincy Adams

Article excerpt

John Quincy Adams. By Lynn Hudson Parsons. American Profiles. (Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1998. Pp. xviii, 284. $29.95, ISBN 0-945612-54-0.)

John Quincy Adams seldom fares well in the rankings of U.S. presidents frequently compiled by historians. The reason is not hard to discover: during his administration (1825-29), Adams ran afoul of a rapidly changing political climate, the machinations of politicians eager to undercut him, and his own political clumsiness. If the criteria for historical reputation were to be expanded to include entire public careers, however, Adams would surely rank close to the top. Adams's non-presidential accomplishments are legion: lawyer; U.S. senator; Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard; U.S. minister to the Netherlands, then Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain; poet and essayist; secretary of state and chief architect of the Monroe Doctrine; erudite author of a pathbreaking report on weights and measures; antislavery Congressman; and counsel for the Amistad mutineers before the Supreme Court. Few individuals in the entire history of American public life have amassed such a remarkable record of public service. Adams is seldom included in the American pantheon, in spite of his record, as a consequence not only of his failed administration but also of his irritable, often self-righteous manner and stubborn adherence to a fading, eighteenth-century political order in the raucously democratic, aggressively egalitarian world of nineteenth-century America.

The biographies under review--alike in making the case for Adams's historical importance (alike as well in their lamentable lack of footnotes and other scholarly apparatus)--are notably dissimilar in approach and significance. Lynn Parsons's John Quincy Adams successfully meets the criteria of Madison House's American Profiles series of which it is a part: "to add a human dimension to the study of history" by offering "relatively concise and swiftly-paced sketches" of significant Americans. The series operates on the reasonable premise that "complex and often dry subjects ... can be enlivened and given meaning through a focus on ... individual stories (p. ix)." The story Parsons tells, well informed and carried forward by an engaging narrative style, moves briskly and hits the standard highpoints of Adams' s career. While it may effectively serve the needs of the elusive "general reader," however, scholars will find little new concerning either Adams or his times in these pages. Parsons tells us Adams was deeply conservative and ardently nationalist. He was a man who, although affirming his own political independence (he wanted desperately to be "the man of my whole country"), suffered rejection by the American people in spite of decades of personal sacrifice and public service.

Far more ambitious and thus more engaging is Paul Nagel's magisterial John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life. …