John Quincy Adams: His Theory and Ideas

By George A. Lipsky | Go to book overview

Foreword

It has been usual for Americans, like Britons, to value high character in public men rather more than high intellectual attainments. History has proved it a sound attitude, for the qualities of character exhibited by Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Lee, Cleveland, and Wilson have been more useful to their countrymen than any display of intellectual subtlety or brilliance could have been. Sagacity and judgment we need in our national leaders; but any mental endowments beyond this are of less worth to the state than integrity, courage, coolness, and magnanimity. So at any rate most Americans would say, prizing nobleness of mind more than depth of mind. Perhaps because of this general attitude the country, while recognizing the greatness of John Quincy Adams, has been more inclined to think of him as a great personality than a great intellect.

Adams made many mistakes and met many failures, but his eminence in character and spirit has been evident to all who read the history of the first half of the nineteenth century. No more intrepid, conscientious, and laborious public servant, no more honorable, earnest, and devoted leader, ever sat in the White House or lifted his voice in Congress. When, entering the Senate in Jefferson's Administration, he displayed an independence which excited antagonism on all sides of the chamber, the young man realized that he would need exceptional fortitude. "The qualities of mind most peculiarly called for," he wrote in his diary, "are firmness, perseverance, patience, coolness, and forbearance." These qualities he proceeded to exhibit, for they were inborn. He was irritable, tactless, aggressive, and humorless; but he was also an unshakable battler for principle, a man whose high pride lifted him above all pettiness, a patriot who thought of no interest but his country's, a leader of inflexible scruple.

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