Harlow Giles Unger’s latest biography is, if possible, even better than his last. Unger does a superb job of illuminating a largely forgotten figure of American history – John Quincy Adams. Unger’s book is a great place to start learning about the generation immediately following the country’s founding. This was a steadily more and more tumultuous period in American history, as the country prepared to pay the price required of it for not addressing slavery at its inception. John Quincy Adams was at the forefront of the abolition movement for the latter part of his rich and varied life.
Unger begins the book with a chronology of events from Adam’s life. This alone made for fascinating reading and served to frame the book and give big picture context to the story the author was going to tell. The following are some of the events in the life of a man who, as a boy, witnessed the Battle of Bunker’s Hill with his mother Abigail Adams in 1775 and briefly served in the same Congress as Abraham Lincoln.
As in his books on James Monroe (reviewed here) and Patrick Henry (reviewed here), Unger’s prose is crisp and succinct. While he may not delve as deeply as Gordon Woods, Unger’s books always ignite reader interest in his subject. This reader was struck with the thought that John Quincy Adams was a maverick like Ron Paul, but one with more gravitas, education, and character. (This is not a jab against Dr. Paul, but a contrast. Adams was a brilliant scholar, diplomat, and politician.) Most people are aware that John Quincy Adams was the son of the second president, John Adams. Those who’ve seen the movie Amistad, might recognize him as one of two lawyers who argued before the Supreme Court (pro bono) on behalf of some would-be slaves accused of murder and mutiny. The Africans had killed the captain and several of the crew of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, after being captured in Africa. Destined for sale in Cuba, the blacks tried to force the crew to take them back home. But because they did not understand the principles of navigation, they were duped and, after the ship was captured by a US revenue cutter, ended up in the United States. It was the aging ex-president, the son of the nation’s second president, with the grandson of Roger Sherman, signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, who defended the blacks and prevailed before the Supreme Court.
This is only one of the intriguing episodes in Adams’ life. He was a master of diplomacy, an autodidact, talented poet, classical scholar, and a terrible president. Ironically, Adams did not shine as an elected politician, until after leaving the presidency. He refused to toe the party line, refused to campaign, and didn’t figure out how to relate to the people on their level — until after he lost his bid for a second term. But as a congressman in the House of Representatives, he became one of the most beloved and hated men in American politics. He refused party alliances, sometime siding with presidents like Jefferson (in voting for the Louisiana Purchase) and sometimes fighting them tooth and nail – like Jackson on the annexation of Texas. He viewed himself as a representative of the entire nation, not just Massachusetts, and belonged to no political party. He consistently opposed slavery and became a staunch abolitionist, using his rhetorical powers to circumvent the Gag Rule imposed by the House, which banned the mere mention of slavery. At various points there were movements to have him expelled or even charged with treason because of his obstinacy in ignoring the rule. He submitted a petition from “the citizens of Haverhill, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts … that you will immediately adopt measures to peaceably dissolve the Union of these States.” This petition was in response to the renewed Gag Rule of 1842, which stated:
“No petition, memorial, resolution or any other paper, playing for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or any other state or territory, or the slave trade between the states and territories of the United States where it exists shall be received by this house, or entertained in any way whatsoever.”
When Adams proposed the petition the parliamentarians from the South were incensed, and screamed for “order.”
Kentucky Congressman Thomas Marshall, a nephew of the deceased Chief Justice John Marshall, move to censure John Quincy for having ” committed high treason when he submitted a petition for dissolution of the union.”
“Sir,” John Quincy shot back, “what is high treason? The Constitution of the United States says what high treason is.… It is not for the gentleman from Kentucky, or his puny mind, to define what high treason is and confound it with what I have done.” John Quincy then ordered the clerk to read the first paragraph of the declaration of independence. When the clerk hesitated, John Quincy repeated his demand, shouting, “The first paragraph!”
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of Europe, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impelled him to the separation–”
“Proceed!” John Quincy thundered. “Proceed! Down to the ‘right’ and ‘duty’!”
The clerk continued: “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.”
“Now, sir, if there is a principal sacred on earth and established by the instrument just read, it is the right of the people to alter, change, to destroy, the government if it becomes oppressive to them. There would be no such right existing if the people had not the power in pursuance of its petition for it…
“I rest that petition on the Declaration of Independence!” John Quincy boomed.
The move to censure Adams was tabled. But not content to rest on his laurels, he proceeded to give a speech in the House of Representatives that would later serve as the basis for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
“Under this state of things,” he spoke, staring at the Southerners, “so far from being true that the states where slavery exists have the exclusive management of the subject, not only the President of the United States the commander of the Army has the power to order universal emancipation of slaves.”
At the age of 75, John Quincy Adams was hitting his stride.
His popularity exceeded that of the President, and had he defended his beliefs as aggressively when he was President, he would certainly never have suffered the humiliation of defeat in his run for reelection. Few Americans knew or understood him as President; almost every American now knew and understood him–indeed, revered him–after his battle in Congress, and millions now listen to every word of the Sage of Quincy. Hundreds lined up to see him, to hear his words, to try to talk to him as he walked about Washington, striding to and from the capital each day. Luminaries from all parts of the United States, Britain, and Europe called at his home. Charles Dickens and his wife stopped for lunch, and Dickens asked for John Quincy’s autograph before leaving. John Quincy had emerged as one of the most celebrated and beloved personages in the Western world.
Mr. Unger’s descriptive powers continue to impress. He writes some of the most readable and informative biographies available. His latest on John Quincy Adams is certainly one of these.