Presidential Review: John Quincy Adams

31 Mar

If there ever was a family that seemed bound and determined to piss off everyone in America, it would be the Adams family.  John Quincy Adams had a remarkably similar fate as his father, but for completely different reasons.  Like his father, John Quincy was a brilliant man, who unfortunately was not the best executive politician.  (He was, however, one of the best supporting politicians of all time–he was brilliant as Secretary of State, and extremely successful in the House of Representatives).   

John Quincy Adams also was unfortunate in the fact that while his father had Revolutionary War credentials, and thus would always be well known historically regardless of the nature of his presidency, John Quincy does not have that distinction.  

Anyway, he politically shot himself in the foot during the Presidential Election.  So he was running against Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay.  Jackson had the most votes, but nobody had a majority of Electoral College votes, so the choice came down to the House of Representatives.  In these meetings Henry Clay gave his votes to Adams, which put John Quincy over the top.  Jackson, who fully expected to win, was livid.  

In the election of 1824, Jackson was extremely popular with the public (after a string of military victories and such) but not with politicians.  Clay saw Jackson as a dangerous man who did not follow protocol, as evidenced in the Florida invasion in 1819.  Also, there was a fear, after Napoleon brought down democracy in France, that a great war hero could gather a following that would undo all the progress that had already happened.  

In any case, Adams did the absolute worst thing by bringing Henry Clay in as his Secretary of State.  Jackson publicly claimed that it was a “corrupt bargain” a planned out scheme to make sure that one of them would win the presidency regardless of what the voting would have been.  There’s little evidence that John Quincy Adams had such a deal going on, however the scandal stuck, and guaranteed that John Quincy would be unpopular before he ever took office in the first place.

In such a situation, partisanship started taking hold, with Jacksonians pretty much refusing to budge on the issues, Adams could make very little progress.  However, I contend that he was still a brilliant president.  Just look at this quote.

. But she [the United States of America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

I really wish we listened to this quote years ago–ever since the cold war it seems that America’s foreign policy is almost exclusively looking for monsters to destroy.  

Two things he accomplished were great strides in America’s transportation system, spreading roads and canals out to the west, thus encouraging development.   This was the first time that the National government was involved in such domestic matters, having spent the first generation of presidents questioning its constitutionality.  In the end, Adams was right though, while each state could govern over the roads within their respective boundaries, it took the national government to organize a network of roads and canals that made sense on a national level.  Also the idea that roads would develop as needed was patently false, roads were a prerequisite for people to settle in a place, not the opposite, particularly in the landlocked interior of America.

Second, John Quincy Adams was the last president for awhile who tried to have a fair relationship between the United States government and Native Americans.  Adams considered them as much a part of the country as any settlers were, and tried to use the government to protect them and make sure they were treated fairly.  The south and the west hated this state of affairs though–they felt it was the government intruding on their right to take what they wanted.

In any case, John Quincy Adams left office after one term and a very nasty election in 1828.  However, as I said, he found his niche in the House of Representatives, where he did not have to worry about representing a set of beliefs he did not agree with.

In a way, Adams was way ahead of his time.  He was completely against slavery, believed in Native American rights, wanted controlled expansion emphasizing steady development rather than huge social changes.  Unfortunately, he didn’t really have a chance to do much about it, as president anyway.  

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