In 1825, when John Quincy Adams became the sixth president of the United States, he appeared to be as well prepared for the job as anyone could be. A son of the nation’s second president, he was well educated at Harvard; as secretary of state, he wrote what became known as the Monroe Doctrine; and as a U.S. senator, he broke with his party and supported the Louisiana Purchase. Despite this illustrious background, he proved to be the most ineffective president in early American history.

His presidency failed in part because of his own missteps (his inability to relate to the ordinary citizen) and partly by the efforts of his political opponents (primarily supporters of Andrew Jackson). Still, his independence and political courage were remarkable, especially his post-presidential opposition to slavery. Harlow Giles Unger captures the many sides of Adams and his era in the superb John Quincy Adams. A key source is the diary that Adams kept from the age of 10 until his late 70s—14,000 pages in all.

First elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1802, Adams was regarded as such a nuisance in his home state that his colleagues elected him to the U.S. Senate to get rid of him for at least six years. Instead, Unger writes, Adams began to shock “the nation’s entire political establishment with what became a courageous, lifelong crusade against injustice.”

On his first day in the House of Representatives (the only president who went on to serve in that body), Adams presented 15 petitions calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. It was a stunning breach of decorum in a body forbidden by its rules to speak of abolition. In a famous case, he later defended 36 Africans who had been prisoners on the slave ship Amistad.

Eloquent, irritating and fiercely committed to his work, John Quincy Adams lived an extraordinary life, and Unger tells his story convincingly in this compelling narrative.

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