John Quincy Adams was devoted to literature, and had he been able to pursue his ideal career, he wrote in 1817, “I should have made myself a great poet.” He did write poetry throughout his extraordinary life, but, from a very young age, his parents strongly encouraged him toward life as a leader in the new republic. His literary skills, however, were not wasted. There were his letters, essays on public policy and speeches, all of which he wrote himself. The best expression of these skills often came in his diary, begun in 1779 and continuing until his death in 1848. It would become the most valuable firsthand account of an American life and events during that period.

Award-winning biographer Fred Kaplan, whose subjects have included Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, draws heavily on Adams’ diary and other writings to bring our sixth president vividly to life in John Quincy Adams: American Visionary. Because his presidency is usually regarded as unsuccessful, Adams’ place as a visionary and prophet is often overlooked. Kaplan’s book emphasizes how Adams’ vision and values have stood the test of time.

Adams was an outstanding diplomat in Europe, as well as president, senator, secretary of state, Harvard professor and, for the last 16 years of his life, a member of the House of Representatives, the only former president to serve in Congress. He spent his years there eloquently proposing and defending his reform agenda, which included, most prominently, opposition to slavery.

A dominant theme of Adams’ life, following the lead of his Founding Father father, John Adams, was the importance of a “social compact” that united the country’s inhabitants. In a speech in Boston in 1802, he emphasized the centrality of a union based on values expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and to “perpetuate this union is the first political duty . . . of every American.” It was this pledge to union, despite the controversial compromises needed to create the Constitution, that guided his life.    

Although Adams’ presidency is often considered a failure, it is hard to place all of the blame on him. The supporters of Andrew Jackson, who won the popular vote but lost to Adams when the election was decided in the House, vehemently opposed his legislative proposals. Even some of his political friends felt that Adams’ vision— which included a federally supported national infrastructure, a regulated banking system, an important role for the federal government in scientific and cultural initiatives—went too far.

This important book combines solid research and wisely selected excerpts from Adams’ writings with an engaging narrative about a man who made significant contributions to our national life.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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