Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten Americans Blogging--John Quincy Adams

Given the surprising popularity of my William Howard Taft post last week, I've decided to blog about a forgotten American every Tuesday. One can question whether ex-presidents are really forgotten about, but nobody knows anything about most of them and they should.

Today, I want to present one John Quincy Adams. I imagine no one out there knows much of anything about Adams. But he's really a remarkable individual and under different circumstances and with a slightly different personality could have been one of our greatest presidents. Born in 1767, to John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers and the second president of the United States, JQ Adams was trained from an early age to be prominent American. Adams Sr. took JQ with him to Europe in the early days of the republic. When he was 11, he lived in Paris and later moved to Amsterdam and then the German states.

With these formative experiences, a smart mind, and the high expectations of his parents, John Quincy was named US minister to Amsterdam in 1794, at the age of 27. Pretty impressive. His early career was dominated by foreign matters, which are perhaps of limited interest. He served in various countries and came back for a time to serve in Congress.

Where Adams gets interesting is after his appointment by James Monroe as Secretary of State in 1817. The US was very weak at this time--it had barely survived the War of 1812 that ended only 2 years before--but it was looking to expand its boundaries. He negoitated the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819 that gave Florida to the US (after Andrew Jackson pretty much decided to take it by force). But his biggest foreign policy success was the Monroe Doctrine.

Adams authored this statement which is often excoriated by progressives today, and with good reason. But at the time, 1823, Adams didn't intend this to be an instrument of US agression in the Americas. Rather, he wanted to protect both US interests and the people of Latin America. The nations of Latin America had just become independent of Spain and there were fears of European invasions to recolonize these lands. Adams composed the Monroe Doctrine to both protect those nations but also to assert US primacy in the region. It wasn't really until Theodore Roosevelt's presidency that the Monroe Doctrine became a weapon of imperialism. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine gave the US the right to intervene in the affairs of Latin American nations whenever we thought it necessary--from that point forward, US policy toward the region became far more paternalistic and interventionalist. But the original doctrine did no such thing.

Adams became president in 1824. No one questioned his qualifications. But because it was a 4 party race, he was voted in by the House, even though Andrew Jackson had more electoral votes. Believing that the most competent people should serve in the Cabinet, he named Henry Clay Secretary of State. However, Clay had used his influence as the 4th place and therefore ineligbile candidate once the election went to the House to have his voters go for Adams. Thus, Jackson's supporters claimed it was a "corrupt bargain" made between Adams and Clay. In fact, it was not but Adams was a terrible politician and ignored the obvious problems naming Clay would cause. This undermined his presidential career, which could have been great. He had an expansive vision of the federal government and hoped to use his power to improve the educational and intellectual life of the country. He proposed for instance a series of national astronomy observatories for instance--this was ridiculed at the time but it seems to me that such a program could have done a lot of good for the young nation, and in fact we could use some of this today. But he was crushed in the 1828 election by Jackson.

It was really after his presidency that Adams became a shining light. Not willing to give up politics, he entered Congress from 1831 until his death in 1848. Here he became the early congressional leader in the antislavery movement. It was largely because of Adams' obsessive reading of antislavery petitions on the House floor that Congress implemented a gag order prohibiting these to be read. He represented the Amistad slaves in their fight for freedom. Until his death, Adams used his significant power to advance the antislavery cause at a time when it was largely unpopular, even in the North.

Overall then, Adams certainly is one of the most interesting Americans of all time. With a widely varied career that allowed him to use his talents in various fields, Adams always held principles higher than politics, something that was disastrous in a president in 1825, not to mention today. But it is hard to argue that America would not be a better place with more politicans like John Quincy Adams.