Adams Family Values

By Benjamin Schwarz


In writing a biography of John Quincy Adams that attempts ”to illuminate the . . . private as well as public” aspects of his subject, Paul C. Nagel, who has written two previous books on the Adams family, has set himself a thankless task. We already know a great deal about Adams the statesman, while Adams the man was, to use his own adjective, in many ways ”repulsive.”

Besides taking turns as Senator, President and Congressman, Adams was also the most well-traveled diplomat of his time and is generally regarded as America’s greatest Secretary of State. His public career has thus been minutely assessed by a number of scholars. But Adams was not, as he painfully recognized, a subtle or imaginative thinker. Unlike his enemies John Randolph and John C. Calhoun, he lacked what he called ”the conceptive power of mind.” Hence, even though Samuel Flagg Bemis completed his magisterial two-volume biography over 40 years ago, it remains definitive, since Adams’s political thinking doesn’t require reinterpretation every generation.

As for his private character, he acknowledged that others thought him ”obstinate, and dogmatical, and pedantic,” which was true, but didn’t go far enough. His father, John Adams, was often described in similar terms, yet there was something endearing in the elder Adams’s obnoxiousness. To get a better sense of the son’s personality, the historian George Dangerfield’s description has to be added to Adams’s self-assessment: ”a man corroded by meanness, suspicion and fear.” It is hard to take a shine to the private Adams, and Nagel is to be applauded for spending so much time with him. He isn’t entirely correct in asserting that previous historians have written little about Adams’s ”private side” (there are books on his personal history, his married life and his young adulthood, all based mainly on the Adams papers), but Nagel, who mined Adams’s unpublished diary, has written the most successful synthesis of the public and private man.

Frustratingly, however, he announces that he has ”found the key” to Adams’s character in his subject’s ”recurring major depression,” assures us that this affliction had a ”profound” impact on Adams’s personality and career, and then fails to assess specifically what that impact was. Clearly, the Adams family was afflicted with something. Adams’s uncle, two of his brothers and one of his sons died of alcoholism, and alcoholism drove another son to suicide.

Adams’s animating, defining and debilitating characteristic was grim self-preoccupation. Notoriously critical of others, he was also, as Nagel describes him, ”a man inordinately vexed by his own blunders and inadequacies.” What else would one expect from someone whose father told him that ”if you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness and Obstinacy”? No American up to his time had been so exhaustively prepared for national leadership. At least from the age of 10, when he wept in frustration at his failure to grasp what his mother and father admired in ”Paradise Lost” (and was ”ashamed to ask them an explanation”), he was haunted by great expectations and his own ambitions. His sense of inadequacy was exacerbated by what would strike today’s reader as a severe case of attention deficit disorder. He flitted from one half-finished project to another, cursing himself for doing so.

This was largely because Adams wanted to be not a statesman but a literary figure. He lacked the talent to write ”some great work of literature,” a defect he was never reconciled to. He incessantly sought excuses to avoid what Nagel astutely calls the ”literary toil he talked so much about desiring.” On the verge of writing a biography of his father, he exasperated family and friends when he indulged instead in petty anti-Freemason activities, conveniently blaming these efforts for his failure to get on with his project. Earlier in his career he forsook his literary ”calling” for a ceaseless assault on his political foe Jonathan Russell, an endeavor that Nagel aptly characterizes as ”a depressing example of time wasted by treading on an already fallen enemy” (and that inspired a long-used transitive verb, ”to Jonathan-Russell,” meaning to pulverize a vanquished opponent). Politics and diplomacy, then, provided Adams with distractions, so that he pursued a career that at some level he deemed unworthy, so as to avoid failing at what he wished he could do.

But while Adams was plagued by self-recrimination, he projected smug superiority toward even such men of ability as Albert Gallatin and Henry Clay. Having spent much of his life consorting with European ambassadors and men of letters, Adams came across, as the Washington gossips whispered, as a haughty cosmopolitan. Moreover, he was, depending on point of view, either deeply principled or militantly self-righteous. Adams was always proud of not being a party politician and, sticking to his principles, he managed to alienate both political allies and enemies. But he also infuriated them just to make a nuisance of himself, as when he would hold up a piece of legislation to correct a point of grammar. He took, as Nagel asserts, ”a perverse pleasure” in thinking — and making — himself unpopular; ”I think I touched them up” (provoked their ire), he would frequently say with satisfaction.

Adams enjoyed fancying himself as a righteous man under assault, and this characteristic colors what is generally regarded as the noblest aspect of his public career. Although his achievements as Secretary of State are universally acknowledged, his role in the creation of the Monroe Doctrine and his methodical efforts to secure a continental empire for the United States are hardly the stuff of drama. Rather, following his disastrous Presidency, his career in the House of Representatives, in which he tirelessly opposed the ”gag rule” forbidding the House from debating slavery, has earned him (thanks in part to John F. Kennedy’s ”Profiles in Courage”) a place in the American pantheon as a courageous champion of freedom. But Nagel, although he admires Adams, makes an important contribution when he departs from Adams’s hagiographers by implying that Adams’s antislavery stance could be cast in a somewhat different light.

Adams had long been searching for what Nagel calls ”an ennobling cause” for which ”he could contend against all the forces of evil.” By the mid-1830’s the fight against the gag rule, and more generally slavery, conveniently presented itself as this cause. While this is an uncharitable view of Adams’s motivation, before this period he had never made a public statement against slavery. (He was hardly, for instance, as courageous as Clay, who opposed slavery despite being a Kentuckian and a practical politician.) Until the 1830’s, Nagel notes, Adams ”displayed little concern about the enslaved African-American.” In fact, as a young diplomat he happily anticipated a time when his wife’s family’s Georgia plantation would support his literary activities, a plan that went awry not because of his distaste for slavery but because of his in-laws’ insolvency.

As the furor over the gag rule mounted, Adams’s wife confided to her diary her hope that he would realize his aspiration — one she defined, revealingly, not as emancipation or even as the revocation of the gag rule but as recognition of Adams’s rectitude: ”that he may leave a fame to posterity and awaken the justice of this nation to record his name as one of the fairest midst the race of man.” Adams’s embrace of the antislavery cause seems largely impelled by his craving to satisfy his enormous vanity and self-righteousness.

Too much of Nagel’s book reads like a synopsis of irrelevant events and journeys that Adams describes in his diaries. The reader longs for more interpretation, less chronicling. Nagel has nevertheless written the best biography of Adams between two covers. Still, John Quincy Adams has now inspired more biographies than he perhaps warrants, and it’s time for historians to give the subject a rest.


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