John Quincy Adams (1767-1848)

By John M. Hunt, Jr., PhD

c.1840 Photograph of John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, son of John and Abigail of Braintree (now Quincy), MA, was conscious of his heritage. Like his father, he was happy to repeat the story that his great-great-great grandfather, John Alden, was the first Mayflower passenger to set foot on Plymouth Rock. (The story comes from Alden family tradition, and competes with that of the Chilton family, which promotes Mary.) More than that, JQA thought that Hannah Bass, granddaughter of John and Priscilla Alden, was the one who added new vigor to Adams family — known for its mere "industry, sobriety, and integrity" — and thereby affected his own makeup.

His Mayflower line runs: JQA (=Louisa Catherine Johnson), John5 Adams, Jr. (=Abigail Smith), John4 Adams (=Susanna Boylston), Hannah3 Bass (=Joseph Adams, Jr.), Ruth2 Alden (=John Bass), John1 Alden (=Priscilla Mullins).

A Pilgrim quality strongly visible in JQA is courage, unflinching courage. It is no coincidence that President John F. Kennedy, in his book Profiles in Courage (1955), gave him pride of place. Kennedy admired JQA's support, when he was a U.S. senator, of Jefferson's Embargo Bill in 1807, a move that flouted party allegiance and forced his resignation. (It was still much in the air that Jefferson had driven his predecessor, John Adams the father, from office. How could JQA side with such a man?) Another fine moment — this one in the U.S. House of Representatives, where JQA represented the Plymouth district of Massachusetts — was his opposition to the "gag" rule, which tabled all petitions concerning slavery. His enemies shouted "Expel him! Expel him!" But to no avail: almost single-handedly he crushed the infamous rule. He was equally impressive in his defense of the Africans, captives on the Spanish slave ship Amistad, who mutinied when the vessel was near Cuba, killing the captain, and ultimately reached Long Island Sound. JQA argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court in February-March 1841. Deploring the foot-dragging of the Van Buren administration, he brilliantly upheld the position of the lower courts, district and circuit, that the Amistad prisoners were not property, but human beings, illegally seized. He won. Justice Story called the appeal "extraordinary," citing its "power" and "bitter sarcasm." The Africans, the first slaves to receive their freedom from U.S. courts, returned to their homeland.

Kennedy judged that JQA's lifetime "has never been paralleled in American history." Adams held, Kennedy explained, "more important offices and participated in more important events than anyone in the history of our nation, as Minister to the Hague, Emissary to England, Minister to Prussia, State Senator, United States Senator, Minister to Russia, Head of the American Mission to negotiate peace with England [in the War of 1812], Minister to England, Secretary of State [he formulated the Monroe Doctrine and acquired Florida for the U.S.], President of the United States and member of the House of Representatives." It is further interesting that he served as Professor of Oratory at Harvard University, his alma mater, and was nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court, and was in fact confirmed, though he declined the appointment.

Just as Governor William Bradford showed a powerful sense of history in his Of Plymouth Plantation, providing an unimpeachable primary source, so did JQA in his monumental diary. "Most scholars agree," says Paul G. Nagel, "that Adams' diary" — covering seventy tumultuous years — "is the most valuable historical and personal journal kept by any prominent American." In its pages we find Washington, Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, et al. Though JQA could be caustic in his judgment of others, he saved his most severe animadversions for himself, relentlessly cataloging his own shortcomings.

Governor Bradford would have appreciated, and identified with, certain aspects of JQA's life. Both men had sojourns in Holland, Bradford with the Pilgrims in 1609-20 and JQA as a student in 1781-83 and as minister in 1794-96; and both men faced the perils of the North Atlantic, with broken masts complicating the crossing. When JQA read his favorite Latin author Cicero, he was probably unaware of Bradford's predilection for Cicero and Seneca among secular classics; and when he read the New Testament in Greek, he realized Bradford's goal of reading scripture in the original language, not in translation. In the area of the sermon, the staple of Pilgrim worship, JQA was a connoisseur. During his presidency, he made a habit of attending church services in Washington and critiquing the sermons.

Psychologists who studied the childhood achievements of great men and women rated JQA, an obvious prodigy, as significantly more intelligent than Franklin and Jefferson, and David McCullough, author of John Adams (2001), recently called him perhaps our brightest president. He was certainly not our most charismatic. Admitting the latter, regarding himself as "a man of reserved, cold, austere and forbidding manners," JQA valued intelligence only insofar as it served virtue and the betterment of mankind. Charm was not his game. He was therefore pleasantly surprised in later life, while traveling to Cincinnati, that huge multitudes sang his praises all along the way, and he did not mind the nickname "Old Man Eloquent," applied to him for his long anti-slavery filibusters. He died, his integrity intact, on February 23, 1848, aged eighty, having suffered a stroke while debating on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

JQA's father John, second U.S. President, his son Charles Francis, ambassador to Great Britain, and his grandson Henry, historian and author of The Education of Henry Adams, are all Alden/Mullins descendants.

JQA's comment on the Mayflower Compact, given on our website's home page, is justly famous: "the first example in modern times of a social compact or system of government instituted by voluntary agreement conformable to the laws of nature, by men of equal rights and about to establish their community in a new country."

For more details see Paul G. Nagel's great biography, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (1997).