John Quincy Adams, the sixth U.S. President, was a man of enormous accomplishments. He is often eclipsed by his parents’ long shadow, but in a life devoted entirely to public service, he was their equal in shaping a young nation’s character.
During a brilliant diplomatic career, he increased America’s stature abroad and expanded her boundaries at home. As president, he proposed infrastructure improvements designed to spur the nation’s growth and fuel its leadership in science and invention. As an elder statesmen in Congress, he showed courage and perseverance in battling the expansion of slavery and defending the Constitution.
A witness to the Revolution
No man was better prepared for his role in life.
John Quincy Adams was born in 1767 in Braintree, Massachusetts, the eldest son of John and Abigail Adams, who were passionate advocates for independence. As a child, he witnessed the Revolutionary War firsthand. In 1775, just shy of this eighth birthday, he climbed with his mother to the top of Penn’s Hill near the family farm, where they heard cannon fire from the Battle of Bunker Hill and watched the burning of Charlestown.
In February 1778, when John Adams was sent to Europe to negotiate an alliance with France, 10-year-old John Quincy accompanied him, surviving a perilous winter voyage on the 24-gun frigate Boston. Chased by British warships for three days, they eluded capture only to encounter a ferocious storm that blew the Boston several hundred miles off course before the ship landed safely in Spain.
By the age of 14, John Quincy was sufficiently fluent in French to be chosen as the private secretary and French interpreter for Francis Dana, the U.S. minister to Russia. He served in that role for nearly three years.
Influence abroad, expansion at home
These experiences laid the groundwork for a distinguished diplomatic career that spanned from 1794 to 1817. Adams, who spoke several languages fluently, served as U.S. Minister to Holland under George Washington, Minister to Prussia during his father’s presidency, and Minister to Russia and then Great Britain under President James Madison. He played a major role in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Great Britain.
In 1797, John Quincy married Louisa Catherine Johnson, the nation’s only foreign-born First Lady, who would be a steadfast partner throughout his career.
In 1817, Adams was named Secretary of State by President James Monroe. In that role, he established friendly relations with Great Britain, expanded U.S. territory by acquiring Florida from Spain, and consolidated the nation’s borders to the North and South. Adams also set the course for early U.S. foreign policy by authoring the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European powers not to interfere in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere.
Chosen, but not elected
In the presidential election of 1824, Adams finished second, behind Andrew Jackson, but because none of the five candidates had received a majority, the matter was turned over to the House of Representatives, which selected Adams as President. Undermined by Jackson’s supporters, he struggled as a minority president and made little progress in implementing a far-sighted program of national improvements, which included federal support for the arts and sciences, creation of a national university and a Department of the Interior, and development of a system of roads and canals.
A champion of freedom
After failing to win re-election to the presidency, John Quincy Adams was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830—the only former president to return to Congress. For the last 17 years of his life, he wielded enormous influence. An increasingly outspoken opponent of slavery and its expansion, Adams foretold the Civil War, warning that the conflict required to bring about slavery’s end “will be terrible”. He waged a long and ultimately successful battle to strike down the gag rule, which barred anti-slavery petitions from being submitted to Congress. At the U.S. Supreme Court, he successfully defended the African captives imprisoned during the uprising on the slave ship Amistad, winning them their freedom. Adams was also the moving force behind the creation of the Smithsonian Institution, which grew to be the world’s largest museum and research complex.
In 1848, after 60 years of public service, John Quincy Adams suffered a stroke and collapsed at his desk in the House of Representatives. He died two days later at the age of 80, fulfilling a prediction he had made years before in his diary: “the world will retire from me before I shall retire from the world.”