Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in potus_geeks,

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John Quincy Adams: The Visionary President

Perhaps because he was so well travelled, John Quincy Adams was a man of tremendous vision. Sometimes he was mocked for it, but in looking back on his legacy, we see a man ahead of his time. Like his father before him, John Quincy Adams is remembered as a man of great integrity and principle. At a time when Americans in southern states were defending the enslavement of fellow human beings based on the color of their skin, and while Americans in northern states looked the other way while this was happening, John Quincy Adams saw slavery for what it clearly was: wrong. He also envisioned a better future for his nation and his imagination took him to the stars.


The second President Adams is widely regarded as one of the most effective diplomats and secretaries of state in American history. Regrettably this demonstration of extraordinary ability did not carry through to his term as President. John Quincy Adams is remembered as a man eminently qualified for the presidency. But perhaps be was doomed from the start because of the circumstances of his election: he finished second in electoral and popular voting, but secured victory in a runoff election in the House of Representatives that his opponents spun as being the result of a "corrupt bargain." Hamstrung by this claim of illegitimacy in obtaining his office, Adams was left hopelessly weakened in his presidential leadership potential as a result.

Oh but what a pedigree and what a resume! He was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, the son of John Adams, the first Vice-President and second President of the United States. As a youth, John Quincy spent much of his time in Europe, where his father served as a diplomat. After returning to the United States, Adams practiced law in Boston. In 1794, President George Washington appointed Adams as the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, and Adams would later serve as Ambassador to Prussia, Russia, and to the United Kingdom. He also served most of a term as the United States Senator from Massachusetts. But Adams broke with the Federalist Party over foreign policy and was denied re-election. In 1809, Adams was appointed as the U.S. ambassador to Russia by President James Madison. He was part of the American delegation that negotiated an end to the War of 1812.

In 1817, President James Monroe selected Adams as his Secretary of State. In that role, Adams negotiated the Adams–Onís Treaty, which provided for the American acquisition of Florida. He also helped formulate the Monroe Doctrine, which became a key tenet of U.S. foreign policy.

The 1824 presidential election was a pivotal contest between Adams, Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay, all of whom were members of the Democratic-Republican Party. When no candidate won a majority of the electoral vote, the House of Representatives held a contingent election to determine the president, which Adams won with Clay's support. When Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State, Jackson and others cried foul and accused Adams and Clay of forming a "corrupt bargain."

To use modern parlance, Adams would often "think outside the box". For example, in his first annual message to Congress he proposed the building of astronomical observatories, referring to them as "lighthouses in the skies". He told Congress:

"Connected with the establishment of an university, or separate from it, might be undertaken the erection of an astronomical observatory, with provision for the support of an astronomer... It is with no feeling of pride as an American that the remark may be made that on the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe there are existing upward of 130 of these lighthouses of the skies, while throughout the whole American hemisphere there is not one. If we reflect a moment upon the discoveries which in the last four centuries have been made in the physical constitution of the universe by the means of these buildings and of observers stationed in them, shall we doubt of their usefulness to every nation? And while scarcely a year passes over our heads without bringing some new astronomical discovery to light, which we must fain receive at second hand from Europe, are we not cutting ourselves off from the means of returning light for light while we have neither observatory nor observer upon our half of the globe and the earth revolves in perpetual darkness to our unsearching eyes?”

Adams' forward thinking was mocked at the time, but he was certainly unafraid to use his imagination to consider scientific possibilities. During Adams presidency, one of these scientific imaginings was something called the Hollow Earth Theory. One of its leading proponents was John Cleves Symmes, Jr., an American army officer, who was traveling around the country on the lecture circuit. Symmes was espousing his theory of a Hollow Earth. He believed that our planet was composed of several solid concentric spheres. He published a circular containing the theory and in his talks he was lobbying for "one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea." He planned to somehow slip between those concentric spheres, which he believed were open at the poles "12 or 16 degrees."

Symmes lobbied Congress for funding for the epic journey. Not surprisingly, Congress said no. But President John Quincy Adams believed that there might be something to Symmes theory. Even though Congress considered the theory to be laughable, Adams disagreed. In Adams’ diary, he wrote: "I saw the sun rise and set, clear, from Charles' house on the hill. The pleasure that I take in witnessing these magnificent phenomena of physical nature never tires; it is a part of my own nature, unintelligible to others. The sensations which affect me at the rising and setting sun are first, adoration to the power and goodness of the Creator, mingled in the morning with thanksgiving and in the evening with sadness and with humble supplication for forgiveness of my own errors and infirmities."

As president, Adams set out an ambitious agenda that included federally-funded infrastructure projects, the establishment of a national university, and engagement with the countries of Latin America. But he had too many opponents in Congress and they defeated many of his initiatives. During Adams's presidency, the Democratic-Republic Party polarized into two major camps: one group, known as the National Republican Party, supported Adams, while the other group, known as the Democratic Party, supported Andrew Jackson. The Democrats proved to be more effective political organizers than Adams and his National Republican supporters, and Jackson decisively defeated Adams in the 1828 presidential election.

Rather than retiring from public service, Adams won election to the House of Representatives, where he would serve from 1831 to his death in 1848. He joined the Anti-Masonic Party in the early 1830s before becoming a member of the Whig Party, which united those opposed to President Jackson. During his time in Congress, Adams became increasingly critical of slavery and of the Southern leaders whom he believed controlled the Democratic Party. He vigorously opposed to the annexation of Texas and also opposed US entry into the Mexican–American War. He saw it as a war to extend slavery. Adams led the fight to repeal the "gag rule," which had prevented the House of Representatives from debating petitions to abolish slavery. He suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage while on the floor of the House, voting against a motion concerning the war and died in the Speaker's office two days later.

Adams is remembered as someone who was a poor politician because he refused to play the game at a time when politics had begun to matter more. He was remembered more recently due to his anti-slavery stances. Adams was the first prominent political leader to publicly question whether the United States could remain united so long as the institution of slavery persisted. He accurately predicted the coming of civil war. His intellectual ability and courage were above reproach, and his wisdom in perceiving what was really in the national interest has stood the test of time. More properly, he was a man ahead of his time, and underappreciated for it.

John Quincy Adams Birthplace is now part of Adams National Historical Park and open to the public. Adams House, one of twelve undergraduate residential Houses at Harvard University, is named in honor of his entire family. In 1870, his son Charles Francis built the first presidential library in the United States, to honor his father. The Stone Library includes over 14,000 books written in twelve languages. The library is located in the "Old House" at Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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In 1843 Adams sat for the earliest confirmed photograph still in existence of a U.S. president (current or former). The original daguerreotype is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.
Tags: andrew jackson, henry clay, james monroe, john adams, john quincy adams, slavery

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