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September 7th, 2019

Rating the Presidents: John Quincy Adams

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest ranking, how would you grade the performance of John Quincy Adams as President of the United States? You can go to this link to cast your vote. 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.

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The second President Adams is widely regarded as one of the most effective diplomats and secretaries of state in American history. He is commended for his conduct as a leader both before and after his presidency, but remember that you are considering his performance while in the President's chair. Many historians are of the opinion that this demonstration of his extraordinary ability did not carry through during 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."

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. 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.

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.

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In the PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles in 1976, John Quincy Adams was portrayed by David Birney, William Daniels, Marcel Trenchard, Steven Grover and Mark Winkworth. He was also portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the 1997 film Amistad, and by Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Steven Hinkle in the 2008 HBO television miniseries John Adams. More recently, he has been the central character in a play that opened earlier this year (March 1st) entitled JQA, where he is played by four different actors.

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