Review of “The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics” by William J. Cooper

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The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics” by William J. Cooper was published in 2017. Cooper is Professor Emeritus of History at LSU and former president of the Southern Historical Association. He is probably best known as the author of “Jefferson Davis, American.”

Most of Cooper’s ten books are focused on the mid-19th century American South with an emphasis on the Civil War and slavery. But he agreed to undertake this study of John Quincy Adams at the behest of David Herbert Donald’s widow. Donald had begun working on a biography of JQA but died before it could take shape.

By Cooper’s admission, this is not the most comprehensive or detailed survey of John Quincy Adams available. Instead, it is the book that resulted from Cooper’s desire to understand Adams in his era – a period of transformational politics which swept the country from an almost patrician political system to a swashbuckling Jacksonian style. And in that respect this book is enormously successful.

Many readers – particularly those seeking an efficient review of Adams’s life without the sharp brevity of an installment of The American Presidents Series – will appreciate this biography. It provides a smart, no-nonsense and historically perceptive overview of Adams without unnecessary diversions or detail.

Cooper does a nice job exposing Adams’s personality traits…his ascetic nature and rigid self-reliance, his fanatical dedication to self-improvement, his lifelong devotion to his mother and his religious views (including his struggle to balance faith against reason). The reader is also never in doubt about Adams’s lifelong penchant for choosing principle over pragmatism.

Other notably meritorious aspects of this biography include the author’s analysis of Thomas Jefferson, his review of the Amistad case, an uncharacteristically descriptive account of an Adams-hosted gala honoring Andrew Jackson and a lengthy review of Adams’s lengthy post-presidential career in the House of Representatives.

The best feature of Cooper’s book, however, is probably his exploration of Adams’s career-long struggle to maintain moral leadership and public-policy viability while the political landscape shifted around him. A fervent unwillingness to sacrifice his principles – even to maintain good relations with his own party – was costly, but core to Adams’s sense of self.

But readers expecting to understand John Quincy through his relationships with friends, family and colleagues will be disappointed. To the book’s credit, description of the fractious relationship between Adams and Andrew Jackson is fabulous. Adams’s own parents, however, make relatively few appearances and his relationship with his siblings and children (among many others) are largely unexplored.

In addition, readers hoping to encounter a dynamic, colorful narrative or to see the world through Adams’s eyes will instead find a clinical, matter-of-fact writing style largely devoid of unnecessary color, tangents or description. This narrative is penetrating and perceptive but not especially picturesque. Finally, the nine chapters (averaging 50 pages in length) contain little foreshadowing – or summarizing.

Overall, William J. Cooper’s biography of John Quincy Adams is a solid mid-sized treatment of the life of the 6th president. It provides a uniquely thoughtful analysis of Adams career within the context of his era of dramatic political change. What it does not do is provide a consistently captivating story with the degree of literary flourish or level of detail that some readers desire.

Overall Rating: 3¾ stars