“John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life” by Paul Nagel was published in 1997 and represents the first significant biography of JQA following Marie Hecht’s 1972 biography. Nagel’s biography was also the first to draw upon his complete (and voluminous) diary. Nagel, who died in 2011, was an author and historian, and spent time as a professor at the University of Georgia and University of Kentucky.
Nagel’s “John Quincy Adams” is unique among the three dozen presidential biographies I’ve read thus far as it was principally written from the perspective of John Quincy himself (perhaps more accurately, someone closely shadowing him and reading his thoughts). Using Adams’s diary as inspiration, and invaluable eyewitness testimony, Nagel paints a portrait which shows Adams as a brilliant, complex, strong-willed, endlessly self-critical and probably clinically depressed individual. The result of this work is a deeply insightful understanding of a fascinating individual whose talents were (ironically enough) hardly visible during his four years as president.
A minor issue with this unique perspective is that Nagel’s biography is almost a re-telling (and self-critique) of Adams’s life through the subject’s own eyes. As a result, historical events which did not concern Adams or receive much of his focus could easily be lost. To Nagel’s credit, he bridges the occasional gaps in JQA’s diary with a historian’s perspective of important moments in American history, never allowing the reader to wander astray. Nonetheless, Nagel remains more a storyteller than analyst, leaving final judgement of JQA’s successes and failure to the reader.
Nagel’s biography is organized into five sections, each containing three chapters, and runs strictly chronologically. As a result – and owing to his straightforward writing style – the book is very easy to read and to understand (although the content often tends to be dense).
A few readers have noted Nagel’s tendency to allow the biography to wander into detail that seems irrelevant or, at best, tangential to the main thrust of Adams’s life. While a fair criticism, this seems an inherent risk in the author’s approach. After all, we have the opportunity to spend a virtual lifetime viewing the world through John Quincy’s eyes, so it is not surprising we are witness to a few moments that could be considered dull, trivial or unnecessary.
Among the more interesting revelations in Nagel’s biography is the description of John Quincy’s mother, Abigail Adams. In contrast to the more delicate treatment she receives in other biographies (including some focused on the second president), she is described in this biography as an incessantly domineering and overbearing mother. This does not seem to be merely the author’s opinion, but, instead, the view of John Quincy who altogether failed to attend her funeral, citing “work obligations.”
On a critical note, the book is one of the only presidential biographies I’ve read which is not exhaustively footnoted (indeed, there are no footnotes at all). Given the publisher’s emphasis that the book is based on one of the first-ever complete readings of Adams’s entire diary, it is easy to surmise where the author sourced most of his material. Nonetheless, the omission seems glaring.
Overall, however, “John Quincy Adams” proves a worthwhile read and a valuable source of new insight into JQA’s personality. While this biography is not quite suitable as the “only” biography an interested fan of John Quincy Adams’s should rely on, it makes an invaluable companion to other good biographies of JQA. Written partially in the style of a Joseph Ellis character analysis and partially as a narrative history, Nagel’s biography was a fun, interesting and deeply insightful read.
Overall Rating: 4 stars