American history, biographies, book reviews, John Quincy Adams, Joseph Wheelan, presidential biographies, Presidents
“Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress” is author Joseph Wheelan’s 2008 biography of our sixth president. Wheelan, an Associated Press reporter for over two decades, is the author of six books including two on Thomas Jefferson.
Unlike most John Quincy Adams biographies, Wheelan focuses not on Adams’s unsuccessful term as president but, instead, on his unique and remarkably successful post-presidential career in Congress. Most authors have chosen the more natural story – focusing on his precocious youth and his productive years as a public servant leading to his one term as president. Wheelan chose to focus on possibly the more compelling, and interesting, storyline.
While previous presidents retired to lives of farming and philosophizing, John Quincy Adams was convinced by his Massachusetts neighbors to run for a seat in Congress following his departure from the White House (much to the chagrin of his family). What he assumed would be a short-lived stint in the House – and a chance to regain his good standing and reputation – resulted in an unprecedented, and still unmatched, record of public service following his service as president.
Despite the book’s almost exclusive focus on JQA’s final two decades of life and public service, the author does endeavor to familiarize the reader with Adams’s first sixty-two years in order to set the background and provide historical context. Wheelan does this with perhaps too much efficiency, covering Adams’s life up through his time as secretary of state in fewer than forty pages. Adams’s presidency is handled in only twenty or so pages. The remaining 80% of the book is devoted to his post-presidential public (but not private) life.
Wheelan does a nice job writing the book in “plain English,” devoid of fancy words and complex sentence structures. He efficiently summarizes complex historical events, making them both interesting and comprehensible to even a casual reader. Well-described are Adams’s key projects during his time in Congress including removing the Gag Rule and ensuring the right of petition (particularly as it concerned slavery) and establishing the Smithsonian Institution. During these years, Adams also agreed to argue the Amistad case before the Supreme Court. His efforts in this case were successful, and Wheelan’s summary of the case was the sharpest and clearest I’ve read.
What this biography does not accomplish is clear from its title: it is not a comprehensive recounting of Adams’s life; it does not examine or diagnose his failed presidency (not in detail, anyway). For the most part, the book does not explore his personal life including his relationship with his parents, his wife or his children. These facets of his life are touched upon, so as not to be ignored, but not dealt with in any real detail. As a result, the reader comes away with a fuller appreciation (and respect) for Adams’s post-presidential public life, but no real sense of who he was as a private person.
Strictly judged as a presidential biography, Wheelan’s book is somewhat lacking. But as a examination of Adams’s final years, a time when he sought and largely received redemption in the eyes of his contemporaries (if not history), this book is highly successful. In hindsight, I cannot imagine really understanding John Quincy Adams without having read “Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade.”
Overall Rating: 4 stars
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Malcolm Greenhill said:
Thank you for this. Am just working my way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln’. It’s very good.
Ironically, I had just started that very book (and was enjoying it thoroughly) when I decided to start at Washington and read the presidents chronologically. Almost immediately thereafter I decided to read several on each president in a search for the best of the best. Nine months later and I only have another 75% of the way to go… I can’t wait to hear what you think when you’re finished with Goodwin’s book- I’m really looking forward to reading it when I get to Lincoln.