“John Quincy Adams” is author and historian Harlow Unger’s most recently published biography. Among his nearly two dozen books, Unger has authored biographies of James Monroe, John Hancock, Lafayette, Patrick Henry and Noah Webster. His latest work, on George Washington and the creation of the presidency, will be published in the next few weeks.
Unger’s “John Quincy Adams” is an interesting and fast-paced – but not exhaustive – biography of our sixth president. Clocking in at just over 300 pages, Unger’s book covers a tremendous amount of ground in a short amount of time. In contrast to Joseph Wheelan’s biography of John Quincy (which devotes three-quarters of its pages to John Quincy’s post-presidential years), Unger reserves that much of his book for Adams’s pre-presidency.
And although this book is nominally focused on John Quincy Adams, in its early chapters it often seems as much a book about John Quincy’s parents, John and Abigail Adams, as anyone else. Reading further, I was provided such a liberal (and useful) dose of historical context that I almost concluded this is not a biography at all, but is instead an efficiently drafted synopsis of early American history. Consistent with the other biographies of John Quincy, however, Unger’s book reserves just twenty or so pages for the sixth president’s single term in office.
Despite the apparent complexity of describing any president’s time as the nation’s chief executive, no author seems to need more than two-dozen pages to describe the heartbreak, disappointment and failure John Quincy endured between 1825 and 1829 while occupying the White House. In Unger’s case, however, he not only manages to rapidly describe Adams’s four disappointing years in the presidency, but also manages to forensically diagnose Adams’s failure with particular precision.
For all of the book’s merits, however, it is far from perfect. The rapid pace is useful for a reader wishing to cover significant ground quickly, but in order to maintain the dash-through-history Unger is forced to ignore innumerable details, complexities and nuances. Rough edges of history are smoothed over and thus appear far more polished than they really are, and when an important event requires several paragraphs to adequately explain, the author often finds a way to compress the episode into a sentence or two. This is convenient for the time-challenged reader, but a bit unfortunate for everyone else.
For any fan of presidential history, John Quincy Adams’s life proves uniquely captivating in many ways – despite his unproductive and uninspiring presidency – and Unger does a good job capturing much of this excitement. His biography covers a great deal of ground and provides an impressive amount of historical context. Unfortunately, the reader misses interesting (and sometimes important) granularity and forgoes the opportunity embrace the essence of John Quincy himself. As an impressively broad, but not deep, overview of early American history and of John Quincy’s entire life, Unger’s book is quite successful. As a thorough biography of John Quincy Adams – both the public and the private man – this book falls short.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars