In every respect, John Quincy Adams’s life was made for a great novel or movie…or even a good biography. At age ten, John Quincy had his first opportunity to travel to Europe with his father (a diplomat in Paris) and begin a youth filled with foreign affairs, multiple languages and new customs. This in an era when few New Englanders of any age ever travelled beyond their own state’s borders.
Returning only briefly to the US, the father/son duo soon traveled abroad again – this time seeing Spain, France and the Netherlands. Fortunately for posterity, twelve-year-old John Quincy began a diary on this trip abroad – a diary he maintained for almost seventy years until his death.
As barely a teenager, multilingual John Quincy had the opportunity to leave his father behind in Europe and travel to St. Petersburg. He was asked to serve there as private secretary and translator to the American minister to Russia who, it turns out, could not speak French (the language of diplomacy at the time)…or even Russian. Later, having barely received a structured education of any kind, he began attending the University of Leyden while his father was a diplomat in Holland.
Returning to America to attend Harvard he found life in the US (and the legal profession, which he later entered) quite dull by comparison. After all, most of his sentient youth was spent absorbing multiple languages, attending diplomatic functions, going to the theatre and opera, and discussing world affairs with luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Lafayette and countless European kings, queens, counts and diplomats.
John Quincy’s rise was not over, of course. His experiences in Europe and Russia made him the obvious choice of four presidents to serve as a U.S. diplomat in multiple countries; he also served a term as a U.S. Senator and was Secretary of State under President Monroe. In 1824 he was elected President of the United States. Ironically, his presidency encompassed the least remarkable and most unsuccessful four-year stretch of his entire life.
Unfortunately, his single term in office was hampered by his political “purity” (or naiveté), tactical errors in filling his cabinet, his failure to fully embrace either of the prevailing political parties, and a hostile Congress. He left the White House dejected, but was soon elected to the House of Representatives where he served – with great passion and impact – until the day he died. Indeed, his post- presidential years were some of the most successful and potent years of his entire public life.
Today, few Americans remember much about John Quincy Adams. And most of those who do recognize his legacy merely recall the vague impression left by an unsuccessful presidency. But in my mind, having just re-lived his life four times (on paper, anyway), John Quincy Adams’s life’s story is one of the more remarkable I have ever encountered.
Through hard work, good luck, a brilliant mind and a keen eye, John Quincy led almost a Swiss Family Robinson-style life of political and diplomatic adventure. Many will be surprised to learn that his single notable public failure – his presidency – was accompanied by a lifelong battle with intense self-doubt, self-criticism and even depression. But from start to finish, John Quincy’s was a life made for a great (if sometimes tragic) story.
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* Marie Hecht’s “John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man” is the oldest, and lengthiest, of the four JQA biographies I read. In this book, Hecht marches steadily and comprehensively through John Quincy’s life, seeming to leave few stones unturned. This is neither the most exciting nor the most efficient biography of Adams I read. But it is probably the most thorough (if not insightful) of them all. All that is missing is the penetrating analysis of the personal side of John Quincy Adams which was provided in more contemporary biographies. (Full review here)
“John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life” by Paul Nagel was published in 1997 and appears to have been the first significant biography of JQA in the twenty-five years following the publication of Hecht’s biography. In about one-third fewer pages, Nagel accomplishes most of what Hecht achieved, but with the added benefit of providing significantly more insight into the “private” side of John Quincy Adams. This seems particularly useful since John Quincy’s personal demons (endless self-doubt and episodic depression) inspired – or hampered – much that we witness of John Quincy Adams. (Full review here)
Joseph Wheelan’s “Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade” provides a distinctly different perspective on John Quincy’s life. Rather than offering yet another review of Adams’s life from start to finish, Wheelan choses to focus on John Quincy’s last two decades of life – those which followed his unspectacular presidency. Despite his age and failing health, this was perhaps the most vigorous and effective period of his life. While this book cannot fully take the place of a traditional biography, no one’s understanding of John Quincy can be complete without reading “Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade.” (Full review here)
“John Quincy Adams” by Harlow Unger is the most recently-published of my John Quincy Adams biographies. Without a doubt, Unger’s biography is the most “efficient” of the four as it covers Adams’s entire life (with some “extra” context-setting American history thrown in for good measure) in the fewest pages. This provides a fast-paced reading experience but also a less informative one. Left aside are numerous details, side-stories and nuances that are crucial in really understanding the sixth president. This book is useful as a quick-read on JQA, but for a slightly deeper investment, readers will get more from another biography. (Full review here)
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[Added June 2019]
* Five years after reading the preceding four biographies of JQA I read “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit” by James Traub – a biography from my “follow-up” list which was only published after I had completed my initial round of reading on JQA.
Published in 2016, “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit” is not perfect, but sets the new standard for biographies of the 6th president. This book is well-organized, engaging and uncommonly thoughtful. It is erudite without being stiff, and is detailed but not exhausting. In the interest of efficiency Traub left coverage of certain interesting but tangential events from JQA’s youth out of the text. And the chapters covering Adams’s relatively unsuccessful presidency are probably the least fulfilling in the biography. But the book’s introduction, its consistently keen dissection of Adams’s personality, its observations concerning early American politics and its carefully nuanced coverage of Adams’s attitude toward slavery overwhelm any shortcomings. (Full review here)
[Added Jan 2021]
* I was able to read Fred Kaplan’s 2014 “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary” which was published the year after I initially got through the then-best biographies of JQA. With a 570-page narrative, this is the second longest of the half-dozen biographies of Adams I have read and among the most thorough. The biography emphasizes JQA’s love of poetry and his foresight in seeing the national fracture caused by slavery. But, the author’s predilection for presenting the narrative in an extraordinarily non-linear way is likely to frustrate readers new to Adams. And in the end, I find this to be a better study of John Quincy Adams than biography. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of John Quincy Adams: “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit” by James Traub
Honorable Mention: “John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life” by Paul Nagel
and “John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man” by Marie Hecht
Best “Beach Read” on JQA: “John Quincy Adams” by Harlow Unger