James Traub’s “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit” was published in 2016, about three years after I read four other biographies of the sixth president. Traub is a journalist and author who has written for The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, The New York Post and Saturday Review. He is currently a Non-Resident Fellow at New York University.
Most readers will find this widely admired 537-page biography well-organized, engaging and uncommonly thoughtful. Traub’s writing is refreshingly straightforward with just enough erudition and depth to appeal to scholars – but without discouraging a wider audience. And while it does not quite rank among the most colorful or poetic of the presidential biographies I’ve read, it is not far off the mark.
The author clearly admires his subject and he takes advantage of Adams’s intrinsically fascinating life to write an excellent biography comprised of nearly equal parts history and character study. Traub proves both an attentive observer and a discriminating analyst; during the book’s thirty-nine chapters he manages to discern, decipher and articulately describe the dour but brilliant Mr. Adams.
Among the biography’s many virtues are its introduction (where every word seems exquisitely chosen for maximum impact), its introduction of John and Abigail Adams (who seem so interesting the reader may be tempted to set this book aside to read about JQA’s parents), its observations concerning the evolution of early American politics and political parties, and its consistently nuanced consideration of John Quincy Adams’s attitude toward slavery. And coverage of the presidential campaign of 1824 – which carried Adams to the White House – is riveting.
But while Traub successfully penetrates his subject’s opaque exterior, nowhere is a full portrait of JQA laid bare for easy digestion. Instead, the reader is left to stitch together the various elements of Adams’s personality. This is not a particularly difficult task, but even the book’s closing chapter fails to provide a sweeping review of Adams or a thorough assessment of his legacy.
It is generally believed (with significant merit) that Adams’s presidency was the least successful period of his life. Similarly, Traub’s coverage of the Adams presidency is the least interesting section of this otherwise impressive biography. Chronologically overlapping chapters, the lack of an overarching presidency-related thesis, dense (but thoughtful) political discussions and terse coverage of the election of 1828 leave these chapters comparatively unfulfilling.
This biography is comprehensive but it is far from exhaustive. Notably missing is coverage of episodes which are relatively unimportant to Adams’s diplomatic or political careers, but which readers would find extremely interesting. (One could almost form the basis for a Candice Millard tale of adventure and hardship.) And because Adams’s life was so career-focused, his personal relationships are covered with less intensity than many readers will prefer. Finally, there are a small number of conspicuous typos which should not have survived the editing process.
Overall, James Traub’s biography of John Quincy Adams is an extremely meritorious addition to the universe of books focused on this fascinating political figure. With an easy style, penetrating insight and a talent for dissecting his difficult but distinguished subject, Traub provides readers with a biography which, if not quite the final word on this subject, almost certainly sets a new bar for future biographers of the 6th president.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars