American history, biographies, book reviews, James Traub, John Quincy Adams, presidential biographies, US Presidents
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
On Fri, Jun 28, 2019 at 5:29 PM My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies wrote:
> Steve posted: “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 Y” >
Alec Rogers said:
Have you read Cooper’s Lost Founding Father yet? This was highly recommended to me.
I’ve not read that one yet. It was also published after I finished with JQA the first time through and has been on my follow-up list almost since it was published in 2017. I do intend to get to it without unnecessary delay since I find John Quincy Adams such an interesting fellow.
A few years ago, I found your site and used it as the basis of my own journey through the presidents. It was an idea a friend of mine suggested in the 80s, but I wasn’t a big reader back then. When it finally struck me decades later that it was a worthwhile idea to read a biography of each president, I was happy to find your project to give me some guidance.
This book was one I opted to go with for JQA despite it not being in your original list of reviews and I completely enjoyed it. I don’t have the capacity to judge and review a book as you and others do with so much thoroughness, so after I’m done I can only judge these biographies by two things… did I look forward to reading it each night after making it through the first chapter, and was I kind of sad when I came to the end of the book because I was enjoying the journey so much?
In both cases, this book (for me) was a winner.
I love the standard you apply to biographies! If I hadn’t been reading multiple bios of each president, my own method of grading would have boiled down to “how hard was it to put down” and “how good was the author at capturing the essence of his/her subject”?
I did really enjoy this one. And yet there are more JQA bios I need to read!
Christopher Saunders said:
I was very impressed with this book when I read it a few years ago. I didn’t know much about Adams going in, aside from his presidency (which receives more detail in Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought), and Traub captures just how active he was as a person and thinker before, during and after his presidency. Not a particularly lovable person, but a very forward-thinking and insightful one, and it was especially interesting to read about his fight against the congressional gag rule and advocating for abolition. His presidency could have used more coverage, but as you note it was arguably a low point in Adams’ life and I couldn’t blame Traub for glancing over it.
Ryan T said:
Excellent review as always, nice to have you back Steve!
Great to have a book in my hands again, and access to 1st world internet!
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.
Andy G. said:
Thanks for the recommendation on such an amazing book. I finished it this past weekend and really enjoyed my time reading it. JQA was a president I learned little about through school, but became more interested in as I discovered more about his career in recent years. Luckily this website helped narrow in on Traub’s book for me as a fitting bio.
JQA was such an interesting person who had an incredible, multi-faceted career that continues to have impact on the country today. Especially in terms of foreign policy, Adams was far ahead of his time with most of his thoughts on America and its place within the world. But he was also tied to the to his father and the generation of Founding Fathers, giving his ideas and approach to government real nuance.
I want to second your praise on the book’s introduction. It was an incredible piece of writing that had me reading it a second time after finishing the rest of the book. The summation had great prose, yet was quite informative and comprehensive.
It’s a little sad that the legacy and impact of JQA is largely overlooked today. His unsuccessful presidency seems to be the primary reason. As the book notes, his failures were largely created by his uncompromising stance on his principles and the roughness of his personality. But as Traub’s description of his later years in Congress suggests, it’s this same harshness that gave him the courage to stand up alone against the influence of slavery in the political system.
This was a hugely worthwhile book on a transformative figure.
I can still vividly remember having just started on JQA a few years ago and being amazed at how fascinating his life was…and astonished that I didn’t already know more about him given his compelling background and legacy (notwithstanding his uninspiring presidency).
Glad you enjoyed the book and found JQA as great a biographical subject as me!