John Quincy Adams
Harlow Giles Unger
Hardcover. 364 pp.
September 2012. Da Capo Press.
In 1781, as the United States battled for its independence, a handful of Americans traveled to European capitals and royal courts to battle for diplomatic recognition and financial support from the established powers of the world. The Continental Congress dispatched Francis Dana of Massachusetts, who had been serving as secretary to the American delegation in France, to the court of Russian Empress Catherine the Great in Saint Petersburg, well over 4,000 miles from Dana's comfortable law office in Boston. As if his mission wasn't difficult enough, Dana faced a major obstacle: the lingua franca of international diplomacy -- and the Russian court -- was French, a language that Dana did not speak. Before leaving for Saint Petersburg, Dana found himself a secretary who was fluent in French -- John Quincy Adams, who had accompanied his father, John Adams, when the Continental Congress sent the elder Adams to France. After some words of advice from his father, John Quincy Adams embarked upon the long trip to Russia and one of the most remarkable careers of any American public servant.
He was fourteen years old.
John Quincy Adams was, of course, the eldest son of John and Abigail Adams, America's original power couple. After decades and decades of being relatively overlooked in comparison to his contemporaries such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and other Founding Fathers, John Adams has finally been getting his due for the role he played in our nation's independence and early survival. David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the elder Adams led to the "Atlas of Independence" being immortalized in a critically-acclaimed HBO miniseries and the 2nd President has taken his rightful place amongst the giants of the American history.
His son, born in 1767 and raised with the Revolution, is a peripheral character in the HBO miniseries, but in his 80 years, John Quincy Adams operated everywhere but the periphery. At the age of 10, JQA traveled to Europe with his father as the elder Adams worked to gain military support, earn diplomatic recognition, and establish credit for the fledgling United States. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in a time of war, the ship carrying John Quincy and his father engaged in a brief battle with a British ship and were fortunate to emerge victorious. Had the British won the battle, 10-year-old John Quincy Adams likely would have been captured and pressed into involuntary service with the Royal Navy while his father, considered a traitor to King George III's rule, almost certainly would have been summarily executed and hanged from the ship's yardarm.
With only a brief return home to Massachusetts in 1779, John Quincy Adams spent the ages 10-17 in Europe, and his service as secretary to Francis Dana kicked off service to his country that lasted until the moment he died over 65 years later. Yet, few solid biographies have been written about John Quincy Adams's incredible life. With his new book, John Quincy Adams
(Da Capo Press, September 2012), Harlow Giles Unger tells the story of this great American who devoted his entire life to serving his country, never hesitated to risk his political standing in order to fight for what was right, and whose towering intellect is astonishing even from a distance of 245 years since his birth. And as Mr. Unger artfully writes, John Quincy Adams also had perhaps the best resume of any man ever elected President yet found his four years in the White House to be the nadir of his life personally and professionally. Then, almost to prove his resilience and his devotion to the nation that he grew up with and helped build, Adams spent the years after his Presidency as a tireless advocate for justice. Retirement for John Quincy Adams meant an unprecedented post-Presidential career in the U.S. House of Representatives and never rested, dedicating the last 17 years of his life to stubbornly fighting for what he felt was right, giving a voice to the voiceless, and building a body of work that was far more of a monument to his greatness than any statue or painting, sculptures or accolades.
John Quincy Adams
is Harlow Giles Unger's twentieth book and sixth biography of a major Founding Father (or, in JQA's case, Founding Son). There are few historians of the United States from the Revolution up to the Jacksonian era who have the knowledge and ability to make familiar faces seem brand-new and shine the spotlight on some of the more obscure figures or those who are often overshadowed by the most famous of the Founders. I doubt there is a more prolific historian over the past decade of this nation's early history. It seems that every time I finish reading a new book from Mr. Unger I immediately see an even newer title coming soon. In not quite two years, I have enjoyed FIVE new releases from the Mr. Unger: John Quincy Adams
); Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution
); American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked the American Revolution
); Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call To a New Nation
); and The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call To Greatness
). As a writer, I'm jealous at how quickly Mr. Unger is able to churn out such quality works of top-notch history. As a reader, I'm grateful and ecstatic for every Unger book that I'm able to snatch up, devour, and proudly place on my bookshelf.
As is his style, Unger's John Quincy Adams
is first-class history from cover-to-cover and what is most remarkable is that the life of JQA was not only one of the busiest and most accomplished of any figure that Unger's written about but also one of the longest since Adams's public career began as a teenager and lasted until the moment he died. However, this book is fast-paced and supremely readable while not missing any aspect of JQA's life. To posterity, Adams left one of the greatest gifts of any historical figure -- a detailed diary that he rarely missed a daily entry for 70 years. Unger seamlessly weaves the words of Adams into his narrative and Unger's always-solid research augments a story that it seems like JQA helps tell.
If I tried to encapsulate the life and career of John Quincy Adams, my book review would be 15,000 words long, and since Harlow Giles Unger can do it far better than I could, I'll just urge you to pick up the book. What I can say is that judging John Quincy Adams on his disappointing Presidency is like judging the career of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps on his two bronze medals rather than his 18 gold medals. When we look at Adams, we must attempt to comprehend the depth and breadth of his impact on the first 70 years of the United States. Adams was one of the few (if not the only) Americans to have known George Washington, who appointed him to his first ambassadorial post, and Abraham Lincoln, who he briefly served with in the House of Representatives. He represented the United States as minister in six different European countries and served on various diplomatic delegations, including the team that negotiated the Treaty of Ghent and ended the War of 1812. JQA was a lawyer, a historian, a political philosopher, and a poet. As President Monroe's Secretary of State, he helped shape the Monroe Doctrine, negotiated the Adams-On?s Treaty which transferred Spanish Florida to the United States, and worked with the British to establish the present-day U.S./Canadian border from the Great Lakes to the Rockies.
His one-term as President was born out of controversy, yet no evidence ever proved that Adams and Henry Clay truly worked out a "Corrupt Bargain" to award JQA the 1824 election and deny it to Andrew Jackson. Jackson spent the entire four years of the Adams Administration running against President Adams and defeated him in 1828, but spending the rest of his life in Congress after voters in Massachusetts elected him to the House in 1830 was his proudest accomplishment personally and his most important legacy historically. From defending the slaves from the Amistad
to ensuring the right of Americans to petition their government, Adams became one of the loudest voices for the anti-slavery movement. And when John Quincy Adams died in February 1848, it was at his post, in the cathedral of democracy itself, the United States Capitol building. Over a century later, when John F. Kennedy wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about courageous American political leaders, Profiles In Courage
, the first of the eight principled patriots that Kennedy profiled was "Old Man Eloquent" -- John Quincy Adams.
John Quincy Adams is one of the most fascinating, inspiring, and brilliant figures in all of American history. Harlow Giles Unger is one of the preeminent historians and chroniclers of our nation's first 75 years. Nobody is better-equipped to write this biography, and we're lucky that Unger has told the story of this underrated American icon, legendary diplomat, and tireless advocate of everything that is just and righteous in our country.
John Quincy Adams
by Harlow Giles Unger is available now from Da Capo Press. You can order the book from Amazon
, or download it instantly for your Kindle
. Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate and one of the preeminent historians of the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary era. This is his 20th book and you can find more information about this book and his other work on his website: www.harlowgilesunger.com
. For those of you lucky enough to be in the Washington, D.C. area, Mr. Unger will be speaking and signing copies of John Quincy Adams
on September 30th at 2:00 PM in the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.