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NONFICTION

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary

By Fred Kaplan

HarperCollins

651 pages, $29.99

By Edward Cuddihy

News Book Reviewer

John Quincy Adams at age 73 stood before the United States Supreme Court, an institution his father helped create.

By this stage in his life, he was a “small, bald, somewhat fragile legislator ... who when he spoke transformed himself into a sharp-tongued, gesticulating dynamo.”

As he spun his intricately crafted argument before the panel of justices, composed of a majority of Southern slaveholders, he knew instinctively the lives of the 53 Africans from the schooner Amistad would turn on his mastery of logic and the law, not on emotion.

And contrary to the Spielberg 1997 film dramatization of the Amistad Case, the justices’ decision would not spell the end of slavery in the United States. It hardly would dent the aristocratic way of life in the South which pre-existed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

In John Quincy Adams’ framing, all men were free, even those with dark skin, until the moment they were sold into slavery. He despised slavery with a New England passion, but he recognized it was a sordid and sorry fact of American life in 1841.

So he argued either those men were victims of a cruel West African kidnapping and acted in defense of their lives off the coast of Cuba, or based solely on their skin color and the continent of their origin, they were mutineers and murderers, destined from birth to be slaves.

At the end of three days of argument, Adams, a sitting member of Congress, a former senator, a highly acclaimed diplomat, co-author of the Monroe Doctrine, and yes, a former president of the United States, challenged the justices.

Reminding them he had argued a case before the Supreme Court 37 years earlier and that today all the participants in that case but he were deceased, he concluded with a thinly veiled scriptural threat: “I humbly hope ... that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence – ‘Well done, good and faithful servant ...’ ”

Only one justice dared to test the deity. This was Adams’ finest hour.

The Amistad Case comprises only a tiny fraction of Fred Kaplan’s biography of the sixth president of the United States. It is contained in about 35 pages of this 600-page work. In fact, Adams’ disputed election and his presidency are handled in a single chapter.

It must be difficult to determine what to highlight in a momentous 80-year life that encompassed Adams’ being instructed by George Washington at one end of his life, and sitting in the same Congress with Abraham Lincoln at the other.

But frankly, this critic is somewhat disappointed in Kaplan’s handling of John Quincy Adams. Kaplan is no slouch. He is an exquisite writer, a first-class wordsmith and a patient and meticulous researcher. He is distinguished professor emeritus of English at Queens College and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

His subject matter in this instance couldn’t be better, one of the most audacious and indomitable characters in all of American history. While still a teen, Adams traveled the courts of Europe with his father, the nation’s second president. He represented his nation before Czar Alexander at the Court of St. Petersburg, he was special envoy to Prussia at Berlin, he negotiated the treaty that ended the War of 1812 and forever cemented U.S. independence from England.

He was a firsthand witness to the rise and fall of Napoleon. He was U.S. minister to the Court of St. James in London and discussed the state of the world with the major European authors and thinkers of his age.

And all that before a disputed presidential election in which the House handed him the presidency despite his running second in the electoral vote and second in the popular vote. No candidate in the four-way race of 1824 attained an electoral majority, although war hero and future President Andrew Jackson had 15 more electors than Adams. Facing the Constitutional requirement of a clear majority, the House chose the president from the top three candidates.

Adams’ purported deal with the fourth candidate Henry Clay to gain House approval hung over a lackluster presidency.

And finally his 18 years in the House of Representatives, where as a former president, he was the voice of the opposition, the curmudgeon, the naysayer, the force against the South, its nullification laws, its slavery and the Constitutional provision that counted every five slaves as if they were three free men, thus tilting Congress and the Electoral College toward the South. No wonder four of the first five presidents were Virginians.

Adams’ adamant and acrid opposition to everything the South stood for, and his insistence on speaking of slavery on the floor of the House, despite a House ban on all discussion of slavery (in the North, it was called the Gag Act) led to threats of censure and at least two unsuccessful censure votes. His defense: “The affairs of a great nation have gotten into the hands of very small men.”

It was Adams who decades before the Civil War predicted: “Slavery is, in all probability, the wedge which will split up this union,” and described slavery as “the rock against which the ship of state will be split apart.”

Adams was a prodigious letter writer as a youth, and kept a diary for 69 years which is contained in 51 volumes in the Massachusetts Historical Society.

It is this very mass of primary source material that makes Kaplan’s important biography such a difficult read. Keep in mind, Adams did not write even in the common American English of two centuries ago. As a scholar of classical Greek and Roman writing, his prose probably was tough going for his contemporaries.

Yet Kaplan lets Adams tell his story in his own words, quoting huge chunks from his diary, letters and unabridged speeches. Often these page-long quotes, which probably are easy reading to our author and certainly a boon to future historians, are delivered with a minimum of context.

Kaplan chooses the traditional chronological biography format to tell his story. It almost seems there are two separate books in this 600-plus page work.

We have the first 250 pages, seen through the writings of the often-brooding and homesick eyes of a teen and young man who accepts public service positions in lieu of legitimate work. We have adolescent poetry and pining letters home, with precious little of the color of London, Paris, the Hague or St. Petersburg.

One of Kaplan’s specialties is discerning a man’s thoughts from what he reads. So we are treated to Adams’ youthful critiques of Shakespeare and Milton. We are told what Adams is reading on what day; what his wife, Louisa, is reading; what Adams is reading to his wife, and what they both are reading to their sons.

Then we have the last 300 pages where Adams seems to have escaped the shadow of his famous father. This riveting narrative, containing a more satisfying mix of context and quotation, includes the disputed election, the single-term presidency, and his 18 years of spirited congressional opposition to slavery, disunity and lawless national expansion. It is capped by Adams’ massive stroke on the House floor and his death in the Speaker’s Chamber.

One might dare to suggest an act of literary heresy (or self-preservation): Skip gingerly through the first 200 pages to capture the foundation and tone of the great man to come. And then somewhere around page 250, dig in with both hands and enjoy the later life of the American visionary named John Quincy Adams.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.