Quincy Adams spent most of his youth and adult life in public service
to the United States, as Senator, diplomat, Secretary of State,
President, and Congressman. He made his greatest contribution to
his country after his presidency, while serving in the United States
House of Representatives as a staunch opponent of slavery and expansionist
second of John and Abigail Adams's five children, Johnny was born
in the North Precinct of Braintree, Massachusetts (later Quincy).
His parents' home in Quincy remained his own home throughout his
life, though he was often away for extended periods in Europe
and Washington. He was strongly influenced by his fiercely dedicated
and brilliant parents. At home, issues of government, politics,
world affairs, literature, religion and morality were all considered
immediate and pressing. "JQA," as he began early to
identify himself, accompanied and assisted his father on diplomatic
trips to Europe, 1778-85, serving, despite his youth, as secretary
to Francis Dana and his father in negotiations with foreign countries.
Abroad Johnny developed a love for the Greek and Roman classics.
On returning to America, he was granted admission to Harvard College
with advanced standing, based on his studies at the University
graduation in 1787, Adams studied and briefly practiced law, but
found it both boring and depressing. Looking elsewhere for fulfillment,
he was developing a reputation as an orator and as a newspaper
essayist, author of "Letters of Publicola," a response
Jefferson's approval of Thomas
Paine's Rights of Man.
He was looking forward to an independent life, one not dominated
by his parents' expectations. Events, however, dictated otherwise.
In 1794 President Washington appointed young Adams minister to
Holland, a position he accepted only after much inner turmoil
and parental prodding. During his father's presidency, 1797-1801,
Adams served as minister to Prussia, an appointment that drew
strong criticism from the Republicans.
a diplomatic visit to London in 1795, Adams met and fell in love
with Louisa Catherine Johnson, daughter of an American businessman,
mistakenly thought to be extremely wealthy. The couple married
in 1797 at an Anglican church in London. John and Louisa Adams's
strong but often difficult marriage endured until his death. The
couple had three sons, George Washington Adams, John Adams II,
and Charles Francis Adams, and a daughter who died in infancy.
two older sons were disappointments; both did poorly at Harvard,
succumbed to alcoholism, and died young. George was a probable
suicide. There appears to have been a hereditary disposition in
the Adams family toward both alcoholism and depression. Charles,
by contrast, did well, becoming a successful attorney and estate
trustee. With a stiff, aloof manner, he was once chided by his
father for a "standard of morals . . . more elevated than
belongs to the world in which we live and to the clay from which
we are formed. . . . Let down a little your scale of Virtue,"
his father urged him, "till its last step at least shall
touch the earth." Nevertheless, their relationship grew into
a close and trusting one, with Charles eventually managing his
parents' business affairs and becoming their pride and joy.
first elected office was as Massachusetts state senator from Suffolk
county, 1802-03. Then in 1803 the Federalist state legislature
elected him as one of the U.S. senators from Massachusetts. He
proved, however, to be an independent voter, supporting some Republican
measures, including the Louisiana Purchase and Jefferson's embargo
on American shipping, and sometimes standing alone against popular
measures In the process he alienated himself from both political
parties. When the Massachusetts legislature in 1807 called a special
session to remove him a year before his term was to expire, Adams
resigned. At that time he wrote in his diary, "I implore
the Spirit from whom every good and perfect gift descends to enable
me to render essential service to my country, and that I may never
be governed in my public conduct by any consideration other than
that of duty."
stress of Adams's senate years was lightened by the satisfaction
he found in a concurrent position as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric
and Oratory at Harvard, 1805-09. This brief professorship was
the most congenial of his many positions. He would have preferred
a life of scholarship, lecturing, writing, and contemplation to
that of diplomat or politician.
break with the Federalists complete, Adams received appointments
from Republican President James Madison, first as minister to
Russia, 1809-14, and then, after helping end the War of 1812 by
serving as one of five American commissioners who negotiated the
Treaty of Ghent, as minister to Great Britain, 1815-17. Adams
then served with distinction as secretary of state under President
James Monroe, 1817-25.
contest to be Monroe's successor was hotly contested between Andrew
Jackson, a Democrat; Henry Clay, a Whig; and Adams, who ran somewhat
reluctantly and with no official party affiliation. Since none
of the candidates received a majority of electoral votes, it was
required that the decision be made by the House of Representatives.
Adams was elected when Clay threw him his support, thereby defeating
Jackson, who had received the most popular and electoral votes.
Adams then made Clay his secretary of state, leading to charges
that the two had made a secret bargain.
spent a miserable and unproductive four years in office, 1825-1829,
trying to work with an uncooperative Congress and continually
under attack by Jackson and his other opponents as he attempted
unsuccessfully to establish a national economic program. Running
for reelection with little prospect of success and having decided
on principle not to campaign personally, he was overwhelmed by
Jackson in a vicious campaign. He carried only the New England
states, New Jersey, and Delaware.
loss brought Adams a temporary sense of relief. However, after
a brief retirement Adams was persuaded to run for Congress as
a Representative from Massachusetts. While he had always been
ambivalent about political life, he accepted, in part both to
seek revenge on his enemies and to restore his tarnished reputation.
Adams was elected, and he retained the office for seventeen years,
1831-48, until his death. It was during these years that he gained
his greatest political respect, by defending, successfully, the
rights of the African captives who in 1839 overwhelmed the crew
of the Spanish slave ship Amistad, by opposing, unsuccessfully,
the Mexican War and statehood for Texas, and by opposing, again
unsuccessfully, the gag rule denying the right of petition on
issues involving slavery. In the end, however, his opposition
to the gag rule can be counted as successful, for his unwavering
efforts against slavery had a powerful effect that outlived him.
Quincy Adams was an extremely complex person. To many who knew
him, including his son Charles, his feelings seemed "impenetrable,"
as if he were hiding behind an "iron mask." Because
of his recurring depression he often appeared dour or angry. Nevertheless,
he had an outgoing, social, even joyful side as well. He was a
man of diverse interests—among them gardening and silviculture,
religion and church attendance, walking and swimming, poetry,
and astronomy. In these he found some relief from the pressures
of public life.
and Abigail Adams were members of the First Parish Church of Quincy,
part of the liberal wing of New England Congregationalism that
became Unitarian as a result of the schism resulting from the
Unitarian controversy. Young John, however, was religiously more
conservative than his parents. His roommate at Harvard was Henry
Ware, whose appointment later to a Harvard professorship had helped
to precipitate that schism. However, little of Ware's liberalism
seems to have rubbed off on young Adams during their time together.
1815, at the height of the controversy, Adams concluded that the
Calvinist Samuel Adams had bested William Ellery Channing, the
Unitarians' leader, in a debate on the doctrine of the Trinity.
Then a year later, when in an exchange of letters his father good-naturedly
drew him into a theological debate, the junior Adams revealed
that, while not approving their intolerance, he tended to follow
the doctrines of the Trinitarians and Calvinists; moreover, that
he wanted no part of Unitarianism. He suggested that his father
read a sermon on the divinity of Christ by a Bishop Massilon,
"after which be a Socinian if you can."
he matured, Adams struggled to develop his own system of beliefs,
with his diaries containing rebuttals of both optimistic Unitarianism
and intolerant Fundamentalism. Once at a dinner party in Boston
he found himself in a loud theological debate with Horace Holley,
a brilliant young Unitarian minister, in which Adams contended
that Unitarianism's appeal was confined to "the liberal class
who consider religion as merely a system of morals." At this
period in his life Adams seemed almost consumed by his interest
in theology and the Bible. "[S]o great is my veneration of
the Bible," he wrote Charles, "and so strong is my belief,
that when duly read and meditated on, it is of all books in the
world, that which contributes most to making men good, wise, and
happy." He served as vice-president of the American Bible
religious thinking, like his political thinking, appears to have
been continuously evolving. Politically, he moved from a Federalist
to a near-Republican position; religiously, he moved from a near-Calvinist
to a Unitarian position. In 1819 he wrote in his diary that "although
the churches here [Washington] are numerous and diversified, not
one of them is of the Independent Congregational class to which
I belong, the church to which I was bred, and in which I will
die." Two years later he became one of the 27 founding members
of the First Unitarian Church of Washington.
acceptance of the Unitarian name by no means signaled an abrupt
change in his thinking, for he had for a long time evidenced liberal
leanings. His acceptance of the professorship at Harvard was made
on condition that the usual requirement for a declaration of religious
conformity be waived; moreover, his deep interest in the study
of theology and the Bible, despite the uncertainties that went
with this, indicates that, in the best Unitarian tradition, he
was a dedicated seeker after religious truth.
acceptance of Unitarianism was not, however, without reservation.
After hearing his minister, Robert Little, preach against the
Trinity, he wrote in his diary, "But neither this, nor any
other argument that I ever heard, can satisfy my judgment that
the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ is not countenanced by
the New Testament. As little can I say that it is clearly revealed.
It is often obscurely intimated; sometimes directly, and sometimes
indirectly, asserted; but left on the whole, in a debatable state,
never to be either demonstrated or refuted till another revelation
shall clear it up."
Adams was often critical of what he heard or read of the emerging
Unitarian denomination. He strongly rejected Joseph Priestley's
materialism and ultra-rationalism, just as he was later to oppose
the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Orestes Brownson,
calling them "vipers" and "enemies of public virtue."
To him Emerson's "Divinity School Address" was "crazy"
and Brownson an advocate of "self-delusive atheism."
Adams, feeling it was "everyman's duty [to] take the field"
against these foes of public virtue, prepared and delivered a
lecture on "Faith," positing that religious and moral
faith is dependent on will. He was well acquainted with William
Ellery Channing and admired his moral earnestness, though sometimes
disagreed with his views on war and slavery. On the latter issue,
the two in time became strong allies.
evidently found comfort in corporate worship and regularly attended
two services on Sunday when in Washington—Unitarian and,
most often, Episcopal and Presbyterian. "I can," he
wrote, "frequent without scruple the church of any other
sect of Christians, and join with cheerfulness the social worship
of all without subscribing implicitly to the doctrines of any
. . . " Quaker meeting was an exception: "We sat nearly
two hours in perfect silence—no moving of the spirit; and
I seldom, in the course of my life, passed two hours more wearily.
. . I felt, on coming from this meeting, as if I had wasted precious
on moral conduct appealed to him greatly, while those on theology
of were apt to aggravate him. "Sound morals without doctrinal
speculation and without enthusiasm [excessive fervor]" met
his approval, while those on such doctrines as human depravity,
predestination, and vicarious atonement he found absurd and offensive.
In commenting on a hymn by Isaac Watts "which declared that
we were more base and brutish than the beasts," he asked,
"What is the meaning of this? If Watts had said this on a
weekday to any one of his parishioners, would he not have knocked
1826, shortly after his father's death, Adams formally affiliated
with the Quincy church, conceding at the time that he should have
taken the step thirty years earlier, given that he had been a
supporter of the church for many years and attended when in town.
It seems probable that the delay in joining was caused by his
many prolonged absences rather than by any theological reservations.
the end of his life he summed up his personal credo in these few
words: "I reverence God as my creator. As creator of the
world. I reverence him with holy fear. I venerate Jesus Christ
as my redeemer; and, as far as I can understand, the redeemer
of the world. But this belief is dark and dubious."
the afternoon of February 21, 1848 John Quincy Adams was, as usual,
at his desk in the House of Representatives. He had voted "No"
on a bill that would have commended veterans of recent battles
in the war with Mexico and was trying to rise to speak, when he
suddenly collapsed. Carried to the Speaker's private chamber in
the Capitol, he lingered on for two days. By the time Louisa got
to his bedside, he was unable to recognize her. It was reported
that the last words he uttered were either, "This is the
end of earth, but I am content," or, "This is the last
of earth-- I am composed."
would have been amazed at the national outpouring of mourning
that followed his death; thousand filed through the Capitol to
view his bier. Funeral ceremonies were held in the House, after
which the body was carried by train to Boston, where a memorial
service was held in Faneuil Hall. At the service in Quincy, the
Rev. William Lunt, Adam's pastor and friend, preached on the text,
"Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown
died four years later. Her body is interred with those of John
and his parents in the crypt below the new First Parish church
building in Quincy, constructed, in part, from a bequest from
the senior Adams. Thus John Quincy Adams rests in death with the
three people most influential in his life.