John Quincy Adams
by Michael Kimball
John Quincy Adams (JQA) was born one week after the Fourth of July in 1767 (almost a great detail), in the town of Braintree, Massachusetts, which is now called Quincy. His dad was a Founding Father and the second President of the United States, which made it difficult to be his son. JQA grew up during the American Revolution and watched battles from a safe distance. As a boy, he started keeping a diary, which filled fifty volumes over his lifetime, and which he considered almost as good as The Bible, though almost nobody else did. JQA was home schooled, but also studied in Paris and Amsterdam. He graduated from Harvard in 1787 (second in his class) and became a lawyer in 1790. Around this time, JQA wanted to marry a woman named Mary Frazier, but his mother had higher expectations for him than Mary and talked him out of it, which made JQA feel like a disappointment to Mary, to his mother, and to himself.
In 1794, George Washington appointed JQA envoy to The Netherlands. In 1796, his dad appointed him diplomat to Prussia. In 1797, JQA married an heiress whose family declared bankruptcy right after the wedding. JQA’s wife regretted the marriage. She found him sad and cold, which, by most accounts, including his own, he was. JQA’s deep depression made him feel somewhat inadequate and socially awkward, which, again, by most accounts, he was. This was compounded by the fact that he didn’t like how he looked — especially his crazy eyebrows and his downturned mouth. For her part, Mrs. JQA had a certain disposition for migraine headaches and fainting spells. Still, the couple had three sons and one daughter, though the daughter died in infancy and two sons died as young adults (one to alcohol and one to drowning). Of course, all of this made their marriage even more difficult than it might have been.
In 1801, JQA was nominated to the Massachusetts Senate. In 1803, JQA was elected Senator to the United States, though he resigned under heavy criticism from the Federalists without finishing out a full term — and then tried to leave politics. He thought he’d be happier if he could just stay at home and read. However, in 1809, JQA was appointed minister to Russia. In 1815, as chief diplomat to Great Britain, he negotiated the treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. As Secretary of State under President James Monroe, JQA authored the Monroe Doctrine (1823), which suggested that European efforts to colonize the Americas would be considered acts of aggression and trigger a forceful response from the United States. For all of that, some consider John Quincy Adams the greatest American diplomat, but even more people only recognize him as having a name that is close to the name of a brand of beer.
In 1824, JQA was elected the sixth President of the United States through a “corrupt bargain” (look it up). It was an unremarkable presidency. Nearly every morning before breakfast, the President went for a walk through the city or a swim in the Potomac River, where he almost drowned once when the sleeves of his blouse filled with water and weighed him down. The country prospered during his presidency, but Adams called it “the unhappiest time” of his life.
In 1830, JQA became the only president to be a representative after his term — and he prided himself on being “obnoxious to the slave faction.” In 1841, John Quincy argued for and won the freedom of the Africans who were being illegally transported as slaves on the ship, The Amistad. In 1848, while protesting an honorary grant, JQA stroked out and fell unconscious to the floor of the House of Representatives. He died two days later in the Capitol building. These are John Quincy Adams’ last words: “I am content.” Of course, I doubt that he was.
Michael Kimball is the author of four novels, including Dear Everybody, Us, and, most recently, Big Ray. His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, and New York Tyrant. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and he is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard). Read the next story, ANDREW JACKSON, here.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.