Wednesday, December 26, 2012

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS by Harlow Giles Unger

Despite my lifelong love of American history and politics, I knew very little about John Quincy Adams.  Oh of course I knew that he was the first son of a president to become president himself and I knew that he died serving in the House of Representatives.  That last bit should have alerted me to the fact that this was a most unusual man; can you imagine any of the presidents in recent memory to serve afterward in the House?  Anyway, that little tidbit somehow just passed right over me.

Now I know that his real service to this country came before and after his undistinguished presidency.  He had a long career in the foreign service, learning as he traveled with his father throughout Europe on diplomatic missions.  His mother and father were very hard on him, making him study a classical education seriously and then restudy to enter Harvard.  He became a scholar and excellent diplomat, but wasn't able to reach down to the level of the common man.  Washington habitues thought of him as a snob and they weren't wrong.

I hadn't realized that alcoholism ran in his mother (Abigail's) family so many of the Adams sons were lost to that disease and were a constant thorn in the side of John Quincy.  He supported them and tried all his life to help them.  

Ironically, after his presidency he discovered that he actually liked campaigning and realized his true love of politics.  To his wife's despair, he threw himself into his work for the House and to the despair of his colleagues, he became passionate about bringing an end to slavery.  

As a child, John Quincy sat with his mother on a hill near their home and witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill.  He died in 1860 shortly before the Civil War.  Imagine all that this one man who was so deeply involved with our government witnessed and took part in during his long life.  That and the highly readable prose of the author make this one fascinating look at our history and a man who led a life one can only dream about.  I won't overlook him again.

Source:  gift from a friend
Highly recommended reading


  1. Wow, it sounds like he had a fascinating and sad life.

  2. Barbara..I thought this was an excellent biography of a less well-known president. Unger has also written an excellent bio of JQA's predecessor James Monroe. Together these two really give us a clear picture of what was going on around the turn of the 18-19th century.

    Thanks for a good review.