John Quincy Adams (July 11, 1767-February 23, 1848) 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 war.
The 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 of Leyden.
Following graduation in 1787, Adams studied and briefly practiced law, but found it 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 to Thomas 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.
During 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. The 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 an 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.
Adams’s 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.”
The 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.
His 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.
The 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.
Adams 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.
The 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.
John 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.
John 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. In 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.”
As 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 Society, 1818-48.
Adams’s 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. His 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.
Adams’ 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.”
Predictably, 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.
Adams 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 time.” Sermons 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 him down?”
In 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.
Near 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.”
On 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.”
Adams 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 of life.”
Louisa 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.
Most of Adams’s papers are in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society. His diaries, edited by his son Charles Francis Adams, were published as Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, taken from his diaries 1794-1848 (1874-1877). Other writings of Adams include Letters of John Quincy Adams To His Son, On the Bible and Its Teachings (1848); Poems of Religion and Society (1848); two volumes of lectures as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory (1810); and An Answer to Pain’s Rights of Man (1793). Adams collected Documents Relating to New-England Federalism, 1800-1815; these were edited and published by his grandson, Henry Adams, in 1877.
The biography Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (1997) is rich in information about Adams’s religious views. Also useful is Nagel’s study, Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family (1983). Among biographies of Adams’s parents are David McCullough, John Adams (2001) and Janet Whitney, Abigail Adams (1949). Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1919), contains memories of his grandfather. John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (1951, inaugural edition 1961) includes a chapter on Adams’s years in the Senate. For Adams in the House of Representatives see William Lee Miller, Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress (1996). Information about Adams’s church connection is available at the United First Parish Church of Quincy and in Laurence C. Staples, Washington Unitarianism (1970; reprinted 1986). His relationship with Channing is treated in
Madeleine Hooke Rice, Federal Street Pastor: The Life of William Ellery Channing (1961).
Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted February 2, 2002