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Biography: John Quincy Adams

John Adams expected great things from his eldest son, John Quincy. "You came into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. ... And if you do not rise to the head of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness and slovenliness." He would rise, of course; he'd been preparing for the job since childhood.

Adams Quincy 1.jpg
Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, Smithisonian

A Childhood Abroad
John Quincy was born on July 11, 1767. In 1778 the 10-year-old accompanied his father on his first diplomatic mission to France. He spent most of the next eight years living with his father in Paris, Amsterdam, and London. At 14, fully conversant in French, John Quincy served as secretary and translator to St. Petersburg emissary Francis Dana. In 1783 John Quincy returned to Paris as his father's secretary during the treaty negotiations that ended the Revolutionary War.

From Law to Diplomacy
Back in America, John Quincy followed his father's path to Harvard and then into law. But he had little interest in a legal career, and in 1790 he gladly accepted President George Washington's appointment as minister to the Netherlands. His next post, as minister to Prussia, would come in 1797 from his father, by then president. This same year, John Quincy, at 30, married Anglo-American Louisa Catherine Johnson. Their marriage was by no means the partnership that his parents' was, but he found her "amiable" enough. They had four children: George Washington; John 2d; Charles Francis; and Louisa Catherine, who died at about one year of age. His sons' childhood, like that of his siblings, was marked by long separations from their ambitious father.

Courtesy: Adams National Historical Park

Changing Sides
In 1803, back in Massachusetts after his father had lost re-election, John Quincy was elected to the state legislature. Appointed to the U.S. Senate (senators were not elected by popular vote until 1913), he enraged the Massachusetts Federalist Party by being the only member of the party to support President Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase. Like his father, he had chosen policy over party. Unlike his father, when the state legislature didn't return him to the Senate, John Quincy defected to the Republican side.

Secretary of State
Under President James Madison, John Quincy rejoined the diplomatic corps as the first U.S. minister to Russia. He was one of the negotiators of the treaty ending the War of 1812, a pact that restored all U.S. territory to its prewar borders. As President James Monroe's two-term Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams is regarded by many as the best in the nation's history. He helped create the Monroe Doctrine, which shaped America's isolation policy from Europe through the early 20th century. He established the present-day U.S.-Canadian border from Minnesota to the Rockies; transferred Spanish Florida to the United States; halted Spanish and Russian claims to Oregon; and created a policy for the recognition of new Latin American nations.

Courtesy: Library of Congress

 His own presidency would not be as distinguished. In the four-way election of 1824, stodgy New Englander John Quincy lost the popular vote to war hero and "man of the people" Andrew Jackson, but was chosen as president when the decision went to the House of Representatives. Jackson accused Adams of winning through a corrupt bargain and vowed to beat him in 1828, which he did. In his one term as president, Adams advocated large, federally funded projects meant to improve society: road construction, river widening, educational institutions, and a national observatory. Many of these projects, however, were never realized. Like his father, he cultivated few allies in Congress.

House of Representatives
Adams left the White House in 1829. In 1831 John Quincy was elected by Massachusetts voters to the U.S. House of Representatives -- a first for any former president. Here, "Old Man Eloquent" achieved the sort of political stature he never had as president, widely respected for his strong opinions on slavery and Indian affairs. On February 21, 1848, John Quincy Adams suffered a fatal stroke in the House chamber. He died two days later.

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