Book review | John Quincy Adams gets the credit he deserves

History, no less than life, is unfair. It does not favor the loyal, the persistent or the morally upright, preferring instead the bold, the obsessed, the scoundrel and the hero. Perhaps above all, it favors those complex men and women who are filled with contradictions that make them both familiar and yet never completely explained.

Thus, for historians, even one as distinguished and talented as Fred Kaplan, the task of writing a biography of John Quincy Adams is a daunting one.

Kaplan seems confident that his readers will, in the end and almost despite themselves, find Adams endearing. And he is correct.

Adams was, after all, a president who not only read broadly and deeply, from Francis Bacon to Henry Fielding, but who also wrote poetry and elegant government reports. He was a devoted son and husband, a caring and supportive father, a staunch opponent of slavery, and an equally staunch supporter of the Union.

That he was erudite, intelligent, modest, responsible and hardworking, there can be no doubt — and Kaplan draws his portrait with obvious admiration and respect. And yet it is not until the last decades of his life that Adams becomes an interesting man.

Perhaps unintentionally, Kaplan shows us why this is so. One of Kaplan’s central themes is John Quincy’s profound admiration for his father and his father’s generation. Indeed, throughout most of his life, John Quincy appeared willing to live in the shadow of these revolutionaries.

In his political views and his political visions, he took on the role of torchbearer of John Adams’ socially conservative patriotism, intense nationalism and firm belief that the survival of the republic required the leadership of virtuous, self-sacrificing men. Kaplan offers us rich evidence, drawn from John Quincy’s letters, that the touchstone for the son’s actions was always his father.

Even his political failures can be seen as an ironic tribute to John Adams, for, as president, neither man was able to win popular approval or hold the loyalty of those who shared his political convictions.

The portrait Kaplan draws is a sympathetic one, but it is effective in large part because the author does not romanticize his subject.

As a historian, Kaplan understands how unrealistic John Quincy’s political strategies were in the context of antebellum America. He paints a vivid picture of a political climate filled with sectional tensions and fracturing party organization, and a political culture marked by fierce personal ambitions and flagrant pandering to popular opinion. In such a setting, Adams’ attempt to replicate the virtues that he believed defined the founding generation can only be seen as quixotic.

As Kaplan shows, Adams refused to play politics, to campaign for office, to exploit patronage opportunities in order to build a loyal following. Like his father, John Quincy took the high road on almost every issue, and, also like his father, he suffered the political consequences.

His vision of a national government that fostered an educated and informed citizenry and devoted resources to infrastructure and scientific advancements was decisively, if temporarily, buried under the crush of ambitious professional politicians such as Martin Van Buren and the anti-intellectual populism of Andrew Jackson.

Adams was a man without an era: too late for the world of the founders, too soon for the modern liberal state.

For much of his career, his devotion to keeping his father’s legacy alive was thus as stifling as it was sustaining. He did not find his independent voice until he was in his 70s. Serving in Congress in the 1830s and ’40s, he found an issue that fully ignited his own moral passion; that issue was slavery.

The Amistad trials set free 53 Africans who rebelled, killed the captain of their slave ship and attempted to sail to Africa before being seized by an American brig. When the case came to the Supreme Court, it was Adams who argued — and won — that the men were not property. This, at last, was Adams’ moment, not a tribute to his father’s memory but a declaration of his own commitment to human equality and justice.

It is a moment in Kaplan’s biography worth waiting for.

Carol Berkin is the author, most recently, of “Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.”

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, by Fred Kaplan (652 pages; Harper; $29.99)