True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

John Quincy Adams


Adams, John Quincy

Scholar, Diplomat, Statesman

Many, many years ago, a grave-faced little child, five or six years old, might have been seen in Boston, looking with startled eyes on the red-coated soldiers as they marched through the streets; or listening in his father's house to the loud talk, that he did not understand, about England and King George and the Tea Party and other subjects of anger. A few years later this boy and his mother climbed to a hill-top in Braintree, where they then lived, and from there saw a terrible sight, for red flames and dark smoke were bursting from the warships in the harbor, and the roar of cannon came sounding far across the water. They saw great sheets of fire mount high into the air, for the wooden houses of Charlestown were burning furiously, and on Bunker Dill, ten miles away, the flash of shots could be seen. The first great battle in the American Revolution was being fought, and the British were learning that the Yankee farmers could fight.

After the British left Boston, this little fellow, still only nine years old, used to ride on horseback into the city to bring back to his mother the latest news. It was twenty-two miles going and coming, which was a pretty long ride for a boy of that age.

The boy we are speaking of was the oldest son of John Adams, the great patriot, who was then in the Congress at Philadelphia, helping with the famous Declaration of Independence. The boy had been born on July 1767, in the old Adams home at Braintree. When he was baptized his mother's great-grandfather, John Quincy, lay dying, and the child was given his name. So he is known to us as John Quincy Adams. A great destiny awaited him, for, like his father, he was to become President of the United States.

A grave, thoughtful little boy he was, one who would rather hear the old folks talk than play with his schoolmates, and who was to do the work of a man long before he ceased being a boy. Like his father, he was honest in grain, and like his father, he was fearless and obstinate. To the day of his death, nothing could scare him, and nothing could turn him from his course. He was a true son of his father.

The boy began life in the great world early. He was just past ten years of age when his father was sent by his country to France, and took him along. A long and stormy voyage it was; and on the way they were chased by a British war-vessel, and had a desperate battle with a privateer, in which his father wanted to help the sailors fight, but the captain would not let him.

The ship got safe through all this, and they came at length to Paris. Here little John was sent to school and put to studying French. He learned a good deal more, for when they came back, a year and a half later, we find the boy giving lessons in English to the French ambassador, who was on board the ship, He was a severe teacher, too. He would stand no idleness. And he showed so much learning that the ambassador stared at him in wonder. The boy of twelve was more than half a man already.

"He is a better teacher than you are," said the ambassador to Mr. Adams.

They did not stay home long. In three months John Adams was sent back again, and once more he took his son along. This time the boy saw more of the world, for his father traveled from Paris to Holland and met many of the leading people. Young John Quincy must have shown himself wonderfully bright, for he was in public service himself before he was fourteen years old. Francis Dana, envoy from the United States to Russia, took him as his private secretary.

I have not read in history of any other boy in so high an office while so young. But the youthful secretary did his work like a master. He stayed in Russia over a year, and then left and came back himself, traveling through Sweden and Denmark, and keeping his eyes wide open for all there was to be seen. Then he went to school again at the Hague in Holland. He had been getting his schooling in bits all along, but the school of courts was one where there was much to learn.

Soon he had other important work to do. The Revolution was over and his father and Franklin and Jefferson were chosen to make a treaty of peace with Great Britain. The bright boy became one of their secretaries, and had his share in drawing up the famous paper which settled the independence of the United States.

What do you think of a boy like this? He was just a little over sixteen, an age when boys are often in the thick of their school life. Yet for years he had been doing the work of an experienced man. Certainly history does not tell of many boys like him. In 1785, before John Quincy was eighteen, his father was appointed Minister to England. The boy had then lived seven years in Europe. He liked foreign travel; he liked the life in courts; it would be pleasant to see and talk with the famous men of England. And his mother had come to London, which made that city like home to him. Here was a charming prospect, which most boys would have jumped to take.

But John Quincy Adams was not a boy of that sort He knew he had only half an education. And when his parents gave him the choice to stay in London with them or go to America and enter Harvard College, it did not take him long to decide. He felt that he had his own way to make in the world, and to loiter about London was not the way to prepare for that, no matter how pleasant it might be. So home he came, entered college, and graduated with honor in 1787, then studied law, and began to practice when he was twenty-three years old.

South Church, Boston


The learned boy was a man at last and was launched in business. He had seen more of the world than most men ever see. He had a deep training in public affairs, and this he soon showed by writing able political papers, which were much read in America and Europe. He did not put his name to them, but it became known that he was the writer, and they showed such fine knowledge and judgment in political affairs that President Washington sent him abroad again as Minister to Holland.

It was now 1794. He was twenty-seven years old. The storm of the French Revolution was spreading all over Europe. French armies were marching through Holland, and the ruler of that country, with all the European ministers, fled before the conquerors. Adams stuck to his post. He had a hard task, between the French party on one side and the Dutch party on the other; but he kept his head level and steered between them. Neither side succeeded in making a tool of him.

Soon after that he went to England. Here he met new difficulties, for the British court treated him as if he was the American minister, and tried to get him to commit himself to some foolish act. But his good sense carried him safe through all their plots.

The youthful diplomat, however, got caught in another fashion. Joshua Johnson, the American Consul at London, had with him his daughter, Louise Catharine Johnson, a handsome and accomplished girl, whose charms were too much even for steady-going John Quincy Adams. He fell in love with her, and she with him, and in July, 1797, the happy lovers were married. It was a marriage that brought him the deepest happiness throughout his future life.

New honors were now showered rapidly upon the keen-witted diplomat. President Washington appointed him Minister to Portugal, but before he set out the post was changed, and he was ordered to Prussia. This was at the end of Washington's term. John Adams succeeded as President. What was to be done? Was it right for him to keep his son in office? What would the people say? The son felt the same scruples and wanted to resign. He would have done so but for Washington, who insisted that the young Minister had well earned his post and must not be cut short in his career.

But John Quincy had a queer trouble in getting into Berlin. When he got to the gates of that city he was stopped by the lieutenant on guard and asked who he was and what he wanted. He told the officer that he came from the United States.

"The United States? Where is that? I never heard of such a place."

One of the soldiers had to tell the lieutenant where the United States was, and then the new Minister was allowed to go in. I hardly think any American would be stopped to-day at the gates of Berlin with that odd question. Adams remained abroad until his father's term was near its end, when he was recalled home, and settled back to his law business again.

Now let us run along faster in his life. His political career in America began in 1802, when he was elected to the Senate of Massachusetts. The next year he was sent to the Senate of the United States. He was a Federalist and the Democrats were in power, and things were made lively for him. He had to fight his political foes, and when he supported some of Jefferson's measures his own party bitterly blamed him. He was between two fires, and it took all his sturdy honesty and obstinate spirit to hold his own between the opposite forces.

He supported the Louisiana Purchase, which his own party opposed. He supported other acts which he thought good ones, and they thought bad ones. The worst of all was the Embargo Act, which cut off commerce with England. When Adams voted for that the Federalists were wild with anger. They called him "traitor," and "renegade," and nominated his successor to the Senate in an insulting way. Adams was not the man to stay where he was not wanted, and at once he resigned.

This was in 1808. On the 4th of March of the next year James Madison became President, and two days later he nominated Adams for Minister to Russia. And he sent him there, too, in spite of all his enemies in the Senate, who tried their best to stop him.

Minister Adams spent four years and a half in St. Petersburg. They were some of the stormiest years the world has ever known. Napoleon was trampling all Europe under his feet. While he was there the great invasion of Russia took place. There was the march of the mighty French army, the burning of Moscow, and the terrible march back of the French army—what was left of it.

And while Adams was in Russia there was war also at home—three years of war with England. When the treaty of peace was made in 1814 John Quincy Adams was one of those who made it. After the treaty he went to Paris, and stayed there during the famous "hundred days" after Napoleon returned from exile to Elba and fought his last fight at Waterloo.

He had left his wife at St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia, and she started by herself for Paris while all this was going on. It was a hard and dangerous journey. At one place the carriage was buried in a snow-drift, with night corning on, and the peasants around had to be roused up to dig the travelers out. Then there was much talk of murder and robbery on the road, from the rough fellows the war had set adrift. When France was reached the roads were found full of soldiers, rushing to Paris to meet the emperor. Mrs. Adams reached that city on March 21, 1815, just after Napoleon had got there. There must have been thrilling sights to see, in those desperate days.

At this time Adams received the highest diplomatic honor this country could give. He was appointed United States Minister to England. Washington had said that he was on the road to "the highest rank in the American diplomatic service." He had now reached it, for the ministry to London was viewed as the highest in Europe.

He came home in 1817 to a still greater post. A new President, James Monroe, was in the chair, and he had chosen the brilliant statesman and diplomatist for his Secretary of State. Step by step Adams was going up.

If any of my readers have ever been in the splendid city of Washington as it is to-day, they cannot well picture to themselves the Washington to which John Quincy Adams came in 1817. He had been used to the beautiful capitals of Europe, and this ugly, dreary, comfortless place made his soul sick. He spoke of it as this miserable desert, this scene of desolation and horror." It was still just rising out of the ashes which the British had left and must have been a cheerless place.

But he went to work all the same. There were many 'questions to handle. The greatest of these was that of keeping America out of European politics and keeping Europe out of America. Adams had his share in the "Monroe Doctrine," of which you have just read. Some say that he had as much to do with it as Monroe himself. Two years before Monroe's message was written Secretary Adams had told the Russian minister that the United States would not consent to any European control on American soil. That was the "Monroe Doctrine" in brief.

In 1824 a new President was to be elected. Four men were named, Andrew Jackson, the great soldier; John Quincy Adams, the great diplomatist; Henry Clay, the great statesman; and William H. Crawford, the late Secretary of the Treasury. Jackson was the popular favorite and got the largest number of votes. But he did not get a majority of them all, and the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. This chose Adams, who thus became President of the United States.

The new President was a very busy man when in office. But we are told he took a great deal of exercise. When he was at home in Quincy he thought little of walking to Boston, seven miles away, before breakfast. In Washington he was one of the first men up in the city, and the rising sun often saw him already at work in his library. He was an expert swimmer and was very fond of bathing. Every morning in the summer he was in the habit of plunging into the Potomac and swimming about, with all the sportive spirit of a boy.

Adams, like his father before him, was in office only four years. He was a hard worker and an able President, but he had very little of the art of the politician. There was no softness in his manner, and he made more enemies than he made friends. Mrs. Adams was a woman of fine social manners and showed much grace and dignity in her high position. But the friends she made were lost by her husband's coldness of manner. So when the next election came round he got fewer votes than before, and Jackson was elected President by a large majority.

First Six Presidents


John Quincy Adams did not stay moping at home. He did what no other President has ever done; he went back to Congress. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830, and remained there until his death in 1848. And he played a prominent part there. The great slavery contest came on and Adams made himself the champion of the Anti-Slavery party. He was not a handsome man, with his bald head and short figure. He was not a graceful orator. His voice was high and shrill, and had no rich, deep tones. But he had something to say, and he said it in a way that won him the title of "the old man eloquent."

For years he kept the slavery question alive. The Southern members tried in vain to stop his voice, but nothing could check him. Hundreds of anti-slavery petitions were sent to Congress. Nobody but Adams was ready to present them, but he continued to do so in spite of all the anger he met and the savage clamor around him. Those were days when it needed a strong man in Congress to face the passionate Southern members. Adams was that man.

In 1846 a stroke of paralysis came to warn the old man that death was at hand. But he kept at his post. He had kept a diary for years, and the last words in it were these:

"A stout heart, a clear conscience, and never despair."

He was in his seat in Congress on February 21, 1848. He rose, with a paper in his hand, to address the Speaker, when he suddenly fell to the floor. He was picked up insensible. Paralysis had seized him again. When he came to himself he said, "This is the end of earth. I am content."

They were his last words. He died two days later. They buried him under the church portal at Quincy, where the bodies of his father and mother lay.