After reading Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy several weeks ago, I decided that I wanted to know more about John Quincy Adams, sixth U. S. president and the man who knew both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Fortunately for me, the new biography Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress by Joseph Wheelan just reached the library. Like the chapter in Kennedy's book, Wheelan book focuses on the later part of Adams's public career, when he served in the U. S. Congress long past the age most politicians retire.
Like his father before him, John Quincy Adams had few friends. Both men were studious, serious, and unforgiving. Neither would bend to the dictates of a political party, thus separating them from their colleagues. In the son's case, Washington liked him for his skillful diplomacy on European assignments and Lincoln liked him for his long-running opposition to Southern Democrats trying to expand the reach of slavery. Most of the country's leaders in the years between the first president and the congressman from Illinois, however, hated Adams for his arrogance and tenacity. Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and John C. Calhoun were bitter enemies.
Much of Wheelan's book is about Adams's fight in Congress to remove a gag rule that prevented members from introducing citizen petitions if they opposed slavery. A coalition of Southern congressmen and Northern friends had passed the restriction to quiet Adams and his abolitionist allies. Adams argued that the restriction violated the U. S. Constitution's First Amendment. Of course, the deeper struggle was over how to end or extend the institution of slavery, which Adams predicted would end in war. As part of the fight, Adams fought bills to annex Texas, condemned the forced removal of Native Americans from their lands, and supported the rights of women to write petitions (but not to vote).
This all sounds very serious, but there are light moments in the book. I especially liked descriptions of Adams's relations with his parents and the great devotion of his wife Louisa. The author also had a bit of fun pointing out that after Adams spoke for four and a half long hours at the Amistad slave ship case at the Supreme Court, one of the justices went home and died in his sleep.
For American history collections, libraries tend to buy heavily in the periods of the wars and are often thin in covering the in-between periods. This new and compelling Adams biography is a great title for the gap between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Many libraries should add it.
Wheelan, Joseph. Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress. Public Affairs, 2008. ISBN 9780786720125.