John Quincy Adams was a brilliant man of many substantive accomplishments. Popularity was not one of them.
JQA: A Spectacular Upbringing
By the time John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was twenty-one, he was arguably the most cosmopolitan man of his generation in America.
At ten, he had the good fortune to travel to Europe with his father, a diplomat for the newly-created United States. Lawyer, legislator and prime mover of American independence, the senior Adams signed the Declaration of Independence, and was considered one of the new country’s foremost statesmen.
Ten-year-old John Quincy Adams was destined to follow in his illustrious father’s footsteps. He was placed in the best schools, and the bright child thrived. Always academically inclined, he excelled in all subjects, including languages. His French was flawless. He was fluent in Dutch and German. In time he would learn sufficient Russian, Italian and Spanish to converse diplomatically,
He returned to the USA at seventeen, ready to enter Harvard College, followed by “reading law”, the usual means of becoming an attorney. While JQA (as he began to refer to himself) was always considered an excellent attorney, and at one time seriously considered for the Supreme Court, he never enjoyed the practice of law. He preferred politics, government and perhaps best of all, the world of diplomacy.
The Personal JQA
JQA, like his brilliant parents John and Abigail, was raised in a Puritan ethic: devout (even more so than his parents), diligent, with rigid adherence to duty above all else.
His personal schedule was designed with little leisure for recreation. Idleness was not tolerated. Up before sunrise, a half-hour of Scriptures, cold baths, regular exercise (swimming was a favorite), reading Cicero in the original Latin and then whatever work or otherwise edifying activities were required.
His only indulgences were his cards, wine and brandy – essential European customs.
When he married at twenty-nine, John Quincy Adams was already fast-tracked in diplomatic service. His bride, Louisa Catherine Johnson, London-born, Paris-educated, was, on paper, superbly qualified to be consort to a high-ranking public servant.
The Unpopular Campaign of 1824
In 1824, JQA was fifty-seven years old and had spent his life as a public servant: legislator, diplomat and most recently, Secretary of State for eight years under President James Monroe. Few men were better qualified to serve as the country’s chief executive.
But John Quincy Adams had never been a popular man in America, and had few close friends or strong supporters. Camaraderie or familiarity with his peers was not in the Adams character.
There were four candidates for President that year – with very little differentiation in their policies or platforms. Political “parties” as such had not been established, and indeed had been strongly discouraged by the previous generation. This would change.
William Crawford of Georgia, Monroe’s Secretary of the Treasury, was the South’s candidate, but he had a stroke and his health was frail. With the snail-like communications of the 1820s, most people did not even know it.
Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, from Tennessee and Kentucky respectively, were two men cut from the same western cloth: loud, boisterous, violent-tempered men-of-the-people. True to expectations, they hated each other. Nevertheless, both had huge followings.
With a large field, the election produced no real majority, and by law, was thrown into the House of Representatives. It was acrimonious and according to Jackson, corrupt and based on collusion. And it elected John Quincy Adams.
The Unpopularity of JQA
JQA had appointed Henry Clay as Secretary of State, in exchange for his electoral votes (according to an enraged Jackson), who immediately began a strong campaign for the presidency in 1828.
Adams’ cold and acerbic manners did not endear him to the public, and his single term in office was politically acrimonious and personally depressing. His well-conceived and far-sighted proposals, such as a national university, a national observatory, and road and canal building, were thwarted and rejected by Congress, and little was accomplished.
What should have been a brilliantly social White House fizzled with the poor health of Louisa Adams, family problems with the Adams offspring, and JQA’s stand-offish nature.
The Moment of Cheering
Presidents are always expected to perform some ceremonial duties, and JQA was duly invited to break ground for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal on the 4th of July, 1828.
It was an unusually hot day during a blisteringly hot summer. It had not rained for a long time and the ground was parched. The President was duly introduced, acknowledged to the crowd, mildly applauded and handed the shovel.
Even at sixty, Adams was physically fit, especially with his daily vigorous mile-swims in the Potomac. But the hardened ground was like cement. It wouldn’t budge. Time and again, the President labored in the hot sun in an effort to break the ground.
In those days, and indeed for another century, no man would appear in public without his suit-coat – despite the July weather. And the President specifically, must maintain the dignity of his position.
Finally, and perhaps in a fit of manly pride – President Adams did the unthinkable. He removed his suit-coat and in his shirt-sleeves, put his shoulder to the shovel.
The dry ground yielded.
The crowd roared its approval.
It was spontaneous and sincere.
This was a sound that the societally-challenged Adams was not accustomed to hearing: cheering for him. He was amazed. He liked it. For a few minutes, he was a man of the people. He was popular – not for his accomplishments, but for himself.
He later confided to his diary that had he known how well it would be received, he would have removed his coat long ago.
Nagel, Paul C. – Descent from Glory – Oxford University Press, 1983
Shepherd, Jack – Cannibals of the Heart – 1980, McGraw Hill
Unger, Harlow Giles – John Quincy Adams – DeCapo Press, 2012