Questions of Character

How much does character matter in a president? Bill Clinton’s many ethical entanglements have made his presidency a running debate on the link between private character and public leadership. While every president has been judged on his character, Americans today know far more about the president’s private life than we used to, if only because in these tabloid times we know far more about everybody’s private life than we used to.

Today’s hunger for the personal is extending to past presidents as well. John F. Kennedy has been psychoanalyzed endlessly, most recently by Seymour Hersh in The Dark Side of Camelot. More civic-mindedly, 1995’s Character Above All, edited by Robert A. Wilson, put every president from F.D.R. to George Bush on the couch in search of lessons on character that voters could use in choosing future presidents. In the last couple of years, Thomas Jefferson’s personal life — his ownership of slaves, his alleged affair with Sally Hemings — has been a hotter topic than ever.

This year the life of John Quincy Adams is generating renewed interest. Perhaps the only president to be overshadowed by his parents, Adams has not been well remembered outside of his home state of Massachusetts. But the recent Steven Spielberg film Amistad featured Anthony Hopkins as John Q. Adams, a crotchety ex-president who reluctantly stepped forward to fight slavery before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the 1950s, Adams was the subject of a widely praised two-volume biography by Samuel Flagg Bemis that covered Adams’s long and varied public career in detail. At the close of his second volume, John Quincy Adams and the Union, Bemis wrote that while “one is tempted to assume the role of psychologist and probe Adams’s inner life and character,” he would leave that task to the future. The future has now arrived, in the form of Paul Nagel’s John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).

Unlike past biographers, who relied on a heavily edited version of Adams’s diary, Nagel waded through the full text of the massive and meticulous private account that Adams kept for nearly 70 years. And unlike Bemis, whose volumes focus on the public Adams, Nagel focuses on the more intimate side — the expectations and regrets and convictions that helped shape Adams’s character. Nagel’s is a biography of our time, short on politics and long on psychology. Does it tell us enough to judge the man?

Born in Braintree in 1767, John Quincy Adams grew up in a remarkable and demanding family. His father, John Adams, was one of the leaders of the Revolution and later the second president of the United States. His mother, Abigail Adams, was intelligent and educated and, like her husband, determined that their son be far more than an ordinary success. “For dear as you are to me,” she wrote the 10-year-old John Quincy Adams as he accompanied his father to France, “I had much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you have crossed . . . rather than see you an immoral profligate or a graceless child.”

His father’s admonitions were less gruesome but no less severe. “You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre,” John Adams wrote. The elder Adams added helpfully that “if you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness, and Obstinacy.” John Quincy Adams was at this point already the boy wonder of American diplomacy, having served as interpreter for the American representative to Russia at age 14 and having just been appointed the American representative to the Netherlands at age 26. He would confide to his diary that year that “I still find myself as obscure, as unknown to the world, as the most indolent or the most stupid of human beings.” With parents like these, is it any wonder?

Nor, perhaps, is it surprising that John Q. Adams would put too much pressure on his own children. “My sons have not only their own honor but that of two preceding generations to sustain,” he once wrote George, the eldest of his three sons. When George, a Harvard student but only a middling one, asked to join the family for Christmas, his father replied that “I would feel nothing but sorrow and shame in your presence.”

His sons would cause Adams much pain over the years. George graduated from Harvard, became a lawyer, and was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature, but later became an alcoholic and a chronic debtor. Summoned by his father to Washington, George committed suicide en route. His horrified parents interpreted the death as divine punishment for their pressure on George “to exertion foreign to his nature,” as his father realized tragically late. The second son, John, was expelled from Harvard, later became an alcoholic, and died at age 31. Only Charles Francis Adams, who joined his father in a political career, would enjoy a full and happy life.

Politics was for John Quincy Adams the last of several careers. The first was law, toward which his father (himself a lawyer) steered him, but which interested the younger Adams not at all. So great was his misery while studying for the bar that he “sank into a full-fledged clinical depression,” according to Nagel, who further argues that Adams suffered from recurrent depressive episodes for the rest of his life. From 1790 to 1794, Adams had a small law office in Boston, in a building his father owned. Then his father, at that point Washington’s vice president, secured for him the diplomatic post of minister to the Netherlands. The younger Adams had not been consulted, and at first was not pleased, but went on to a glittering diplomatic career that included two terms as secretary of state.

While Adams greatly enjoyed the life of a diplomat, his true passion remained literature, which he regarded as the noblest possible calling. While he did complete a number of literary projects, he started and abandoned many more, and Adams never committed himself to writing full-time. His expectations of himself were so crazily high that he may not have dared to. Better to try — and quite possibly fail — at something less elevated, such as diplomacy or politics. Yet to his death, Adams continued to reproach himself for the “indolence” and lack of creative genius that he believed accounted for his literary failings.

In 1824, Adams ran for president. He wanted the job, but Nagel also suspects that Adams had internalized his parents’ enormous expectations of him to such a degree that he needed to be president. Anything less would mark him a disappointment and a failure. So the man who once vowed he would rather “earn my living by cleaning away the filth of the streets than plunge into this bottomless filth of faction,” his view of elective politics, now ran for the nation’s highest elective office.

No candidate won a majority of electoral votes in the election of 1824. Thus it was left for the House of Representatives to elect the new president. Adams had finished second in the popular and electoral vote; he won in the House when Henry Clay, who had finished further back, pledged his support. Adams then made Clay his secretary of state. Supporters of Andrew Jackson, who had finished first in the popular and electoral vote tallies, howled in protest at the “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay. Adams’s presidency thus was essentially doomed from the start. Ignored by a Congress dominated by his opponents and harassed by Jackson, who continued his quest for the presidency on a platform of revenge, Adams endured a miserable and mostly fruitless four years in the White House before being crushed by Jackson in the 1828 election.

Adams just wasn’t a good politician. As Samuel Flagg Bemis noted, he “did not believe in parties or [geographical] sections, the essential realities of American politics –and they did not believe in him.” Personally, he lacked utterly the capacity for warmth and spontaneity, and he tended to be impatient and condescending toward those he deemed inferior.

Stubbornness, in spite of, and later perhaps because of, others’ opposition, would become Adams’s best-known trait. His stubbornness had its petty side, but also a grander one, for Adams was stubbornly right about the greatest issue of his time: slavery. In 1820, Adams called slavery “the great and foul stain” upon the nation, but he put these brave words in his private diary rather than in his public speeches. As a diplomat and later as president he did nothing to oppose or even criticize slavery. It was after he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830, becoming the only former president ever to hold another elective office, that he became a hero to anti-slavery forces.

Adams showed that slavery was a threat to the freedom of whites as well as blacks.

A high point of these years was the 1841 Amistad case, in which Adams successfully defended before the Supreme Court a group of Africans who had been kidnapped to be sold into slavery. But for Adams, the Amistad case was only a small part of a larger and longer struggle he was waging on the House floor. In 1836, on the urging of Southern representatives, the House had passed a resolution declaring that it would refuse to even consider — much less vote on — any petitions from citizens calling for the abolition of slavery. The resolution, dubbed the “gag rule,” was passed again by later Congresses and in 1840 became a permanent rule of the House.

Adams’s titanic struggle against the gag rule is the centerpiece of William Lee Miller’s Arguing About Slavery (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). Miller has done what C-SPAN viewers will recognize as the impossible: He crafted an account of an extended congressional debate that is both gripping and morally elevating. The reader feels at times like a witness in the visitors’ gallery, with Miller at his side whispering explanations when necessary yet remaining silent when the drama on the House floor speaks for itself.

As Miller explains, Adams astutely realized that the gag rule could become a potent weapon against slavery, for here was proof that slavery not only denied freedom to blacks but also threatened that of whites. In the Boston Courier, John Greenleaf Whittier made the point in verse:

Must fetters which his slaves have worn
Clank round the Yankee farmer’s door?
Must he be told, beside his plow,
What he must speak, and when and how?

Adams fought the gag rule with every parliamentary trick he knew, and with a sarcasm that left Southern congressmen apoplectic with rage. Taunting them, he mock-innocently asked, “Gentlemen of the South… why will you not discuss this question?… I call upon you to speak; explain this subject to us who do not understand it. Show us the ‘blessings’ of [slavery]. . . . Perhaps we shall come round; who knows but you may convert us?” When Southerners warned that to oppose slavery was to call for civil war, Adams leveled this blast: “Though it cost the blood of millions of white men, let it come. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”

In 1844, Congress finally voted to rescind the gag rule. The battle, which Southerners had waged to discourage the public from even considering tampering with slavery, had done the precise opposite. Anti-slavery petitions poured into Congress, and Southerners were put even more on the defensive. By linking the issues of slavery and free speech, Adams had brought abolitionism toward the mainstream of American politics.

Why did Adams wait until so late in his career to join the anti-slavery fight? Nagel argues that Adams was simply casting about for “a cause indisputable in its purity, in whose behalf he could contend against all the forces of evil.” He chose slavery as an issue, according to Nagel, only because its supporters were the ones who were using the gag rule to try to shut him up. Certainly it did not escape Adams’s attention that the same Southerners who supported slavery were the ones who had backed the despised Jackson, himself a slaveowner, over Adams in the 1828 election. Adams was in that rare and enviable position in which the path of vengeance and the path of righteousness were one and the same.

Adams would fight slavery to the end. In 1846 he opposed war with Mexico on the grounds that it was a Southern plot to add more slave states to the Union. On February 21, 1848, the 80-year-old Adams shouted “No!” during a roll-call vote on a proposal to award decorations to some officers from that war. Then he slumped over his desk. Two days later he was dead.

Considering the public and the private Adams, we have, then, a picture of a man who had a remarkably successful career, but not one that matched his ambitions or perhaps even his desires; who loved his children, but burdened them with the same expectations he himself had unhappily endured; who fought until the day he died the great evil of his era, but who joined that fight only when it offered him the chance for personal satisfaction. In short, we know too much about John Quincy Adams to shoehorn him into a simple category like saint or sinner. Knowing him more, we judge him less.

Meet the Author
And that may be the strange effect of today’s fascination with public figures’ private lives. Not to make us all cynical and to make character irrelevant, as is often argued, but rather to make us more forgiving of each other’s failings and more appreciative of the times when, heroically, we manage to overcome them.

John C. Springer is an editor at Prentice Hall.