John Quincy Adams - Our Sixth President and a whole lot more

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John Quincy Adams had a 70-year career in public service, the longest of any U.S. President.  His election in 1824 to the Presidency was decided in the U.S. House of Representatives, the last time that has occurred in our history. But, ironically, his service as President was the least important part of his career.

Quincy Adams and Border Treaties

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Quincy Adams served as Secretary of State for eight years under President Monroe.  He negotiated the Adams-Onis treaty in 1819 which ceded Florida to the United States in return for some financial considerations, plus established a clear border between the United States and Spanish territory.  The northern boundary of the Spanish Territory was set at 42 degrees north, which today is the straight line forming the border between California, Nevada and Utah to the South, and Oregon and Idaho to the north.

During this time, revolutions in South and Central America against Spain had created free countries out of former Spanish colonies. Quincy Adams and President Monroe became concerned about maintaining the independence of these new countries and developed the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ essentially informing Europe that you stay out of the New World, we won’t interfere in the Old World.

The treaty of 1818 with Great Britain was signed during Quincy Adams’ term as Secretary of State, establishing a straight-line border with Canada along the 49th parallel. Over eighty years ago, the International Peace Garden was established and sits on the border of the two countries. This garden celebrates peace and friendship between Canada and the U.S. with the following dedication – “To God in his Glory we two nations dedicate this garden and pledge ourselves that as long as men shall live we will not take up arms against one another.” The U.S. - Canada border, over 5,000 miles long, including Alaska, is the longest unguarded border in the world!


Quincy Adams’ Career

He had an amazing career:

  • Age 12  - joined his father, future President John Adams, in France and the Netherlands, as part of diplomatic missions. At age 14 went by himself to Russia as part of the diplomatic mission. (1778)
  • Age 26 – 30: Minister to Netherlands (1793) – Minister to Prussia (1797). During this time, he met his wife Louisa. She became the first foreign-born First Lady, the only other one being Melania Trump. 
  • Age 35 – Elected to U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. (1803)
  • Age 42 – Minister to Russia; he was present during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.
  • Age 47 – Negotiated end of the War of 1812 with Great Britain; was in Paris during Napoleon’s Waterloo campaign in 1815.
  • Age 50 – Named Secretary of State by President Monroe. (1817 – 1825)  The only other Secretary of State to serve longer under a single President was Cordell Hull, FDR's Secretary of State for eleven years.
  • Age 57 – Elected President. (1825)
  • Age 63 – Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the only former President to do so.  He served there until his death in 1848 at age 80. (1830 – 1848)        


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At that time, Secretary of State was a stepping stone to the Presidency; Jefferson, Madison and Monroe had each served as Secretary of State prior to becoming President.  Having served as Secretary of State for eight years,  Quincy Adams continued this tradition by running for President In 1824. It was a four-way contest.  He finished second behind Andrew Jackson both in the popular and Electoral College vote.  However, Jackson did not win a majority of the Electoral College, throwing the election into the House of Representatives. In the House, per the Constitution, each state gets one vote. Out of the twenty-four states in the country at that time, Jackson had won the electoral votes in eleven states, Adams in seven, the other two candidates six. Henry Clay, who had finished fourth, threw his support behind Quincy Adams, bringing Adams’ total to ten. Even though Illinois, Louisiana, and Maryland had given their electoral votes to Jackson, they now voted for Adams, bringing him up to thirteen states and electing him President. Shortly after the winner was announced, Qunicy Adams named Clay Secretary of State in what became known as the ‘corrupt bargain’. 

The result enraged many in the country, including Jackson and his supporters.  It virtually crippled his Presidency from the start as it lacked legitimacy. Quincy Adams was unable to develop any support for his programs in Congress and accomplished little during his four-year term.

The 1828 election was a re-match between Quincy Adams and Jackson in a brutal campaign, won easily by Jackson. Adam’s Vice President, Calhoun, came out in support of Jackson and ran on Jackson’s ticket. Could you imagine, for example, if Joe Biden had decided he was against President Obama and ran on Romney’s ticket in 2012?

Post - Presidency

Like his father, Quincy Adams refused to attend his successor’s inauguration. He refused an honorary degree from Harvard because they had awarded one to Andrew Jackson. Quincy Adams stated that “Harvard disgraced itself by conferring a Doctor’s degree upon a barbarian and savage who could scarcely spell his own name.” He also called Jackson “the deepest, the cunningest and the foulest rascal of them all”.

In 1839, a slave revolt captured the ship, La Amistad and sued for their freedom. The complex case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841, and Quincy Adams appeared before the Supreme Court on their behalf - his arguments carried the day and the slaves were granted their freedom. 

In reviewing Quincy Adams' almost seventy years of public service, his Presidency was his least consequential role. Excluding his Presidency, Quincy Adams had a brilliant career. And that should not be overshadowed by a failed Presidency. Consider these words written by the freed slaves from the Amistad in a thank you note sent to Adams:

 "We love you very much & we will pray for you when we rise up in the morning & when we lie down at night...We hope the Lord will love you very much & take you up to heaven when you die. We pray for all the good people who make us free. Wicked people want to make us slaves but the great God who has made all things raise up friends for Mendi people he give us Mr. Adams that he may make me free."