[Abridged] Presidential Histories

06.) John Quincy Adams 1825 - 1829

July 04, 2020 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
06.) John Quincy Adams 1825 - 1829
Chapters
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
06.) John Quincy Adams 1825 - 1829
Jul 04, 2020
Kenny Ryan

Full disclosure, John Quincy Adams is my favorite early president. Not for anything he did as president - he was a total failure there. But because of what he did after the presidency, when he returned to D.C. as a humble Congressman and became the loudest voice against slavery in Congress. John Quincy will roar so loud, the South will pass a series of unconstitutional gag rules to try and shut him up. They won't succeed.

From his first diplomatic mission at the age of 14, to the Napoleonic Wars, to negotiating an end to the War of 1812 and the acquisition of Florida, to the controversial election of 1824, the White House, and his post-presidential career as a voice against slavery in Congress, we'll follow John Quincy as strives to live up to his father's legacy as a man who always stands up for what is right, no matter the cost.

Bibliography
1. John Quincy Adams – Harlow G Unger
2. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness – Harlow G Unger
3. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands
4. John Adams – David McCullough
5. The Life of Andrew Jackson – Robert V. Remin
6. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System – Donald B. Cole
7. John Tyler – Gary May
8. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America – Walter R. Borneman
9. Zachary Taylor – John D. Eisenhower

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

Show Notes Transcript

Full disclosure, John Quincy Adams is my favorite early president. Not for anything he did as president - he was a total failure there. But because of what he did after the presidency, when he returned to D.C. as a humble Congressman and became the loudest voice against slavery in Congress. John Quincy will roar so loud, the South will pass a series of unconstitutional gag rules to try and shut him up. They won't succeed.

From his first diplomatic mission at the age of 14, to the Napoleonic Wars, to negotiating an end to the War of 1812 and the acquisition of Florida, to the controversial election of 1824, the White House, and his post-presidential career as a voice against slavery in Congress, we'll follow John Quincy as strives to live up to his father's legacy as a man who always stands up for what is right, no matter the cost.

Bibliography
1. John Quincy Adams – Harlow G Unger
2. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness – Harlow G Unger
3. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands
4. John Adams – David McCullough
5. The Life of Andrew Jackson – Robert V. Remin
6. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System – Donald B. Cole
7. John Tyler – Gary May
8. Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America – Walter R. Borneman
9. Zachary Taylor – John D. Eisenhower

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

John Quincy Adams might be my favorite of America’s early presidents, which is kind of ironic, because he’s easily the biggest failure.

As president, John Quincy Adams will accomplish nothing. Absolutely nothing. So, obviously, that’s not why I’m impressed by him.

I’m impressed with him because after losing the presidency, his hometown is going to send him back to Washington D.C. as a humble Congressman. And when he returns, he’s going to discover a fight he never knew he had in him as Congress’ fiercest opponent of Slavery. He’ll roar so loud, Southern Congressman will pass a series of unconstitutional gag rules just to try and shut him up.

But they’ll fail.

That’s why I think John Quincy is awesome.

He’ll also be one of our greatest early diplomats and win one of the craziest presidential elections in our nation’s history – when five major candidates ran in 1824 and the person who got the most votes, and the most electors, didn’t become president.

Yeah. It’s going to be controversial. Let’s dive in!

__INTRO__

Before John Quincy becomes a vocal opponent of slavery, and before he becomes president, he’ll spend the first half of his life as one of the most successful American diplomats in history. He’ll negotiate the treaties that acquire Florida, secure the Canadian border, and grant us claim to the Oregon territory. And he’ll be witness to one of history’s greatest dramas – he’ll be in Russia during Napoleon’s invasion and Paris when Napoleon returns from exile.

There’s going to be a lot of cool stuff in this episode. So let’s start with how he became that international diplomat. Let’s start, as we do, in the beginning.

John Quincy Adams was born on July 11, 1767, in the town of Braintree, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. 

John Quincy’s father was John Adams, as in founding-father-and-eventual-president John Adams. As in, not-afraid-to-tell-you-when-you’re-wrong John Adams. Which, you know, what son doesn’t want that from a father.

Being John Adams’ son is obviously going to have quite the impact on young John Quincy as he’s growing up.

The first impact is that, because John Adams was always away working for the revolution when John Quincy was a boy, and because everyone John Quincy met kept telling him what an impressive and important father he had, John Quincy developed a bit of hero worship for his old man. Nothing crazy, but when John Adams told his son to focus on his school work if he wanted to amount to anything, John Quincy listened. 

Here’s an example of a letter he wrote his absent father, 

“Sir, would you give me some instructions with regard to my time and advise me how to proportion my studies and my play? And I will keep them and endeavor to follow them. I am, dear sir, with a present determination of growing better. Yours.”

He wrote that when he was nine years old! That’s crazy.

With John Adams running all over the place furthering his political career – oh, I mean the revolution – John Quincy’s mother, the impressive Abigail Adams, was left to run the household and raise the children. And when the local school shut down because the only teacher went to fight in the revolution, Abigail took over most of John Quincy’s education, too. 

One of John Quincy’s most formative childhood memories came at the start of the Revolutionary war. When the sound of cannon fire reached the Adams’ household, Abigail and the children climbed a nearby hill and watched across the harbor as British soldiers attacked a fortified American hilltop next to Boston in a battle that became known as Bunker Hill. In the larger revolutionary war narrative, this is a battle that’s fought before George Washington arrives outside Boston to lead the army. 1,000 British soldiers died in the day’s fighting, and from the distance, John Quincy could see them climbing the hill, looking like tiny ants in the distance, and being repelled time and time again until the American soldiers ran out of ammunition and were finally overrun and killed to a man. It was a memory that would stick with him the rest of his life and fuel a repulsion toward war.

In 1778, When John Quincy was 11, and as the Revolutionary war still raged, John Adams was appointed minister to France and decided to take John Quincy with him across the ocean to Paris. The journey was a perilous one. British ships, which would have loved to capture and hang a traitor like Adams, pursued the vessel across the ocean before losing it in a huge thunder storm. The storm caused waves so massive, they threatened to capsize the ship. A bolt of lightning struck one of the sailors, and he died raving mad. On the other side of the storm, the American ship engaged in a battle at sea with a British merchant vessel and captured it. And John Quincy was there, for all of this madness, at 11. Wow!

But John Quincy and his father did eventually land in France, where John Quincy enrolled in schools more prestigious than anything that existed in America. After a few years of study, which included picking up foreign languages, 14-year-old John Quincy joined an American envoy to St. Petersburg, Russia, to serve as his translator as he sought recognition of American Independence.

So when John Quincy and his dad John finally get to Europe, they get down to business. John Adams does his thing as minister to France and later the Dutch Republic, and John Quincy focused on his education and began learning a variety of foreign languages. Abigail Adams had already raised John Quincy to be educated well beyond his peers, and the top European schools and universities he studied at as a diplomat’s son enhanced his education further. It’s something that would serve him well as a diplomat, but also make him terribly unrelatable to the average American back home. Americans didn’t even have widespread public school systems yet, and John Quincy is studying at some of the finest universities in Europe. 

When John Quincy was 14, his father received orders that his secretary, Francis Dana, was to go seek recognition of American Independence from the Russian Czarina, Catherine the Great. There was just one problem: Dana didn’t speak French, which was the language of court in Russia. But John Quincy did. And so it was agreed, John Quincy would accompany Francis Dana to the Russian capital of St. Petersburg to serve as his translator. One of the greatest careers in American diplomacy was set to begin.

Ok. So. John Quincy is going to do so many things as a diplomat that it’s just not possible to get into it all, and I know, because when I wrote it all down, it was a billion words long. So instead, I’m going to tell one funny story, one epic story, and one career-defining story from his years as a diplomat.

First, the funny story. In 1797 – so this 16 years after John Quincy went on that first mission to St. Petersburg as a translator, he’s quite a bit more seasoned now – John Quincy was working as a diplomat in Europe when he received orders from his father, president John Adams – hey dad - that he was to go to Berlin to secure a commercial treaty with the Prussians – the Prussians were basically proto-Germany. So John Quincy hopped on his horse and rode to Berlin. And when he got to the gates of the city, he announced himself as an ambassador from the United States of America.

And the guards said, “United States of America, what’s that?”

They had never heard of the country. And when John Quincy tried to explain, they thought he was making it up. 

And I like to pretend the next five minutes played out like a Monty Python skit.

“The United States of America? Yeah right! Next you’re going to tell me the people elect their leaders and there isn’t a king in charge. I mean, better than some watery tart throwing a sword at you, but come on, that’s just silly.”

John Quincy wasn’t let in until a senior officer arrived who had heard of the United States of America and could confirm that, yes, it was a real country, and it was a very silly place.

So, yeah, not a knee slapper, but I find it very humorous that a future president once walked up to a city and couldn’t get in because the guards thought he was making the United States of America up.

Alright, now let’s get to the Epic story – Napoleon!

We’ve seen quite a bit of France and Napoleon over the past few episodes – James Monroe even met Napoleon when he signed the Louisiana Purchase – but John Quincy be in Europe for climactic finale of the Napoleonic drama. And he won’t be just anywhere in Europe, he’ll be in St. Petersburg, Russia – the court of the Czar – when Napoleon invades with 700,000 men.

Ok, so, what’s going on here.

A bit of background. When John Quincy first arrived in St. Petersburg in 1809, it was basically the only major power left on continental Europe that Napoleon hadn’t subjugated. England stood alone against France, safe behind the English channel and its navy, and England and France were still very much at odds. Russia’s just want to stay neutral and trade with both sides – similar to the United States. In this case, Britain said sure. The British kind of needed that because it allowed them to access goods from the rest of Europe through Russian ports. But Napoleon, he said hell no. He was trying to force the British to capitulate through something called the continental system, which was basically an embargo banning all European trade with England. If this is sounds familiar, the Americans are trying the same thing right now, but the American economy is so small that it’s just going to put us into a depression. Napoleon, though, with almost all of Europe under his control, that might do the trick.

Russia played along for a bit, but then got tired of it and eventually stopped complying altogether. So Napoleon decided to invade to force the issue.

And given Napoleon’s track record at this point of, well, destroying everybody, things didn’t look good for Russia.

Almost every diplomat fled St. Petersberg. I mean, you’d be crazy to stay, right? Even the Czar left town to coordinate the army. But, well. John Quincy stayed. And it must have been pretty surreal sitting there in the ghost-town capital as grim tidings came in every day from the front, because the French were pounding the Russians. The Russian army soon stopped offering pitched battles altogether and just retreated east, famously destroying all the food and supplies they couldn’t carry with them. By Autumn, the French had occupied Moscow, but then someone sparked a fire and the city burned down. Without food or shelter and with the harsh Russian winter rapidly descending, the French were forced to retreat, and Russian cavalry attacked these fleeing Frenchman the whole way out – roughly 600 miles. Of the 700,000 men Napoleon invaded with, only 120,000 made it back to the west – five of every six men failed to make it home. Napoleon’s fortunes would never recover, and John Quincy had a front seat to the whole show.

About a year after Napoleon was defeated and banished to the Mediterranean island of Elba, John Quincy was dispatched to Paris to build relations with the restored French monarchy, but, well, this trip was cut short because Napoleon wasn’t done being Napoleon. Napoleon snuck off Elba, landed in southern France, and rallied every French unit sent to stop him to his banner. Before you knew it, Napoleon had recaptured Paris – he was back – and everyone was freaking out. Nations across Europe mobilized their armies and John Quincy realized he had to get the heck out of Paris while the getting was good, so he rushed to the coast and boarded one of the last ships off the mainland before a British blockade went into effect. He then watched from England as Napoleon reigned for 100 days before the armies of Europe confronted him at Waterloo and dealt him his final defeat. 

This time, the defeated Napoleon was banished to the desolate island of St. Helena in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This time, he was banished for good.

So that’s pretty crazy. I just can’t imagine being caught in that drama, being in Russia during Napoleon’s invasion, and being in Paris during Napoleon’s return from exile. What an adventure!

So, that’s the epic story from John Quincy’s years of diplomacy. Now it’s time for the career-defining story.

While serving in St. Petersburg, word came from the United States that President James Madison had talked Congress into declaring war on Great Britain. The War of 1812 was in full swing! And now that Napoleon was gone – the first time, this is before his return from Exile – the British were ready to turn their attention to the Americans. But no matter how many defeats the British inflicted on the us – including the burning of the capital – we just couldn’t seem to learn how to surrender. So in 1814, the British began talks with a commission of American ambassadors led by John Quincy Adams in the city of Ghent, Belgium.

This, by the way, was not John Quincy’s first peace negotiation. He’d actually clerked for his dad three decades earlier when John Adams was negotiation the Treaty of Paris to end the Revolutionary war. Observing how those negotiations went must have been awfully helpful when he took his seat at the table in 1814.

The peace negotiations were not easy. Every time word reached Ghent that one side or the other had won skirmish or a battle, that side would press for more concessions from the other. And that’s not even taking into account how far apart the two sides were when negotiations began. I mean, Britain’s opening list of demands included moving the Canadian border 150 miles south, control of most of Maine, the demilitarization of the American west, and the establishment of an Native American buffer-state in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio.

Obviously, John Quincy wasn’t having it. So the diplomats kept at it, day after day, until, on Dec. 24, 1814, peace was found. The Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812 and restored everything to the way it had been before the war began. No land gained. No land lost.

Which, given how poorly the war had gone for the Americans, and how much the British had originally been asking for, was quite an achievement.

John Quincy later said the day he signed the treaty was, “the happiest of my life, because it was the day on which I had my share in restoring peace to the world.”      

And that pretty much takes us to the end of John Quincy’s years abroad. I told you a funny story – what’s the united states? – an epic story – Napoleon’s fall – and a career-defining story – the treaty of Ghent. But there was a lot I had to skip over. To skim the surface of what else happened during these years, John Quincy turned down a nomination to the Supreme Court, he was elected to the senate during a stint back in the states, he negotiated a treaty with Britain to demilitarize the Great Lakes, and he married Louisa Catherine Johnson. Awww.

In 1817, President James Monroe invited 50-year-old John Quincy Adams back to the United States, this time to serve in the prestigious role of Secretary of State. At this point, three presidents in a row had previously served as secretaries of State, so when Monroe put John Quincy in that position, it was a way of signaling he thought John Quincy had what it took to be president.

It didn’t start well. St. Petersberg can be a cold, cold place and John Quincy and Francis Dana got a downright frigid reception from the Russian court, which refused to see or recognize them. This was 1781, by the way, the year the revolution is won. But nobody in Europe knows that, yet, and the safe bet is still Great Britain. So Russia, at least, wasn’t impressed by this so-called American Ambassador and his child translator. And so John Quincy stayed inside and began keeping a diary – a diary he’d maintain the rest of his life. John Quincy’s diary is one of the greatest windows we have into early American politics. It’s awesome.

So anyway, the Russian trip goes nowhere, so John Quincy returned to Paris to clerk for his dad as he negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which is way cooler than any job I had at the age of 16. 

So, quick recap. John Quincy is 16 years old, he’s already witnessed the battle of Bunker Hill, witnessed a sea battle, served in St. Petersburg, and been a fly on the wall during the negotiation of a major peace treaty. It’s about time to go to college, and his application sounds a lot better than yours, but guess what? Harvard rejects him. Apparently the president thought he was kind of cocky, which he probably kind of was, so he had to spend a year learning a bit of humility before getting in.

Now, John Quincy’s life threatens to slip into normalcy at this point. He graduates, begins practicing law, and yawn, we’re tempted to hit the snooze button. But don’t worry. He’s about to catch President Washington’s eye.

It’s the early 1790’s by now. George Washington is president and he’s coming under attack from the Jeffersonian-Repbulican press for his neutrality proclamation – this is that proclamation where he said the United States wouldn’t take sides in the French Revolutionary Wars that were consuming Europe. 

You may remember that the Jeffersonian Republicans totally wanted to go to war with Britain in support of France, because liberty! But John Quincy, a lover of peace ever since witnessing Bunker Hill – he begins writing a series of articles supporting Washington and neutrality. When Washington learns of these articles and sees how articulate they are and looks at that impressive John Quincy resume, he decides a life of law is a waste of talent for this guy, and he summoned John Quincy back to the world of international diplomacy by appointing him minister to Holland in 1794 when John Quincy was 27. Now, John Quincy very nearly rejected this offer, thinking his father had pulled the strings and not wanting to be accused of nepotism – but John Adams reassured his son the appointment was as much as surprise to him as it had been to John Quincy, and the younger Adams accepted. Thus began a six-year stint in Europe as an American diplomat to Holland, England, and Germany.

There were three notable events from this second stint in Europe. 

First.) John Quincy presented the Congressionally-approved Jay treaty to the King of England – this is the treaty that got John Monroe in so much trouble in France for establishing trade with Britain and forbidding French privateers from using American ports, despite the French having had a treaty that expressly allowed it.

Second.) John Quincy met, fell in love with, and married Luisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of a prominent American merchant in London. The two would remain married all their lives and have four children together. 

and third.) and this is on the list more because I think it’s funny than anything else, when John Quincy reported to Berlin to assume his ambassador’s post, the guards at the city’s gate had never heard of this “United States of America” and accused John Quincy of making shit up when he said he was an ambassador from there. Luckily for John Quincy, a higher-ranking officer who had heard of the United States showed up and let him in, but I still think this confusion is just delightful.

John Quincy’s six years in Europe were a successful and enjoyable six years, but shifts in American politics forced him to return home. John Quincy’s father, John Adams, had been was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800. And John Adams feared the empowered Jeffersonian-republican congress would humiliate his son by recalling him, so he recalled John Quincy first, which, I don’t know, seems kind of odd to me. John Quincy took this in stride. He returned to Massachussets, started a family with Louisa, and was elected a Congressman and then a Senator. And, the most notable thing about this stint in politics, which is going to last about 8 years, is how little he was liked by his peers, and the reason why. 

The reason nobody liked him is because he refused to play politics.

John Quincy was cut of the cloth of his father. He’s someone who believes right is right, and wrong is wrong, and it doesn’t matter what party you belong to, if John Quincy learns you’re acting corruptly, he’s going to go after you. The federalists and Jeffersonians of Massachussets got so sick of him that they elected him to the U.S. Senate to get him the heck out of Boston, which, I wish I were that annoying.

And this, by the way, is not an aberration. Every time John Quincy serves in elected office, he’ll do so as an quasi-independent representative. He may predominantly hang out with one party at the high school lunch table, but he’s not a party man. This will serve as his calling card and his crutch.

By 1808, that independent streak basically got him kicked out of the senate. You see, John Quincy was the only nominally-Federalist senator to vote for President Jefferson’s embargo act in 1807. Ok, so, let’s back up a bit. It’s 1807, which means Britain and France are both attacking American merchant ships trading with their rival – this, by the way, is the same thing Germany will do with submarines during World War 1 and 2, but it’s a 100 years earlier and both sides are doing it. Secretary of State James Madison wanted the attacks to stop, but he knew he couldn’t force them to stop because the United states didn’t have a professional military, so he thought an embargo would do instead. The idea being that the loss of American trade would be so damaging to Britain and France’s economies that they’d stop attacking American ships to get that trade to resume.

The thing is, it didn’t work. The embargo plunged the country into an economic depression. The embargo was supposed to be a new way to win at foreign policy. Instead, it was a new way to lose.

This proved to be one of the worst policies John Quincy would support in his life, and the economic damage wrought by the embargo piss Massachusetts voters so much that they went ahead and elected John Quincy’s successor three years before his term ended. John Quincy’s replacement has just been elected three years before the election was supposed to happen. John Quincy took the signal and left.

But John Quincy’s habit of being independent had its benefits, too. In 1809, president James Madison recognized John Quincy’s experience and talent and appointed him to his third and final diplomatic tour of Europe. And this last trip is going to be awesome.

John Quincy opened this tour as minister to Russia, where Czar Alexander now ruled the land. Czar Alexander was far more friendly than his grandmother, Catherine the Great, had been. And I mean genuinely friendly. Alexander and Adams became friends. And this had political benefits. When John Quincy asked the Czar to help free some American sailors in Denmark, the Czar picked up the phone, or massager pigeon, I don’t know, and the sailors were let go. It’s good to have absolute monarchs as friends.  

But there were storm clouds on the Russian Horizon. Over the course of three years, John Quincy watched as relations between France and Russia deteriorated. At this point, Napoleonic France basically controlled all major European states except Russia and England, and Napoleon was trying to force the British into submission by banning the rest of Europe, including Russia, from trading with them. The Czar played along for a bit, but got tired of it, and eventually stopped complying altogether, prompting Napoleon to invade Russia with an army of nearly 700,000 men in 1812.

Almost every diplomat fled St. Petersberg. I mean, you’d have to be crazy to stay, right? Even the Czar left town to coordinate the army. But, well. John Quincy stayed. And it must have been pretty surreal sitting there in the ghost-town capital as grim tidings came in every day from the front – a front that was rapidly moving East as the unstoppable Napoleon defeated every Russian army put before him. The Russians were getting beat so bad that they soon stopped offering pitched battles altogether and just retreated, famously destroying all the food or supplies in their wake. The French occupied Moscow, but then someone sparked a fire and the city burned down. Without food or shelter and with the harsh Russian winter descending, the French were forced to retreat. Of the 700,000 men Napoleon invaded with, only 120,000 made it back to the west – five of every six men failed to make it home. Napoleon’s fortunes would never recover, and John Quincy had a front seat to the whole show.

As if that wasn’t enough drama, John Quincy was also in Russia when he learned president John Madison had convinced Congress to declare war on Great Britain, launching the disastrous war of 1812 – a war John Quincy would soon help negotiate an end to. – but not yet.

After Napoleon was defeated and banished to the Mediterranean island of Elba, John Quincy was dispatched to Paris to build relations with the restored French monarchy, but, well, this trip was cut short because Napoleon wasn’t done being Napoleon. Napoleon snuck off Elba, landed in southern France, and rallied every French unit sent to stop him to his banner. Before you knew it, Napoleon and his army of defectors had recaptured Paris – he was back – and everybody was freaking out. Nations across Europe mobilized their armies and John Quincy realized he had to get out while the getting was good. John Quincy and Luisa hurried to the coast, where they boarded one of the last ships off the mainland before a British blockade went into effect. John Quincy then watched from England as the armies of Europe marched again, confronted Napoleon at Waterloo, and dealt him his final defeat. Napoleon’s return to power lasted just 100 days. 

This time, the defeated Napoleon was banished to the desolate island of St. Helena in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This time, he was banished for good.

With Napoleon finally out of the picture, the attention of Britain turned to the United States, which, remember, was waging this damned war of 1812. But no matter how many defeats the British inflicted on the Americans, they just couldn’t seem to learn how to surrender, so in 1814, the British began talks with a commission of American ambassadors led by John Quincy Adams, in the city of Ghent, Belgium.

This is the beginning of the crowning achievement of John Quincy’s diplomatic career.

John Quincy was one of five American negotiators sent to Ghent, including speaker of the house Henry Clay, who had vocally called for the war, but who now realized peace would be a good idea. Luckily, the five negotiators got along well, which is a very good thing as they all shared a single home for the lengthy negotiations. And negotiations were lengthy. Every time word reached Ghent that one side of the other had won skirmish or a battle, that side would press for more concessions from the other. And that’s not even taking into account how far apart the two sides were when negotiations began. I mean, Britain’s opening list of demands included moving the Canadian border 150 miles south, control of most of Maine, the demilitarization of the American west, and the establishment of an Native American buffer-state in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio.

Obviously, John Quincy wasn’t having it. But the diplomats kept at it, day after day, and on Dec. 24, 1814, the two sides signed the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812 and restoring everything to the way it had been before the war began. No land gained. No land lost.

Which, given how poorly the war had gone for the Americans, and how much the British had originally been asking for, was quite an achievement.

The war over, John Quincy stayed in England as ambassador, where he negotiated a trade agreement, demilitarized the Great Lakes, and half-heartedly followed Madison’s orders to secure slaves who had fled to the British during the Revolutionary war. Perhaps purposefully, he failed in this last task.

In 1817, President James Monroe invited 50-year-old John Quincy Adams back to the United States, this time to serve in the prestigious role of Secretary of State. At this point, three presidents in a row had previously served as secretary of State, including Monroe, so when Monroe made John Quincy his secretary of state, it was a way of signaling he thought John Quincy had what it took to be president.

John Quincy was a solid Secretary of State. He secured the border with British Canada from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains – remember how Britain wanted the border moved 150 miles south? After this treaty, that wouldn’t come up again. And he got England to agree to joint control of the Oregon Territory, which was a really nice coup.

But the biggest feather might have been Florida.

When Andrew Jackson, a militia general and future political rival and president, invaded Spanish Florida in 1818 baaasically because President Monroe manipulated him into doing it, John Quincy played diplomatic hardball with Spain to get them to give Florida up. He basically said, look, we’ve occupied Florida. So you can either sign this piece of paper saying you’re giving us Florida, and your claim to the Oregon territory, in exchange for $5 million and a sliver of North Texas, or you can not sign the paper, not get anything, and we’ll just keep Florida, and do you really think you can hold Oregon?

Spain signed the paper, and the United States paid up and gained Florida and further claim to Oregon, and surrendered its claim to north Texas. But don’t worry, we’ll get Texas back later.

And that takes us to the end of the Monroe presidency. Which means it’s time for the election of 1824, when 56-years-old John Quincy Adams, who has been serving his country since the age of 14, will finally run for president.

And he’s going to have a hell of a time.

The election of 1824 is easily one of the craziest, if not THE craziest, presidential elections in American history. Five major candidates will run and, spoiler alert, none of them will win in the electoral college.

It’s going to be fun. 

Ok, let’s start by catching our breath real quick and looking at John Quincy’s resume. John Quincy has served as secretary of state, he negotiated an end of the war of 1812, he negotiated Spain’s surrender of Florida, he’s secured trade agreements and favorable borders all over the place. It’s a very impressive resume! I mean, he’s basically been serving the country since he turned 14! But he is by no means a shoe-in. There are four other strong contenders for the presidency and it’s going to be a free for all.

Let’s start with the longshots, you had John C. Calhoun, a former South Carolina congressman, war hawk, and Secretary of War under Monroe, who looks absolutely crazy in portrait. I strongly encourage you google this guy – he looks like an evil Doc Brown from Back to the Future, and seeing as he loves slavery, evil’s a good word for him.

You also had William H. Crawford, a popular former Georgia Senator who spent the past eight years as Monroe’s Secretary of the Treasury. He was most popular with the old guard of Jeffersonian-Republican elites.

And then came the more serious contenders – Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson.

Clay was the powerful speaker of the House and one of the commissioners who helped John Quincy negotiate the Treaty of Ghent. He was a fervent war hawk from Kentucky who advocated something he called “The American System,” which called for a standing army to defend the nation, forts, roads and canals to help that army defend the nation, and a series of tariffs to raise money for the army, forts, roads, and canals. He’d also negotiated the Missouri Compromise in 1820 – a deal that admitted Missouri as a slave state, Maine as a free State, and averted a very serious threat of civil war. That’s a pretty good resume.

Andrew Jackson, though. He might have been the biggest dog of the bunch. And the reason was a shift in how the United States elected its presidents. Over the past decade or so, new western states had incentivized migration by allowing their electors to be chosen by popular vote, rather than, say, being chosen by the legislature, and they’d done away with the property requirement to vote. And eastern states were following their lead on both fronts. Of the 24 states up for grabs in 1824, 18 picked their electors by popular vote, and six let the state legislatures choose. Winning the presidency used to be about relating to those state legislators. Now, it was about relating to the average American.

And nobody related to the average American better than Andrew Jackson. First off, Jackson was a war hero. When John Quincy and Henry Clay were busy negotiating an end to the war of 1812, Andrew Jackson was busy winning it – or that’s what most Americans had come to believe. Jackson defeated a massive British army near New Orleans right before word of peace came from Ghent, so Americans conflated the two events and gave credit to Jackson. He’d also conquered Spanish Florida, and he was considered a hero of Indian wars – although I don’t think any native American listeners would say there’s anything heroic about the way he massacred native American enemies and betrayed native American allies. Victory had made Jackson incredibly popular, but had done nothing to calm his legendary temper.

As the election of 1824 approached, John Quincy was President Monroe’s favorite to replace him, but John Quincy refused to actively run. Like his father, he felt the president should be chosen because he’s the best for the role, not because he groveled or begged for it. This may have been how the founding fathers thought elections would go, but it was already becoming old fashioned, and John Quincy’s rivals, especially Andrew Jackson, campaigned far more vigorously. Not personally of course – no candidate for president would be leading rallies until 1840 – but by writing letters and hosting dinner parties to influence the political elite. John Quincy didn’t even want to do that.

The race quickly narrowed – Calhoun, who had nominated himself because nobody else would – realized he didn’t have enough national appeal to win, so he dropped out of the presidential race and ran for vice president instead – which nobody else was doing, so he won by default Clever, that.

Crawford, meanwhile, suffered a stroke. He made a decent recovery and had the support of Jefferson, Madison, and a young new York politician named Martin Van Buren, but he wasn’t going to win.

It seemed to be down to John Quincy, Jackson, and Clay, but as the election neared, John Quincy noticed Jackson’s surging lead as, one by one, the states cast their votes over a period of three months – there wasn’t a national election day then as there is today. Despairing at Jackson’s growing lead, John Quincy suspended his campaign.

Then the final results came in. 

153,000 votes and 99 electors for Andrew Jackson.

114,000 votes and 84 electors for John Quincy Adams.

47,000 votes and 41 electors for Crawford.

And 47,000 votes and 37 electors for Henry Clay.

So Jackson had more of votes and more electors than any other candidate, but he didn’t have a majority, just a plurality, so, by law, the election passed to the House of Representatives, where every state would be allowed one vote by which to select the next president. 

Now, this had been Henry Clay’s plan the whole time. As speaker of the house, he was incredibly powerful here, and he knew he could win the presidency if he made it to the house.

But that IF was a killer IF.

A recent constitutional amendment said that only the top-three performers in the electoral college could go to a run-off in the house. And remember, Clay had finished fourth, behind Jackson, John Quincy, and Stroke victim Crawford.

So Henry Clay could not be president.

But he could be king maker.

As the election went to the house, Andrew Jackson was the favorite. States generally weren’t winner-take-all back then, so this isn’t exact math, but Jackson had roughly won 8 states and John Quincy had roughly won six. The other ten had gone to Clay or Crawford and were up for grabs. Nobody knew which way they would go.

Well, except maybe Henry Clay.

Freed by the impossibility of becoming president, Henry Clay had dinner with John Quincy some time before the house was set to vote. During this Dinner, Clay told John Quincy that he’d prefer him to that hot-headed “military chieftain” Andrew Jackson. When the House of Representatives voted, Henry Clay pressured every state – not just the ones he won – to cast their ballots for John Quincy rather than Jackson or Crawford – even in states where John Quincy hadn’t received a single vote. As a result of Clay’s influence, John Quincy won the election in the house and became the sixth president of the United States, beating Jackson 13-7, with Crawford picking up the final four states.

The election was won!

But it’s not time for John Quincy’s presidency just yet. Five days after winning this run-off election, John Quincy announced that, once he became president, Henry Clay would be his secretary of State.

This was an incredibly bad idea.

Many Americans were disgusted that the candidate who won the most votes - Jackson -  and the most electors – Jackson - hadn’t be named president. The people’s will was being usurped! And, did you catch how I mentioned Henry Clay made a state that hadn’t cast a single vote for John Quincy support him in the house of representatives? What was THAT about? 

Andrew Jackson was especially livid, calling Henry Clay a Judas and alleging John Quincy had won Clay’s support by a corrupt bargain – a promise of presidency in exchange for the secretary of state role. It was an allegation that was probably bs – Clay would have been a great Secretary of state for any president, and Clay needed no incentive to favor John Quincy to Jackson – but appearances are everything in politics. And this accusation would haunt Clay the rest of his life.

And so, on March 4, 1825, under a cloud of discontent, John Quincy Adams, the son of a former president who had negotiated an end to the war of 1812, negotiated the acquisition of Florida, and served the nation since the age of 14, was sworn in as the sixth president of the United States. He reported to the capital at Washington D.C., where his presidency promptly went off the rails.

But first, what did the nation, and the world, look like when John Quincy became president? Let’s look around.

Internationally, the world was at peace and there were no threats on the horizon. The United States had a ton of newly independent neighbors to the south, where just about all of latin America had won independence from Portugal or Spain. Domestically, the economy was doing great. All that westward migration that happened during the Monroe presidency was starting to populate the Midwest and unlock its economic potential. The south was increasingly building its economy around cotton and the north was increasingly leaning toward industry, which will also be important in a moment. Overall, it was a good time to become president.

And John Quincy had big bold ideas for how to further develop the country. He’d been all over Europe, he knew what worked. He wanted to create a national university, expand the nation’s roads and infrastructure, and invest in science with the construction of observatories, but none of it ever went anywhere, because he didn’t do a good job selling his vision, because nobody wanted to raise taxes to pay for it, and well, because of Andrew Jackson.

Jackson may have lost the election, but, well, did he? I mean, he had won a plurality the popular vote and electoral college delegates. People were still really pissed about this “corrupt bargain” thing that Jackson kept talking about. Jackson had enough loyalists in Congress that, while he may not have been in office, he did hold political power, and he used it to block John Quincy’s priorities at every turn. When John Quincy tried to mollify Jackson by offering him Secretary of War, Jackson didn’t even bat an eye. The old Jeffersonian Republican party was dying, and a new Democratic Party rapidly growing, with Jackson at its heart.

How did this make John Quincy feel about Jackson? Well, when his Alma Mater Harvard gave Jackson an honorary degree many years later, John Quincy said he would not "be present to witness [Harvard’s] disgrace in conferring its highest honors upon a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name."

So, yeah, it was mutual.

And you might be thinking, ok, we get it Kenny, but surely SOMETHING happened during the John Quincey presidency. He can’t have really accomplished nothing, right?

I’ll give you three examples of how futile the John Quincy administration was.

First, remember how I said most of latin America had recently won its independence from Spain and Portugal? Someone came up with the idea of holding a conference in Panama where these new American nations could develop commercial and diplomatic relationships. Which, like, this sounds like a great idea. But when John Quincy’s tried to send a delegate to the conference, he was blocked by Congress for months so that when a delegate finally was approved, he was unable to arrive until after the Congress was over. Want to know why? A. Because John Quincy was asking, and B., because some of those new Latin America countries had abolished slavery, and southern congressmen didn’t want to do anything that might signal support for ending slavery.

So that’s one example of the Adams’ administrations’ impotency. Here’s another, and it’s a biggie. In 1828, The growing Democratic Party passed a controversial Tariff just to force Adams to pick a side on it knowing that no matter what he did, he’d piss off one half of the country or the other. This Tariff is basically going to take the country to the brink of civil war in a bit, so we’re going to go into a bit more detail on it. And I apologize if this is a little elementary. A tariff is basically a tax Americans pay on foreign imports. If you set the Tariffs low, consumers might be a little annoyed, but they’ll keep buying and you’ll raise a lot of money. If you set the tariffs high, you can make an import so expensive that it’s cheaper to buy a locally-made product. For example, if I put a 2,000% tariff on foreign bananas so they cost $10 a banana instead of 50 cents a banana, you can bet American farmers would start growing a ton of bananas and selling them for $9 apiece. American Banana growers win, everyone else loses. During the mid-to-late 1820s, there were a bunch of industries trying to pop up in the northeast, but they kept failing because European imports were too cheap to compete with. The Tariff of 1828 applied only to goods produced by these northeastern industries, which meant northern industries could finally grow, and growth meant more jobs and more money in that region’s economy. So the north was going to win pretty big if the tariff passed, and it was going to lose if the tariff was vetoed.

But what about the south? None of those protected industries had factories located in the south, so the south would see no benefits from the tariff. What they would see is higher prices on goods they used to be able to import cheaply from Europe. The south saw this as highway robbery – a direct siphoning of American wealth from south to north. Southerner’s soon dubbed the Tariff the “Tariff of abominations.”

And John Quincy signed it. And the south was livid.

And you might be wondering, if this Tariff was the Democrats’ idea, why did only John Quincy get in trouble for it? And the answer is the Democrats lied. Northern democrats told their constituents that the Democratic party was pro tariff. Southern Democrats told their constituents that the Democratic party was anti tariff. And let’s be real, the average shmo can only really keep up with what the president is doing, and the average shmo saw John Quincy sign the tariff into law. So he’s never going to get a southern vote again. 

Oh, and, you know how I promised this tariff will take us to the brink of civil war? That will come in our next episode about Jackson’s presidency. So. Be excited.

Want to hear one more example of how futile the John Quincy administration was? In 1826 – halfway through his administration – his vice president, John C Calhoun, came out in support of Andrew Jackson for President. Harsh!

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Andrew Jackson destroyed John Quincy in the 1828 presidential election, casting him out of the white house with a 178-83 defeat in the electoral college.

Ok, so John Quincy has just been voted out of the White House, which means we’re almost to my favorite part of his story, but before we get there, let’s look at how the United States changed during John Quincy’s four years in the white house.

Territory-wise, nothing changed from 1824 to 1828. There’s no new land and there are no new states. Internally, the biggest news was the opening of the 1825 Eerie Canal in New York. This was huge for a couple reasons. First, the economic impact was seismic. Western goods could now travel directly from the Great Lakes down the canal to New York City and the northeast instead of down the Mississippi, through New Orleans and around Florida. Just look at a map, you’re trimming the journey by thousands of miles. The cost of western goods in the northeast dropped 90% and New York City vaulted past New Orleans as the country’s busiest port and past Philadelphia as its largest banking sector. The other big thing about the Eerie canal is it was built entirely with state or private funding – no federal dollars. Small government democrats would point to the Eerie canal for the next several decades as proof that the federal government didn’t have to be involved in infrastructure projects. 

Internationally, a world weary of the Napoleonic wars was largely at peace. And the first public railway opened in England in 1825, so we’re about to get trains.

So, like I said, a fairly quiet presidency. But get ready, because John Quincy is about to come roaring back to Washington DC as a champion of the anti-slavery movement, and no matter how hard his enemies try, nobody is going to shut him up.

The final great phase of John Quincy’s life begins in 1830, a year after leaving the presidency. Boston was celebrating its bicentennial so John Quincy rode in to join the festivities. While there, a couple local politicians came to him with a proposal. The reverend who represented John Quincy’s congressional district was going to step down to tend to his church. These two politicians wanted to know, would John Quincy like to run for the seat? If he ran, they promised nobody would run against him.

True to form, John Quincy said he wouldn’t actively campaign and, if elected, he wouldn’t join any political party – he was going to be an independent. This sounded good to the people of his community, and he was easily elected to Congress in 1831.

And John Quincy made quite the arrival.

During his first days in congress, John Quincy presented a petition written by Pennsylvania Quakers – who weren’t in his district, but he didn’t care, because this petition was about an issue he was about to dedicate the rest of his career to - the end of slavery. 

Most of congress booed John Quincy’s when they realized what John Quincy’s petition was about, but out across the country, a growing number of abolitionists loved it. Every day, John Quincy received more and more petitions against slavery to read to Congress, and he did so with relish, but he didn’t stop there. He also introduced amendments saying nobody could be born into slavery, or all new states had to be free. It really pissed the south off.

So, why had it taken John Quincy this long to jump into the fight against slavery? Well, honestly, he was never really around it. His family never owned slaves at home, and he’d spent almost his entire professional career in Europe, where there was no slavery. The first time he really had to think about it was the Missouri compromise of 1820. Remember that? When Missouri wanted to be admitted as a state, and southerner’s said ‘sure, but only as a slave state’ and northerners said ‘heck no, only as a free state’ and there was talk of secession until Henry Clay negotiated his compromise? Well, John Quincy was a member of president Monroe’s cabinet when this was happening and he unsuccessfully argued that slavery should be banned from all new states, saying “What can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?”

Which, you know, hell yeah man.

John Quincy went along with the Missouri compromise because he considered it preferable to civil war, but he later wondered if they should have forced the issue then and there, saying, “I take it for granted that the present question is a mere preamble - a title page to a great tragic volume.”

In 1836, southern representatives got so sick of John Quincy’s anti-slavery antics that they came up with a scheme to stop him. An unconstitutional scheme. A southern representative proposed a ban on all petitions, propositions, or papers relating to slavery. John Quincy rose to protest this – like, whatever happened to freedom of speech, man? – but the speaker of the house, a southerner and future president named James K Polk, refused to allow him to speak. Instead, Polk recognized a series of southern slaveholders before declaring, “Oops, we’re out of time, let’s vote.” And the resolution narrowly passed – it was now illegal for John Quincy to read petitions against slavery in Congress.

As John Quincy attempted to raise his voice against this injustice, southern representatives drowned him out with shouts of “Order! Order!”  driving a frustrated John Quincy to bark back, “Am I gagged or am I not?” And this exclamation gave the rule its name – the gag rule.

But John Quincy wasn’t one to let a bullcrap law like the gag rule get in his way. He went into full-on smartass mode – oh, I’m not reading a petition against slavery, I’m reading a prayer against slavery. How do you like them apples? But then the southerners banned prayers about slavery, too, and the two sides continued their battle of semantics for eight years. Ultimately, John Quincy emerged victorious over the gag rule in 1844 when he built a coalition of congressmen who may not have supported abolition, but they did support freedom of speech. Together, they killed the gag rule and set John Quincy’s voice free.

Awesome, right?

But there’s more.

And John Quincy’s fight against slavery didn’t just play out in Congress. In 1841, he found himself arguing against the evils of slavery before the United States supreme court in a case known as the Amistad case. The Amistad was a Spanish ship carrying men and women who had been stolen from Africa to be sold in the Americas. Before reaching their destination, the captives broke free and overpowered the ship’s crew, then ordered them to sail back to Africa. The white crew took them to American waters instead, where the ship was captured and the Africans imprisoned. Which raised the legal question – were these Africans to be punished as escaped slaves? As pirates? Or freed as innocent victims acting in self-defense? The district court had ruled that they were justified to revolt, but president Martin Van Buren – yeah, he’s president now - attempted to court southern voters by having his attorney general appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. The abolitionist lawyers who had the Africans in the district court had run out of money, so all but two had to quit. Realizing they needed help, the two remaining lawyers approached John Quincy about joining their team.

And John Quincy accepted.

The Supreme Court that John Quincy argued before was mostly composed of southern slaveholders – which is what happens when you’ve had pro-slavery southern presidents for 32 of the past 36 years. So this wasn’t promising for John Quincy’s chances. But John Quincy’s arguments, including a closing argument that urged the justices to look beyond contemporary politics and to consider their legacy and their God, convinced them to set the Africans free. It was a shocking legal victory.

John Quincy’s victory in the Amistad case, along with his negotiation of the treaty of Ghent, were his two proudest accomplishments in life – but the Amistad case earned John Quincy a LOT of hate mail. Can you imagine how much this freaked out the south? What? Black slaves can kill white men who put them in slavery and be declared justified victims and allowed to return to Africa? What if my slaves kill me? Yeah, John Quincy totally got death threats for this one.

On February 21, 1848, at the age of 80, an elderly John Quincy Adams took his seat in Congress on a momentous day. The United States had spent the past several years waging war on Mexico – a war John Quincy opposed, because he saw it as a land grab designed to add more slave states to the union – but on this day, the United States was celebrating victory in that war. 

As the senate considered the treaty that would end the war, a resolution was raised in the House of Representatives to thank the nation’s generals for victory. More than a hundred Aye’s rang in support of the resolution, followed by single loud and lonely nay. John Quincy Adams, true to his father’s legacy, was willing to stand alone in the name of what was right. That “no” was the last word John Quincy would utter in congress. When a roll-call vote was called and John Quincy’s turn came to rise and cast his vote, he suddenly faltered. John Quincy grabbed his desk, then fell into the arms of the congressman next to him.

“Mr. Adams is dying!” the shocked realization rang out. He was having a stroke. A couch was brought in for John Quincy to lay on and he was moved to the Speaker of the House’s office. He thanked those around him and called for his old ally Henry Clay and the two shared a moment. John Quincy whispered, “This is the end of the earth, but I am composed,” and then he slipped into a coma.

John Quincy died two days later, February 23, 1848, right there in the capital building. As one eulogist put it, “Where would death have found him, except at the place of duty?”

You will not find a more epic presidential death. Ever. Dying in defense of freedom in the capital. I love this guy.

So, what can we learn from John Quincy Adams? I think the biggest lesson is, we all say we want that independent president who doesn’t play party politics and who just does what’s right for the country, but John Quincy was that president, and his administration was a failure because of it. The sad truth is success in politics requires a little political gamesmanship. You need to reward supporters with patronage so they can support you in return. You want to be part of a party that has your back so you’re not going it alone. We like to think Democracy means the best ideas win out through debate, but it doesn’t. Democracy means, if you want your ideas to become law, you need to build relationships, build arguments, and build a majority to enact change. 

Thank you for joining today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

The primary biography for today’s episode was John Quincy Adams, by Harlow G Unger.

In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of Andrew Jackson, who, I hate to break it to you, is kind of an asshole. He’ll kill some folks, commit a little ethnic cleansing, get elected president, and then destroy the economy. But hey, we’ll still put him on the $20 bill.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.