Wednesday, February 26, 2014

John Adams and John Quincy Adams: The "Peter Principle" in Action

The Father and Son Presidents


Before the Bushes came along, this was the only father and son president pair.

John Adams

John and Abigail -- over 50 years of partnership


John Adams was the 1st Vice President of the US and the 2nd President. If you only looked at his record in these two jobs, you might think he was not a very extraordinary man, especially if you compare his presidency to that of his predecessor (George Washington) and his successor (Thomas Jefferson).

But his presidency was his final public service in a long history of service.

An early member of the Massachusetts colonial government, John Adams was part of the Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress in 1774 and 1776, where he signed the Declaration of Independence. Though the play and movie "1776" Hollywooded it up a bit, it is a fun way to see the story of the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams was a scrupulously honest man. He was faithful to friends and relatives, and especially faithful to his wife, Abigail. Because of John's diplomatic work around the world and his governmental work in Philadelphia (the Continental Congress, for example), John and Abigail were apart for much of the time. In the days before e-mail and telephones, they wrote letters to each other, sometimes 3 or 4 a day.

John Adams became Vice President when George Washington was inaugurated President in 1789. They served two terms (1789 - 1797). Washington refused a third term and Adams was elected President.

Toward the end of John Adams' one term as President, the Presidential mansion in Washington was completed. The Building, which became the home of the US Presidents and their families and later became known as The White House, became home to the Adamses. So John Adams and his family became the first presidential family to live in the building.

After losing the election to Thomas Jefferson, an old friend and political rival (Adams and Jefferson served together on the declaration committee of the Continental Congress but Adams was a Federalist and Jefferson was a Democrat-Republican -- Adams believed in a strong central government and Jefferson was a supporter of states rights), Adams returned to his farm on Massachusetts. There, he lived until after his 90th birthday. He died on July 4, 1826, the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had died that morning, but Adams never knew. His last words were "Thomas Jefferson still survives" meaning that there was still someone living who understood what the founding fathers had intended*. He was buried beside Abigail, who had died almost 8 years earlier in October 1818.

*Naturally, since I wasn't there and couldn't ask him, this is my interpretation of what he said, based on what I know about John Adams

John Quincy Adams

Amistad, the Monroe Doctine and the House of Representatives

John Quincy Adams tried hard to be like his father. In many ways he was and in many other ways he surpassed his father.

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams was also a very honorable man. But he enjoyed skinny dipping in the Potomac River. One day, a female reporter, Ann Royall, who had tried to get an interview with President Adams and failed, heard about his morning "dips" into the Potomac. So she went to his favorite spot and waited for the President to strip down and get into the water. She then sneaked out from behind the bushes and sat on his clothes. She was very patient waiting for the President to return.

When JQA turned toward the shore, he saw her sitting there. Being a Gentleman, he wouldn't come out of the water as long as she was sitting there. So she finally got the interview she wanted (while the President was shivering in the water!)


As Secretary of State under President James Monroe (JQA's predecessor), John Quincy Adams was author of one of the strongest statements made by the US government to that point -- the Monroe Doctrine -- which stated basically that European powers should leave the Americas alone. Though it's called the Monroe Doctrine, it was John Quincy Adams who authored it.


After his term as president, JQA did not leave government service -- he became a representative from Massachusetts. He was the only ex-president to serve in the House of Representatives.

As a representative, "Old Man Eloquent", as JQA was nicknamed, became a staunch advocate of the anti-slavery cause.

This lead to one of his most famous cases. JQA argued before the Supreme Court for the cause of the Amistad. The ship Amistad had illegally (it was at that point against international law to kidnap anyone to sell into slavery) kidnapped Africans, men, women and children, to sell into slavery. The kidnapped people overpowered their captors and took control of the ship, wanting to return to Africa, but they didn't know the way and were led astray by their captors.

Despite the political climate at the time (pre-Civil War) JQA won the case and the Amistad Blacks were given the choice of staying in the US as free people or of returning to Africa. 35 of them were returned to Africa.


A few months short of his 81st birthday, JQA was preparing to address the House of Representatives (in which he was still serving) when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He died a few days later with his family by his side. His last words were reported to be "This is the last of Earth. I am content."

John Quincy Adams spent most of his life in public service. His first appointment to the foreign service was when he was 14 and, as I mentioned before, he pretty much worked until he died, about 66 years later.

JQA's grandson, Henry Adams, wrote a book called The Education of Henry Adams. In it, he tells a story about his grandfather.

When Henry was 7, he wanted to play hooky from school one day. JQA offered to walk him to school. Henry didn't want his grandfather to walk him, because he didn't want to go to school that day, but he couldn't get out of it. He figured, though, that he was a young boy and his grandfather was old. It would be easy, he thought, to break away from his grandfather and sneak off. But JQA held his young grandson's hand all the way to school. He didn't let go until he had deposited young Henry in his seat at school.

See my list of the top ten presidents in this blog (including both Adamses)

Adamses and Jews

While Henry Adams, John Quincy Adams's grandson, was a rabid anti-Semite, both John and John Quincy Adams expressed admiration and support for Jews.

John Adams said, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson (who wasn't a big friend of Jews),"I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation." He also said (in a letter to Mordecai Manuel Noah, "Farther I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites . . . & marching with them into Judea & making a conquest of that country & restoring your nation to the dominion of it. For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation."

John Quincy Adams, also in a letter to Mordecai Manuel Noah, said, "[I believe in the] rebuilding of Judea as an independent nation."

(Quotes of Presidents about Jews and Israel)

Top Ten Best Presidents

David Letterman has his top 10s, I have mine....


Top Ten Lists are by necessity very subjective. This one is no exception. But as a longtime presidential trivia buff, I feel qualified to judge the presidents on their contributions to society and the world.

Why I Wrote This

I'm a presidential trivia buff. My brother and I used to play with Presidents' statues, color in Presidents' coloring books, read Presidents' books. In our pre-teens, we could rattle off the Presidents of the US in order and knew which ones were related (for the record, the Johnsons were not related but James Madison and Zachary Taylor were second cousins). We knew who died in office and who was assassinated. We could tell you the names of all the Presidential wives. And, at one point, we could name all their Vice Presidents.

So, when the most recent presidential election came up, I decided to put together my list of my top ten favorite presidents.

Top Ten Presidents

Since my criteria for who are the ten best presidents is totally subjective and might not have anything to do with what happened during the specific president's tenure as president, I have listed them in chronological order (according to "what number president" each was) -- I also have listed why I consider each one as part of this list:
  • George Washington:

    I hate to be cliche (and I probably will be with others on this list), but Washington set the tone for what a president is and would be. Because he was also part of the congress that created the constitution (though Madison was called The Father of the Constitution), Washington was the first president under the Constitution and he was the president who set the precedents that led to the best government in the world (in my humble opinion)
  • John Adams:

    I have John Adams on this list mostly for what he did before he was president. As a person, he makes my list for many reasons -- for his contribution to the Continental Congress, for his diplomatic service, for his relationship with his wife, Abigail, who was an early feminist, for his prodigious letter writing to Abigail and their son John Quincy, for his intelligence, hutzpa, support of Jews and women, for playing second fiddle to Washington and, oftentimes, to Jefferson, for his eloquent writing, for his general honesty and integrity. Though his presidency was largely a disaster (the Alien and Sedition Acts being the lowest point), he was the first president to live in Washington, DC, in the Executive Mansion (which we know as the White House).
  • Thomas Jefferson:

    While I'm not fond of Jefferson as a person (his opinion of Jews and women being mostly negative, his ownership of slaves, though not unusual in his time, in the scheme of things isn't what one would like to see in a leader, his aristocratic opinions, etc.), I feel the need to put him on this list simply for acquiring the Louisiana Territory and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Ironically, this served to weaken his own (and the South's) State's Rights position by strengthening the Federal Government.
  • John Quincy Adams:

    Again, as with his father, I would put "Quincy" on the list mostly for what he did before (and, in Quincy's case, after) he was president. While his presidency was mostly lackluster (thanks to crazy man and future president Andrew Jackson's use of congress to sandbag anything Adams tried to do legislatively), his life before and after was anything but. To just list a few of his accomplishments:

    • a European diplomatic career in his youth
    • Harvard education and also a prodigious letter writer
    • Monroe's Secretary of State (it was in this capacity that JQA wrote what is now known as the Monroe Doctrine, one of the strongest foreign policy statements in the history of the US)
    • Return to the House of Representatives post- presidency
    • He defended the blacks of the Amistad who mutinied against their captors
    • He was an ardent abolitionist and argued for the freeing of all slaves years before the Civil War

    JQA really earned the nickname Old Man Eloquent.
  • James Knox Polk:

    Polk was one of the hardest working presidents. He was the only president who had been Speaker of the Houseand he was the first Dark Horse president. His campaign slogan was 54-40 or Fight! (which was the latitude measurement of the border the US wanted with Canada) -- Polk negotiated and bloodlessly (at the 49th parallel) resolved this issue and also added California (and, just before he was inaugurated, Texas) to the Union. (black spot on his presidency was the Mexican War, a somewhat imperialistic war)

    Overworked, but successful in his endeavors, Polk left office after an eventful single term as president, returned home and died a few months later before his 54th birthday. Of all the presidents who survived the presidency, he lived the shortest after retiring. And, except for Kennedy and Garfield, both of whom were assassinated, he died the youngest of any president.
  • Abraham Lincoln:

    Again, a cliche part of the list, though probably not for the reason most people think. Yes, he was instrumental in"freeing the slaves", but his real courage was facing the crisis and succeeding in preserving the Union. The genius of the Emancipation Proclamation, which, at the time, did not free a single slave, was in keeping the border states in the Union and gaining the support of the free black community. While I also admire him for what he did de facto for civil rights (and human rights), the preservation of the Union and victory in the Civil War were his crowning achievements.
  • Theodore Roosevelt:

    Theodore was a sickly child who worked very hard to build himself up physically. By the time he became president, he had recreated himself as a robust, healthy man with boundless energy. He pretty much did the same thing for this country. TR was the youngest man ever to be president (he succeeded to the presidency on the assassination death of William McKinley). TR had already experienced death in a personal way -- in 1884, when TR was only 25, his mother (who hadn't hit her 50th birthday) and his wife (who was only 22 at the time) both died on the same day. But he always became stronger through adversity. He was a progressive in his policies. And, for his work in negotiating the treaty in the Russo-Japanese war, he was the first president to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Franklin Roosevelt:

    Most people know about FDR's work during WWII, but I put him on my list mostly for his forward thinking work in getting the US out of the Great Depression. Many of his assistance programs are still in effect in the US and his foresight has helped many people out of poverty.
  • Harry S Truman:

    Thrust into the job of president with the sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt, Truman rose to the occasion. He negotiated the end of WWII in Europe and later made the hard decision (which shortened the war in the Pacific and saved countless lives on both sides) to send the Enola Gay to drop the Atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima (after warning the government to evacuate the city, a warning the Japanese government ignored), then sending Bock's Car to drop another bomb on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered soon after.
    Truman was also one of the first world leaders to recognize the nascent State of Israel.
  • Lyndon Baines Johnson:

    Though most people blame Johnson for the escalation of US involvement in the war in Vietnam, Johnson's experience and forcefulness gave him the ability to push through legislation in the area of Civil Rights. He also added to FDR's Depression-ending programs, giving Americans better retirements and more opportunities to get themselves out of poverty.