Adams is best known as a diplomat who shaped America's foreign policy in line with his ardently nationalist commitment to America's republican values. More recently Howe (2007) portrayed Adams as the exemplar and moral leader in an era of modernization. During Adams' lifetime, technological innovations and new means of communication spread messages of religious revival, social reform, and party politics. Goods, money, and people traveled more rapidly and efficiently than ever before. Adams was elected a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts after leaving office, serving for the last 17 years of his life with far greater acclamation than he had achieved as president. He is, so far, the only president later elected to the United States House of Representatives (though John Tyler was elected to the House of Representatives of the Confederate States just before his death in 1862). Animated by his growing revulsion against slavery, Adams became a leading opponent of the Slave Power. He predicted that if a civil war were to break out, the president could abolish slavery by using his war powers. Adams also predicted the Union's dissolution over the slavery issue, but said that if the South became independent there would be a series of bloody slave revolts.
President James Madison appointed Adams as the first ever United States Minister to Russia in 1809 (though Francis Dana and William Short had previously been nominated to the post, neither presented his credentials at Saint Petersburg). Louisa Adams was with him in Saint Petersburg almost the entire time. While not officially a diplomat, Louisa Adams did serve an invaluable role as wife-of-diplomat, becoming a favorite of the tsar and making up for her husband's utter lack of charm. She was an indispensable part of the American mission. In 1812, Adams reported the news of Napoleon's invasion of Russia and Napoleon's disastrous retreat. In 1814, Adams was recalled from Russia to serve as chief negotiator of the U.S. commission for the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. Finally, he was sent to be minister to the Court of St. James's (Britain) from 1815 until 1817, a post that was first held by his father.
Adams served as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of President James Monroe from 1817 until 1825. Typically, his views concurred with those espoused by Monroe. As Secretary of State, he negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty (which acquired Florida for the United States), the Treaty of 1818, and wrote the Monroe Doctrine. Many historians regard him as one of the greatest Secretaries of State in American history.
With the ongoing Oregon boundary dispute, Adams sought to negotiate a settlement with England to decide the border between the western United States and Canada. This would become the Treaty of 1818. Along with the Rush–Bagot Treaty of 1817, this marked the beginning of improved relations between the British Empire and its former colonies, and paved the way for better relations between the U.S. and Canada. The treaty had several provisions, but in particular it set the boundary between British North America and the United States along the 49th parallel through the Rocky Mountains. This settled a boundary dispute caused by ignorance of actual geography in the boundary agreed to in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War. That earlier treaty had used the Mississippi River to determine the border, but assumed that the river extended further north than it did, and so that earlier settlement was unworkable.
By the time Monroe became president, several European powers, in particular Spain, were attempting to re-establish control over South America. On Independence Day 1821, in response to those who advocated American support for independence movements in many South American countries, Adams gave a speech in which he said that American policy was moral support for independence movements but not armed intervention. He stated that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." From this, Adams authored what came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, which was introduced on December 2, 1823. It stated that further efforts by European countries to colonize land or interfere with states in the Americas would be viewed as acts of aggression requiring U.S. intervention. The United States, reflecting concerns raised by Great Britain, ultimately hoped to avoid having any European power take over Spain's colonies. It became a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States and one of its longest-standing tenets, and would be invoked by many U.S. statesmen and several U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and others.
Clay's personal dislike for Jackson and the similarity of his American System to Adams' position on tariffs and internal improvements caused him to throw his support to Adams, who was elected by the House on February 9, 1825, on the first ballot. Adams' victory shocked Jackson, who had won the most electoral and popular votes and fully expected to be elected president. When Adams appointed Clay as Secretary of State - the position that Adams and his three predecessors had held before becoming president - Jacksonian Democrats were outraged, and claimed that Adams and Clay had struck a "corrupt bargain". This contention overshadowed Adams' term and greatly contributed to Adams' loss to Jackson four years later, in the 1828 election.
Adams served as the sixth President of the United States from March 4th, 1825, to March 4th, 1829. He took the oath of office on a book of constitutional law, instead of the more traditional Bible. Adams proposed an elaborate program of internal improvements (roads, ports and canals), a national university, and federal support for the arts and sciences. He favored a high tariff to encourage the building of factories, and restricted land sales to slow the movement west. Opposition from the states' rights faction of a hostile congress killed many of his proposals. He also reduced the national debt from $16 million to $5 million, the remainder of which was paid off by his immediate successor, Andrew Jackson. Paul Nagel argues that his political acumen was not any less developed than others were in his day, and notes that Henry Clay, one of the era's most astute politicians, was a principal advisor to Adams and supporter throughout his presidency. Nagel argues that Adams' political problems were the result of an unusually hostile Jacksonian faction, and Adams' own dislike of the office. Although a product of the political culture of his day, he refused to play politics according to the usual rules and was not as aggressive in courting political support as he could have been. He was attacked by the followers of Jackson, who accused him of being a partner to a "corrupt bargain" to obtain Clay's support in the election and then appoint him Secretary of State. Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, and created the modern Democratic party thus inaugurating the Second Party System.
Adams' generous policy toward Native Americans caused him trouble. Settlers on the frontier, who were constantly seeking to move westward, cried for a more expansionist policy. When the federal government tried to assert authority on behalf of the Cherokees, the governor of Georgia took up arms. Adams defended his domestic agenda as continuing Monroe's policies. In contrast, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren instigated the policy of Indian removal to the west (i.e. the Trail of Tears.)
After the inauguration of Adams in 1825, Jackson resigned from his senate seat. For four years he worked hard, with help from his supporters in Congress, to defeat Adams in the presidential election of 1828. The campaign was very much a personal one. As was the tradition of the day and age in American presidential politics, neither candidate personally campaigned, but their political followers organized many campaign events. Both candidates were rhetorically attacked in the press. This reached a low point when the press accused Jackson's wife Rachel of bigamy. She died a few weeks after the elections. Jackson said he would forgive those who insulted him, but he would never forgive the ones who had attacked his wife.
Adams lost the election by a decisive margin. He won all the same states that his father had won in the election of 1800: the New England states, New Jersey, and Delaware, as well as parts of New York and a majority of Maryland. Jackson won the rest of the states, picking up 178 electoral votes to Adams' 83 votes, and succeeded him. Adams and his father were the only U.S. presidents to serve a single term during the first 48 years of the Presidency (1789–1837). Historian Thomas Bailey observed, "Seldom has the public mind been so successfully poisoned against an honest and high-minded man.
Adams focused more on anti-slavery issues starting in 1841. He involved himself on the Amistad case which determined that the slaves that were captured in the Sierra Leone region would not be held accountable as slaves and that they could return home to their family and friends. Adams agreed for Lewis Tappan and Ellis Gray to take the stand at the Supreme Court on behalf of the African Americans after a revolt on the Spanish ship of Amistad. Adams took the case for February 24, 1841 and argued on behalf of the African Americans for four hours. His argument put an end to the Armistad affairs and freed the slaves. In authoring a change to the Tariff of 1828, he was instrumental to the compromise that ended the Nullification Crisis. When James Smithson died and left his estate to the U.S. government to build an institution of learning, congress wanted to appropriate the money for other purposes. Adams was key to ensuring that the money was instead used to build the Smithsonian Institution. He also led the fight against the gag rule, which prevented congress from hearing anti-slavery petitions. Throughout much of his congressional career, he fought it, evaded it, and tried to repeal it. In 1844 he assembled a coalition that approved his resolution to repeal the rule. He was considered by many to be the leader of the anti-slavery faction in congress, as he was one of America's most prominent opponents of slavery.
A longtime opponent of slavery, Adams used his new role in Congress to fight it. In 1836, Southern Congressmen voted in a rule, called the “gag rule,” that immediately tabled any petitions about slavery, banning discussion or debate of the slavery issue. He became a forceful opponent of this rule and conceived a way around it, attacking slavery in the House for two weeks. The gag rule prevented him from bringing slavery petitions to the floor, but he brought one anyway. It was a petition from a Georgia citizen urging disunion due to the continuation of slavery in the South. Though he certainly did not support it and made that clear at the time, his intent was to antagonize the pro-slavery faction of Congress into an open fight on the matter. The plan worked. The petition infuriated his congressional enemies, many of whom were agitating for disunion themselves. They moved for his censure over the matter, enabling Adams to openly discuss slavery during his subsequent defense. Taking advantage of his right to defend himself, Adams delivered prepared and impromptu remarks against slavery and in favor of abolition. Knowing that he would probably be acquitted, he changed the focus from his own actions to those of the slaveholders, speaking against the slave trade and the ownership of slaves. He decided that if he were censured, he would merely resign, run for the office again, and probably win easily. When his opponents realized that they played into his political strategy, they tried to bury the censure. Adams made sure this did not happen, and the debate continued. He attacked slavery and slaveholders as immoral and condemned the institution while calling for it to end. After two weeks, a vote was held, and he was not censured. He delighted in the misery he was inflicting on the slaveholders he so hated, and prided himself on being "obnoxious to the slave faction."
On February 21, 1848, the House of Representatives was discussing the matter of honoring US Army officers who served in the Mexican–American War. Adams firmly opposed this idea, so when the rest of the house erupted into 'ayes', he cried out, 'No!.' He rose to answer a question put forth by the Speaker of the House. Immediately thereafter, Adams collapsed, having suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Two days later, on February 23, he died with his wife and son at his side in the Speaker's Room inside the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. His last words were "This is the last of earth. I am content." He died at 7:20 P.M. His original interment was temporary, in the public vault at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Later, he was interred in the family burial ground in Quincy across from the First Parish Church, called Hancock Cemetery. After Louisa's death in 1852, his son, Charles Francis Adams, had his parents reinterred in the expanded family crypt in the United First Parish Church across the street, next to John and Abigail. Both tombs are viewable by the public. Adams' original tomb at Hancock Cemetery is still there and marked simply "J.Q. Adams".
John Quincy Adams and Louisa Catherine Adams had three sons and a daughter. Their daughter, Louisa, was born in 1811 but died in 1812 while the family was in Russia. They named their first son George Washington Adams (1801-1829) after the first president. Both George and their second son, John (1803 - 1834), led troubled lives and died in early adulthood. (George committed suicide and John was expelled from Harvard before his 1823 graduation.)
Adams' youngest son, Charles Francis Adams (who named his own son John Quincy), also pursued a career in diplomacy and politics. In 1870 Charles Francis built the first memorial presidential library in the United States, to honor his father. The Stone Library includes over 14,000 books written in twelve languages. The library is located in the "Old House" at Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts.
John Adams and John Quincy Adams were the first father and son to each serve as president (the others being George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush). Each Adams served only one term as president.