May 2

History, no less than life, is unfair. It does not favor the loyal, the persistent or the morally upright, preferring instead the bold, the obsessed, the scoundrel and the hero. Perhaps above all, it favors those complex men and women who are filled with contradictions that make them both familiar and yet never completely explained. Thus, for historians, even one as distinguished and talented as Fred Kaplan, the task of writing a biography of John Quincy Adams is a daunting one.

Kaplan seems confident that his readers will, in the end and almost despite themselves, find Adams endearing. And he is correct. Adams was, after all, a president who not only read broadly and deeply, from Francis Bacon to Henry Fielding, but who also wrote poetry and elegant government reports. He was a devoted son and husband, a caring and supportive father, a staunch opponent of slavery, and an equally staunch supporter of the Union. That he was erudite, intelligent, modest, responsible and hardworking, there can be no doubt — and Kaplan draws his portrait with obvious admiration and respect. And yet it is not until the last decades of his life that Adams becomes an interesting man.

Perhaps unintentionally, Kaplan shows us why this is so. One of Kaplan’s central themes is John Quincy’s profound admiration for his father and his father’s generation. Indeed, throughout most of his life, John Quincy appeared willing to live in the shadow of these revolutionaries. In his political views and his political visions, he took on the role of torchbearer of John Adams’s socially conservative patriotism, intense nationalism and firm belief that the survival of the republic required the leadership of virtuous, self-sacrificing men. Kaplan offers us rich evidence, drawn from John Quincy’s letters, that the touchstone for the son’s actions was always his father. Even his political failures can be seen as an ironic tribute to John Adams, for, as president, neither man was able to win popular approval or hold the loyalty of those who shared his political convictions.

The portrait Kaplan draws is sympathetic, but it is effective in large part because the author does not romanticize his subject. As a historian, Kaplan understands how unrealistic John Quincy’s political strategies were in the context of antebellum America. He paints a vivid picture of a political culture marked by growing sectional division and flagrant pandering to popular opinion. In such a setting, Adams’s attempt to replicate the virtues that he believed defined the founding generation can be seen only as quixotic.

As Kaplan shows, Adams refused to play politics, to campaign for office, to exploit patronage opportunities in order to build a loyal following. Like his father, John Quincy took the high road on almost every issue, and, also like his father, he suffered the political consequences. His vision of a national government that fostered an educated and informed citizenry and devoted resources to infrastructure and scientific advancements was decisively, if temporarily, buried under the crush of ambitious professional politicians such as Martin Van Buren and the anti-intellectual populism of Andrew Jackson. Adams was a man without an era: too late for the world of the founders, too soon for the modern liberal state.


The front cover to "John Quincy Adams: American Visionary" by Fred Kaplan (HarperCollins Publishers/HarperCollins Publishers)

In his personal life as in his public life, Adams was a dutiful and overly devoted son, always measuring his performance as a husband and parent against an idealized version of his father’s long and contented marriage to Abigail. Kaplan offers us much to admire in John Quincy’s fidelity to his near-­invalid wife and in his willing financial support of his children long into their adulthood. Yet he cannot point to much passion to balance the heavy sense of responsibility and concern. Even in the poetry he addressed to his wife, John Quincy gives more attention to loyalty and endurance than to marital delight. Despite the supportive exchanges between John Quincy and Louisa, the electricity of desire, both physical and intellectual, that marked the letters between John and Abigail is missing.

For much of his career, John Quincy’s determination to keep his father’s legacy alive was thus as stifling as it was sustaining. He did not find his independent voice until he was in his 70s. Serving in Congress in the 1830s and ’40s, he found an issue that fully ignited his moral passion; that issue was slavery.

As Kaplan lays out the confluence of events that heightened Adams’s commitment to abolition and produced his shining moment, the tempo of the narrative increases and the story unfolds more powerfully. Kaplan brings to life the political passions aroused by the debates over the annexation of slave-holding Texas. He captures the futility of a congressional “gag rule” that prevented ­anti-slavery petitions from being read, recorded or discussed.

Finally, he recounts the dramatic events surrounding the Amistad trials. These trials revolved around efforts by 53 Africans who were illegally seized by Portuguese slave traders. Sold to Spanish planters, they were loaded onto the Amistad to be sent to Caribbean plantations. They rebelled, killed the captain and attempted to sail to Africa, but the ship was seized by an American brig off the coast of the United States. The Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, Conn. As the planters, the Spanish government and the brig captain argued over who owned this human property, abolitionists rallied to the prisoners’ defense. Anti-slavery groups insisted that the Amistad passengers were not property but free individuals, kidnapped illegally. When the case came to the Supreme Court, it was Adams, outspoken opponent of the gag rule, who argued — and won — the defendants’ case. This, at last, was Adams’s moment, not a tribute to his father’s memory but a declaration of his own commitment to human equality and justice. It is a moment in Kaplan’s biography worth waiting for, both for the author and his readers.

There is much to praise in this extensively researched book, which is certainly one of the finest biographies of a sadly underrated man. Kaplan is often at his best when the focus is not on Adams but on his era. His accounts of a world before the transportation and communication revolutions of the mid-19th century, his rich descriptions of European culture seen through the eyes of a young American, his astute analysis and deft explication of complicated political and diplomatic issues before the Civil War — these are the marks of a master historian and biographer. In the end, despite Kaplan’s efforts, John Quincy Adams is unlikely to become one of the top 10 presidents in annual polls. But if he could read this biography, Adams would be satisfied that he had been fairly dealt with at last.

Carol Berkin is the author, most recently, of “Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.”

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

American Visionary

By Fred Kaplan

Harper. 652 pp. $29.99