By Phyllis Lee Levin
524 pp. $35
The title of Phyllis Lee Levin’s new book, “The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams,” alludes to a work by another Adams altogether, Henry, the grandson of her subject. His magnificent, unsettling masterpiece, “The Education of Henry Adams,” published in 1918, is a riveting account of an intellectual struggling with a new century.
The grandfather’s education was a struggle of an entirely different order from the grandson’s. John Quincy (as Levin helpfully calls him throughout), born in 1767 to the patriot and second U.S. president John Adams and his wife, Abigail, commenced his true education not in the private tutorials of his native Braintree, Mass., but in the real world. In 1778, at age 10, he accompanied his father on a diplomatic mission to France. In 1780, he joined his father’s fundraising mission to the Netherlands, where he attended the venerable University of Leiden. In 1781 his mastery of French won him the job of translator for envoy Charles Dana on a mission to St. Petersburg, and by 1783 he was back in Paris serving as his father’s secretary.
By this time John Quincy had begun the journal he was to keep for nearly 70 years, the single most prodigious — and prodigiously readable — document ever generated by an American public servant. Levin has researched her book extensively, but even so it’s quietly reassuring to see how often her source for some fact or point is John Quincy himself. These journal volumes, and the extensive and energetic correspondence John Quincy kept up with his sister and favorite intellectual gossip-partner Nabby, form the bulk of Levin’s source material for her account.
That account is leisurely in an appealingly old-fashioned way — a study of the first half of John Quincy’s life and times that’s as concerned with the inner man as with his increasingly remarkable public achievements. His life breaks into a beginning, middle and conclusion that are very convenient for biographers: his years as envoy and diplomatic traveler, then his one term as president, and finally his long and typically contrarian stint in the House of Representatives, working for his constituents in Massachusetts even as he dedicated himself to fighting the Southern stranglehold on national politics. By concerning herself so closely with the first segment of John Quincy’s life, Levin focuses on the making of the man, the forging of the politician and thinker who at the end of his life was known as “Old Man Eloquent.”
John Quincy returned to Boston from abroad in 1785 to attend Harvard College, as his father had before him, and to follow his degree with the study of law under Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport in 1787 — startlingly prosaic occupations for a young man who’d seen what he’d seen. “It must have seemed another lifetime,” Levin knowingly writes, “when he thought of his dinners with Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette and the grandees of the diplomatic world, of the great theatre, opera, treasured art and palaces of Europe, of fraught adventures on high seas and in foreign lands.”
He was admitted to the bar in 1791, and by the beginning of 1794 his growing frustration with his life is clear even in Levin’s generally sunny narrative. The dilemma was solved by a thunderbolt: In May 1794, President George Washington nominated him as American minister to the Hague.
He served in that post for three years, and Levin paints a colorful portrait of John Quincy’s time in a Netherlands simmering with nationalist furor. He corresponded constantly with his father (whose responses glow with paternal pride at his genius and abilities) and mother, with whom he maintained a slightly forced banter about his romantic prospects.
Those prospects improved dramatically in 1795 while he was in England on his way back from his stint at the Hague; there he met his future wife, Louisa Catherine Johnson, the 20-year-old daughter of the American counsul in London. The careful excavation of this nervous relationship is the highlight of Levin’s book.
When John Adams was president, he appointed his son minister to Prussia, an office he held until 1801; John Quincy then entered Massachusetts politics and served in the U.S. Senate until 1808. A year later, President James Madison appointed him minister to Russia at age 42. “His abilty to provide deeply informed accounts of Napoleon’s wartime machinations and to interest a world power in America’s struggle with Great Britain were of undeniable value,” Levin observes, and those accounts also make fascinating reading, as in a letter he wrote to his mother describing Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1813 and noting that “it has become a sort of by-word among the common people here that the two Russian generals who have conquered Napoleon and all his Marshalls are General Famine and General Frost.”
Last year was an excellent one for studies of John Quincy Adams, with books ranging from Charles Edel’s “Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic” to Fred Kaplan’s broader and more magisterial soup-to-nuts biography, “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary.” Levin’s book makes a heartfelt and distinguished addition to a very welcome revival.