He was the first son of a president to be elected president himself, and the only one until George W. Bush - more than a century later. Out of the fifteen presidents who served before Abraham Lincoln, he was one of only two who never owned a slave (the other being his father). And like his father, he negotiated a peace treaty with Britain that ended a major war - with his father's treaty ending the Revolutionary War, and his own treaty ending the War of 1812, nearly thirty years later.
Growing up in his father's shadow
The man was John Quincy Adams; and though he grew up in the shadow of his father, he had an accomplished life in his own right. One might think that he was only elected president because of his father being president, or because he had a similar name to his father John Adams; but this is only part of the story. He also had great experience as a diplomat, fluency in several languages (ancient and modern), and a native intelligence not unlike his father's. He was underestimated by his political enemies, much as George W. Bush was; and was a much better president than he's often given credit for.
John Adams, father
Abigail Adams, mother
He was born in 1767 to John and Abigail Adams, and was only seven when the American Revolution began. When his father was appointed American ambassador to France (alongside Benjamin Franklin), his parents decided to have him accompany his father overseas, beginning a long career as a diplomat. He received an education in France, and attained great fluency in French, owing to his learning the language at a young age. This would be important to him as a diplomat. At the age of fourteen, his father sent him on a diplomatic mission to Russia, and he reluctantly left his father to serve his country there.
Travels, languages, and diplomacy
The list of countries he spent time in is enormous, and he attained fluency in several European languages, including Dutch and German. He also had fluency in the classical languages of Latin and Greek, from the tutelage of his father; but also had vital knowledge of the modern languages of Europe, owing to his spending so much time there as a diplomat. He continued to do diplomatic work during the George Washington administration, and did still more during the administration of his father. He was in Europe during the turbulent years of the French Revolution, and worked hard to keep America out of it. He was not just appointed to his father's administration out of nepotism, but because of his tremendous experience abroad as a diplomat.
The elder John Adams, during his presidency
After his father left the White House ...
When his father's political opponent Thomas Jefferson took office, the younger Adams was no longer wanted as a federal diplomat; and instead held some posts in Massachusetts state politics. He also held a post as a professor of logic and rhetoric, and made use of the time when his father's political opponent held office. When the next president James Madison took office, he appointed the younger Adams as the first U.S. minister to Russia, and John Quincy Adams resumed his earlier diplomatic career. By this time, the Napoleonic Wars were wreaking havoc in Europe; and the war soon pulled in the United States as well. America entered the fray by declaring war on Britain in 1812, and Adams worked hard to keep other European powers from allying with the British. Thus he was involved in the complicated geopolitics of the Napoleonic Wars.
Peace treaty after the War of 1812
He was soon recalled from Russia to negotiate a peace treaty with the British, but the negotiations were not going well for America. The British wanted to block American expansion with an Indian buffer state; while the Americans wanted no barriers to their expansion west. It looked like the Americans might be forced to accept the British demands, but the British negotiators soon received a letter from the Duke of Wellington, saying that they should make peace with America on terms of the prewar status quo. (Translation: No loss of territory by either side.) Thus the United States was saved by important European developments in the Napoleonic Wars. John Quincy Adams signed the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812, just as his father had signed the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War.
Treaty negotiations at Ghent (in what is today Belgium), 1815
James Monroe, architect of the Monroe Doctrine
Postwar diplomacy before and after becoming Secretary of State
Adams spent the rest of the Madison administration serving as postwar ambassador to Great Britain, just as his father had done after the Revolutionary War. During the James Monroe administration, he was promoted to the position of Secretary of State, where he was now the highest-ranking American diplomat. He was instrumental in laying out the Monroe Doctrine, which said that America should prevent European powers from interfering in the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine is still invoked to this day. Adams also helped negotiate the Oregon boundary dispute with British Canada, and helped to acquire Florida for the United States, purchasing it from Spain after it was taken by Andrew Jackson. (Jackson exceeded his orders by invading Florida, but Adams followed his orders to the letter by formally acquiring it for the United States.) The treaty was considered a triumph of American diplomacy.
John Quincy Adams himself
His presidency and post-presidency career
In 1824, he ran against Andrew Jackson for the highest political office in the land - the presidency. Jackson actually had more votes in that election (both popular and electoral), but he did not have the necessary electoral majority to be elected. When no presidential candidate has an electoral majority in this country, our Constitution says that the House of Representatives gets to choose the next president (see the Twelfth Amendment, Section 1). Thus, when one of the other losing candidates threw his support behind Adams, John Quincy Adams was elected president. Like his father, though, he was only elected to one term; as he lost his rematch with Andrew Jackson. Ironically, though, he had a more distinguished career after the presidency than before, elected to Congress in 1831, and serving until his death in 1848. During this time, he campaigned actively against slavery - something which he found far more rewarding than anything he did as president; and he greatly enjoyed his fiery crusade against slavery. He was also active in a major Supreme Court case involving slavery, allowing the Amistad Africans to be transported away from American shores. The movie Amistad portrays this court case, and is one of the few media to depict John Quincy Adams at all.
Conclusion: He was a great statesman in his own right
The biggest media to portray him was "The Adams Chronicles," which focuses primarily on his father; but also spends the better part of four hours on John Quincy Adams. If you want to know about this man, this is the series I direct you to. Whatever your interest in Adams, he was one of the greatest diplomats in American history; and a far better president than his obscurity today would indicate. He was a true successor to his father, but was also a great statesman in his own right.
Footnote to this blog post:
The presidential election that propelled John Quincy Adams into the White House is still the only one that was ever decided by the House of Representatives, via the backup plan in Section 1 of the Twelfth Amendment. Here is the relevant portion of that amendment, which specified how this process was to be done:
"The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by States, the representation from each State having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the States, and a majority of all the States shall be necessary to a choice." (Source: Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution [ratified 1804], Section 1)
Actual photograph of John Quincy Adams,
from the portion of his life after cameras were invented
Elder John Adams movies
Why John Adams is fascinating
Andrew Jackson movie