James Traub's John Quincy Adams - Militant Spirit is a strong contribution to the historiography of one of the most remarkable figures of America's first century. Son of a president, president himself, congressman, diplomat, lover of science and books and the arts, Adams was a remarkable figure, the like of which there is no comparable force in American history.
For Traub, Adams' greatest contributions were diplomatic and rooted in a deeply held belief that the United States was destined for greatness. As Traub writes, "Adams' persistent argument for husbanding U.S. diplomatic and military power is his single most lasting contribution to the corpus of the nation's governing principles. At the same time, Adams believed, as the founders had, that the United States was destined, by God as well as by its favorable geographic position, to spread across the continent to become the most powerful nation in the world. It is to Adams, more than anyone, including President [James] Monroe himself, that we owe the Monroe Doctrine, which simultaneously asserted a doctrine of non-interference in European conflicts and a self-confident demand that the European powers cease their meddling in both North and South America."
One of the reasons historians have been able to bring such color and detail to Adams' life is the diary he kept off-and-on [more ‘on’ than ‘off’] for nearly 70 years. The diary is about 15,000 pages long and dates from the age of twelve  until his death . Amazingly, though, Traub reports that only about 40% of the diary has been published to-date. Traub writes, "No other president, and perhaps no other public figure in American history, kept a diary so vigilantly."
Traub makes a remarkable observation about Adams' youth: although he spent his childhood and youth with either his mother or father, he was almost never with both at the same time. Abigail Adams had sole charge of him from ages 7-11. John Adams had him from ages 11-16. Yet, despite always being separated from one parent, Traub writes, "The two [Abigail and John] so completely reinforced each other that it would not be easy to trace [John Quincy's] character as an adult to one as opposed to the other. What is clear, in any case, is that both poured themselves into the raising of their eldest son and that he dutifully, indeed reverently, absorbed their lessons and their example. He became what they wished him to be."
Yet it was not an easy upbringing. Indeed, the correspondence between each parent to Adams when they were away from him can seem chilling to the 21st-century eye. Through all of the correspondence, Traub notes that, "a moderator, scrutinizing these letters to a teenage boy living far from home, searches in vain for expressions of love or words of gentle support - from one of them, at least. And it would not be correct to say that parents of that time were unable or unwilling to open themselves emotionally to their children in that way… John Quincy Adams might have had a much happier life, and perhaps even been a better husband and father, had one of his parents offered him unconditional love and approval. But that wasn't their way: both John and Abigail felt they could do their son no greater favor than holding him to the highest possible standards. John Quincy Adams, for better or worse, would have been the first to agree."
Adams' early life is remarkable. He traveled and lived around the world - starting before he was a teenager - unlike virtually any American - of any age - of his era. He lived in Russia, Sweden, The Netherlands, France, and England all before he turned twenty years old. As a result, Traub writes, "John Quincy Adams knew Europe and Europeans as few other Americans did, and perhaps none of his generation. He knew art, literature, theater, politics. He could comfortably converse with the most learned of men. He had sampled the pleasures - most of them - of European life. But he had also been trained from earliest childhood to believe that life was not about pleasure but about service and that it was the special destiny of an Adams to serve not just God, and not just the family, but the republic his father had helped usher into being."
While Adams' travels had been in the service of his father, on May 29, 1794, President George Washington nominated him to become Minister to The Hague in his own right. He was not yet twenty-seven years old. During this time, Adams corresponded often with his father, now Vice President. Often these letters to his father ran 3,000 words or more. In them, John Quincy, "began to articulate a coherent world view. He had always braced himself for the worst; he was, if anything, inclined too much toward pessimism. This habit of mind made Adams an astringently realistic figure. He had the quality, very rare in a man as young as he was, of never confusing what he wished to be true with what he believed to be true. And as he was disinclined to believe that the world would be governed by his own wishes, so he was unimpressed with the fine ideals professed by statesmen. States, he believed, acted out of hardheaded calculation of interest."
At this time, neutrality was the foreign policy of presidents Washington and John Adams for the first decade of the United States' existence as a nation. And John Quincy Adams had been one of the most forthright promoters of neutrality. Traub notes, "Young though he was, [John Quincy] Adams played a crucial role in the forging of the first generation of American foreign policy." He would promote this from The Hague and other positions those first two presidents sent him, to Portugal and Prussia.
Adams would later serve in ministerial positions for James Madison. Indeed, one of the more humorous examples of Abigail Adams' intrusion into his life - what I like to call the Everybody Loves Quincy story, for its parallel to the television character Marie Barone - came after Madison appointed Adams minister to Russia. Shortly after his posting to St. Petersburg, Adams' wife, Louisa, had written to Abigail in 1810, about how little the post paid and how precarious were their finances. Furious that her son and his family were living in "squalor", Abigail Adams wrote President Madison directly, demanding that he recall her son home. As Traub recounts, Abigail wrote Madison that she was writing to inform him that, "'the outfit and sallery [sic] allowed by Congress' to a minister was so grossly inadequate to her son's expenses in Russia that, 'inevitable ruin must be the consequences to himself and his family.' She asked the president to bring Adams home." Amazingly, Madison agreed. We don't know whether or not Madison thought John Quincy had put his mother up to writing the letter; or if Madison realized that Abigail had acted on her own. We do know, though, that Madison wrote directly to John Quincy describing the exchange. One can only imagine the latter's embarrassment. He was now 42 years old. Adams respectfully declined Madison's offer to return home.
More seriously than his mother's intrusions, Adams' personal life was not free from tragedy. He had married Louisa Johnson in 1797. She would have four miscarriages before giving birth to their first child, George, in 1801. A son, John, would follow in 1803. She gave birth to a stillborn baby in 1806. Charles Francis Adams was born in 1807. Louisa suffered another miscarriage in early 1811, before giving birth to a daughter, Louisa, in 1811. While John Quincy Adams was stationed as Minister to Russia, the baby Louisa died at one-year old in 1812. Louisa would suffer another miscarriage in 1813, marking her last pregnancy. Of the surviving children, only Charles Francis would live to middle age.
Perhaps Adams' greatest diplomatic service [prior to becoming Secretary of State in 1817, anyway] was his work on the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812. Madison appointed Adams as well as Henry Clay and James Bayard [and later Albert Gallatin and Jonathan Russell] to the American team deputized to negotiate an end to the war. As Traub notes, "Rarely, if ever, has the United States been represented at negotiations by so distinguished a group of men." And while the Treaty of Ghent left things seemingly status quo ante bellum, Traub argues that it was a tremendous victory for America. Despite what Britain retained with the treaty, Traub writes, "the British had hoped for, and expected, so much more. And they could have gotten it had the American team not waited until the military campaign [in America] swung in their favor, or had Gallatin prevailed on his colleagues to take a softer line - which he did not seek to do - or had either Adams or Clay walked out of the talks. The United States that would have emerged from Ghent, in that case, would have been a weaker, more vulnerable, and more divided country." Traub considers the Treaty of Ghent also noteworthy as marking, "the end of the first, and very fragile, stage of American political history. Both England and France spent those years seemingly poised to crush the infant nation; American politics - because of it - had become a contest between partisans of foreign powers. Yet, now it was over and the nationalists had won....The Treaty was universally embraced by a nation sick of war and happy to escape without humiliating concessions."
President Monroe appointed Adams his new Secretary of State shortly after his inauguration in March 1817. Traub notes, "The questions that faced President Monroe and his secretary of state had less to do with protecting the country than with increasing American influence and expanding American territory....The world Adams confronted was ripe with opportunity for a confident and expansionist United States, though also beset with dangers for a nation inclined to overestimate its powers. He would spend the next seven years enhancing American territory and prestige while warning against what he considered to be reckless adventures."
Considering the rancor that would mark the relationship between Adams and Andrew Jackson starting with the election of 1824, it was Adams who perhaps saved Jackson's career in 1818 and made it possible for Jackson to attain all that he did thereafter [much of it at Adams' expense]. It started when Jackson overstepped his orders and expelled Spain from Florida territory, placing West Florida under American jurisdiction, In doing so, he had managed - in about 90 days - to accomplish through battle what the Monroe Administration had been seeking to achieve through diplomacy. Monroe and most of his cabinet were furious at Jackson. As Traub notes, "Jackson had fought a personal, unprovoked war against a European power on America's border. He had violated express instructions from both the president and the secretary of war [John Calhoun] in order to bring about an outcome that the president almost surely welcomed by means that he could not be seen to except." Adams, alone among the cabinet, supported Jackson's actions and defended him against punishment. Monroe felt strongly, though, that Jackson needed to be punished - Calhoun wanted him court-martialed. Through cajoling and debate, Adams got Monroe to agree to only a mild rebuke of Jackson. Traub writes, "It is striking that so self-consciously moral and Christian a figure as Adams was prepared to excuse bellicose behavior [by Jackson] in the name of national self-aggrandizement. For Adams, [though,] American destiny had a moral force of its own."
While Jackson won Florida through force, though, it was Adams and his diplomacy that netted an even larger tract. The Adams-Onis Treaty with Spain [the Spanish minister was named Don Luis de Onis] in 1819, Traub writes, was truly revolutionary. In these negotiations, "Adams was the first American diplomat to propose extending American sovereignty from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean." With the signing of the treaty on February 22, 1819, Traub notes, "Adams had yielded Texas, which he had never expected to gain, and in exchange won Florida - the great prize - and gained unimpeded title to all the land ceded by the French in 1803. The line to the Pacific was a coup none of Adams' predecessors had had the boldness to seek, much less win. The Louisiana Purchase had been a windfall; the [Adams-Onis] treaty, by contrast, was a diplomatic coup Adams had won by a combination of patience, guile, mastery of detail, and an unyielding commitment to American national interest."
Adams was now at the peak of his diplomatic influence on American foreign policy. As Traub writes, "No other public figure of his generation had offered so cogent and deeply considered an answer to the question of America's role in the world. In the ensuing years, Adams would continue to argue inside the Monroe Administration for his brand of assertive realism. And he would succeed: the supreme formulation of early-nineteenth-century foreign policy known as the Monroe Doctrine would overwhelmingly bear Adams' stamp."
Indeed it did, although it is important to remember that the details of the talks in November 1823 in Monroe's cabinet that led to the Monroe Doctrine come down to us from only one primary source: Adams himself. No on else left a contemporary record. In Adams' account, Monroe acceded to all of his suggestions [it was read as part of Monroe's Annual Address to Congress]. Even though the account comes to us from Adams, Traub believes that, "In his Address to Congress, Monroe adopted Adams' positions on all the questions on which the two had differed or where Adams held more decisive views."
Traub looks at one of the most famous lines in the doctrine, which reads, "'We owe it therefore to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.' Monroe was not simply asserting the United States' special protective relationship with other nations in the hemisphere; he was stating that in the clash of world systems, the New World was inviolably committed to republicanism, and the United States would not permit that commitment to be jeopardized....It was an extraordinarily brash declaration for a young nation with little navy, no army, a modest population, and a still infant economy."
Despite Adams' account in his diary, there remains some question as to how credit should be assigned for the Monroe Doctrine. Adams' biographers tend to give the credit to Adams; Monroe's chroniclers give it to the president. Interestingly, Traub notes, Dexter Perkins, a leading historian of the period, has argued that it was Monroe who decided to include the South American question in his Annual Address and wrote the actual work, while Adams played the lesser role of the president's effective counselor and coworker." Traub concludes, "What Adams may have contributed most of all to the Monroe Doctrine was its astringency....Left to his own devices, Monroe would have offered a more idealistic vision of the American role as a force for the global advancement of republicanism. Adams blunted that with his dogged insistence that American policy serve American interests. Monroe's view, or Calhoun's - or, for that matter, Clay's - would have been more thoroughly in the American grain, more gratifying to the American self-image. Adams stirred his brand of vinegar into the mix."