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John Quincy Adams, the Diplomat Who Obtained Florida and Our Sixth President, Turns 250

July 11, 2017 - 6:00am

Tuesday marks the 250th birthday of John Quincy Adams who, during his tenure as President James Monroe’s secretary of State, led American negotiations with Spain to purchase Florida. 

Adams has something of a strange place in American history and serves as a bridge between the Founding Fathers and the Civil War. It’s a fitting role for him. Having witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill as a child, Adams spent the last years of his life as the leading opponent of slavery sitting in Congress. More than any other public figure of his era, Adams was a link to the Revolution and the coming of the Civil War. 

Much like his father John, Adams’ often diffident personality undermined his political effectiveness and he commanded little in the way of a national political following. Our nation’s sixth president referred to himself as a “bulldog among spaniels,” a personality which is his captured in his massive diary and during his diplomatic and political career which spanned more than half a century. 

Bursting onto the political scene in his mid 20s, Adams quickly rose through the diplomatic ranks, serving as George Washington’s ambassador to the Netherlands during the tense days of the French Revolution and serving as his father’s ambassador to Prussia. Returning to the U.S. when his father was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Adams had some luck in running for office, serving in the Massachusetts Senate for a year before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1803. During his time in the Senate, Adams threw his support behind Jefferson on the Louisiana Purchase and his embargo against England, costing himself a chance for another term and getting run out of the waning Federalist Party. 

Adams resumed his diplomatic career under James Madison, serving as our first ambassador to Russia for five years before taking over as ambassador to England. In that post, Adams helped craft the Treaty of Ghent, bringing an end to the War of 1812. When Monroe took over from Madison after the 1816 election, the new president named Adams as his secretary of State. 

With William Crawford at Treasury, rising South Carolinian John C. Calhoun at War and William Wirt as attorney general, Monroe assembled one of the most talented Cabinets in American history but Adams was the star of the show. He helped craft the Monroe Doctrine, one of the cornerstones of American diplomacy for the next two centuries, and pushed the Rush-Bagot Treaty, leading to a reduction in military forces on the Great Lakes and setting the stage for the peaceful relations between the U.S. and Canada which have helped both nations considerably. 

After Andrew Jackson led the invasion of Spanish controlled Florida in the First Seminole War, Adams took charge of the negotiations with Spain to obtain the peninsula and define the border with Mexico. The importance of obtaining Florida at that time can‘t be overlooked as Spain lost power in the New World following the Napoleonic Wars. “People used to say that whoever possessed the Floridas held a pistol at the heart of the Republic,” the brilliant historian George Dangerfield wrote in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Era of Good Feelings” and he was exactly correct.  With Spain losing its grasp on its colonies, the U.S. needed to claim Florida before other powers (namely England) could.  The resulting Adams-Onis Treaty, which was signed in 1819, ensured Florida would be part of the United States, starting in 1821.

While historians consider Adams to be one of the best secretaries of State in American history, his presidency simply does not generate high marks. Facing Jackson, Calhoun, Crawford and Henry Clay in the 1824 presidential election, Adams became our sixth president after one of the most acrimonious contests in American history. Calhoun bowed out of the race quickly, content to be both Jackson’s and Adams’ running mate. None of the four remaining candidates could claim a majority in the Electoral College, leading to Congress to sort things out between Jackson, Adams and Crawford. Clay, a longtime congressional leader who finished fourth in the Electoral College, threw his support behind Adams over Jackson who led the popular vote and finished first in the Electoral College. When Adams named Clay as secretary of State, Jackson’s supporters accused them of having a “corrupt bargain,” putting the new president in a far more precarious position than any of his predecessors.  

Opposed by Jackson and his supporters including his own Vice President Calhoun, Adams proved ineffective as president as he pushed for federally funded internal improvements and tariff reform. Even in foreign policy, despite his background, Adams failed as president to make a major impact. In 1828, the Jackson-Calhoun ticket utterly routed Adams and his running mate Richard Rush. 

Despite his failures in the White House and a son’s suicide in 1829, Adams bounced back, winning a congressional seat in 1830 and going on to have one of the most impressive congressional careers in American history, earning the nickname “Old Man Eloquent.” Even as part of the minority opposing Jackson, Adams was a leading figure in Congress, chairing the Commerce and Manufactures, the Indian Affairs and the Foreign Affairs committees. Adams continued to shine in Congress as one of the chief congressional backers of what would become the Smithsonian and as one of the fiercest opponents of the Mexican War. 

Adams made his biggest mark during his time in Congress on the increasingly thorny problem of slavery. The former president was the leading critic of the gag rule, imposed by Southern members and their Northern allies to table anti-slavery petitions. A supporter of the abolition of slavery, Adams led the charge to overturn the gag rule and his opposition to slavery also made him stand against to the war with Mexico and the annexation of Texas. Adams also spoke in front of the Supreme Court in the Amistad case, insisting the African slaves who took over that ship were free men. Our sixth president’s role in the anti-slavery movement was captured in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” from 1997 with Anthony Hopkins playing Adams. 

“Old Man Eloquent” died in 1848, collapsing on the floor of Congress as he was readying to speak on why he opposed honoring the officers who led the American army during the war against Mexico. Fittingly for this opponent of slavery, one of the congressmen who helped with Adams’ funeral arrangements was a freshman from Illinois by the name of Abraham Lincoln. Adams’ son Charles Francis would serve as Lincoln’s ambassador to England during the Civil War, a post his father and grandfather also held. 

Adams simply doesn’t rank as a great president or even a good one. To be sure, Adams’ controversial election doomed his presidency as did his often cantankerous personality. So did shifting political currents which could be seen in Adams career as he could, at various times, claim to be a Federalist, Democratic Republican, National Republican, Anti-Mason and, finally, a Whig without really changing too many of his core political convictions.  Even if his presidency was, at best, mediocre, Adams certainly ranks as one of the great diplomats, Cabinet secretaries and congressional representatives in American history. Certainly American history--and that of Florida--would have been far different had Adams not been on the political stage for 55 years. 


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