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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Quincy Adams (1767–1848)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE CHIEF distinction in character between John Adams and his son is the strangest one imaginable, when one remembers that to the fiery, combative, bristling Adams blood was added an equal strain from the gay, genial, affectionate Abigail Smith. The son, though of deep inner affections, and even hungering for good-will if it would come without his help, was on the surface incomparably colder, harsher, and thornier than his father, with all the socially repellent traits of the race and none of the softer ones. The father could never control his tongue or his temper, and not always his head; the son never lost the bridle of either, and much of his terrible power in debate came from his ability to make others lose theirs while perfectly keeping his own. The father had plenty of warm friends and allies,—at the worst he worked with half a party; the son in the most superb part of his career had no friends, no allies, no party except the group of constituents who kept him in Congress. The father’s self-confidence deepened in the son to a solitary and even contemptuous gladiatorship against the entire government of the country, for long years of hate and peril. The father’s irritable though generous vanity changed in the son to an icy contempt or white-hot scorn of nearly all around him. The father’s spasms of acrimonious judgment steadied in the son to a constant rancor always finding new objects. But only John Quincy Adams could have done the work awaiting John Quincy Adams, and each of his unamiable qualities strengthened his fibre to do it. And if a man is to be judged by his fruits, Mr. Morse is justified in saying that he was “not only pre-eminent in ability and acquirements, but even more to be honored for profound, immutable honesty of purpose, and broad, noble humanity of aims.”  1
  It might almost be said that the sixth President of the United States was cradled in statesmanship. Born July 11th, 1767, he was a little lad of ten when he accompanied his father on the French mission. Eighteen months elapsed before he returned, and three months later he was again upon the water, bound once more for the French capital. There were school days in Paris, and other school days in Amsterdam and in Leyden; but the boy was only fourteen,—the mature old child!—when he went to St. Petersburg as private secretary and interpreter to Francis Dana, just appointed minister plenipotentiary to the court of the Empress Catherine. Such was his apprenticeship to a public career which began in earnest in 1794, and lasted, with slight interruptions, for fifty-four years. Minister to the United Netherlands, to Russia, to Prussia, and to England; commissioner to frame the Treaty of Ghent which ended the war of 1812; State Senator, United States Senator; Secretary of State, a position in which he made the treaty with Spain which conceded Florida, and enunciated the Monroe Doctrine before Monroe and far more thoroughly than he; President, and then for many years Member of the National House of Representatives,—it is strange to find this man writing in his later years, “My whole life has been a succession of disappointments. I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success to anything that I ever undertook.”  2
  It is true, however, that his successes and even his glories always had some bitter ingredient to spoil their flavor. As United States Senator he was practically “boycotted” for years, even by his own party members, because he was an Adams. In 1807 he definitely broke with the Federalist party—for what he regarded as its slavish crouching under English outrages, conduct which had been for years estranging him—by supporting Jefferson’s Embargo, as better than no show of resistance at all; and was for a generation denounced by the New England Federalists as a renegade for the sake of office and a traitor to New England. The Massachusetts Legislature practically censured him in 1808, and he resigned.  3
  His winning of the Presidency brought pain instead of pleasure: he valued it only as a token of national confidence, got it only as a minority candidate in a divided party, and was denounced by the Jacksonians as a corrupt political bargainer. And his later Congressional career, though his chief title to glory, was one long martyrdom (even though its worst pains were self-inflicted), and he never knew the immense victory he had actually won. The “old man eloquent,” after ceasing to be President, was elected in 1830 by his home district a Representative in Congress, and regularly re-elected till his death. For a long time he bore the anti-slavery standard almost alone in the halls of Congress, a unique and picturesque figure, rousing every demon of hatred in his fellow-members, in constant and envenomed battle with them, and more than a match for them all. He fought single-handed for the right of petition as an indefeasible right, not hesitating to submit a petition from citizens of Virginia praying for his own expulsion from Congress as a nuisance. In 1836 he presented a petition from one hundred and fifty-eight ladies, citizens of Massachusetts, “for, I said, I had not yet brought myself to doubt whether females were citizens.” After eight years of persistent struggle against the “Atherton gag law,” which practically denied the right of petition in matters relating to slavery, he carried a vote rescinding it, and nothing of the kind was again enacted. He had a fatal stroke of paralysis on the floor of Congress February 21st, 1848, and died two days later.  4
  As a writer he was perspicuous, vigorous, and straightforward. He had entered Harvard in the middle of the college course, and been graduated with honors. He had then studied and practiced law. He was Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard from 1806 to 1809, and was well drilled in the use of language, but was too downright in his temper and purposes to spend much labor upon artistic effects. He kept an elaborate diary during the greater part of his life,—since published in twelve volumes of “Memoirs” by his son Charles Francis Adams; a vast storehouse of material relating to the political history of the country, but, as published, largely restricted to public affairs. He delivered orations on Lafayette, on Madison, on Monroe, on Independence, and on the Constitution; published essays on the Masonic Institution and various other matters; a report on weights and measures, of enormous labor and permanent value; Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory; a tale in verse on the Conquest of Ireland, with the title ‘Dermot MacMorrogh’; an account of Travels in Silesia; and a volume of ‘Poems of Religion and Society.’ He had some facility in rhyme, but his judgment was not at fault in informing him that he was not a poet. Mr. Morse says that “No man can have been more utterly void of a sense of humor or an appreciation of wit”; and yet he very fairly anticipated Holmes in his poem on ‘The Wants of Man,’ and hits rather neatly a familiar foible in the verse with which he begins ‘Dermot MacMorrogh’:—
  “’Tis strange how often readers will indulge
    Their wits a mystic meaning to discover;
Secrets ne’er dreamt of by the bard divulge,
    And where he shoots a duck, will find a plover;
Satiric shafts from every line promulge,
    Detect a tyrant where he draws a lover:
Nay, so intent his hidden thoughts to see,
Cry, if he paint a scoundrel—‘That means me.’”
  5
 
 
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