John Adams vs. John Quincy Adams: Second Acts Seldom Work Out

John Adams versus John Quincy Adams:
Pairing Presidents XXII

If, as expected, Hillary Clinton wins today's presidential election, she will be the first spouse to command the White House. She will not, however, be the first all-in-the-family president. In fact, nearly a quarter (10 of 44) of all chief executives have had blood ties. Most recently, of course, the 43rd POTUS George H. W. Bush was the son of the 41st, George W. Bush. Prior to the Bushes, Franklin Roosevelt (32nd) was the fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt (#26); Benjamin Harrison (23rd) was the grandson of William Henry Harrison (9th); and Zachary Taylor (12th) was the second cousin of James Madison (4th).

It all began when the second POTUS John Adams (1797-1801) sired a son, John Quincy Adams (1825-1829), who became the sixth president. Neither presidency was among the nation's most memorable, though both individuals led extraordinary lives. With the exception of the Roosevelts, though, none of history's second acts has produced a strong president. (FDR had the distinction of being related to eleven former presidents; five by blood and six by marriage.)

How they are similar:

In addition to inheriting his father's bad hair genes, John Quincy Adams also got his bad temperament. Legend holds that the first Adams convinced Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence because their peers would be too suspicious of one written by Adams. He allegedly told young Jefferson, "I am obnoxious and disliked." As they say, if it wasn't true, it should have been! Here are terms no one ever used to describe either Adams: kind, warm, reasonable, jovial, humorous, or affable. Both were moralistic prigs—highly intelligent men, but the sort who courted controversy as if she were a wealthy dowager.

John Adams
Despite their intelligence, each Adams got suckered into unwise actions. John Adams acted in impolitic fashion in several ways. He clashed with Alexander Hamilton even though he favored Hamilton's economic programs, possibly because he found Hamilton overly ambitious (which he assuredly was). Mainly, though, Adams stumbled over the French Revolution and the resulting European-wide war. There was a significant amount of anti-French spillover from the Washington administration and the XYZ Affair. Adams was pro-English, but he made diplomatic overtures to France that might have succeeded had Napoleon Bonaparte consolidated power earlier. Alas, Adams' diplomacy (when he was Washington's vice president) fell part during a period known as The Terror in which the guillotine worked overtime. By the time Adams became POTUS, his Federalist Party was so frightened of France that it pushed Adams to pass four bills collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. One provision raised the residency requirement to 14 years for immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship and another made non-citizen dissidents easier to deport. The Sedition Act, however, made Adams appear tyrannical as it made it illegal to bring the government into disrepute–even to the degree of 2-4 years imprisonment and a $5,000 fine (today's equivalent of  $92,000). By the end of his first term, Adams was very unpopular and largely without allies. Thomas Jefferson defeated him in 1800. True to his stubborn self, Adams' last days in office were controversial. Because he feared the Democratic-Republican Jefferson, Adams staffed as many offices as he could with Federalists—his so-called midnight appointments.   

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams had albatrosses of his own that made him also a one-term president. He was not the top vote getter in the election of 1824; in fact, he got just 31% of the vote, a full 10% less than Andrew Jackson in a four-way race. Jackson concluded that Adams was POTUS only by virtue of a deal cut with Henry Clay, which happened to be true. Jackson plotted to undermine J.Q. Adams and used the tariff to do so. Adams signed a high tariff denounced in the South as the Tariff of Abominations. This precipitated the nullification crisis when South Carolina argued that states had to right to opt out of federal laws. Although Jackson supported the tariff, he did not do so publicly and trounced the unpopular incumbent in 1828.

Both presidents supported internal improvements. The elder Adams was the first to strengthen the U.S. Navy and the first to build military hospitals. Adams the younger was enamored of Clay's American Plan. He extended the Cumberland Road, began work on the Cumberland & Ohio Canal, and approved other plans to connect the Ohio River with the Great Lakes. He was also an ardent supporter of science. Not only was he the first president to allow a photograph to be taken, he advanced an endowment scheme that eventually resulted in the Smithsonian Institution.

Both had far more successful careers outside of the presidency than within. John Adams was a Founder and was present for all of the drama that led to the creation of the United States: the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre (he defended the Crown troops), the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights… He was an ambassador, vice president under George Washington, and a cofounder of the Federalist Party.

The younger Adams had a glorious career before taking the White House, having been a professor of logic at both Brown and Harvard, as well as serving at a U. S. Senator, an ambassador, and as Secretary of State under James Monroe. Most scholars think he wrote most of the Monroe Doctrine. His greatest glory came after he lost the White House in the 1828 election.

Both were also ardent opponents of slavery. The elder Adams didn't try to get rid of slavery, but he let all know he found the institution barbaric and immoral. His son blamed the slaveocracy for engineering his loss to Andrew Jackson in 1828, and he was probably correct. Instead of licking his wounds in private, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1833 until his death in 1848. From that position, he spearheaded the petition movement, an initiative allowed under the Constitution in which citizens can submit private petitions to Congress to "redress grievances." Adams presented scores of anti-slavery petitions for debate. When President Jackson's congressional allies put into effect a gag rule to declare these "out of order," J. Q. Adams found more ways to introduce them through other means than opponents could devise ways to prevent him from doing so. He was also on the legal team that defended the black mutineers that took over the Amistad in 1839 and in 1841, the SCOTUS agreed with Adams that the defendants had been illegally taken into slavery and were therefore free. He was a constant thorn in the side of all who tried to compromise on slavery, including Stephen A. Douglas, whom he accused of moral cowardice–a charge Douglas was never quite able to shake. Adams even argued that a POTUS could use his executive war powers to abolish slavery, which is precisely what Lincoln did in the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. It should be noted that J.Q. Adams enjoyed a more elevated reputation abroad than at home.

How they were different:

An obvious difference is that the elder Adams cofounded the Federalist Party and his son was a member of the rival Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans when he took office. J. Q. Adams despised Andrew Jackson, though, and abandoned the remade Democratic Party. J. Q. Adams was the Northern leader of the Anti-Jacksonians, a faction that eventually became the Whig Party.

J.Q. Adams clashed with Jackson over Indian policy as well, Adams being favorably disposed to protecting Native rights. His father said very little about Indians, though Federalists were not generally overly concerned with the rights of non-white peoples.

Although John Adams was a cold fish, by most accounts his marriage to Abigail was a rare companfeminist, as that term is understood today. The couple raised six reasonably well-adjusted children. John Quincy and his wife, Louisa, had three of four children survive to adulthood, but two sons were very troubled, one being booted out of Harvard and the other committing suicide.

ionate bond and filled with great affection. It should be noted that their respective views on women's equality has been romanticized and imbued with anachronistic readings. Abigail was a very strong woman, but she was not a

John Adams was greatly affected by deism philosophically, but maintained the usefulness of his Puritan/Congregationalist roots. Although he distrusted dogma and was of independent mind, he doubted that secular-based moral systems had merit. John Quincy was a freethinker, probably an agnostic. He took his oath of office with his hand on a book of constitutional law.


John Adams is currently ranked 12th, an absurdity based on the entire of his career, not his time in the White House. (He was the first actually to live in the White House, by the way, though it was still undone when he left it.) As a Founder, Adams is an American icon, though as a president he was not even as successful as his son, who ranks 21st.  J.Q. Adams deserves to be ranked higher than his father, though neither belongs in the top tier.

John Quincy Adams deserves kudos for his (often lonely) anti-slavery work. Perhaps only Jimmy Carter has led a more exemplary post-presidential life. 

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