Essential Books on John Quincy Adams
There are numerous books on John Quincy Adams, and it comes with good reason, beyond being America’s sixth President (1825-1829), he was a member of multiple political parties over the years, and also served as a diplomat, a Senator, and a member of the House of Representatives.
“Democracy, pure democracy, has at least its foundation in a generous theory of human rights. It is founded on the natural equality of mankind. It is the cornerstone of the Christian religion. It is the first element of all lawful government upon earth,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of America’s most consequential figures to the height of political power, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on John Quincy Adams.
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel
February 21, 1848, the House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.: Congressman John Quincy Adams, rising to speak, suddenly collapses at his desk; two days later, he dies in the Speaker’s chamber. The public mourning that followed, writes Paul C. Nagel, “exceeded anything previously seen in America.” Forgotten was his failed presidency and his often cold demeanor. It was the memory of an extraordinary human being – one who in his last years had fought heroically for the right of petition and against a war to expand slavery – that drew a grateful people to salute his coffin in the Capitol and to stand by the railroad tracks as his bier was transported from Washington to Boston.
Nagel probes deeply into the psyche of this cantankerous, misanthropic, erudite, hardworking son of a former president whose remarkable career spanned many offices: minister to Holland, Russia, and England, U.S. senator, secretary of state, president of the United States (1825-1829), and, finally, U.S. representative (the only ex-president to serve in the House).
On the basis of a thorough study of Adams’s seventy-year diary, among a host of other documents, the author gives us a richer account than we have yet had of his life – his passionate marriage to Louisa Johnson, his personal tragedies (two sons lost to alcoholism), his brilliant diplomacy, his recurring depression, his exasperating behavior – and shows us why, in the end, only Abraham Lincoln’s death evoked a greater outpouring of national sorrow in nineteenth-century America.
Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade by Joseph Wheelan
Following his single term as President of the United States (1825-1829), John Quincy Adams, embittered by his loss to Andrew Jackson, boycotted his successor’s inauguration, just as his father John Adams had done. Rather than retire, the sixty-two-year-old former president, U.S. senator, secretary of state, and Harvard professor was elected by his Massachusetts friends and neighbors to the House of Representatives to throw off the “incubus of Jacksonianism.” It was the opening chapter in what was arguably the most remarkable post-presidency in American history.
In this engaging biography, historian Joseph Wheelan describes Adams’s battles against the House Gag Rule that banished abolition petitions; the removal of Eastern Indian tribes; and the annexation of slave-holding Texas, while recounting his efforts to establish the Smithsonian Institution.
As a “man of the whole country,” Adams was not bound by political party, yet was re-elected to the House eight times before collapsing at his “post of duty” on February 21, 1848, and then dying in the House Speaker’s office.
Nation Builder by Charles N. Edel
“America goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy” – John Quincy Adams’s famous words are often quoted to justify noninterference in other nations’ affairs. Yet when he spoke them, Adams was not advocating neutrality or passivity but rather outlining a national policy that balanced democratic idealism with a pragmatic understanding of the young republic’s capabilities and limitations.
America’s rise from a confederation of revolutionary colonies to a world power is often treated as inevitable, but Charles N. Edel’s provocative biography of Adams argues that he served as the central architect of a grand strategy that shaped America’s rise. Adams’s particular combination of ideas and policies made him a critical link between the founding generation and the Civil War-era nation of Lincoln.
Adams’s ambitions on behalf of America’s interests, combined with a shrewd understanding of how to counter the threats arrayed against them, allowed him to craft a multitiered policy to insulate the nation from European quarrels, expand U.S. territory, harness natural resources, develop domestic infrastructure, education, and commerce, and transform the United States into a model of progress and liberty respected throughout the world.
Arguing About Slavery by William Lee Miller
In the 1830s slavery was so deeply entrenched that it could not even be discussed in Congress, which had enacted a “gag rule” to ensure that anti-slavery petitions would be summarily rejected. This stirring book chronicles the parliamentary battle to bring “the peculiar institution” into the national debate, a battle that some historians have called “the Pearl Harbor of the slavery controversy.”
The campaign to make slavery officially and respectably debatable was waged by John Quincy Adams who spent nine years defying gags, accusations of treason, and assassination threats. In the end, he made his case through a combination of cunning and sheer endurance. Telling this story with a brilliant command of detail, Arguing About Slavery endows history with majestic sweep, heroism, and moral weight.
John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger
He fought for Washington, served with Lincoln, witnessed Bunker Hill, and sounded the clarion against slavery on the eve of the Civil War. He negotiated an end to the War of 1812, engineered the annexation of Florida, and won the Supreme Court decision that freed the African captives of The Amistad. He served his nation as minister to six countries, secretary of state, senator, congressman, and president.
John Quincy Adams was all of these things and more. In this masterful biography, award-winning author Harlow Giles Unger reveals Quincy Adams as a towering figure in the nation’s formative years and one of the most courageous figures in American history, which is why he ranked first in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.
The Lost Founding Father by William J. Cooper
Long relegated to the sidelines of history as the hyper-intellectual son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams has never basked in the historical spotlight. Remembered, if at all, as an ineffective president during an especially rancorous time, Adams was humiliated in office after the contested election of 1824, viciously assailed by populist opponents for being both slippery and effete, and then resoundingly defeated by the western war hero Andrew Jackson, whose 1828 election ushered in an era of unparalleled expansion.
Aware of this reputation yet convinced that Adams deserves a reconsideration, award-winning historian William J. Cooper has reframed the sixth president’s life in an entirely original way, demonstrating that Adams should be considered our lost Founding Father, his morality and political philosophy the final link to the great visionaries who created our nation.
As Cooper demonstrates in this gem among books on John Quincy Adams, no one else in his generation – not Clay, Webster, Calhoun, or Jackson – ever experienced Europe as young Adams did, who at fourteen translated from French at the court of Catherine the Great. In fact, his very exposure to the ideas of the European Enlightenment that had so influenced the Founding Fathers, including their embrace of reason, were hardly shared by his contemporaries, particularly those who could not countenance slaves as equal human beings.
The Birth of Modern Politics by Lynn Hudson Parson
The 1828 presidential election, which pitted Major General Andrew Jackson against incumbent John Quincy Adams, has long been hailed as a watershed moment in American political history. It was the contest in which an unlettered, hot-tempered southwestern frontiersman, trumpeted by his supporters as a genuine man of the people, soundly defeated a New England “aristocrat” whose education and political resume were as impressive as any ever seen in American public life.
It was, many historians have argued, the country’s first truly democratic presidential election. It was also the election that opened a pandora’s box of campaign tactics, including coordinated media, get-out-the-vote efforts, fund-raising, organized rallies, opinion polling, campaign paraphernalia, ethnic voting blocs, “opposition research,” and smear tactics.
In this gem among books on John Quincy Adams, Parsons shows that the Adams-Jackson contest also began a national debate that is eerily contemporary, pitting those whose cultural, social, and economic values were rooted in community action for the common good against those who believed the common good was best served by giving individuals as much freedom as possible to promote their own interests. The book offers fresh and illuminating portraits of both Adams and Jackson and reveals how, despite their vastly different backgrounds, they had started out with many of the same values, admired one another, and had often been allies in common causes.
The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams by Phyllis Lee Levin
A patriot by birth, John Quincy Adams’s destiny was foreordained. He was not only “The Greatest Traveler of His Age,” but his country’s most gifted linguist and most experienced diplomat. John Quincy’s world encompassed the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the early and late Napoleonic Age.
As his diplomat father’s adolescent clerk and secretary, he met everyone who was anyone in Europe, including America’s own luminaries and founding fathers, Franklin and Jefferson. All this made coming back to America a great challenge. But though he was determined to make his own career he was soon embarked, at Washington’s appointment, on his phenomenal work abroad, as well as on a deeply troubled though loving and enduring marriage.
But through all the emotional turmoil, he dedicated his life to serving his country. At 50, he returned to America to serve as Secretary of State to President Monroe. He was inaugurated President in 1824, after which he served as a stirring defender of the slaves of the Amistad rebellion and as a member of the House of Representatives from 1831 until his death in 1848.
John Quincy Adams by Robert V. Remini
Chosen president by the House of Representatives after an inconclusive election against Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams often failed to mesh with the ethos of his era, pushing unsuccessfully for a strong, consolidated national government. Historian Robert V. Remini recounts how in the years before his presidency Adams was a shrewd, influential diplomat, and later, as a dynamic secretary of state under President James Monroe, he solidified many basic aspects of American foreign policy, including the Monroe Doctrine.
Undoubtedly his greatest triumph was the negotiation of the Transcontinental Treaty, through which Spain acknowledged Florida to be part of the United States. After his term in office, he earned the nickname “Old Man Eloquent” for his passionate antislavery speeches.
Descent from Glory by Paul C. Nagel
There has never been any doubt that the Adams family was America’s first family in our politics and memory. This research-based and insightful book is a multigenerational biography of that family from the founder father John through the mordant writer Brooks.
If you enjoyed this guide to essential books on John Quincy Adams, be sure to check out our list of The 10 Best Books on President John Adams!