The sixth president of the United States (1825-1829) was born during the American Revolution in a farmhouse outside Boston in what is now Quincy. His remains were interred in a crypt of the First Parish Church (Unitarian) in Quincy with those of his wife Louisa and his parents John and Abigail, who educated him at home. His father, the coauthor of the Declaration of Independence who became the second president of the United States, taught him mathematics, languages, and classics. Both parents expected him to devote his life to public service.
At the age of ten the son accompanied his father to Europe on a diplomatic mission. John Quincy Adams attended schools in France and Holland and also served as secretary during diplomatic negotiations in Russia and Paris. He received advanced standing at Harvard College. After graduating in 1787, he studied law but found it a boring profession. President George Washington appointed him United States minister to Holland in 1794. After marriage to Louisa Catherine Johnson, he rendered further diplomatic service in Europe.
John Quincy Adams became a United States senator and boldly endorsed President Thomas Jefferson’s then controversial Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803-what is now called the world’s greatest real estate bargain. From 1803 to 1808 he also served half-time as Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. President James Monroe appointed him America’s first minister to Russia, 1809-1814. Then he was U.S. minister to Great Britain until appointed by President James Monroe as U.S. secretary of state, 1817-1825-now cited as possibly the greatest secretary of state of all time. By the treaty of 1819 Spain formally ceded East and West Florida to the United States. Of enduring primary importance was the enunciation of the decisive Monroe Doctrine, which closed the United States to European intervention by asserting its right of self-protection. Not without reason is Adams celebrated for the historic crystallization of U.S. foreign policy.
Nevertheless, John Quincy Adams is not known as a great president. Assailed by innumerable conflicts, he was often depressed, aloof, and angry. However, he found relief by regularly swimming nude at 5 a.m. in the Potomac River. Learning about this and recalling Adams’s repeated refusal to be interviewed by the first American professional journalist, Anne Royall is reported to have gone to the river, gathered his clothes and sat on them until she had her interview. No female is thought ever before to have interviewed a president.
After his dismal presidential years, Adams returned to greatness by being the only person to leave the White House and then serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was Adams who presented petitions for the abolition of slavery. It was Adams who pervasively countered Southern political power. It was Adams who constantly advocated large scale public improvements. It was Adams who repeatedly acted to enhance America’s stature in business, industry, and science.
John Quincy Adams was devout, reading three chapters of the Bible daily upon arising, thus reading the entire book each year. His poetry is often Bible-based. He was one of the founders of the Unitarian Church in the nation’s capital, but he was no ally of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism. Adams called the Divinity School Address crazy.
The esteemed legislator from Massachusetts collapsed in the chambers of the House of Representatives when he, “Old Man Eloquent,” was unable to speak. Two days later he died in his eighty-first year.
His writings are available in The Adams Papers, published by the Massachusetts Historical Society and Harvard University.
Excerpts from the Poetry of John Quincy Adams
O GOD, WITH GOODNESS ALL THY OWN
O God, with goodness all thy own,
In mercy cause thy face to shine;
So shall thy ways on earth be known,
Thy saving health and power divine:
O, let the gladdening nations sing,
And praise thy name with hallowed mirth,
For thou of righteousness art King,
And rulest all the subject earth.
O, let the people praise the Lord;
The people all thy praise express;
And earth her plenty shall afford,
And God, yea, our own God, shall bless;
Our God his blessing shall bestow;
His power, his goodness, shall appear;
And all the ends of earth shall know
And worship him with holy fear.
TO THE SUN-DIAL
Thou silent herald of Time’s silent flight!
Say could’st thou speak, what warning voice were thine?
Shade, who canst only show how others shine!
Dark, sullen witness of resplendent light
In day’s broad glare, and when the noontide bright
Of laughing fortune sheds the ray divine,
Thy ready favor cheers us–but decline
the clouds of morning and the gloom of night.
Yet are thy counsels faithful, just, and wise;
They bid us seize the moments as they pass–
Snatch the retrieveless sunbeam as it flies,
Nor lose one sand of life’s revolving glass–
Aspiring still, with energy sublime,
By virtuous deeds to give eternity to Time.
A Note on Unitarian Connections
Both John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun were founders of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C.