Tuesday, 5 May 2009

“Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade”, by Joseph Wheelan (PublicAffairs)


The Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life of America’s 6th President.

For the majority of the 43 men to have occupied the American Presidency, it has been the last stop on colourful, successful careers – even if their tenure as Commander-in-Chief was not itself particularly successful.

There have been a growing few, however, who have gone on to achieve great things post-presidency. These include the diplomatically hyperactive Jimmy Carter, and the philanthropic and busy George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Going back further in history, William Howard Taft followed his single presidential term with time on the Supreme Court, and Andrew Johnson was briefly a Senator before his death.

Of all the presidents, however, none have come close to matching John Quincy Adams’s post-presidential life, during which he was a Congressman for 17 years (indeed, he would eventually die in Congress). He took up his rhetorical arms against slavery, masonry, Andrew Jackson, but most of all in his vociferous defence of the First Amendment.

Joseph Wheelan takes us first through his successful, globe-trotting pre-presidential life in a mere 35 pages, and then his presidency (and the supposed “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay that doomed it to failure) in a further 30 pages. The remainder of the book is entirely devoted to his years in Congress – his battles with his nemesis and presidential successor, Andrew Jackson, his support for the Bank of the America, his eloquent and frequent opposition to slavery, his unsuccessful opposition to the annexation of Texas, the founding of the Smithsonian Institute, and his commitment to internal improvements, to name but a few.

In this singularly excellent account of John Quincy Adams’s post-presidency, Wheelan has written an engaging, illuminating and oft-entertaining history. Filled with excerpts from JQA’s voluminous diaries and correspondence (from the age of 12 until his death, there were only a few, short periods when he did not assiduously note down everything he experienced), through the eyes of the “Favored Son of the Revolution”, we get a glimpse of the most powerful players (Jefferson, Calhoun, Clay, Van Buren, and so on), and also the important events and developments of the age. Given his long public career, Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade provides a wonderful history of America’s first half-century – the shifting politics, the dangers faced by the new nation, as well as its triumphs.

John Quincy Adams remains a mostly forgotten president and public figure – given his contribution to America’s development and politics, this is tragic. Often, new scholarship on this time period can be stuffy and unwieldy, but Joseph Wheelan has done a laudable job of shining greater light on “Old Man Eloquent” and his relentless urge to serve in a style and manner that is accessible and enjoyable throughout.

A highly recommended read.

Also try: Robert Remini, John Quincy Adams (2002); Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1999); Nina Burleigh, The Stranger & The Statesman (2004); John T. Morse, John Quincy Adams (1882); Richard Brookhiser, America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 (2002)

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