JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

A man of about my grandfather’s vintage was telling me that he once owned a house in Brooklyn and the candy store on the first floor. When I asked what had become of the property, he brought his hands together in a loud clap and said, “Mr. Hoover.” The implication was that he had lost the house and store as a result of the Great Depression and that the Great Depression was Mr. Hoover’s fault.

The history of the economic calamity of the 1930s is complex, and while Herbert Hoover’s approach to it is open to criticism, it is simplistic to argue that he was responsible for the losses suffered by millions of people. Unfortunately for Hoover, most Americans who can identify him at all are likely to describe him as the president who failed to solve the Depression. And that means that most Americans have forgotten — or more likely have never known — that Hoover was a great public servant and, in several instances, an American hero. As Casey Stengel said, you could look it up: Hoover organized the evacuation of Americans from Europe at the outbreak of World War I; he organized the delivery of millions of tons of food to Belgium after it had been invaded by Germany; he ran the commission that made sure American food supplies were conserved so that there would be enough to supply U.S troops in Europe during the war; he ran the administration that fed millions of people in Central Europe after the war; he oversaw the government response to the Great Mississippi Flood in six states in 1927; he organized a program that fed school children in impoverished occupied Germany after World War II; and under presidents Truman and Eisenhower he headed two commissions that successfully recommended reorganization and efficiencies in the federal government.

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

Hoover had his failings and even his dark side, but the country’s ignorance of  his accomplishments — to say nothing of  his long career as an engineer and businessman — is out of whack.

Hoover is not alone in this. John Quincy Adams’ legacy has suffered a similar fate, as Harlow Giles Unger explains in a biography of the sixth president that will be published in September. Adams’ presidency was a dud, but he otherwise led one of the most outstanding public lives in the history of the country. He was the son of brilliant parents — Abigail and John Adams — and they expected big things of him. Unger reports, in fact, that John Adams, the second president, expected his son to eventually follow  him into that office, after getting a classical education and learning and practicing law. John Q. grew up in the midst of the American Revolution; in fact, he and his mother were eye witnesses to the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Defining events in his life, though, were successive trips to Europe with his father, who was engaged in diplomacy. Those trips led to a career in diplomacy for the younger Adams who was not excelled by anyone serving in that capacity before or since. He later served as secretary of state in the administration of James Monroe and again did outstanding work, including his authorship of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. He was, Unger argues, one of the most important experts on foreign affairs in American history.

ABIGAIL ADAMS

John Quincy Adams was elected to the presidency without campaigning for the office, and in a certain sense he wasn’t elected at all. The wildly popular war hero Andrew Jackson won more popular votes in the election of 1824 but not enough electoral votes to carry the day. Henry Clay threw the election into Adams’ lap by instructing the Kentucky delegation to vote for Adams, who had not won an electoral vote in that state. When John Q took office, he named Clay secretary of state, which was a much more powerful office then than it is now. Although it would have been out of character for Adams to have conspired with Clay in order to gain the presidency, that’s how many Americans read it, Unger writes, and it got Adams’ administration off to a poor start.

Adams had an ideal that would  sound odd to Americans today: he believed that principle was more important than party. Tell that to John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi. Adams carried this idea to extremes, going to the mat first with his own Federalist party and then with the opposition Republicans on one issue or another. As a result, he really had no party, while Andrew Jackson was building the new Democratic party into a meaningful force. He also gave no thought to even conventional patronage when he appointed his cabinet, and so he was, as Jimmy Durante used to say, “surrounded by assassins.”

The short version is that Adams’ presidency didn’t amount to much, and he left office in a significant funk after losing the election to Jackson. But he was invited to run for Congress from a district in his native Massachusetts, and so he became one of three presidents to hold public office after leaving the White House. (The others were Andrew Johnson, who was elected to the U.S. Senate and William Howard Taft, who was appointed chief justice of the United States.)

Adams spent 17 years in the House of Representatives and it was, as Unger recounts in dramatic fashion, a wild scene. Adams hated slavery, which he had first seen up close when he traveled to Poland as a teenager. The House leadership didn’t want the subject broached in the chamber and passed rules to prevent the word “slavery” from being uttered or petitions against slavery from being presented. Adams fought furiously against this procedure, violating the rules repeatedly, and demanding over and over to know, “Am I gagged? Am I gagged?” He eventually became a highly respected figure in the House, even by those who disagreed with him, and reputedly was one of a handful of the best who ever served there.

SS Amistad

During this period, Adams also got involved in the legal case of a group of more than fifty African men and women who were being transported as slaves from one port in Cuba to another when they seized control of the ship, the Amistad. The ship was taken into custody in American waters, and the Africans on board sued to keep from being returned to bondage.

Adams gave a seven-hour argument before the U.S. Supreme Court which, although most of the justices were hard-nosed southern slave holders, ruled unanimously that the Africans should be set free.

In recounting Adams’ career, Unger provides a close look into the life of the distinguished and patriotic Massachusetts family: the relationship between John Q. Adams and his redoubtable parents, and between John Q. and his wife, Louisa, who at times lost patience with the demands her husband’s public service made on family life.

Unger’s book brings this good and great man back to life at least on the printed page. It was a life that deserves much more attention than it gets.

Books: “American Emperor”

November 29, 2011

ALEXANDER HAMILTON

I grew up with Alexander Hamilton. It’s not that I was his contemporary; it’s that I was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up on its streets. I heard over and over again that Hamilton had founded the city. Like a lot of things children are taught, that wasn’t true. What was true was that Hamilton accurately envisioned an industrial city growing up  around the Great Falls of the Passaic River. Paterson became the silk-weaving center of the world and was also the source of steam locomotives and Colt revolvers.

Aside from the fact that he was born on Nevis – a rare distinction – the only other thing I associated Hamilton with was the duel in which Aaron Burr, who was then the vice president of the United States, shot Hamilton to death. That happened in Weehawkin in 1804.

I never thought much about Burr at all until I read David O. Stewart’s book, American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. Come to find out that Burr was a rip-snorting renegade who wanted to invade Spanish territories in North America, merge them with states he hoped would secede from the Union, and set himself up as ruler of the new nation.

AARON BURR

Burr, who was born in Newark, came from a distinguished family. He  himself had an impressive military and political career which reached its zenith, in a sense, when he was elected the third vice president in the old electoral system. After a contentious series of ballots, Thomas Jefferson and Burr were tied for the presidency. Although Burr was willing to serve as vice president – which was the consolation prize under that system – Jefferson, once he was in office, gave Burr the cold shoulder, marginalizing him to the point that the once influential man was a supernumerary.

Meanwhile, Stewart explains, although Burr and Hamilton had been on good social terms, Hamilton conducted a political campaign against Burr in the public press, ridiculing him in the acidic fashion that was common in those days. Burr – whatever other faults he may have had – wouldn’t wouldn’t play that game, and he did not answer Hamilton until he read a published account of remarks Hamilton had made at a dinner. Burr and Hamilton exchanged a series of letters over the incident, with Hamilton ultimately refusing Burr’s demand that he apologize for that and other slights. Burr challenged him to a duel, and Hamilton accepted. Dueling was illegal in New York and New Jersey; the two men and their parties crossed the Hudson from Manhattan to a spot on the bluff in Weehawkin that was inaccessible from above. Hamilton was mortally wounded.

AARON BURR

Burr was indicted for murder in both states, which meant that he had to live on the road – an odd situation for the vice president of the United States. By this time, he was already concocting a vague plan to put together a realm for himself carved out of Spanish holdings – including parts of Mexico and Texas – and what were then western states that Burr imagined might be interested in leaving the union. He actually negotiated directly with Great Britain over this idea.

Meanwhile, Burr enlisted as one of his principal co-conspirators Gen. James Wilkinson who, on the one hand, was the highest ranking officer in the U.S. military and, on the other hand, was a paid spy for Spain. Burr enlisted numerous other people, including Andrew Jackson, although he seems to have given different information to different people, including in some cases the fantastic claim that the Jefferson administration was aware of and sympathetic to his plan.

Burr went so far as to assemble the crude makings of a private army, and set off by river transport to carry out a plot that still wasn’t clear to anyone except, perhaps, Aaron Burr. The numbers of supporters he had hoped for did not materialize, and some of those who did were arrested. Burr himself was taken into custody and sent to Richmond to be tried for treason.

JAMES WILKINSON

He was not convicted of treason, however. Stewart, who is an attorney, explains the fascinating intricacies of the trial and the verdict. The short version is that treason consists of conducting an armed attack on the United States, and Burr hadn’t done that.

Burr facing further charges in Ohio and was still under both murder indictments. Although he was broke, he traveled to Europe  and stayed for four years. Even then, he tried to get first the British government and then Napoleon to support him in a campaign against Spain in the Americas.

When the indictments had been dropped, Burr returned to New York and in 1831 resumed the practice of law.

This account portrays the United States and its surroundings as tumultuous and unstable. Stewart points out, in fact, that even Jefferson accepted the idea that some of the states still might opt out of the republic and go off on their own.

Stewart also provides details of a contrasting and touching aspect of Burr’s life – his affectionate but ill-fated relationship with his daughter.  The portrait Stewart paints of Burr is that of a charismatic, adventurous, and impetuous rascal, a man of courtly manners and an incorrigible womanizer — in short, far more interesting a character than I had ever imagined.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

When I was a kid, a bubble gum company came out with a line of president cards which I guess were intended as the nerd’s alternative to baseball cards. I was into baseball – including the cards – but I was also into history. Also, my Dad owned a grocery store, so I had easy access to whatever the gum companies were peddling.

I recall sitting across from my father at the kitchen table. He held the president cards, arranged in chronological order, and I would try to list them from memory. I can still hear him saying one night when I got stuck somewhere in the latter 19th century: “C’mon! What street does your Aunt Ida live on?” The answer was Garfield Place, as in James A.

It occurred to me at that young age – it was during Dwight Eisenhower’s first administration – that Franklin Pierce had the best-looking face on those cards.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

Pierce is the subject of a new little biography – part of a Time Books series on the presidents. This one is written by Michael F. Holt, a history professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on the political life of the country in the years leading up to the Civil War. Sure enough, Holt points out that Pierce was not only handsome, but charming and warm hearted as well. Unfortunately, those qualities carried a lot more weight in the internal politics of Democratic New Hampshire than they did when spread out over a nation that was on the verge of committing suicide over the issue of expanding slavery into the western territories.

In fact, Pierce was nominated for the presidency in 1852 not so much because his party thought he was the Man of the Hour but because the party couldn’t muster a winning vote for any of the three leading candidates – one of whom was not Pierce. He was the original Dark Horse, as far as the presidency of the United States was concerned.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

Pierce actually showed some skill in managing the foreign affairs of the country, and he directed the Gadsden Purchase, which was the last major territorial acquisition in what is now the contiguous 48 states. But the crisis of the moment had to do with whether the institution of slavery was going to migrate west along with settlers – an argument that many thought had been closed with the Compromise of 1820. Pierce’s attitude on this issue was complex. First of all, he was a strict constructionist, meaning that he didn’t believe the federal government had any right to interfere in the internal affairs of states, including slavery. Pierce was not pro-slavery per se, but he believed that as long as slavery was protected by the Constitution, the federal government had no right to intrude.

JEFFERSON DAVIS

Pierce was also fiercely determined to hold the Union together, and that inspired his  loathing of the abolition movement. He considered abolitionists fanatics whose shenanigans were threatening the solidarity of the nation. And so, Pierce was a New Englander who consistently supported the Southern slave-holding oligarchy.

Another error in Pierce’s thinking, Holt explains, was an attempt to unify the Democratic party – which was suffering regional and philosophical tensions – by doling out federal patronage jobs to men who represented the whole spectrum of opinion. Among other things, he appointed his friend Jefferson Davis – soon to be president of the Confederacy – as Secretary of War, a move that did not endear Pierce to northern interests that despised and feared the southern plantation establishment. Rather than unifying the party, this policy succeeded in irritating just about everybody but those who got lucrative or influential positions.

JANE PIERCE

Pierce made enough mistakes that he was denied re-nomination by his own party. He was gracious in defeat, Holt reports, but he had to have been sorely disappointed. Among those who probably was not disappointed at all was the president’s wife, Jane Appleton Pierce, who had no patience with politics or life in the capital. In fact, when a rider caught up with the Pierces’ carriage to report that Pierce had been nominated for president, Jane fainted dead away. The poor woman was shy and fragile, and she and her husband endured a series of tragedies that unfortunately were not uncommon in the mid 19th century. They had three sons. Two died at very young ages and the third was killed when a railroad car in which the parents and child were riding left the track and overturned. Holt mentions that although Pierce did not approve of Abraham Lincoln’s policies, he wrote Lincoln a heartfelt note of sympathy when one of Lincoln’s sons died in the White House.

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

Pierce was a heavy drinker – a problem drinker, actually – during much of his life, including the years after Jane died in 1863.

An interesting aspect of Pierce’s life was his compassion for other people – the most prominent of whom may have been Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Pierce met while a student at Bowdoin College. The men were so close that when Hawthorne sensed that he was dying he asked to spend some of his last days with Pierce. Although Hawthorne could travel only with difficulty, Pierce accommodated him and set off with him on a trip that was to be Hawthorne’s last. Pierce found the writer dead in a room at a hotel where the two men had stopped on their journey. Pierce, who was well off, included Hawthorne’s children in his  own will.

Pierce is consistently ranked as one of the least effective, or “worst,” of American presidents. But life isn’t lived on historians’ templates; it is lived between the ground and the sky in specific times and places and under specific and complex conditions. Calling a man one of the “worst” in any realm might have as much to do with what we expect of him at a comfortable distance than it has to do with the choices and challenges that confronted that man in his  own circumstances. When Abraham Lincoln had been murdered, an angry crowd approached Pierce’s home demanding to know why he wasn’t displaying a flag. Pierce pointed out that his father, Benjamin, had fought in the Revolution, his brothers in the War of 1812, and he himself in the Mexican War: “If the period during which I have served our state and country in various situations, commencing more than thirty-five years ago, have left the question of my devotion to the flag, the Constitution, and the Union in doubt, it is too late now to remove it.”