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Adams's Handler

What about John Quincy Adams the man: humorless prig or prophetic statesman?

John Quincy Adams By Healy

In The Need to be Whole, his new book on race and American history—and the most thoughtful meditation on the meaning of the Civil War since Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore—Wendell Berry writes, “To anybody looking for a truly moral and upright American politician, I think I can name no better candidate than John Quincy Adams.”

I’ve always thought of our sixth president as a sour, splenetic, self-righteous New Englander, and a loose constructionist to boot, but Berry’s judgment came hot on the heels of my reading Freedom, Independence, Peace: John Quincy Adams and American Foreign Policy by David Hendrickson, president of the John Quincy Adams Society (JQAS) and among the most distinguished scholars of the foreign policy of the early republic.


David and I overlapped for a time in the employ of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the precious few recent members of that august body who would be interested in reading and capable of appreciating this brief and luminous volume.

Senator Moynihan grew wiser as the end drew nigh. In that invigorating American Spring following the fall of the Soviet Union, he questioned U.S. involvement in NATO and called for abolishing the CIA. Today those views would get him denounced by everyone from neocons to The Squad. I asked David: What the hell happened?

“Pat lost. The neocons won. He was well placed to observe their triumph, as they thickly populated his staff. Yes, it is rather incredible that his sensible views back then would get him canceled today. But he saw the malign tendencies close up, making him a great witness to what went wrong. In those days, DPM was just about the closest we got to the JQA style of statesman, but Moynihan lacked Adams’s invincible courage.”

(David is given to understatement. Moynihan’s courage was nothing if not vincible.)

The JQAS, says David, is “building chapters on campuses (to compete with the neocon-led and far better endowed Alexander Hamilton Society) and also building a community for young professionals in DC.” The organization might take as its motto its eponym’s declaration that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”


That’s great, but what about John Quincy Adams the man: humorless prig or prophetic statesman?

“Adams could be quite funny, like his dad,” replies Hendrickson. “I see him as the most honest and courageous of the era’s characters, though it’s true that his enemies found him insufferable and even his coadjutors sometimes found him a pain. Was he prophetic? Absolutely. If the United States were to take up an imperial diadem, he argued, its maxims would change from liberty to force. That happened.”

We might quibble about the preponderant cause, but for foresight it’s tough to beat JQA’s 1844 prophecy that the annexation of Texas would be “the turning-point of a revolution which transforms the North American Confederation into a conquering and warlike nation. Aggrandizement will be its passion and its policy. A military government, a large army, a costly navy, distant colonies, and associate islands in every sea, will follow of course in rapid succession.” (Sounds like a Putin-loving enemy of democracy, doesn’t he? Call the DHS!)

Hendrickson asks, “If we lay Bush’s Second Inaugural”—that’s the one in which W pledged the U.S. to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” with a down payment of half a million dead Middle Easterners—“side by side with the political testament of John Quincy Adams, for which shall we pledge allegiance?” 

Good question. We know what our rulers and lickspittle careerists would say, but is there anyone out there to take up the banner of freedom, independence, and peace? 

“The American leaders I really like are all long dead and buried,” Hendrickson says. “I am more attached to a dozen figures from the first republic than to anyone of the last 100 years. As for legatees of JQA, it’s striking that the figure of the last generation who perhaps most resembles him, doctrinally, is Pat Buchanan, as both were stout supporters of ‘no entangling alliances,’ the protective tariff, and internal improvements. Ha! And we all thought Buchanan was a partisan of Andrew Jackson, the nemesis of JQA.”

“The issues that divided Adams and Jackson are long gone (more or less), but both would condemn the contemporary mania for revolutionizing the world,” says David. “This reminds me of your old theme from Carl Oglesby that the New Left and Old Right are morally and politically coordinate.  Would that they could get their act together!”

Let’s get together before we get much older, shall we? The bloke who sang that is pushing 80, but it’s never too late. Is it?


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