Book Review: John Quincy Adams

You know by sheer internet-based proximity to me that this month contains Andrew Jackson’s birthday. This year I am performing the ghastly deed of reading biographies of his enemies (gasp! shock! betrayal!), and my main man J-Qua was one of Jackson’s most hated.

The Book


John Quincy Adams
Author: Harlow Giles Unger
Amazon Link

John Quincy Adams, son of that other, more famous president John Adams, served the term just prior to Andrew Jackson. Biographies of Jackson paint him as a self-serving, pompous lunatic, but I have a feeling one could easily paint J-Qua (as I dub him) in a more positive light.

But don’t tell Jackson! He blamed John Quincy Adams for killing his wife (not going to say for sure he didn’t contribute) and, as one knows from the multiple bullet wounds taken and murders committed in the name of Rachel Jackson’s honor, anything hurting Rachel is anathema.

Let’s see this muthaf*cka from a new angle.

Non-Spoiler Review

I’ve known for a while that John Quincy Adams’s diary was extensive, written in daily from the time he was 11 until just before he died at 80 years old. In this biography, Unger mentions that the diary was some 14,000 pages at the time of his death.

And, if you were to write a biography of John Quincy Adams, wouldn’t you necessarily have to read all this? All these thousands upon thousands of pages of bellyaching about one’s own thoughts and self-rationalizations? These pages that will inevitably convert you to seeing eye to eye with the man?

The answer is probably, and I think Unger fully went into the pro-Adams camp when he wrote this.

This biography focuses heavily on Adams’s pre-presidential services and time growing up, then contains a significant portion about his post-presidential activities as a representative in congress. His presidency takes up a single chapter, which I was very suspect of – but, if Unger is right, Adams’s presidency was literally of such little note that you might as well write about William Henry Harrison’s.

I found John Quincy’s early life to be interesting, albeit in a different, less murderous way from Jackson. While he was born into some esteem as the son of John Adams, who was a patriot of the American Revolution and second president of the United States (I guess “these United States” given the time frame), he also faced difficulties because of it. John Quincy Adams’s parents were extremely demanding, so much so that the diary entries were very depressing and talked about the insane standards he kept failing to meet. Adams’s journey through what seems a crippling depression was interesting to go through.

Also well-known (if you count the guy well-known at all) is that John Quincy Adams was probably the most ardently anti-slavery president prior to the civil war. Viciously (in a good way) outspoken against slavery following his presidency, he successfully argued for the release of the Armistad captives and helped repeal the gag rule that prevented congress from talking about slavery.

Even so, the biography was painfully one sided to the point where it makes even my favorite Jackson biographers seem neutral. John Quincy Adams’s relationship with his wife was appalling, but the biographer swept it under the rug with ease. The inconsistencies in John Quincy Adams’s thinking weren’t well smoothed over or explained.

4/5 Discoball Snowcones

4 Discoball Snowcones


Hokay, so, let me tell you why you should hate him anyway.

Once upon a time, John Quincy Adams was in London doing important crap when he met a dude with six daughters. He had interest in the first but, when it came time to announce his intentions, he decided to go after the youngest – Louisa – who eventually became his wife.

After this asswipe chose her, Louisa proceeded to get pregnant and miscarry three times in a row. She was destroyed physically (biography doesn’t mention mental distress, but damn), and this left her pale. When confronted with the necessity of attending a party with her husband as a part of an official function, she chose to put on rouge rather than go looking sick.

He disapproved of her looking like a whore, so he forced her over his knee where he forcefully washed her face before making her go to the party against her will.

Later, he tried to separate her from her children. She said she’d rather be away from him than with their children, so he allowed her one while living in Washington. They spent much time apart, often at her behest, and they got in many fights and had terrible letters.

So yes – dude was anti-slavery which was good, but he was still abusive to his wife.

No wonder Jackson hated him.

Next week:

Thanks for sticking with it this far! Next month you’ll get to read some reviews of indie books, which I know everyone likes better than these biographies I love!

13 thoughts on “Book Review: John Quincy Adams

  1. Peter Martuneac says:

    Oof, I didn’t know he was abusive to his wife like that. Granted I don’t know much about hte man to begin with. At this point I kinda want to read a biography on *every* US President, though maybe ones that aren’t so one-sided.

    I’ve already read Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Grant, Coolidge, and Eisenhower, and I felt like they were mostly fair. Ron Chernow does a great job of presenting the flaws of his subjects. He does it in a strictly formal way, only giving subtle cues through his word choices as to how it makes him feel but largely leaving it for the reader to have their own reaction. As in the Washington biography he repeatedly points out the inconsistencies in Washington’s beliefs regarding slavery and his actions, as if he doesn’t want you to forget it while still allowing you to react in your own way.

  2. D. Avery @shiftnshake says:

    This was by far the best review I have read all day. Yep, he sounds like a twisted little New Englander, one of the original Massholes. I enjoyed this totally unbiased review immensely. Now I will have to go back and find out more about Jackson through your lens.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      Hahahaha – I’ve heard the term Masshole before (from a lady who hailed from the state), but I’d forgotten it. You’ve returned a smile to my face.

      And I’m glad you liked the review! I’m not sure I’m good at reviews, per se, but I do give a cheeky little thought or two for them.

  3. Priscilla Bettis says:

    J-Qua sounds like a complex character. His upbringing was tough, his views on slavery for that time in history were admirable, and his view on women (and I suspect children) sucked, and he had the amazing stamina to keep a diary for SIXTY-NINE years! Loved your review, both the non-spoilery and the spoilery versions!

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      Haha, thanks! I agree, the guy was very multi-faceted. Most politicians or politically active people are, when you get down and look at it. It’s why I’m actually kind of skeptical when people try to say “this person we hailed as a hero earlier is bad” or “this person we said was a bad guy earlier should be considered good now” – it’s never that simple.

  4. Pink Roses says:

    I didn’t realise there was another generation in politics. I saw a television series on Adams Senior and thought he was a wonderful man. The book sounds fascinating.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      I genuinely don’t know much about Senior! I do want to read the McCullough biography of John Adams, though, since it’s supposed to be fantastic.

      I thought the book was interesting, too, and I’ve got another John Quincy Adams book on my list. I hope the next biography I read will be about Monroe, though!

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