With 24/7 news cycles, social media alerts, and endless information at our fingertips, it is easy to think that we have never lived in a political time like we are currently experiencing. Yes, Donald J. Trump is resetting the decorum of the Office of President. He daily reminds us of his overwhelming personal narcissism with his rants on Twitter and at rallies. But to say this moment is like no other would simply be wrong. Recently, I began reading Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning work was written in 1955 while he served as the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. Much of the information in this story is from the first chapter of that book, about John Quincy Adams. If we really want to make America great, may we be reminded of what Kennedy wrote about how Adams served.
To this date, Adams remains the most accomplished public servant in U.S. history. He served as Minister of the Hague, Emissary to Court of St. James, Minister to Prussia, state Senator, United States Senator, Minister to Russia, Head of the American Mission to negotiate peace with England, President of the United States, and member of the United States House of Representatives. During his lifetime, Adams in one capacity or another, figured in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, prelude to the Civil War, and the end of slavery. He worked and was acquaintanced with giants of history. Look in his diary and you will see the names, Sam Adams, John Hancock, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, James Madison, John Marshall, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Hart Benton, John Tyler, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and more.
As George Frisbie Hoar said of Adams, “he had a tenacity of purpose, a lofty and inflexible courage, an unbending will, which never qualified or flinched before human antagonist, or before exile, torture, or death.” Despite these characteristics, John Quincy’s independent streak was quickly hated by his own party, state, and constituents for not toeing the party line.
As Adams wrote, “I fell strong temptation to plunge into political controversy. But a politician in this country must be the man of a party. I would fain be the man of my whole country.”
After being elected Adams, who did not arrive in time to vote for Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisana Territory, was the only Federalist to support acquisition of the Territory on the floor. He was also the only one in his party to support funding for the project. The blowback he received from his own Federalist Party, and citizens in New England, was rancorous. Many in the Northeast believed that this western expansion would diminish their own political and economic power. They did not want change. Adams however still supported the measure because he believed enriching the nation was more important than enriching oneself.
A mere 10 days later, Adams would rise again on the Senate floor and oppose his party when during an executive session, he realized the point of the session was only to appear to do business when actually there was none to be done. Federalist party leaders were livid when Adams called this act out. They were so upset, one member called Adams, “Lucifer, Son of the Morning, how thou hast fallen.”
Later in 1807, Federalist senators again went off, this time in local newspapers, when Adams broke with his party as Great Britain seized cargo and ships for the King’s navy. Adams’s patriotic instincts were attacked by Federalist, who thought it was better to appease Great Britain. That set up a false choice between immediate war or no action at all. This straw man argument was a falsification.
The real motivation by Federalist around New England was not the fear of war, but to instead rationalize such aggressive measures for their own benefit. After all, Boston was the shipping capital of the United States and any embargo on Britain ships would harm many of their personal businesses. Ever incensed, Adams was convinced that party or no party, the time for truthful action was urgent. Adams would support Jefferson’s Republican foreign policy despite the third’s President’s belligerent attitude toward his father (John Adams) in the election of 1800. Again, Adams put his beliefs before his party.
“Private interest must not be put in opposition to public good,” said Adams. Eventually, Federalist leaders would insist that Adams was harming New England. Their attacks politically worked as both houses of the Massachusetts Legislature were driven to complete Federalist power. Even Adams’s own friends refused to engage with the Senator. “I would not sit at the same table with that renegade,” as one leading citizen wrote.
Despite it all, Adams stood strong. Eventually, Adams would be voted out of the office by the Massachusetts Legislature only to rise again as an independent thinking President and Congressman. Later in life, Adams would show additional integrity by standing boldly against slavery. He efforts would eventually be noticed by a young Congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.
Adams’s father, our second President John Adams, once said to his wife Abigail, “the boy should learn history.” In today’s time, we should be reminded of the same thought. In our nation’s history, few have shown profiles in courage like Adams.
Who is our John Quincy Adams today? Regardless of party, or what may be popular in the moment, who are those individuals serving that will always stand up for principles and morality?
Who would have the courage to put America before self or reelection? Who would today be driven by unbending nobility and conscience? Who would today be the lover of liberty and law, regardless of what party is serving in the White House?
As Adams said of his duty, “he refused to achieve success by becoming what he termed a patriot by profession. By pretending extraordinary solicitude for the people, by flattering their prejudices, by ministering to their passions, and by humoring their transient and change opinions.” Instead, his guiding star would be not his own desires, not even of the people, but of God.
Photo by Smithsonian Institution