Wednesday, July 07, 2004

A Biography of the Other Adams

Book Review:
John Quincy Adams by Robert V. Remini (New York: Henry Holt and Company)

The historian is to be more than a regurgitator of facts and figures. The historian’s art involves the interpretation of facts as well as the surfacing of patterns and connections between people, events, and trends. It’s a subtle art that demands that, even when the historian’s ideology, passions, or convictions are engaged, she or he make fair judgements about the truth and its meaning. Historians must do this without intruding on the events they record and interpret.

Some who write history can’t seem to get this right. They either veer off into the error of personal intrusion or they play it safe, producing works that recount facts without attempting to make sense of them.

One prominent historian/biographer for example, has recently torn off in each of these errant directions in two different best-selling biographical works. In one, he intruded on history by creating a fictional character who ostensibly was a life-long friend of his biography’s subject, thus manufacturing fake history and distorting the story. In another, he recounted the day-to-day life of his subject over an eight year period with virtually no interpretation of that life at all.

The historian must strive to interpret while being accurate and fair.

But even with that goal in mind, two historians can look at the same people and events---even the same primary sources (things like letters, diaries, memos)---and playing the role of fair interpreters, derive markedly different conclusions.

One of the most striking things about historian Robert V. Remini’s new biography of John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, is the interpretation he offers of Adams’ parents and upbringing. It presents a stark contrast to the portrait of John and Abigail Adams and their parenting style that we find in David McCullough’s masterful biography of John Q. Adams’ father and presidential antecedent, John. In John and Abigail Adams, McCullough found two loving parents, persons of deep faith, great intelligence, and extraordinary resourcefulness---and not a little prickliness---who presided happily over their family. But Remini sees John and Abigail as distant, demanding, and moralistic. He is particularly critical of Abigail. He even approvingly quotes biographer Paul Nagel’s conclusion that Abigail was “a calamity as a mother.”

Whether Remini or McCullough are correct about Abigail Adams, it’s clear that the former feels that Abigail’s alleged deficiencies as a parent explain much about the career of John Quincy Adams. And in fact, there is much that needs explaining. Like his father, John Quincy was a one-term president. That may be attributable in part it seems, to deficiencies as politicians shared by the father and the son: They lacked the ability to incite allegiance, but were facile in creating animosity. Both were highly principled, which made their occasional dalliances in hardball politics--it seems fairly clear that J.Q. Adams made a deal with Henry Clay in order to secure election in the U.S. House of Representatives following the inconclusive 1824 presidential election, for example--seem more deplorable.

Remini’s book makes it clear that John Quincy Adams as president was dogged not just by a cold, aloof personality and a tin-ear as a politician, but also by a rather unscrupulous demagogue for an opponent in Andrew Jackson. (In this, Jackson played the same role first played by the similarly unscrupulous and demagogic Thomas Jefferson vis-a-vis the elder Adams.) From the moment Jackson lost the presidency to J.Q. Adams, he set out to thwart the president at every turn and to stack the deck for his own ascendancy to the White House in the subsequent election.

But Remini’s book, part of the new American Presidents series, published by Henry Holt and Company, under the general editorship of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., does have something in common with McCullough’s book about his father: It demonstrates that the most interesting, consequential, and illustrious part of this Adams’ life, like John, occurred before and after his one unhappy term as president.

Before the account of the younger Adams’ presidency, Remini makes a stunning claim:

John Quincy Adams is arguably the greatest secretary of state to serve that office.

There are compelling reasons for that argument. First of all, there is Adams’ pedigree. His parents saw to it that he was groomed throughout his life for service to his country, particularly as a diplomat. He in fact, did serve as an effective and often, imaginative emissary for his country prior to being tapped as President Monroe’s chief diplomat.

Adding to Remini’s argument is Adams’ actual performance as secretary of state. It was he who formulated what came to be called the Monroe Doctrine, a strong foundational principle that has guided US diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere for two centuries.

In his post-presidential years, Adams’ political career was given a resurrection. Voters in Massachusetts saw fit to elect him to the House of Representatives. There, as an elder statesman who sometimes employed shrill rhetoric, sometimes soared beyond his natural gifts as an orator, he fought the institution of slavery. While he wasn’t necessarily all-out against the peculiar institution and may have been, as Remini suggests, politically motivated, seeking revenge against the southern Democrats who sabotaged his administration as president, he played an important role in the development of opposition to slavery.

I loved reading Remini’s biography of Henry Clay several years ago. His expertise in the history of the period of Clay’s, Jackson’s, and Adams’ life is clear. In spite of the brevity of this text, he successfully evokes the feeling of the period and his take on the life and character of John Quincy Adams is well-founded. While one may disagree or have reservations about his interpretation of events, this is a fine book written by a great practitioner of the historian's art.

No comments: