John Quincy Adams - Adams' qualities as president

One outmoded interpretation held that "the victory of John Quincy Adams gave the business community its last chance," suggesting that the sixth president favored the propertied over the popular interest. In fact, Adams was an independent, as well as intelligent, thinker, a patriot who thought in national rather than class terms. His views were uncommonly humane for the major party politician that in a sense he was. This was a man who rejected the comforting notion that the United States was a classless society; who believed, as did few of his male contemporaries, that women in America were denied the equal opportunities that were their due; who, unlike the slaveholding Jackson, believed that slavery was "the great and foul stain upon the North American Union" and that "the Constitution's protection of slavery was intolerable" and that it should be amended. Like his predecessors in the chief executive's office, he believed that the presidential veto was a potentially despotic power that was to be rarely exercised (in accord with Hamilton's promise to this effect in The Federalist ).

In addition to his learning, intelligence, and independence of mind, Adams had a capacity for hard work that one would have thought boded well for the prospects of his presidency. His description of a day's work, written a month after he took office, tells something of his approach to the job:

Since my removal to the Presidential mansion, I rise about five; read two chapters of Scott's Bible and Commentary, and the corresponding Commentary of Hewlett; then the morning newspapers, and public papers from the several departments; write seldom and not enough; breakfast an hour, from nine to ten; then have a succession of visitors, upon business, in search of place, solicitors for donations, or from mere curiosity, from eleven till between four and five o'clock. The heads of department of course occupy much of this time. Between four and six I take a walk of three or four miles. Dine from about half past five to seven, and from dark till about eleven I generally pass the evening in my chamber, signing land grants or blank patents, in the interval of which, for the last ten days I have brought up three months of arrears in my diary index. About eleven I retire to bed. My evenings are not so free from interruption as I hoped and expected they would be.

By his fourth year in office he was, if anything, putting in an even longer day. His diary entry for 31 May 1828 notes that he would "rise generally before five—frequently before four" and "retire usually between eleven and midnight." When weather permitted, Adams would swim in the Potomac, tend his garden, and ride horseback. By the end of his tenure, perhaps because he was worn down—more by the unremitting sniping at his heels by political foes than by the tasks of office—he was nodding off, briefly but often, on his sofa.

Sadly, neither high intelligence nor hard work availed to ensure a successful presidential tenure. It has become a historian's commonplace to observe that once in the high office, Adams' stiffness of personality, his inability to make the necessary small compromises, and the fancifulness of his proposals combined to defeat his hopes, whether for a great presidency or for reelection. Yet the evidence can be otherwise interpreted. It is not necessary to distort the historical record to conclude that Adams' political rivals and enemies were simply intent on bringing him down, ready to exploit or distort every issue; magnify any error, no matter how trivial; and distort every statement and every action, all with an eye toward undermining his administration and ruining his chances for succession. That they succeeded with a vengeance doubtless indicates that Adams lacked at least some of the things that it takes to achieve a successful presidency. The success of Adams' enemies also suggests, disturbingly, that a successful presidency may be beholden more to an incumbent's opportunism and amorality than to intelligence and integrity.

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Jasmine Meredith
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