As the first president in American history whose father had also held the office, Adams, who was born on 11 July 1767 in that part of Braintree, Massachusetts, which later became Quincy, had every advantage as a youngster. At the time of his birth, his father was an increasingly admired and prospering lawyer, and his mother, Abigail Smith Adams, was the daughter of an esteemed minister, whose wife's family combined two prestigious and influential lines, the Nortons and the Quincys. Accompanying his father on diplomatic missions in Europe, young John Quincy Adams received a splendid education at private schools in Paris, Leiden, and Amsterdam, early developing his penchant for omnivorous reading. From youth on, he began each day with a reading of several chapters of the Bible, first in one language and then another, and meticulously kept a diary that has endeared him to historians. For this careful and often fulsome record provides both an accurate description of important historical events and Adams' sometimes sour but always discerning and interesting responses to these events.
He seemed to serve an ideal apprenticeship for the office of chief executive, for in common with most of the presidents, he trained for the law after graduating from college and he made a "good marriage." The young woman Adams wed was Louisa Catherine Johnson, whose father had been a substantial merchant and whose uncle was the governor of Maryland. In addition to the positions already mentioned, Adams served as minister to the Netherlands and then to Prussia between 1797 and 1801. After serving in the Senate from 1803 to 1808, he was appointed the first United States minister to Russia in 1809, turning down an offer of membership on the Supreme Court during his half decade in St. Petersburg. Adding to his reputation was his brilliant and tough-minded performance as chief American peace commissioner in the negotiations at Ghent that ended the War of 1812 and his effectiveness as minister to Great Britain during the last two years of the Madison administration.
If Adams was in 1824 widely regarded as the most able and deserving of presidential candidates, it was not merely because he had held high diplomatic and political positions but because he had displayed such outstanding ability and such independence of mind and character in executing his assignments. The son of a leading Federalist and himself an early champion of the Federalist party, Adams proved to be anything but a slavish devotee to that political cause. When he thought the party was in the wrong, he stood ready to oppose it. In fact, as he told his father, if he thought the country was in the wrong, he could not bring himself to solicit God's approval for its course. President James Madison, a good Jeffersonian, awarded Adams the diplomatic plum of a ministry to Russia as a form of political reward for his break with his party in supporting the Jeffersonian Embargo Act of 1807, an act that was bitterly opposed throughout Adams' New England. The infuriated Massachusetts Federalists prematurely ended Adams' senatorial career. By 1808, Adams was attending the Republican party caucus that nominated Madison for the presidency.
Adams had also demonstrated his stubborn sense of independence while he was secretary of state. An uncompromising nationalist and patriot, he alone in President Monroe's cabinet opposed the censure of General Andrew Jackson for the latter's behavior in 1817. Jackson had violated the borders of Spanish Florida and came near embroiling the nation in another crisis with Great Britain over his execution of two British subjects during the course of his foray. Adams stuck to his guns, the censure motion was deflected, and within a year Florida fell into American hands for a song. And it was Adams who spurned the subsequent British offer that the two nations engage in a joint declaration against European intervention in South America; it was thus because of Adams that the Monroe Doctrine was put forward as a purely American conception.
A typical Adams in his evident conviction that he was not exceptional and that his performance of his various public tasks was inadequate, John Quincy Adams at age forty-five confided to his diary that with his life two-thirds completed, he had "done nothing to distinguish it by usefulness to [his] country or to mankind." In fact, he had demonstrated great capacity, high character, and much promise of yet greater achievement in whatever responsibilities might lie ahead. The portrait he drew of himself as a "man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners" whose adversaries ostensibly regarded him as a "gloomy misanthropist" and an "unsocial savage" may have had some point. He certainly seemed to believe that these were actual defects in his character and that he lacked the "pliability" to reform them. In truth, John Quincy Adams was not a pliable man. But in view of the austerity and near rigidity of Washington and the lack of what is nowadays called charisma in other of Adams' predecessors, Adams' defects of personality, if they were indeed that, were neither unique nor a certain obstacle to his rise.