Apart from the controversial Clay, Adams' cabinet appointments were unexceptional. Adams was practical politician enough to try to mend his fences with Crawford by offering him continued tenure in the Treasury Department; the Georgian was too ill to continue. Cabinet offers went to men who, as a group, represented a geographical cross section of the nation: Henry Clay (State), James Barbour (War), Richard Rush (Treasury), Samuel L. Southard (Navy), and William Wirt (Attorney General).
Adams' promise, in his inaugural message, ceaselessly to devote all of his faculties to the "faithful performance of the arduous duties" he was about to undertake was similarly unexceptional. But that Adams also said that he was "deeply conscious" that he was "less possessed of [the people's] confidence" than had been any of his predecessors betrayed his continuing anxiety about his unimpressive popular vote. Perhaps, too, it betokened his unease concerning the unprecedented route he had followed to reach the highest office and the dark mutterings that followed in its wake.
In his first annual message, delivered on 6 December 1825, Adams presented his administration's program to the Nineteenth Congress. A clue to the unrelenting hostility evoked by his almost every suggestion is afforded by the suspicion with which his opponents greeted what would appear to have been an unexceptionable and glittering generalization, to the effect that "the great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of those who are parties to the social compact." To hear how some devotees of laissez-faire and states' rights republicanism told it, "improvement" came close to being subversive, if not un-American. Adams, of course, had some champions in Congress—the Clay-Adams "coalitionists," above all. But the great majority consisted of Jackson, Calhoun, and Crawford supporters—the last group led by the wily Martin Van Buren—all of them listening with jaundiced ears to Adams' proposals.
The conflict between John Quincy Adams and his congressional opposition was not entirely a matter of office and power, of simple hostility by the "outs" to the "ins." An element of political principle or ideology, broadly construed, was also present. Although their earlier and subsequent careers demonstrated the opportunism of Adams' chief opponents and their readiness to switch from one political position to another when they thought it expedient to do so—as Calhoun reversed himself on the tariff or as Jackson did on the propriety of appointing former Federalists to office—they did tend to be unsympathetic to the idea of activism by the federal government, whether in economic or other matters. The issue of slavery did not arise directly during the years of Adams' presidency, yet it rose indirectly, in the sense that many champions of the South's "peculiar institution" appear to have been hostile to federal intervention in any area of American life, largely because they feared that recognition of such a right might in the future lead to federal interference with slavery.
Anti-Adams men, in Congress and out, who both before and after his message displayed readiness to utilize federal funds to promote internal improvements, now professed to be shocked at his suggestion that the national government facilitate "communications and intercourse between distant regions and multitudes of men" by building and improving roads and canals. The president's enemies had a field day ridiculing his advocacy of scientific investigation and of "public institutions and seminaries of learning" as the essential instruments for achieving the "moral, political, [and] intellectual improvement" of the American people. Singled out for special scorn was his call for the "erection of an astronomical observatory [for] observation upon the phenomena of the heavens." They lampooned the suggestion that the United States build its first such observatory, although no one deigned to challenge the president's report that Europe had more than 130 of these "light-houses of the skies." Even a modern critic of Adams and his administration, while finding the message politically inept, concedes that it was "one of the great presidential papers sent to any Congress." But, inspired as they were by opportunism, unshaking determination to destroy the Adams administration, and what a modern historian calls their anti-intellectualism, Adams' congressional opponents were oblivious to any of the message's charms.
Adams did slip badly in one passage of his message. In urging that the Congress not be "palsied by the will of [their] constituents" in enacting the "public improvement" he called for, he left himself open to the charge that he had thereby revealed his contempt for democracy and the obligation of government to guide itself by the will of the people. The Jacksonians never let up in their subsequent campaign to portray Adams as an aristocrat at heart. His enemies took these words out of a context in which they were part of a ringing nationalistic appeal for the United States not to doom itself to "perpetual inferiority" to foreign nations "less blessed with . . . freedom." Actually, Adams was demonstrating his accord with the well-known proposition, earlier offered by Edmund Burke, that the responsible political leader owes his constituents not his industry but his talents. Andrew Jackson and other of Adams' enemies more than once acted in accord with this elitist principle. But Adams, characteristically, was frank and impolitic enough to state his beliefs openly and put them in the public record. Not surprisingly, in view of the circumstances, Adams' "bold proposals" got absolutely nowhere in Congress.
As the year ended, Adams confided to his diary that it had been a year "without disaster to the country; with an unusual degree of prosperity, public and private." He was right, yet he derived little political capital from the fact, for, as he discerningly noted, public opinion toward him continued to be negative. Aware of his own flaws as a public man, Adams put much of the blame for his lack of popularity on his personal deficiencies. Certainly he was woefully inept, whether at building an organized movement to agitate for his measures or at punishing foes, even when he had the power to do so because they had been appointed by and should have been beholden to him. But the lack of success of his administration appears to have been due above all to the amoral behavior of his political enemies. Its fate was sealed when under the masterful leadership of Martin Van Buren, Adams' opponents all across the country organized what has been called the first truly mass party in American history. Dedicated to the twin propositions of destroying the reputation of John Quincy Adams and his administration and electing Andrew Jackson president of the United States in 1828, the new Democratic party was to have its way, fortified by lavish expenditures of money, brilliant grassroots organization, a national press network that undeviatingly preached the new party's line, the constant reminder that Adams owed his presidency to a "corrupt bargain," unremitting congressional warfare against every administration measure, and Adams' own blunders.