It is not clear whether the last two years of John Quincy Adams' presidency are better described as tragedy or farce. A sympathetic biographer, Marie B. Hecht, faults him for what she calls the "sin of pride," not only in failing to exercise the powers available to him in order to marshal support for his programs but for failing to build an effective party machinery that might have organized support for the Adams programs. Although Henry Clay and other Adams supporters did belatedly create a fairly efficient organization to wage Adams' election campaign in 1828, the criticism of Adams no doubt has merit. And yet, in view of the unrelenting efforts of his opponents in Congress, out to ridicule his administration and to frustrate its every initiative, one wonders whether his employment of even the most artful tactics could have sufficed to turn the tide. In a letter to his son, Charles Francis Adams, Adams described the majority in both houses of the Twentieth Congress as a coalition of factions "united by a common disappointment into one mass envenomed by one spirit of bitter and unrelenting persecuting malice" against him. These were, of course, the words of a beaten man. Interestingly, Robert V. Remini, a historian highly sympathetic to Adams' enemies, agrees that the sole object of the pro-Jackson Twentieth Congress either in passing or opposing legislation was to bring about the victory of Jackson over Adams in 1828.
In his third annual message, presented at the end of 1827, Adams proposed a modest program, urging that sympathetic attention be given to the remaining debt the nation owed veterans of the Revolutionary War and to the need for enlarging the judiciary in order to meet the expanding nation's needs. This man, ostensibly unsympathetic to the plight of the needy, also advocated amelioration of the nation's harsh bankruptcy laws. But it mattered not whether his proposals were slight or weighty, reflective of this ideological viewpoint or that. They were all given equally short shrift by a Congress seemingly indifferent to the merits of legislative proposals, in its preoccupation with undermining the administration that presented them.
Adams appears to have been worn down by the unrelenting harassment of his political enemies. In a diary entry for 1827, Adams complained about the unending chores and the unceasing stream of visitors that made his life so irksome. Yet one feels that his malaise was caused more by his growing conviction that his presidency was doomed to failure than by the mundane burdens of the high office—burdens that he, as a highly experienced national leader, had every reason to know were unavoidable in the performance of the job. It seems unlikely that a successful president would have been quite so distraught at the multitude of chores, no matter how mundane or monotonous, to have felt that nothing could be "worse than this perpetual motion and crazing cares" or that the "weight grows heavier from day to day." Ever the gentleman, Adams continued to receive gracefully the constant stream of congressmen who paid social visits to the White House or sought favors from its chief occupant, many of whom were not only hostile but, in his own phrase, "bitter as wormwood" in their opposition to him. Only what Adams called the "besotted" and violent John Randolph, the calumniator of Adams and Clay, was not welcome.
Randolph may not have been personally acceptable to Adams, but no one described as well the true purpose of the complicated tariff measure constructed and steered through the Twentieth Congress in 1828 by Van Buren and the Jacksonians than did the erratic Virginian. An inconsistent and seemingly contradictory set of protective schedules that was transparently designed to widen further the breach between the president and the nation's diverse sectional and economic interests, the tariff was characterized by Randolph as a measure truly concerned with no manufactures except the manufacture of the next president of the United States.
Remini, the modern authority on this "Tariff of Abominations," has described the bill as a "ghastly, lopsided, unequal bill, every section of which showed marks of political preference and favoritism," and as the "supreme example of political horsetrading in the 20th Congress." He has refuted the long-accepted notion that the authors of the measure actually sought its defeat. Its managers frankly conceded that their chief purpose was to overthrow Adams in 1828 by bringing Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri into the Jackson camp while keeping New York and Pennsylvania within the military hero's fold.
An unanticipated political effect of the bill was the sharp reaction its passage evoked from South Carolina and its leading statesman. In 1828, John C. Calhoun's South Carolina Exposition and Protest argued that a tariff for protection rather than for raising revenue was unconstitutional; the passage of the tariff left his state no alternative but to assert its right of "interposition" against the "despotism of the many." Four years later, the nullification crisis erupted. Adams, who for all his nationalism and the loose constructionism of some of his principles was no champion of protectionism, was simply bypassed throughout the controversy over the tariff. There can be no doubt that he was badly hurt by the Tariff of Abominations.
The cynicism of Adams' congressional opponents manifested itself, too, in other measures. The same men who expressed their horror at the alleged unconstitutionality of Adams' nationalistic economic proposals thumbed their noses at the strict-constructionist proposals they professed to revere, passing a great array of "pork barrel" bills, which tapped the federal treasury in order to finance construction, bonuses, land giveaways, and harbor installations that were dear to their hearts because they were likely to be politically useful. Committed as they were to harassing the president, Van Buren's legions deluged Adams as no earlier president ever had been, with requests for official statements from his office to justify his position on issues. It has been estimated by Hecht that committees of the Twentieth Congress "sent to the executive office about five times more requests for facts and opinions" than had been sent by earlier Congresses to Adams' predecessors.
Although Adams had shown himself a great secretary of state, ready to resort to vigorous measures to enlarge both the nation's territorial expanse and its influence in the world, he fared as poorly in foreign policy as in domestic. His presidency must have been a disappointment to nationalists, who expected even greater successes of him when he was able to make, rather than merely execute, foreign policy. His attempts to secure Texas peacefully were thwarted, in part because of the excessively aggressive, meddlesome behavior of Joel Poinsett, the first United States minister to Mexico. In this instance, it is possible that Adams refused to punish an errant appointee not out of a high-minded insistence on disregarding the politics of officials but out of private agreement with Poinsett's blatant interference in Mexico's internal politics.
Although Adams did succeed in inducing Great Britain to pay an indemnity of more than $1 million for the slaves it carried away during the War of 1812, he failed to achieve the more significant objective of bringing Great Britain to the bargaining table to negotiate the restoration of trade by American ships with the British West Indies. Bemis, the outstanding authority on the subject, attributes the defeat of Adams' attempt to retaliate against British shipping to Van Buren's "sniping." Adams' refusal to back off from the forty-ninth parallel as the dividing line between Britain and the United States in the Oregon Territory killed chances for an agreement on the issue in Adams' own time, but of course, it meant that the United States two decades later would secure most of what became the new state of Washington.
A nice example of the conflict between principle, represented by President Adams, and amorality, represented by his Jacksonian opponents, is afforded by the controversy that arose between the Creek Indians and the state of Georgia. Like his presidential predecessors, Adams was no inveterate or humanitarian champion of Indian rights. He, too, sought the removal of the southern tribes to west of the Mississippi, and he countenanced threats and unlovely inducements to accomplish it. But, unlike his successor in the White House, Adams recognized limits to the American disregard of Indian rights guaranteed by federal treaties. When in 1827 Georgia improperly conducted surveys in treaty-guaranteed Indian lands, Adams issued an ultimatum warning that "the Executive of the United States [would] enforce the laws . . . by all the force committed for that purpose." The House of Representatives supported Adams, insisting that purchase, not crude annexation, was the only proper means by which Georgia might acquire Indian lands. But the Senate, led by arch-Jacksonian Thomas Hart Benton, thwarted the president.