There are two father-son dynasties in the American presidency: the John Adamses and the George Bushes. In the Bush family, it was the younger who was the disaster. In the Adams family, the elder was the bad one. John Quincy Adams was actually a decent president. He didn’t do much, but that’s just as well. Often it’s precisely when executives “do things” that the causes of peace, prosperity, and freedom suffer for it. Under Adams, the nation was kept safe; he continued Monroe’s policy of staying out of foreign affairs. He stood up for African Americans and Native Americans, more than his predecessors and two successors did, and he spoke scathingly against Islamic oppression. He had domestic transgressions, being a Federalist at heart, but they weren’t terrible ones. I’ll start with those right away.
The Antebellum New Deal
Adams’ Federalist leanings led to the formation of the National Republican Party (on which see below), and doomed him as a single term president. In 1825 he pushed a program that historians call the Antebellum New Deal. Adams wanted tariffs; and a system of interstate roads, canals, and bridges; and a national university; a naval academy; an astronomical observatory; and a national bankruptcy plan; and a Department of Interior to regulate the use of natural resources.
His Secretary of State Henry Clay (who would later found the Whig Party during Jackson’s presidency) was on the same page with him, but he warned Adams that people weren’t ready for something like this. Indeed many Americans saw Adams going well beyond what the founding fathers envisioned. This was an expansive approach to government, the opposite taken by the Jeffersonian presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) before him. Adams’ opponents believed that such power should be concentrated in state governments, not the federal.
Most of the Antebellum New Deal was defeated in Congress, though Adams did get approval for railroads and canals, which ended up costing a pretty penny on their own. To help pay for those internal programs, Adams signed the Tariff of Abominations (1828), designed to protect northern industries by taxing goods from Europe. This was a bad move on his part, as it killed whatever remaining support he had in the South, cementing his fate as a one-term president.
Two new parties: National Republicans, Democrats
Adams’ expansive approach to government put an end to the Era of Good Feelings. Two new parties emerged. The faction of Democratic-Republicans who supported John Quincy Adams (many of whom were ex-Federalists) became the National Republicans, and the faction that supported Andrew Jackson became the Democrats. Neither the National Republicans nor the Democrats can be claimed “legitimate heirs” to Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicanism. They had both strayed from founding ideals, though the Democrats were worse.
Jackson had narrowly lost the 1824 election (see right), during which year the National Republican Party was formed. Jackson opposed the bigger government and protective tariffs espoused by the National Republicans, and he considered the Adams administration to be entirely illegitimate. His supporters kept growing during Adams’ term, until on January 8, 1828, the Democratic Party was founded. The election of 1828 would be a rematch between Adams and Jackson (see below), with the latter prevailing this time. The National Republicans would dissolve during Jackson’s presidency in 1834, to be succeeded by the Whig Party (led by Henry Clay, who promoted similar “big government” ideas of the National Republicans).
The division of good guys and bad guys wasn’t so clean. The National Republicans (and later the Whigs) were losing sight of the laboring classes, but they were the lesser of two evils compared to Andrew Jackson’s breed of Democrat. While nominally in favor of the underdog, “General Jackson” personified everything the old-school Jeffersonians feared in the new frontier politics: non-accountability, demagoguery, contempt for liberty (despite the rhetoric for “rights of the common man”), and rank appeal to the uneducated.
The case of John Tyler’s multiple allegiance shifts illustrates the point. In the 1824 election, Tyler (a senator at this point) had reluctantly supported Adams over Jackson. Tyler mistrusted Adams’ big-government policies, but feared Jackson even more. Jackson’s military exploits in Florida particularly called to mind military usurpers who rose in power and led their republic to ruin. In the 1828 election, Tyler went the other way, reluctantly supporting Jackson, dismayed by four years of the National Republican approach to government. He regretted his vote as soon as Jackson took office, and in 1834, Tyler joined the newly formed Whig Party — a coalition of unlikely bedfellows allied through alienation more than shared principles. The only principle the Whigs all shared was their outrage against “King Andrew”. To quasi-Federalists (like Henry Clay) and Jeffersonians (like John Tyler), Jackson was a would-be Caesar, whose power rested on the support he whipped up from a frenzied mob; a despot who supported slavery and who force-marched the Indians out of their land. To southern states-rights advocates (also like Tyler), Jackson proved to be a traitor to that cause. But Tyler also regretted joining the Whigs. Under Henry Clay’s leadership, it became basically National Republicanism, Part 2, focused on government expansion. When Tyler became the tenth president, it didn’t take long for the Whigs to ostracize him as a traitor. There was once again a true Jeffersonian leading the nation; Tyler would be the last of his kind.
This is all to say that the expansive government under Adams, while not as bad as some of today’s libertarians make it out to be, did produce enough dissatisfaction which led to the rise of Andrew Jackson’s toxic Democrat Party. The only Democrats who place in the top half of my presidential rankings are four from the post World-War II era (Truman, Kennedy, Carter, Clinton). If Adams left much to be desired in domestic policy, he was by no means terrible. To his serious credit, he reduced the national debt from $16 million to $5 million. That alone shows the degree to which his detractors have overstated his big-government ambitions.
The Panama Convention, and Cuba
Adams continued the excellent foreign policy of James Monroe, keeping the nation out of war and needless interventions. He tried to get on board with an inter-American federation: In the spring of 1825, the foreign ministers of Columbia and Mexico invited the U.S. to attend a Pan-American Congress to be held in Panama (which was then part of Columbia). Adams liked the idea, but worried that South American nations would pull the U.S. into their hostilities against Spain, which he wanted no part of. He said that the U.S. would attend only to discuss relations with the new nations, not between them and Spain.
This decision, however, summoned the fury of the South. The Panama Convention was to include freed slaves from Haiti. When Adams sought congressional approval for U.S. participation in the convention, Southerns castigated him, as attendance by American delegates would imply approval of the Haitian government, which had attained its independence in 1804 by a slave revolt. The common Congressional wisdom was that the U.S. should continue trading with Haiti but not establish diplomatic relations. In the words of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton: “the peace of the southern states will not permit the fruits of a successful negro insurrection to be exhibited among them, nor will it permit the fact that from insurrection the Haitians are to find friends among the white people of the United States.” Adams didn’t take kindly to that, and he continued to muster as much support as he could, but his efforts came to naught.
But while his hopes for an inter-American federation failed, his policy with Cuba succeeded. Through his Secretary of State Henry Clay, he made clear that the U.S. wished no change in the Cuban situation, and (per the Monroe Doctrine) would not accept the annexation of Cuba by a European power or South American republic. Cuba remained a Spanish colony until it gained independence in 1898. This wasn’t entirely positive. It was good to keep European powers out, but blocking South American republics like Columbia and Mexico from taking over Cuba was to the island’s detriment. Cubans would have welcomed those nations against a ruler like Spain.
Greece and the Ottoman Empire: The Nature of Islam
The Greeks had rebelled against Turkish rule in 1821, and their war for independence would eventually segue into the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29. In September of 1825, Adams authorized Clay to send an official to Greece to help Americans there, to encourage the Greeks in their struggle against the Ottomans, and to discourage others from aiding the Turks. He wisely stayed out of the conflict, properly respecting the Monroe Doctrine which said to stay out of European affairs, encouraging local powers to take a stand against the Muslims.
Better than any other president in U.S. history, John Quincy Adams understood the toxic nature of Islam. His treatises on Islam published in 1830 reflected his thoughts on the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29, most of which was fought during the final year of his term. In The American Annual Register for the Years 1827-29, Adams praised Russia for coming to the aid of Greece, and condemned other European powers for not doing so. In particular he blasted Britain and France for “tying the hands of Russia, and thus preventing her from emancipating Greece entirely from the thralldom of Turkish oppression”. He explained the mandatory violence of Islam, as well as the Muslim’s right to lie and deceive:
“The precept of the Koran is perpetual war against all who deny that Muhammad is the prophet of God. The vanquished may purchase their lives, by the payment of tribute; the victorious may be appeased by a false and delusive promise of peace; and the faithful follower of the prophet, may submit to the imperious necessities of defeat: but the command to propagate the Muslim creed by the sword is always obligatory, when it can be made effective. The commands of the prophet may be performed alike, by fraud, or by force.” (p 274)
Adams knew that Christians throughout history violated Christ’s pacifist teachings and even committed atrocities in their savior’s name, but he rightly pointed out that the Christian had to go against his own doctrine to do so. In Islam that’s not the case: violence and intolerance is the very “foundation of the Muslim discourse”:
“The fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion, is the extirpation of hatred from the human heart. It forbids the exercise of it, even towards enemies. There is no denomination of Christians, which denies or misunderstands this doctrine. All understand it alike—all acknowledge its obligations; and however imperfectly, in the purposes of Divine Providence, its efficacy has been shown in the practice of Christians, it has not been wholly inoperative upon them. Its effect has been upon the manners of nations. It has mitigated the horrors of war—it has softened the features of slavery—it has humanized the intercourse of social life. The unqualified acknowledgement of a duty does not, indeed, suffice to insure its performance. Hatred is yet a passion, but too powerful upon the hearts of Christians. Yet they cannot indulge it, except by the sacrifice of their principles, and the conscious violation of their duties. No state paper from a Christian hand, could, without trampling the precepts of its Lord and Master, have commenced by an open proclamation of hatred to any portion of the human race. The Ottoman lays it down as the foundation of his discourse”. (p 300)
Which is why by comparison to jihadists, the number of Christian abortion clinic bombers is trivial — and why every mainstream Christian church condemns such rare acts whenever they happen. In all forms of mainstream Islam, holy war is like Christianity’s eucharist, fundamental to the faith. But if a president of the 21st century were to ever contrast Islam and Christianity accurately like this, he or she would be excoriated as a flaming bigot.
Adams always opposed slavery. His famous crusades came after his presidency. In the 1830s he fought to lift the gag rule that prohibited discussion of slavery on the House floor. (The gag rule was passed by the House of Representatives in 1836, in defiance of abolitionists; it tabled all petitions against slavery indefinitely.) Adams also argued before the Supreme Court in the case of The United States v. The Amistad (1841). He defended fifty-three African Americans charged for rebellion on the Spanish ship: they had been kidnapped and transported from Africa to Cuba, where two Spaniards took over and intended to sell them into slavery in America; during the journey they broke free and killed several crew members, took over the ship, and demanded to sail back to Africa; instead the crew took them to New England, where they were jailed. Adams said that their rebellion was justified; the kidnapped men had the right to fight for their freedom, just as Americans had fought for theirs. The Supreme Court agreed and Adams won the case, providing a landmark precedent for universal rights.
Adams does not receive extra credit in my scoring for his post-presidential victories, but they are nevertheless an indicator of the strong feelings for African American justice that he always maintained.
One of James Monroe’s final executive acts was to negotiate the Treaty of Indian Springs in February of 1825. The treaty gave the Creek Indians less than two years to abandon their lands in Georgia. Adams became convinced that the treaty was fraudulent, since the Creek chiefs felt swindled by the leading Creek Chief William McIntosh, who had negotiated it for them on most unfavorable terms — and for personal gain, as he was handsomely paid off. The other chiefs killed McIntosh in April of 1825, which was the first time the Creeks had ordered the execution of one of their own tribe members for treason. On top of this, Governor George Troup of Georgia intended to violate the treaty by ordering an immediate survey of Creek lands.
In Adams’ view, Indian dispossession should be accomplished by gradual assimilation, and it required fair treatment. His was the minority view, as most Americans (especially on the frontier) feared Indians as savages who deserved no rights. In January of 1826, he signed a new treaty with the Creeks (The Treaty of Washington) that he wasn’t happy with, ceding much of their land to Georgia, but stipulating that the Creeks could remain on the land until they left voluntarily. Governor Troup furiously rejected the treaty and began forcibly evicting the Creeks.
Adams threatened federal intervention, but he didn’t want a civil war, and so he sent marshals (rather than military troops) to arrest surveyors who had returned from illegal forays into Creek lands. Troup replied furiously again, and mobilized the Georgia militia. Adams, recognizing the lost cause, capitulated. By 1827 the Creeks were gone from Georgia.
In my view, Adams should have persisted in defending the Creeks, but he still did more than most presidents of the 18th and 19th centuries had ever done for the Natives. He was the last president (except for John Tyler) to go to bat for the Indians in any meaningful way, until Rutherford Hayes fifty years later. With the ascendance of Andrew Jackson, Native American policy would become entirely ruthless.
When social justice was consistent
If you’re wondering why a defender of African Americans and Native Americans was so hostile to Muslims, the answer is that he wasn’t. Adams was hostile to the Islamic religion, not to Muslims as an ethnic people. People today are shockingly unable to grasp that distinction. The Southern Poverty Law Center, in particular, has fallen from its glory days of the ’70s and ’80s, when it used to go after actual hate-mongers and violent supremacists like neo-Nazis. Today the organization blacklists those who speak out against hate-mongers and violent supremacists — if the supremacists are Muslim. Condemning jihadists and sharia advocates, and pointing out how their ideology is grounded in all mainstream forms of Islam, is deemed bigoted and racist.
It happens all the time. To Islamic reformers like Maajid Nawaz; to human rights activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and to those like Robert Spencer and Sam Harris who write academically about Islam. Instead of applauding these individuals as they deserve, the left has vilified them. None of them is an anti-Muslim bigot, and only a moron would think so.
The problem is exacerbated when presidents like Bush and Obama insist on the peaceful nature of the Islamic religion. People believe what their national leaders tell them, and a problem can’t be fixed if it’s falsely diagnosed. John Quincy Adams would have diagnosed the post-9/11 world with precision and called out Islam as the religion of violence it has always been. He would have avoided vain interventions abroad, just as he stayed out of Greece. But I imagine that he wouldn’t have hesitated to strike back against terrorists who assaulted the American people. His father John Adams failed on this point, and relied on appeasement policies with the Barbary Muslims. Thomas Jefferson reversed that policy and smashed the terrorists. On issues of foreign policy and liberty, at least, John Quincy Adams was more akin to Jefferson than his father. He may have been a domestic Federalist, but he was a true justice advocate who cared about the security and freedom of all peoples.
Peace. For his excellent policies of peace and keeping the nation out of war and needless conflict, I score Adams very high, docking him only a point for his status quo policy with Cuba. In rightfully insisting that Cuba should not be transferred or annexed by European powers, Adams should not have also blocked the South American republics, which Cuba would have welcomed.
Prosperity. For his heavy-handed Antebellum New Deal, which guaranteed the emergence of Jackson’s Democrat party, I slice his score right down the middle. Not all of Adam’s domestic agenda was bad, but America wasn’t ready for it at this time.
Liberty. He could have scored perfectly as a pre-Civil War president who opposed slavery, believed in fair treatment of the Indians, and advocated on behalf of the Greeks against the tyranny of the Ottomans. I have to dock him 5 points however, for eventually caving in to Governor Troup and allowing the Creeks to be expelled from Georgia.
Peace — 19/20
Prosperity — 10/20
Liberty — 15/20
TOTAL SCORE = 44/60 = Good