John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)


Book: John Quincy Adams

Author: Harlow Giles Unger

1. Date published- Although period pieces have touched on Adams and his public works, this is the first 21st century biography of Adams. On the other extreme is the Seward work written just after Adams’ death. Unger’s 2012 work is very recent and presents the most up to date work of the “Son of the Founding Father.” Unger’s  perspective adds depth to the story of Adams for a multitude of reasons, some of which may  change how a reader may view his public life. For example,  Adam’s staunch support of abolition, especially at the end of his life, puts him on the right side of history.  An  antebellum or southern 19th century biography would  not fondly give this due praise. Adams’ “extreme” view for his time led to the Gag Rule, which is roundly frowned upon today, but still has  historical significance. This work also benefits from perspective of the Amistad defense of the 1840s.  The Amistad case is chronicled in JFK’s Profiles in Courage and the Steven Spielberg 1997 film Amistad. Both works show Adams to be a staunch, courageous and bold Congressman juxtaposed to the seemingly less savory view of the modern day Congress. Whereas an uneventful presidency is relegated to the dustbins of history, modern readers may indeed find Adams and his  great achievements worthy of high adulation.

Grade: A

2. Scope- For a proper Adams scope to be accomplished the almost incessant public life of Adams must be touched upon. With few other examples, Adams’ public career spanned vast to the extreme, from his early childhood viewing of the American Revolution through the Napoleon turmoil and finally the omnipresent Civil War that finally exploded a decade after his death. Unger lays out his work in a complete, albeit brief, cradle to grave narrative that seems to touch on this constant thread of political significance and American relevance. The sad unfortunate fact for John Quincy Adams is that his presidency is but a footnote in an otherwise sterling career that included a teenage spot on Russia’s main stage, to Secretary of State, and to leading Abolitionist as a nine-term Congressman. As stated in the original mission of the Presidents Project, the ideal book has extensive coverage of the Presidency. Despite a lackluster and mostly uneventful presidency, Unger only uses about twenty pages for the the Sixth Presidency. For those seeking a study of the presidency and the actions of a President, this work falls short of that mission. However, what Unger lacks in his study of the Presidency, he more than makes up for it in the study of the impact a non-President can have on American history.

Grade: B-

3. Author-When asked why he decided to write about John Quincy Adams, fellow three named author Harlow Giles Unger simply mentioned he had run out of Founders. As in the Monroe work that was also selected for the Project, “Americas Most Readable Historian” offers the most accessible and most current take on figures of the Revolutionary Era. No other modern author offers complete biographies written at such an accessible length and style. His decision to delve into John Quincy Adams brings him later chronologically that most of his works that have included looks at Washington, Hancock and Monroe. The result is a sure and solid grasp of the issues of the Revolutionary day, especially the fragile post-war construction of political parties and the first US Presidential Administrations. By shifting the narrative into context of the contemporary issues, Unger shows his excellent grasp of the era. The maiden voyage to the Jackonian Era, however, can be a little more unsure for Unger and it shows in a less complete take of the issues and their modern significance. Much like Adams himself, the man of the Revolution can leave Antebellum or Civil War buffs unsatisfied. Consequentially, the long life of Adams falls just short of a complete study.

Grade: B

4. Length- Apparently being a “readable” historian and author means a brief and fast paced study through the subject. In a style of other Unger books, John Quincy Adams, touches on everything concisely and sufficiently in the midst of barely dwelling on subjects for long periods. The result is one of the shorter works of the Project and a textbook example of a short biography at just over 300 pages. The length will leave those looking for John Quincy Adams the man woefully absent as the fast paced narrative never stops until it reaches its conclusion. Truthfully, for Unger to remain in his short biography style he did need to proceed in this fashion, but for someone like Adams who, without exaggeration, endured a 70 year career for his country, an exception could have been made. At no point does an issue or event in the Adams life seem to be overwhelming or especially significant. As a result, the work is a jack of all trades but a master of none.

Grade: C

5. Mission- Unger attempted to put Adams in his rightful place as a witness to the Early Republic. As his states in his preface and in subsequent interviews he indeed witnessed Revolutionary War battles firsthand. He also received his first diplomatic promotion from George Washington which led him on a career that ended in the same room as Abraham Lincoln. This span touches on some of the most significant moments and decisions that formed the nation. Unger attempted to put Adams as a main player in the issues of the day while showing his readers that his career never stopped until he literally died in Congress. For Unger, the mission is rarely to make profound statements on the character or integrity of his subjects. His mission always seems to be an unblinking C-Span style look at public actions and lets the reader decide morality. His unblinking and single focus again reaches his mission in a clockwork and decidedly trademark style of Mr. Unger.

Grade: B+

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