Ranking John Quincy Adams

by Jonathan Hobratsch

Here’s my blog on John Quincy Adams, a potentially grand president who was stifled by the a Congress that didn’t share his foresight. Unfortunately, great ideas do not translate to a great presidency unless the ideas come to fruition.

Check my previous posts to find the rankings of earlier presidents.

John Quincy Adams 6th President (1825-1829)

Score: 66/105 total points (62.8% ideal)


Appointments: 6/10

John Quincy Adams retained many of Monroe’s appointments (see Ranking Monroe), including some for his cabinet. William Wirt continued as Attorney General, and Samuel Southard continued as Navy Secretary. He also brought back a former Madison and Monroe cabinet member, Richard Rush, to the Treasury. Thus, Adams filled most of his cabinet with people that he had worked with as Secretary of State for Monroe. He knew them and they knew him. This must have been important or practical for Adams.

One controversial addition was Henry Clay as Secretary of State. Clay’s selection was both a wise and unwise move. Wise because Clay had shown how he could be a thorn in the side of a president if he was denied the position of Secretary of State as he had shown when Monroe snubbed him for Adams (see Ranking Monroe). Clay might have been twice as resistant to Adams had Adams not selected him since the Secretary of State position was seen as the stepping-stone to the presidency, and the ambitious Clay was unlikely to be harmonious over being skipped a second time, if he proved stubborn after being skipped over a first time. Thus, Adams may have wanted to remove this roadblock. However, the selection was unwise because Clay had thrown the deadlocked 1824 election in Adams’s favor, and the more popular nominee, Andrew Jackson, spun Henry Clay’s elevation to Secretary of State as a “Corrupt Bargain.” More on the “Corrupt Bargain” will be detailed later.  Popular support and Congress went more strongly toward Jackson throughout Adams’s term, making governance difficult.

Rounding out the cabinet, Adams selected James Barbour as Secretary of War but later replace him with Peter Buell Porter. Like his predecessors, Adams sought a geographical balance in his appointments. Unlike Monroe, and more like Washington, his selections were primarily Jeffersonian Republicans who had been either, like Adams himself, ex-Federalists, future Whigs or both. In short, they were anti-Jackson. Adams, however, did offer William Crawford to stay on as Treasury Secretary, but Crawford had suffered a stroke during the campaign. Adams then turned to Albert Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison’s treasury secretary, but Gallatin declined, which made Adams turn to Richard Rush. The eminent son of Founding Father Benjamin Rush had not only proven himself competent under Madison and Monroe as a cabinet member and as an ambassador, but he would nearly pay off the entire national debt while serving Adams’s administration.

Despite a lack of accomplishments, Adams’s cabinet is considered harmonious and capable. For the most part, they all believed in the active modernization of the country in order to adapt to technological evolution and to compete with and surpass Europe as a great power. This was a huge departure from Monroe’s philosophy, who finally warmed up to modernization, but believed the Constitution generally forbade the federal government from playing an active role in that modernization. Adams, no less a Constitutionalist, would prove Monroe shortsighted.

Adams had some hiccups with his Supreme Court record. In order to achieve geographical balance, Adams replaced the spot left by deceased Kentuckian Thomas Todd with another Kentuckian, Robert Trimble, who was easily confirmed. Trimble, like most judges, followed the opinions of Chief Justice John Marshall, the last living major Federalist. However, Trimble died two years after his confirmation, and Adams had to fill the same spot again. Perhaps to get Henry Clay out of the cabinet and to remove the curse of the “Corrupt Bargain,” Adams offered the justiceship to Clay, a third Kentuckian, who probably easily declined it since his ambitions were too great for only an Associate Justice position. Adams then offered the spot to Clay ally Charles Hammond of Ohio. He declined. Finally, Adams found a Kentuckian willing to accept the position—John J. Crittenden. Unfortunately, the Jacksonian-dominated Congress gave Adams and Crittenden the Merrick Garland treatment, refusing to confirm any judge until Jackson was in the White House.

Despite a well-chosen and harmonious cabinet, I must fault them for not exerting more pressure on Congress to accept Adams’s policies. Experience and talent are wasted when they are ignored or stifled. Adams’s grade is also marred because he left no impact on the Supreme Court since his one confirmed judge died before his own presidency ended.

Party Leadership: 1/5

John Quincy Adams appeared to inherit something between a one-party or no-party country when taking office. The Federalists had been reduced to a small fraction in New England. The Jeffersonian Republicans had absorbed enough of the Federalist platform to convert many Federalists to Jeffersonian Republicans (Adams himself had been a Federalist). In so doing, the Jeffersonian Republican party had diluted itself enough to lose its identity.

In fact, it had no identity as Monroe’s second term was expiring. Monroe opted not to lead his party and seemed content just letting the individual politicians battle for supremacy with their own individual—often regional–platforms. Alternatively, Monroe may have not liked any of the options, but it is hard to think of him not supporting his very effective Secretary of State. It is also possible that he didn’t want to endorse Adams while his own Treasury Secretary, Crawford, was also in the race. By the time the deadlocked election went to the US House, Monroe might not have wanted to interfere, allowing he US House to do their job without the executive branch getting involved.

Without Monroe’s leadership, the election seemed to reveal that the Jeffersonian Republicans were dead, and we had returned to the days of the early Washington administration when there were no parties. There were only factions. Historians generally call Adams’s faction, “The Adams Men,” and they call Jackson’s faction, “Jackson’s Men.” These factions would go on to become the National Republicans and the Democrats, respectively. The National Republicans would later become the Whigs. I generally call these factions the “Adams-Clay” and “Jackson-Van Buren” factions, since Clay and Van Buren were the primary architects of transitioning these factions into parties. Therefore, the 1824 proved to be a realigning election, even while it may have taken some time for everyone to realize it.

In the forging of Adams’s new party, Henry Clay played a larger role in establishing it than Adams, who might have been more interested in policy than politics. He may have believed that the proto-parties would not last and that a single party or no party state would continue.

Adams’s lack of leadership probably triggered a decline of support in Congress. The Adams-Clay faction entered office with about 48% of the Senate and about 52% of the US House. Despite having a lead in the US House, Adams rarely could get his own faction together to push legislation through the House. So ineffective was his party leadership in contrast to the Jackson-Van Buren faction that the midterms saw significant defeats, rendering Adams politically impotent. Adams now had only 44% of the Senate and 47% of the House against a party that was much more energetic in opposing Adams. In Adams’s reelection bid, not only was Adams defeated, but his party’s support declined to 34% in the US House. I believe part of the issue was that Clay was at Secretary of State and not in the Congress, which is where he excelled.

Since political parties did not really exist, I do not weigh this grade too heavily for Adams. However, a man of Adams’s innate genius should have been aware of the parties that were forming. Adams seemed to refuse to believe they existed, and he declined on principle to offer patronage positions for his supporters, which would be a key party-strengthening tactic of the Jackson administration.

Economics and Finance: 7/10

Adams’s best known economic act was his signing of the “Tariff of Abominations,” a high protective tariff that enraged the South, but greatly benefited trade in the industrialized North, where Adams was from. Many Jacksonians and States’ Right activists, especially Adams’s own Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, considered attempting to nullify the federal law in the spirit of the Resolutions of 1798 written by Jefferson and Madison. This new concept of nullification planted another seed for the Civil War, as nullifiers would become a major faction within the new Democratic Party.

The tariff (and many 19th century tariffs in general) were opposed by the South because the South was limited in the variety of goods they produced (cotton, sugar, tobacco were their three main goods), so they had to import much more than the North, which was much more self-reliant with their multitudes of factories and farms. The controversial tariff set a 38% tax on 92% of goods that were imported in America. For the North, the tariff protected businesses from shutting down because of cheaper European-made imports. The tariff forced Americans to buy from home. Now that the British were expected to make far less in American trade, they also had less disposable money to use in purchasing US exports, especially Southern cotton. Thus, Southern opposition becomes very clear. We also begin to see another line in the sand between the North and South. Tariffs would be another major issue leading to the Civil War.

One wonders if this extreme tariff was passed, in part, because Adams was also a vocal opponent of slavery but could not do anything to prevent it or weaken it, except through an economic stranglehold move to make the major slaveholding commodity, cotton, less profitable. Regardless, Adams likely signed the bill because he saw no violation of the Constitution that obliged him to veto it. If Adams had served as president longer than he did, we might have found out for sure.

However, some argue that Adams was forced into signing the tariff after maneuvering by Sen. Martin “The Magician” Van Buren—the leading architect of the new Democratic Party—had used some of his old political tricks to place Adams in a situation where he had to agree to a very strict tariff or to no tariff at all. Van Buren urged support of the tariff to get it passed knowing that the “oppressive” tariff would backfire on Adams and not on himself. Others claim that Calhoun and his supporters, who opposed the tariff, were the crucial figure, instead of Van Buren, in cobbling together the tariff. In this version of the story, Calhoun wanted to create a tariff that even New England would oppose, so that New Englanders would be faulted for a lack of tariff reform. Calhoun was probably shocked when it passed and when Adams signed the bill. Adams was aware that signing the bill would hurt him politically, but he did what he believed was best for the country. While the “Tariff of Abomination” dominates the economic area of Adams’s presidency, especially when he is discussed at all in the classrooms or in general US history books, the bulk of Adams’s economy was excellent.

Adams presided during a time of major economic growth that began during the Monroe administration and continued until the Civil War, with the exceptions of the Panic of 1819, 1837, and 1857. The Adams administration saw New England, now firmly industrialized, become a dominant force in the textile trade, and the South playing a major role in that as it became an equally dominant force in the cotton trade. Innovations, mostly by New England inventors, made a variety of trades produce more of their goods much more quickly and with less labor than ever before. Adams, fully aware of a rapidly modernizing country, hoped to inspire creation of legislation that took advantage of this domestic progress so that we could finally emerge as equals to European economies. However, some of the opposition to Adams’s ideas of a more national, modernized economy (see the section on internal improvements) may have been due to the belief that one “shouldn’t fix something that isn’t broke,” a common proverb and conservative impulse that often stymies progress.

Adams also reduced the national debt from $16 million to $5 million. Jackson would pay off the remaining $5 million and take the credit for paying off the national debt. If this were a baseball game and presidents were pitchers, Adams would get the win (the majority of the credit) and Jackson the save.

While so much attention is given to the “Tariff of Abomination,” partially because of this creative moniker applied to it by the opposition, it was but one part of Adams’s economic legacy, and one that was not signed until the end of Adams’s term. It did not cause an economic panic, as Jackson’s economic policies later would. The economy of Adams was as strong as the economy under Monroe. I award Adams a good score, marred primarily for failing in his own economic initiatives.

Business and Labor: 4/5                          

This was not a major area of presidential concern at the time, as the government did not place a special focus on business or labor issues outside of general economics.

For the most part, business thrived during the Adams administration, as economic growth would continue, with a few brief interruptions, from about 1820 to 1860. The “Tariff of Abomination” proved much more beneficial to Northern business and labor than in the South. As the North held the bulk of the population, Adams gets a better score in this area than he would if the South had the bulk of the population. Yet, the tariff was signed late in his term and did not last long after his presidency ended; therefore, the period of economic growth will be the largest measure that I use in determining a grade in this area.

Social Welfare: 3/5

This was not an area of concern for early presidents. Adams continued the social welfare of his predecessors—primarily benefits for military personnel, military veterans, and military widows and orphans—and made no efforts to repeal, replace, or expand this area.

Civil Rights and Liberties: 5/10

John Quincy Adams didn’t really emerge as an ardent abolitionist until after his presidency. It’s strange to believe that an opinionated man, such as Adams, who was not known for political finesse would remain quiet as president regarding slavery for political reasons. Adams had made a public statement opposing slavery during the Missouri Compromise in 1820, believing that slavery was both bad economics and counter to Republicanism. He seems to have begun as an abolitionist more on practical grounds than ethical or moral grounds. He predicted accurately that slavery would lead to the breakup of the Union and that a future president would abolish slavery when this occurred.

As mentioned earlier, one could argue that Adams’s “Tariff of Abominations” was signed, in part, to force the South into diversifying their economy and possibly making slavery less profitable and allowing for a natural abolishment of this Southern institution to occur.

While Adams made little effort in regards to the rights of Americans then currently enslaved, possibly because of a lack of time in office, he did show a relatively empathetic attitude towards some of the native tribes. For instance, when the Winnebago War broke out after settlers crossed into American Indian territory, which resulted in a retaliatory Indian raid, President Adams pardoned many of the native tribesmen that were captured after a quick military victory by the Americans.

Adams’s administration also oversaw two major Indian Treaties. The Washington Treaty replaced a treaty that Adams thought was invalid and unjust with one that financially compensated the Creek tribe for a portion of their land that was lost in the previous administration. However, the Jacksonian governor of Georgia used his militia to take the rest of the Creekland. Adams initially ordered federal troops to prevent this, but fearing a possible civil war and on the protests that he could not constitutionally interfere with the state of Georgia, he canceled the orders and let the governor settle the matter his own Jacksonian way. This was at least the second incident in which a governor acted on his own accord (see my Ranking Madison blog) and ignored the federal government, which highlights the relatively weak office of the presidency and central government at the time.

The second major Indian treaty was the Treaty of St. Louis. This offered money, an annual supply of iron and use of a blacksmith shop in exchange for Shawnee land. These negotiations were peaceful.

Adams passed no law that restricted the liberties of American citizens during his time in office, mostly because his administration saw no major wars or national emergencies.

Adams’s grade in this area is mostly harmed because he knew of the evils of slavery, had vocalized these evils, and yet he had did nothing to push the country in the right direction. While post-president Adams would gain high marks in this area, I can only score Adams for his time as president and the legacy that his presidency extends through history.

Domestic Unrest and Criminal Justice: 4/5

Adams saw no significant domestic unrest or criminal justice episodes during his presidency. However, the “Tariff of Abomination” could have arguably led to such episodes. For the most part, despite vehement opposition politics by Jacksonians, Adams’s administration was one of relative domestic tranquility.

Immigration and Citizenship: 3/5

Adams, like Monroe before him, presided during a time when immigrants, mostly from Northern and Western Europe, were flocking to the shores of America. The issue of immigration and naturalization was not a significant issue to warrant any new changes, so Adams merely maintained the laws of his predecessors, which were the standard lenient, pro-immigrant laws of Jeffersonian Republicanism.

Infrastructure and Domestic Improvements: 7/10

This is where Adams hoped to shine. The “American System,” an updated version of Alexander Hamilton’s policies, promoted by Henry Clay and President Adams was to modernize the country so that its economic potential could outpace the larger European economies as soon as possible.

Adams would only get a token amount of these reforms pushed through a stubborn Jacksonian Congress, and most of his few successes involved using the private sector in infrastructural improvements, in which case the federal government only aided in these projects.

One of the few major internal improvements he got through was the funding of the first passenger railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. In addition, he was able to get funding for surveys for future improvements, as well as funding to repair and extend existing infrastructure. The soon-to-be great Midwestern cities, especially those in Ohio, greatly benefited from Adams’s domestic projects once they were completed.

Adams had cleverly arranged to create a national network of internal improvements without raising taxes. Instead, funding for the internal improvements would come through land sales and tariff revenue, which would also be used to pay down the national debt.

Adams had wanted to conduct a national survey of the entire American coastline, but Congress blocked it. He also failed in an effort to create a Department of the Interior in order to oversee infrastructure projects.

Had Adams had a friendlier Congress, he would have scored a much higher mark in this territory. While he deserved a 10 for his rhetoric in this area, his failure to compel Congress to accept most of these ambitious projects hurts his grade. Yet, Adams set the standards for executive action on creating and improving infrastructure with the firm conviction that it is constitutionally unquestionably “necessary and proper.”

Energy, Resources, and Environment: 0/0

This was not a major area of consideration for the early presidencies. No doubt, however, Adams’s internal improvement projects—those that did come to fruition—had a negative impact on the environment; although, not to the level that we are accustomed to.

Misc. Domestic: 2/5

Adams advocated several uncategorized domestic initiatives, such as the building of a naval academy, the founding of a national university, the creation of a national observatory, and funding for the arts. Adams had his eyes set on the greatness and glamour of Europe—where Adams had lived for much of his life. Unfortunately, the Jacksonian Congress blocked these efforts, which also blocked Adams’s desired bankruptcy law and his plan to send an expedition to explore the Pacific Ocean.

One cannot give much credit to great ideas if they do not materialize. Although, Adams did inspire future government roles in education, in the arts, and in the sciences.

Foreign Diplomacy: 6/10

It is odd that our greatest ambassador had few foreign policy accomplishments as a president other than avoiding major wars. However, he did get Spain to open Cuba to US trade and, because of this, Adams used his influence to prevent an attempt by Columbia and Mexico to take Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain.

Adams also expanded US trade in Northern Europe, Central America, and in the Pacific with new reciprocal trade agreements. He was able to open trade to non-British controlled islands in the West Indies, but he suffered a setback with British-controlled islands. While his relations with Britain were mostly harmonious, the British closed ports to US ships in the British West Indies. Adams retaliated by closing some ports to British ships, which led to minor economic consequences. No major aggression occurred, however. Adams and the British failed to come to an agreement by the time Adams’s term expired.

In 1826, the great South American revolutionary, Simon Bolivar, organized the Congress of Panama. President Adams and Sec. Henry Clay wanted the US to attend because it was an excellent opportunity to establish trade deals. However, the great majority of the attendees were from countries that had already banned slavery and included freed blacks from Haiti. Some believed it also violated the Senate’s power to ratify treaties. As such, the Jacksonian dominated US Congress blocked funds for attending the conference and refused to nominate delegates. Adams was able to eventually pry some delegates for the Congress of Panama, but it was over before they could arrive.

Despite the fear of another potential Slave State, Adams attempted to buy Texas from the recently independent Mexico for $1 million, but his offer was refused. Soon after, American settlers in Texas launched a short-lived rebellion. Adams refused to intervene and go to war with Mexico.

While Adams’s accomplishments were few in this area, he did more good than bad.

Peace, Defense, and Warfare: 7/10

Adams saw no major wars during his presidency. Additionally, he did not provoke any incidents that could lead to war in the future. Adams hoped to defend against the possibility of wars in the near future by building an intimidating navy with well-educated naval personnel.

His desire for a strong navy sprang from the idea that America needed to compete with Britain in both trade and military dominance. At the time, America could only enforce the Monroe Doctrine with the help of the British navy. His hope was to have a fleet capable of sailing and operating anywhere in the world.

As mentioned earlier, Adams had the opportunity to go to war in Mexico to grab Texas, but he opted not to do so. He would also oppose the Mexican War as a US Representative in the future.

I give Adams high marks for seeking and maintaining peace, outside of ongoing wars against Native American tribes. He failed in some of his goals for the navy, however. His score would have been higher had he been able to win a second term and still maintained the peace.

Scandal and Corruption: 3/5

The major event in this area for Adams was the supposed “Corrupt Bargain,” which occurred before Adams’s presidency. I maintain that this event is mostly spin by Jackson and his faction. Henry Clay, whose post-election endorsement of John Quincy Adams guaranteed Adams a victory in the deadlocked 1824 election against the more popular Andrew Jackson, was the most likely choice for Secretary of State even if Adams had secured enough electoral votes on election day. Henry Clay, probably fearing a Jackson presidency, had no shot at winning himself, so he supported the candidate most similar to him. Adams coincidently selected Clay for Secretary of State, a position Adams was selected for over Clay in the Monroe presidency. Nevertheless, Jackson and his supporters spun this incident effectively, generating an almost unstoppable opposition against the policies of Adams and Clay.

Outside of the “Corrupt Bargain,” Adams’s administration was mostly free of known scandal or corruption. Adams’s incorruptible nature backfired on him as a politician, as he refused to award positions to supporters or to earn support from those who might support him, a tactic Jackson would use almost exclusively and future presidents would also adopt.

Adams loses some points for the “Corrupt Bargain,” but I will not grade him as harshly as some might as he was able to avoid scandal and corruption while in office.

Intangibles: 8/10

Adams might be the “intangible president”. His ideas were 20th century, his peers were 19th century, and his temperament was 18th century. All of this seems to have made him a powerless president, but his foresight and his failures left a lot for future presidents to think about.

His domestic initiatives, though mostly blocked, have been called an “antebellum New Deal.” I agree with this. Adams is the godfather of bigger government for the common good. He is a kind of proto-Progressive, especially when one transposes the post-president abolitionist John Quincy Adams onto President John Quincy Adams.

Adams sets the standard for post-presidential service. Former President Adams, after failing in a bid to become Governor of Massachusetts, won a seat in the US House of Representatives, where he became arguably one of the best US Representatives in our nation’s history, and one of the most vocal antebellum abolitionists, although not as extreme as those advocating violence and uprisings. Adams was our first Jimmy Carter—an intellectual, a mediocre president, and a superb ex-president.

Adams was the first president to be the son of a former president. Adams also took his oath of office on a book of laws, rather than on the Bible, since he believed it Constitutional to preserve the separation of Church and State.

It is a shame that more presidents and politicians ignore Adams’s example on the Separation of Church and State, on the use of active government for the common good, and on continuing active post-presidential public service for the nation even if it means taking a demotion in rank. Adams’s score for intangibles would certainly be higher otherwise.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    A fine summary of a complex figure.


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