Sunday, July 3, 2016

The U.S. Constitution's Amazing 'Visionary'

Review by Bill Doughty

"John Quincy Adams: American Visionary" (2014, HarperCollins)

This book was recommended recently by John Kirby, spokesman for Secretary of State John Kerry and former Chief of Navy Information.

Like his father, John Quincy Adams was a complicated hero of a young nation. A voracious reader, world-traveler and deep-thinking moralist, JQA recognized the sin of slavery and saw the need for a strong navy and army.

In "American Visionary" we get an international perspective at a time when "The United States still had no army or navy of consequence."

John Quincy Adams – and books – in 1843.
JQA had a front-row seat to French and British confiscation of American ships, British impressment of American sailors (which brought about the War of 1812), the return of Napoleon in France, and the effects of a trade embargo. He was intimately involved in the nation's response of the British warship Leopold agains USS Chesapeake, and he was intensely interested in the inventions of Robert Fulton, including the steamboat and torpedo.

Adams was an early proponent of strength through national inclusion, innovation and infrastructure-building. He "strongly believed that the roads, canals and harbors were essential to the future prosperity of the country and the promotion of national unity."

Two hundred years ago, just after the War of 1812, John Quincy Adams served as a diplomatic envoy in London. A lover of poetry and literature, he immersed himself in the evenings in reading, reciting and studying William Shakespeare and attending theatrical performances of Shakespeare's work.

During the day he worked to represent the interests of the United States in Europe, including negotiating trade agreements, and  helped the needs of American citizens abroad. Here's a very early look at veteran homelessness from Kaplan's and Adams's description:
"And there was constant applications from American sailors, often reduced to begging, who had been impressed (forced) into the British Navy, and from American prisoners of war released from the infamous Dartmouth prison ... British poverty was palpably visible. Hungry wanderers begged for food at the door of Little Boston House, 'each with a different hideous tale of misery ... The extremes of opulence and of want are more remarkable and more constantly obvious in this country than in any other that I ever saw.' ... That there were beggars in America John Quincy knew from experience. But the numbers in Great Britain made American poverty seem minuscule and easily managed. In the United States there was more work to be had, even in hard times. It pained Adams to see starving Americans, many able-bodied, some damaged by war and imprisonment, forced to beg in the streets of a foreign country. He worked tirelessly, and stretched his own and the embassy's resources to assist them."
Adams had a long and distinguished career as a statesman even at an early age. He had lived throughout Europe. He played a role in patching up misunderstandings, reaching compromises and building peace.

In 1817 President Monroe appointed him Secretary of State.

That pivot point in JQA's life ignites Fred Kaplan's biography.

Adams's journey from England to the United States in July and August of 1817 to accept appointment as Secretary of State took 51 days, a time to consider challenges with France, Britain and Spain over the Great Lakes, Louisiana and Florida, among other areas and territories.
"On shipboard, he pondered his and his country's future. As much as he worried about foreign affairs, he had an even more pervasive anxiety: the internal health of the nation. Like both his parents, he believed as deeply in the union as he believed in his life. During his father's presidency, both Republicans and Federalists had threatened disunion. After the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson and Madison had claimed the right to secession. Now the South as demanding that new states allow slavery. Whether they had moral objections or not, Northern states objected to the additional congressional and electoral votes that the South would have. The British could be handled, though there would be difficulties. So too could Spain, which Adams had reason to believe would in the end capitulate. There were trade issues with France, though at their worst they were not not likely to result in armed conflict. To Adams, domestic tensions seemed most threatening in the long run. The Declaration of Independence and slavery were, he believed, incompatible. Still, maintaining the union was paramount. 'Much as I must disapprove of the general tenor of Southern politics I would rather even yield to their unreasonable pretensions, and suffer much for their wrongs, than break the chain that binds us altogether ... if it is once broken we shall soon divide into a parcel of petty tribes at perpetual war with one another.' The War of 1812 had 'revealed our darkest side, or tendency to faction, sectionalism, and disunion.' The future contained the threat of 'the dissolution of the Union and a civil war.'"
Adams saw the Sandy Hook lighthouses as his ship came close to the American shore. He visited officials in New York, going aboard the first steam frigate that used both sail and steam, USS John Adams, before heading to see his parents in Quincy, Massachusetts aboard the steamship Fulton. In a visit to Boston he boarded both the the USS Constitution and USS Guerriere.

Kaplan reveals the internecine political thorns Adams faced close to the seat of power as Secretary of State, a position both Jefferson and Monroe had held. "More so than Monroe, Adams believed that American prosperity required greater power for the federal government to promote internal improvements and a modern banking system, encourage manufacturing, advance education and science, and strengthen the military."

"Slaves Waiting for Sale" first sketched by British artist Eyre Crowe ten years after Adams died.
Kaplan shows us his strong aversion to slavery and so-called "divine rights," a full generation before the nation plunged into the War Between the States.

His one term as president was followed by service in the House of Representatives, where he became a strong and committed voice for abolition, "proposing a constitutional amendment 'abolishing hereditary slavery in the United States, prohibiting admission of new slave states, and abolishing slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia.' He had moved from discreet tactfulness to outspoken radicalism," writes Kaplan. Congress voted 114 to 108 for a continuing gag rule to prevent voting on the amendment, and Adams earned countless death threats from slavery proponents.

He stepped up before the Supreme Court to successfully defend  imprisoned Africans aboard the Amistad after the slave ship was rescued and recovered by USS Washington, when "racism, proslavery sentiment and national politics were a toxic mix."

Kaplan presents Adams as a respected statesman who was selected to present the nation's eulogy for Lafayette, help establish the Smithsonian Institution and protect the rights of American Indian tribes. His position against annexation of Texas in support of  Great Britain in the opium war in China – not to mention women's rights – are perplexing until we consider his circumstances.

Human nature dictates that people are often limited in their imagination by their place in space and time. JQA was no different, believing women were denied the right to vote, for example, because of "nature's foundation in natural law and God's will" and that "the preservation of the values of the Declaration and the Constitution did not require it."

Nevertheless, Adams argued for progress in the nullification of slavery using founding documents. Kaplan writes:
"The values that should shape the present, he argued, as he had done many times before, were those inherent in the history of the nation and in its foundational documents. His major target was the doctrine of nullification, its arbitrary and willful insult to the facts and values of American history. The history he summarized was, of course, Adams' version, with its emphasis on the rationale for the revolution in specific events and natural law. Freedom was everything. Liberty and morality were the highest values. The Declaration of Independence provided the principles, the Constitution the implementation. The brilliance of the Constitution was that it was both stable and elastic – it was both stable and elastic – it was a living document. The Bill of Rights, he observed, had corrected a flaw. More corrections were necessary. The Constitution mandated that the federal government 'promote the general welfare.' That meant new initiatives, such as public improvements, that the authors could not have anticipated but had made provision for in general terms. And its most precious gift was union. It was a sacred contract."
Sailors present a wreath at the tomb of John Quincy Adams in 2009. (Photo by Lt. Chad Murphy)
Kaplan gives us details of the challenges, triumphs and failures in Adams's long life, a life filled with illness and injury, including a hand seriously hurt by a misfiring handgun leading to infections, and problems with his eyes – extreme problems for a poet, writer and reader. In addition to Shakespeare, Adams read Plutarch, Cicero, Voltaire, Hume, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Lord Byron, Alexander Pope, John Milton, the Bible and a French translation of the Koran (Quo'ran).

A theme of JQA's life was "stoic courage and acceptance of adversity and death." He experienced the death of most of his immediate and extended family, often at an early age. One son, George Washington Adams was "erratic and unstable" and committed suicide. Another son, John Adams II, died from the effects of alcoholism at 31.

The book opens with his father's death, as Quincy Adams hurries home, hoping in vain to see his beloved father before he died.

Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson passed away hours apart on July 4th, 1826.

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