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John Quincy Adams: A Short Biography

Sixth President of the United States

By Doug West, Ph.D.

John Quincy Adams: A Short Biography

Sixth President of the United States

Copyright © 2018 Doug West

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author. Reviewers may quote brief passages in reviews.

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Table of Contents



Chapter 1 – Early Life

Chapter 2 – Diplomatic Success

Chapter 3 – Secretary of State

Chapter 4 – President of the United States

Chapter 5 – In Congress

Chapter 6 – Death and Legacy


Biographical Sketches

Further Reading and References


About the Author


Welcome to the book John Quincy Adams: A Short Biography. This book is part of the 30 Minute Book Series and, as the name of the series implies, if you are an average reader this book will take less than an hour to read. Since this book is not meant to be an all-encompassing biography of John Quincy Adams, you may want to know more about this man and his accomplishments. To help you with this, there are several good references at the end of this book. In addition, I have included a timeline to help you link the events of his life together in time and a series of short biographical sketches of the key individuals in the story. Thank you for purchasing this book, and I hope you enjoy your time reading about a truly great American.

Doug West

June 2018


John Quincy Adams was taught at an early age by his parents to be a public servant, and indeed he was, serving as the secretary to the American envoy to Russia at age fourteen, and literally dying on the floor of the House of Representatives well into his eighties. As the eldest son of the prominent politician and U.S. president, John Adams, he grew up in a fervent political climate, accompanying his father in diplomatic missions and forging his own path in diplomacy and public administration. Besides serving for years as a diplomat, minister, and ambassador to foreign countries, Adams had a successful career on the national scene as both a U.S. senator and congressman. He is known for his systematic and consistent fight against slavery, but also for his ability to negotiate favorable treaties with the great powers of the world, such as Britain, Russia, and Prussia. Adams would go on to serve as the sixth president of the United States and finish his career in the House of Representatives. The thirty-fifth president, John F. Kennedy, wrote of his fellow Bostonian that he “held more important offices and participated in more important events than anyone in the history of our nation.”

Chapter 1 - Early Life

Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.” – John Quincy Adams

The quiet village of Braintree was a collection of scattered houses and small neighboring farmsteads strung along the old coast road, the winding thoroughfare from Boston to Plymouth, just off the jagged south shore of Massachusetts Bay. The orchards, stone walls, meadows of hay, and marshlands through which the Neoponset River ran formed a picturesque setting for the small farm of John and Abigail Adams. It was in their simple salt-box style house that Abigail gave birth to their first son, John Quincy, or Johnny as he was called by the family, on July 11, 1767. His family ancestry went back several generations with an Adams forebear arriving from England in 1632. Johnny’s mother’s family was equally entrenched in colonial America. The Smiths had been in the shipping business for generations, and her first Quincy relative had arrived in America in 1633. At the time of his birth, his father, John Adams, had a seat as a selectman for the town of Braintree and later served as a diplomat, eventually being elected the second president of the United States.

The outbreak of hostilities between the British and the American colonists brought big changes to the Adams family. Johnny’s small school in Braintree was forced to close when his headmaster left to serve in the Continental Army. Much of young Adams’s education was by private tutors—his cousin James Thaxter and his father’s law clerk, Nathan Rice. His father left his law practice to serve in the Continental Congress as a delegate for three years. John Adams was a key member of Congress, helping Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence and guide the young nation through the Revolutionary War.

Growing up in the heated climate of the American Revolution, Johnny had patriotism instilled in his blood as he witnessed the first major battle of the war. The distant cannon fire from the battle of Bunker Hill was loud even in Braintree, ten miles down the bay from Boston. Abigail, intent on seeing the battle for herself, took the seven-year-old Johnny by the hand and hurried him up the road to the top of nearby Penn’s Hill. From a granite outcropping that breached the summit they could see the smoke of battle rising beyond Boston. That evening, Abigail wrote to John, “How many have fallen we know not… The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink, or sleep.”

With the Revolutionary War in full swing, John Adams was appointed as one of the diplomats commissioned to obtain the assistance of European countries. John and Abigail felt that Johnny was old enough to go with his father to Europe. He was of an age where he needed his father’s “example and precepts” so that “the foundations of a great man” could be laid. Abigail and the other children remained at home.

In February 1778, the new commissioner and his son boarded the frigate Boston for the long Atlantic voyage. A winter crossing the North Atlantic meant heavy seas, sudden fierce storms, and freezing rain that could cripple a ship and put the crew in grave peril. The dangers of the trip were heightened by the constant fear of an encounter with a British ship of war on the high seas. Despite a treacherous crossing, they arrived safely at Bordeaux, France, on April 1. They journeyed inland where they stayed with Benjamin Franklin at his residence on the outskirts of Paris.

Figure – Frigate Boston used by the Adams in crossing the Atlantic.

Much of his adolescence was spent overseas with his father’s diplomatic delegations to France and the Netherlands, acquiring from an early age practical diplomatic experience. While in Europe, Adams attended prestigious schools in Paris, France, and Leiden, Netherlands. He acquired excellent fluency in the French language and learned conversational Dutch. Upon his return to the United States in 1780, Adams started to keep a regular diary, “My Pappa enjoins me to keep a journal, or diary of the Events that happen to me, and of objects that I See, and Characters that I converse with from day to day, and although I am Convinced of the utility, importance & necessity of this Exercise, yet I have not patience and perseverance enough to do it so Constantly as I ought.” Writing nearly daily in his diary would be a habit he maintained for the next 60 plus years.

John Adams was called back into service to his country and was appointed minister Plenipotentiary to seek peace with Britain, taking John Quincy with him. In 1781, despite being only fourteen years old, John Quincy became the private secretary of the American envoy to Russia, Francis Dana. The young man was quite mature for his age and was very skilled in the French language, as this was the language used in official diplomacy, and he had a remarkable capacity for concentrated work. This was the first small step of what would later be his long and prodigious international career. When the mission in St. Petersburg ended, Adams traveled through Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands before meeting his father again in France. Without holding an official position, John Quincy took part in the negotiations for the signing of the Peace of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War.

His father was appointed U.S. minister to Great Britain, but instead of joining his father, young Adams returned home to Massachusetts with the goal of attending Harvard College. Unexpectedly, Johnny was not admitted directly into Harvard. The president of the university, Joseph Willard, chose to question the young man and found him deficient in Latin and Greek. Greatly disappointed in himself, John Quincy accepted the setback and spent the next several months in private study at the home of his uncle. In the spring of 1786, he was admitted as a junior and for the next fifteen months he studied at Harvard, with particular interest in science and mathematics. Harvard waived tuition for John Quincy and his brother Charles in recognition of their father’s public service. In 1787, Adams graduated second in his class from Harvard, acquiring excellent knowledge of classical studies and becoming fluent in Latin and Greek. He was the class orator, the most skilled public speaker among his fellow classmates. From 1787 to 1789, Adams studied law under Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport, a small town in Massachusetts.

Chapter 2 - Diplomatic Success

Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” – John Quincy Adams

In 1790, John Quincy Adams was admitted to the Massachusetts bar and while practicing in Boston, he devoted his free time to writing political and social commentaries in newspapers. Mainly, he wrote about his support for the neutrality policy adopted by George Washington’s administration in regard to the French-British War of 1793. Reading the articles, the president became convinced of John Quincy’s political intuitions and offered him a position as United States minister in the Netherlands. John Quincy accepted the job with much hesitation, fearing he was not ready for such an important position. Adams thus began his diplomatic career at The Hague, where his main responsibility was to keep the American government informed regarding diplomatic and military activities in Europe, especially as the revolutionary movement in France exploded into war.

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