Monday, April 11, 2016

John Quincy Adams: Raised to be President

John Quincy Adams was elected as the 6th president of the United States during the election of 1824.  He was the son John Adams, the second president, and therefore was the first son of a former president to become president.  He had the same temperament as his father, and generally tended to have the same big government views as his father.

He was actually raised to become president.  He watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from the top of Penn's Hill.  He served as his father's secretary in Europe.  He graduated from Harvard and became a lawyer by the age of 26.  He was appointed Minister to the Netherlands.  Then, in 1802, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and in 1808 he was appointed Minister to Russia by President Madison.

In 1817 he was selected by James Monroe to become Secretary of State.  He would work with the president on writing the Monroe Doctrine.  In fact, he was the main author of the document that forbade European nations from forming colonies, or interfering in any way, in North or South America. He also helped the U.S. obtain Florida from Spain.  Generally speaking, he was considered a great secretaries of state.

This was a time in U.S. history when Secretary of State set a person up nicely to becoming a future president.  The fact that he was considered a great one bode well for him, making many assured that he was the political heir to the presidency.  However, their was public clamor at this time for electors to be chosen by direct vote of the people as opposed to by state legislatures.  So, after John Quincy Adams, the office of Secretary of State would no longer be a stepping stone to the presidency.

By 1824 political factions started to develop among members of the democratic-republican party, and so party unity started to break up.  So what happened was that a candidate was chosen from each of the different regions of the country: New England supported the large centralized government ideas of Adams; Kentucky supported the large centralized ideas of Henry Clay; Tennessee supported the small government ideas of Andrew Jackson; and Georgia supported the small government ideas of William H. Crawford.

These were the four democratic-republican nominees for president.

Jackson won the popular vote.  He also earned the most electoral votes, but not enough to seal the election. So the decision who the president would be was left to the House to decide.

Henry Clay finished in last place, so he was out.  So he brokered a deal where representatives from the states he won would vote for Adams in exchange for Adams naming Clay Secretary of State, a position that would set Clay up nicely (or so he thought) to becoming a future president.

So this was how John Quincy Adams became president of the United States despite losing both the popular and electoral votes to Andrew Jackson.  The deal that Clay made would ultimately backfire on him, as it essentially motivated backers of Jackson to defeating Adams four years later.  In the meantime, however, John Quincy Adams was the president.

The democratic party was now officially split: the followers of Adams and Clay became national republicans, and the followers of Jackson and Crawford became democrats.

Despite being raised to be president, he was not a very effective one.  He believed the U.S. should work as a national entity, with each region of the country focusing on a specific industry.  He also supported Henry Clay's American System and tried to enact it.  The American System included three parts:
  1. A tariff to protect and promote American industry (bad because it's a tax on imported goods)
  2. A national bank to foster commerce (bad because it gives too much power to a few people)
  3. Federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other internal improvements (government officials decided who got what and how much). 
  4. High western land prices to prevent people from moving from leaving eastern states to western states (unconstitutional because it favored the rich at the expense of the poor, or one group over another)
The American system pretty much made it so the Federal Government chose what projects would be completed and how much money would be doled out to what project.  This was contrary to Jefferson's approach to improving infrastructure, whereby he dole out surplus funds equally among the states and allowed them to decide what projects to fund. 

Adam's opponents, such as Crawford and Jackson, tended to support the ideas of Jefferson, and so they adamantly opposed the American System.  They claimed it was unconstitutional, and they were right.  But in his opening proclamation to Congress he endorsed this program.  He said a national program was necessary to bring the different sections of the country together through a series of canals and roads. Funds for this would be made by the sale of public lands. 

He also championed for a National University that would allow the U.S. to take the lead in arts and sciences. He also financed championed for expeditions and an observatory.

His opponents balked at such huge ambitions, especially considering he had barely become president in the first place.  So, for this reason, he was barely able to get any of his bold ideas through Congress.  Not helping matters was that he received a lot of pressure from Jacksonian supporters.  Not helping matters was that Jacksonian followers were able to gain 27 seats in the Senate, compared to only 21 seats by the followers of Adams.

He also accomplished in regards to foreign affairs.  This was partly due to the fact he had settled many foreign affairs while he was vice president.

Of course opposition from Jacksonian supporters didn't help either.  However, he did succeed at keeping the United States out of foreign affairs and out of foreign wars, and that in and of itself can be cited as a major accomplishment.

By the end of his term he signed a tariff into law, and it was called the "tariff of ambition' by his political opponents.  It protected American manufacturers, but it raised the prices of many goods, particularly in southern states.  The tariff was so unpopular that it is often sited as sealing the fate of Adams.

He would run as the first and only national republican in 1828 against democrat Andrew Jackson.  The Jackson camp made sure  voters knew about the failures of Adams, and made certain they were well aware of the "corrupt bargain" that made Adams president.  Andrew Jackson defeated Adams in a landslide.

He was known as a great diplomat as Secretary of State before his presidency, and as a great U.S. Senator after his presidency.  However, he is generally considered a poor president, and rightly so.

Further Reading