Book Review: Mr. Adams's Last Crusade

by Chris Mackowski

Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress
by Joseph Wheelan
PublicAffairs Publishing

Fewer families in America have had a greater influence on the country than the Adams family of Quincy, Massachusetts. After all, the family spawned two presidents, America’s most influential Founding Mother, a minister to England who helped saved the Union during the Civil War, and a turn-of-the-twentieth-century literary giant.

The family patriarch—America’s second president, John—has received a lot of attention in the past few years since the publication of David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography. In fact, HBO Films is now airing a seven-part mini-series based on that book.

However, John’s son, John Quincy—America’s sixth president—is, in many ways, as fascinating as his father—as Joseph Wheelan’s new biography shows.

Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress is a fascinating account of one of the most amazing transformations ever in American public life.

Historians generally rate John Quincy’s single term as president (1825-1829) a mediocrity at best. He was, as Wheelan says, “politically tone-deaf” at a time when a new two-party political system was coalescing around the populist Andrew Jackson. He considered himself a man above party, leaving him open to the attacks and machinations of his political opponents. He was also too progressive, proposing a series of public works and social service programs “decades ahead of its time and out of step with public sentiment.” Jackson routed John Quincy out of the presidency.

But then a funny thing happened: Constituents in John Quincy’s district called on the 64 year-old ex-president to serve in Congress. Adam’s sense of public service compelled him to accept.

He would serve there for the next 17 years. “Rather than become a museum piece from America’s founding generation,” Wheelan says, “Adams became Congress’s conscience.”

As America expanded west across the continent, the slave-holding interests of the South increasingly came into conflict with the interests of the North. In that highly charged, super-partisan environment, individual liberties sometimes got trampled. John Quincy waged war against anyone from either party who tried to curtail those individual liberties.

Of course, that put John Quincy in frequent conflict with Southern lawmakers, who tried to silence the former president through procedural maneuverings. By picking that fight with John Quincy, they inadvertently turned him into one of the fiercest anti-slavery crusaders of his day.

“Adams was astonishingly prescient—in effect foreseeing the Civil War 40 years in the future—in assaying the appalling cost to the United States that would be required to resolve the slavery question,” Wheelan writes.

A dissolution of the Union, Adams believed, “would certainly be necessary…. If the Union must be dissolved, slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break.”

Adams was not a one-note crusader, though. “They call Adams a man of one idea,” said one of his political foes, a congressman from South Carolina, “but I tell you what it is, he has got more ideas than all of us put together.”

One of his passions was science, and he was particularly fond of astronomy. He called for a series of “lighthouses of the skies” to help America lead the way in astronomical research. “The people of this country do not sufficiently estimate the importance of patronizing and promoting science as a principle of political action,” he once said.

Adams “had a knowledgeable sympathy with the aims and aspirations of science” and “believed that fostering [the sciences] might properly be a function of the federal government,” Wheelan writes. Adams’s guidance and stewardship, for instance, ensured the establishment of the Smithsonian Institute.

Throughout it all, in anachronistic style, Adams readily dove into political frays but always held himself above any party loyalty. “[P]rivate interest must not be put in opposition to public good,” he said. His principled attitude sometimes made his days in the Congress lonely, but over time even bitter rivals acknowledged Adams as “the most extraordinary man on God’s footstool.” His public approval ratings soared, making him far more popular among the people than he’d ever been as president.

Adams literally died at his post, collapsing at his desk in the House chamber. “Now commenced the greatest outpouring of grief for an American public figure since George Washington’s death,” Wheelan writes.

As a work of popular history, “Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade” proves as engaging and entertaining as David McCullough’s biography of the elder Adams. A father’s footsteps can be tough to follow—especially when dad becomes president—but with Wheelan’s help, John Quincy Adams treads that literary path just fine.

Chris Mackowski is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University.

3 replies »

  1. You convinced me. Will take out of the library. Currently reading another new book of early American history, “The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians.” Deserving of a review comparable to Chris’s of “Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade.” Will try.

  2. Thanks for the link, Anne. Adams, Sr., is one of my all-time heroes.

    Russ, I’m glad you liked the review. Thank you both.