What an odd fellow! Johnny boy might be up in my top-5 presidents now. I can’t really explain much about his actions (particularly political actions), but he seems like a pretty easy-going fellow. All I can figure is that he saw how much everyone hated his dad and made it his life goal to be his exact opposite. It seems that way until his later life, anyway, at which point he became mean and bitter and hateful and other bad adjectives. We’ll get there.
The Book: The book, John Quincy Adams: a Public Life, A Private Life, really did a nice job covering all aspects of JQA’s life and career. Unlike some of the other books so far, there was a nice balance between public and private career. The first good chunk focused primarily on his formative years. His relationship with his dad was rocky and that really shaped the rest of his life. In fact, I would go so far to say that he actually took his dad’s advice, threw it out the window, and (like George Costanza) did the opposites. For example, John Adams told him not to go into politics, “I’d rather have a shoemaker for a son than a statesman” (127). Them be fightin’ words. The book also spent a lot of page-space on his private life as an adult. I know perhaps more about his family life than any of the previous presidents. I can feel really what his relationship with his wife was like and the tragedies they faced with the death and loss of some many children. On a side note, I started reading this whilst on a bus with (54) 12-14 year olds, and I was actually able to digest what I read, which surely says something about the ease of getting through it. Other than getting pulled aside to make kids lying in the middle of the aisle find a seat, I didn’t have a difficult time following, so apparently it’s not too hard to read.
One of the major downsides of this book was that it really didn’t focus much at all on his life during Presidency. In fact, after I finished, I can’t name more than one or two things that Johnny actually DID during those four years. Luckily, Monroe’s book really got me up to date on what was going on during this time, so I wasn’t too out of the loop. 6 weeks ago I would have been clueless. However, other parts of his life focused on his private career, such as the time he spent in Russia (which from what I understand, much time was spent drinking), and his time on Harvard’s Board and as an educator there.
The President: Even though the John Quincy Adam book showed a miserable man on the cover, only probably the last 50 pages really described a miserable man. Even though his life had a lot of rough parts (and his whole family was littered with alcoholics who were “disappointments” to the family), he wasn’t just a curmudgeon, but seemed to live a fairly happy life. Someone once described his personality as disagreeable because “he held opinions too strongly for he always insisted his views were correct and that meant he usually disagreed with almost everyone” (42). Unlike his dad, he did get along with many of his colleagues. He considered Jefferson a “man of great judgment” (35), had a love-hate relationship with Andrew Jackson (which really mirrored Adam’s relationship with Jefferson), at first being quite fond of him but after Jackson beat him in the 1829 election and he refused to attend his inauguration (just like his dad had done) they hated each other, and by the time Jackson died, Adams said of him, “was a hero, a murderer, an adulterer…who in his last days of his life belied and slandered me before the world and died.” (403). He also apparently didn’t like John Tyler and said of him, “A worthless and profligate faction has taken ahold of the nation” and assigned him a place with the “slave breeders” (382-3). It should be noted at this time that Johnny HATED the notion of slavery (hooray!). In fact, he referred to himself as “the acutest, astutest, archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed” (386). Now that’s my kind of fellow. What it really sounds like is that John like back-stratchers, but once they overshadowed him for one reason or another, he took an immediate disliking to them, and did his best to sling mud.
Quickly, a few things I liked about Johnny Q:
- He was an alcoholic. I know that’s not typically the kind of attribute that I admire in a person, but it really added a lot to his character. Knowing that the worst thing that ever happened to him (in his words) was when the boat he was on got pillaged and 373 bottles of his “choiciest” wines got taken really helped me get a feel for his character.
- He loved his wife. I cried when he saw her shortly before his death and didn’t know who she was.
- Every time I’d read something about it, I imagined him saying it in the context of Good Will Hunting. For example, when he was teaching at Harvard, he frequented the bars in the area. I would like to imagine him and James Monroe walking into a bar and saying with a deep Bostonian accent, “So this is a Hahrvahrd Bahr, huh? I thought there’d be equations and shit on the walls.”
- When the doctors told him it probably wasn’t healthy to be swimming nude anymore, he tried to swim clothed. He wrote in his diary how difficult that was for him.
- He found that the one way to ease his depression was to plant trees. That’s nice.
A few things I disliked about Johnny Q.
- He was an alcoholic. That’s a bummer.
- He got into a fight with his mom and didn’t go to her funeral. What a jerk-move.
- Didn’t want to spend time educating his kids. He complained about the time spent and lamented to lost “production of something more important than teaching a child the first elements of knowledge.” (204) At a teacher, that pissed me off. EDUCATION STARTS AT HOME, Y’ALL!
- Composed poetry. That’s lame.
- He once gave a 2 hour and 50 minute speech. I’d have wanted to punch him in the face if I’d been forced to listen to that bs.
More than anything, it’s important to note that I really liked some aspects of Adam’s character. He was supportive of his family and took a very strong interest in his household. He didn’t seem extreme like other presidents, lived within his means, and planted trees. Other aspects I wasn’t so fond of. He was a sore loser, and found enjoyment in mocking others’ losses.
Maybe the biggest message I took away from this book is that it would be terrible to be Tom Adams. His dad was President. His brother was President. His cousin made a delicious beer. He kind of got left in the dust and died an alcoholic whose life and finances were run by his little brother.