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Book Review: John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger

In his last book, about President James Monroe, author Harlow Giles Unger was accused of hero worship resulting in a loss of objectivity about his subject. He apparently listened to his critics because in his recent biography of John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States, (simply called John Quincy Adams) Unger paints a complete picture of the second President Adams, warts and all, and in doing so he has written a very good accounting of the life of a most interesting and overlooked historical figure.


Unger begins with an excellent accounting of the youth and upbringing of the oldest son of John Adams, from the time when, as a child, he and his mother watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from an adjacent hillside, to his travels with his famous father including the dangerous sea crossings and the various treks across Europe. We learn of his education, both in the classics, and as a diplomat. More than just simply recounting the bare facts, Unger gives the reader insight into why John Quincy Adams became the man he grew to be: principled, curmudgeonly and almost certainly someone who had difficulty relating to his peers because of his superior education and life experiences. Unger even explains how his subject's attitude towards the opposite sex developed and describes the challenging and complex relationship with his wife of 50 years Louisa Catherine Adams, throughout all of her trials and tribulations.

Although Unger points out that there is much to be admired about his subject, he concedes that John Quincy Adams was not a great president, mainly because of his inability to understand and relate to the common man. He describes John Quincy's success as a Secretary of State, a position for which he was uniquely qualified. He tell us how, contrary to everyone's predictions of the opposite occurring, Adams was very much a "team player" in the administration of President James Monroe and was therefore able to accomplish much. Unger gives a good accounting of the alleged "corrupt bargain" that led to Adams becoming President, in spite of his finishing second in the election of 1824, and dispels the theory that any unseemly deal was ever struck. He also dissects the reasons for Adams undoing as president.

It is in his post-presidential career that John Quincy Adams shines, as a champion for the abolition of slavery, battling attempts to curtail his freedom of speech, and as an exceptional orator. We are also told of Adams' keen insight into the future, his accurate prediction of both the Mexican War and the Civil War before either occurred and how he likely influenced his fellow congressman Abraham Lincoln in the latter's writing of the Emancipation Proclamation years after Adams death. Unger ends with a very eloquent eulogy to his subject.

The author is fortunate that his subject was a diarist who left a very thorough record of his thoughts from a very early age on until his health prevented him from keeping up the diary. But Unger is also very intelligent in his selection of passages from that diary to explain to the reader the inner workings of the mind of a subject of under-estimated historical importance.

This is the best historical biography of 2012 that I have read so far. The author's passion makes it very readable. I highly recommend this book, certainly if you enjoy US history, but even if you don't, for the sheer pleasure of reading how history can be a pleasure to read.
Tags: genre: non-fiction, review, subject: history, xxx author last name: r-z

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