If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader.
—Donald Trump, September 7, 2016
I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries…Nobody really knows, nobody really knows for sure.
—Donald Trump, July 5, 2017
What’s more embarrassing: how much Russian ass Trump kisses or how little he has to show for it? The answer is, John Quincy Adams. As America’s first minister to Russia, JQA spent five years (1809-1814) in St. Petersburg sampling caviar with Tsar Alexander. In the end, all he had to show for his exertions were thousands of pages of journal entries and his wife’s undying resentment.
JQA, whose presidency was a disaster, has been enjoying a reputational renaissance for going on three quarters of a century. It started in 1955, when John F. Kennedy lavished praise upon him in his Pulitzer Prize winner, Profiles in Courage. (Kennedy, who didn’t always practice what he profiled, accepted the prize for a book Ted Sorensen actually wrote.) JQA’s run of good publicity continued with the 1996 publication of Arguing About Slavery, a brilliant book (that William Lee Miller wrote all by himself) that shows Adams in his best, post-presidential light: as a crotchety anti-slavery Congressman shredding his colleagues with viciously witty barbs. In 1997, Sir Anthony Hopkins played this lovable version of JQA in a Spielberg movie!
Some historians have stopped identifying JQA as a former president and started calling him a “statesman.” This twist de-emphasizes any particular line on his resume and highlights its totality: the breadth and depth of a career as a diplomat, senator, secretary of state, congressman, and, yes, president.
The reappraisal leaves some things out, like the fact that he was a miserable human being. Not that he didn’t have his reasons. As the most talented son of a Founding Father, he felt personally responsible not only for the continuation of the Adams family’s greatness but for the success or failure of the American republic. Every tiny mistake he made felt like a betrayal of his forebears and his country. It was no way to live, and he took his frustrations out on the people around him.
When his newlywed wife, Louisa, put on rouge to attend a party in Berlin, JQA expressed disgust for her immodesty and bullied her to remove it. When two of his sons made lackluster grades one semester at Harvard, he told them they were not welcome to come home for Christmas. “I could take no satisfaction in seeing you,” he wrote. Louisa once said that JQA “has acquired so great a disrelish for society that even his small family appears at times to become irksome to him.” Two of his children died young (one of suicide, one of alcoholism) in part because he was such an unforgiving father.
The tortures of Tantalus have been inflicted upon me without ceasing. John Quincy Adams
As for his statesmanship, it’s true that he was brilliant and experienced. But the bulk of his experience came as a diplomat, and it’s easy to mistake the character of diplomacy in the early 1800s. It sounds good that JQA represented the United States in many of Europe’s capitals. But, as a British foreign minister summarized, “the whole science of diplomacy consists in giving dinners.” No matter how seriously JQA took it, being minister to Russia just wasn’t that serious of a job.
JQA’s tastes didn’t run toward the hiring of prostitutes to perform “a golden showers show,” as far as we know. So he wasted his time with less sordid, if hardly less weird, pursuits. For instance, in a mania to standardize weights and measures, he spent hours calculating that a Russian pound equaled 6,316.596 grains English troy weight. It’s no wonder that when President Madison proposed sending JQA to Russia in the first place, the Senate responded by passing a resolution calling the mission too expensive and unnecessary. Madison sent him anyway.
JQA hit it off with Tsar Alexander, and the two started taking regular walks along the Neva River, even in winter, when JQA had to don a bear coat to stay warm. But the tsar, who was married, liked JQA’s 24-year-old sister-in-law Kitty even more. When the French minister gave a ball in honor of one of Napoleon’s marriages, Alexander danced with Kitty for a half hour while the guests waited to sit down to a dinner of “innumerable courses of fish, poultry, and meats climaxed with multiple desserts of fruits and ice creams, accompanied by a choice of liquors and frozen champagne.” Then the tsar started contriving reasons to bump into Kitty on her daily strolls. He even invited her to use his private entrance to the theater.
Naturally, it caused a scandal when Kitty became pregnant. Luckily for geopolitics, it turned out the father was not the tsar but JQA’s nephew, who was serving as his private secretary. A shotgun marriage saved the day. Years later, Adams’ political enemies accused him of “mak[ing] use of a beautiful girl to seduce the passions of the Emperor Alexander and sway him to political purposes.”
Parties really were a diplomat’s primary occupation, and in Russia they were exceedingly over the top. Louisa noted that the tsar ate on solid gold place settings while the diplomats had to make do with silver. The chancellor, a second-rate eminence, employed 300 servants, their grades indicated by the cascading magnificence of their livery. The French minister, whose party budget rivaled that of the Tri Delts at Florida State University, threw the best soirees. For one winter extravaganza, he had a luge track built entirely out of ice. Afterward, men and women exchanged outfits for a cross-dressing cotillion.
JQA, a Puritan at heart, claimed not to enjoy the all-nighters. He attended, he said, only out of a sense of duty. He even complained that these bacchanals reduced him “to the necessity of dancing, to avoid gambling.”
Whenever vanity and gaiety, a love of pomp and dress, furniture, equipage, buildings, great company, expensive diversions, and elegant entertainments get the better of the principles and judgments of men and women, there is no knowing where they will stop, nor into what evils, natural, moral, or political, they will lead us. John Quincy Adams
One suspects he wasn’t quite as abstaining as he liked to believe. Next to his neighbor Baron Stroganoff (of beef fame), JQA’s mere 14 servants may have been embarrassing, but 14 servants is pretty extravagant for a self-reliant New Englander. JQA claimed not to like the servants either; it turns out they stole from him. During one spot check of his cellar he found 272 of his best bottles of wine missing (that’s a lot of wine for a putative party pooper).
When he wasn’t being served, JQA had plenty of extra time on his hands. He filled some of it by sending regular dispatches back to President Madison, which gives the impression of importance but really amounted to writing letters conveying gossip picked up from drunk diplomats for President Madison to read six months later when the letters finally arrived.
Officially, JQA’s goal was to conclude a commercial treaty between the United States and Russia. Both countries favored free trade, which was a fancy way of saying they wished England and France would stop bullying them. Wished is the right word. When JQA arrived, Russia was allied with Napoleon. Eventually, it broke the alliance, Napoleon invaded, and then Alexander needed the support of England. In theory, the tsar wanted to trade with the United States. In practice, he prioritized protecting his country from annihilation. The Senate was right: the mission was a waste of time, money, and JQA’s considerable talents.
As pointless as those five years in St. Petersburg turned out to be, they were harmless. A decade later, JQA may or may not have stolen the presidency in the notorious Corrupt Bargain, but the Russians had nothing to do with that. Two hundred years later, the Russians may have already stolen the presidency for Trump, and it remains to be seen how much more harm they will do in the end. Our best hope is that Trump is even less effective than JQA was. He’s certainly less competent.
JQA is the beneficiary of what you might call supply-side biography. He kept a journal for basically his entire life, which gives historians plenty of rope to hang themselves. And they do. Robert V. Remini’s entry in the American Presidents series is pretty good, but it makes you wonder if Remini had a lousy relationship with his mother. It’s half biography of Adams, half anti-Abigail Adams screed. The other recent biographies, by Fred Kaplan, Harlow Giles Unger (it feels like his parents named him using WASP magnetic poetry), and James Traub, are all fine. I really mean it that Arguing About Slavery, by William Lee Miller, is a wonderful, wonderful book. Please read it. It’s not a biography of JQA, but it uses him as a charismatic main character in kind of a collective biography of the coming of the Civil War. When I write Awesome Presidents, it will be my source material for the JQA essay. He does some seriously badass things.