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National Archives

Fathers and Sons: Two Families, Four Presidents

John Quincy Adams Wall 1


1767 - 1848
Sixth President of the United States
1825 - 1829
Son of John Adams,
the Second President of the United States


John Quincy Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy) Massachusetts on July 11, 1767, in revolutionary times. He and his mother heard the cannon shots fired during the Battle of Bunker Hill, while his father was serving on the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. His father, John Adams, recognized John Quincy's precocity early on and took the boy with him on his diplomatic missions to Europe. There, John Quincy served as his father's secretary, and at age 14, acted as both secretary and interpreter to Francis Dana on the first mission to the Russian court at St. Petersburg.

John Quincy Adams Wall 2


He entered Harvard and took his degree in 1787 where he could "write English with one hand while translating Greek with the other." After three years of legal studies, he opened a law practice in Boston. In 1794, President Washington appointed him minister to the Netherlands, and in 1797, his father, President Adams, appointed him minister to Prussia. This phase of his diplomatic career ended when his father lost the 1800 presidential election.

He was elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 1803 during Thomas Jefferson's presidency and resigned in 1808 after his unpopular support on Jefferson's Embargo Act against Great Britain. In 1809 President Madison appointed him minister to Russia. As chairman of the U.S. Peace Commission, he helped orchestrate the signing of the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812. Madison appointed him Minister, a post his father had held before him, and to which his son, Charles Francis, would be appointed during the Civil Was.

John Quincy Adams Wall 3


1816 - 1824

John Quincy Adams served as President James Monroe's Secretary of State from 1816 to 1824. He based his foreign policy on three principles: 1) Britain was the greatest threat to the U.S., since it controlled Canada, the seas, and was moving to dominate Latin American States; 2) Contain Britain in Canada and allow the U.S. population to grow and its commerce to control the continent; and 3) as U.S. and British interests intersected: Britain would keep other European powers out of the Americas for free, as long as the U.S. and Britain were at peace.

His diplomatic successes include the Rush-Bagot Pact of 1817 that demilitarized the Great Lakes. Adams bypassed Congress to get this agreement, setting the precedent for executive primal control over foreign policy. He negotiated the Convention of 1818 that gave the U.S. a perpetual right to fish along the Newfoundland coast and set the 49th parallel as the border with Canada, blocking Britain from the Mississippi River and giving the U.S. access to the northern mid-west. He negotiated the important 1819 Transcontinental Treaty with Spain, adding Florida to the U.S. domain and excluding Spain from any claims to the Pacific Northwest.

John Quincy Adams Wall 4

He was responsible for drafting whole portions of the Monroe Doctrine announce in 1823 which outlined a policy of non-intervention, using the following principles: 1) The American continents are not to be considered for colonization by European powers; 2) the old and new world affairs should not be entangled; and 3) the U.S. would follow a general hands-off policy.


1825 - 1829

In 1824, John Quincy Adams ran for the Presidency. Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, but not the electoral votes. With none of the candidates winning a majority of the electoral votes, the election was thrown into the House. Congressman Henry Clay cast the deciding vote for Adams. Several weeks later, Adams named Clay his Secretary of State and the ensuing political firestorm cast a shadow over his administration.

President Adams proposed sweeping plans to help unite as America that was fragmenting regionally along North, South, and West political and economic lines due to the slavery issue. Seen as a threat to states' rights, Congress rejected his effort to make the central government more powerful. He was the last figure of the revolutionary generation.

John Quincy Adams Wall 5

Four years later, Adams was defeated by his old nemesis Andrew Jackson. He had been largely isolated and, like his father, he distrusted the mass democracy that Jackson was pushing.


1830 - 1848

Adams was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830. He served for eighteen years fighting for the rights of free speech of anti-slavery groups and against the expansion of slave territory. He was vehemently opposed to the admission of Texas to the Union as a "slave" state. In 1836 the "gag" rule was passed in the House to forbid any discussion in that chamber on the "red hot issue" of slavery. Adams waged a relentless war on the floor of the House to overturn to overturn this law which restricted open debate in the Congress. It took eight years, but in 1844 he was triumphant.

In 1839, the "cargo" of the slave ship Amistad revolted and, under their leader Cinque, took over the ship. The Spanish crew was ordered to return to Africa. Instead they sailed to America and were captured off Long Island. Since they were to have been Cuban slaves, the Spanish Minister demanded their return. Abolitionists mobilized on behalf of the Africans and took the matter to court. John Quincy Adams was persuaded to assist the Africans with their legal defense and helped argue this high profile case before the Supreme Court in 1841. He convinced the Court these people were not mutinous slaves and since they were not legal property, their actions were in self-defense. Therefore, international treaties regarding slaves did not apply. Adams won the case. Cinque and his people were eventually released.

Congressman Adams died on the House floor in 1848 as he attacked the Polk administration's rationale for entering the war with Mexico.

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