John Quincy Adams was the last of the “notables” that began with George Washington.
Only twice in U.S. history have fathers and sons been elected president: most recently George W. Bush, son of George H.W. Bush, preceded by John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams. John Quincy Adams was elected in 1824 through one of the nation’s strangest presidential elections.
John Quincy Adams was the last of the “notables” that began with George Washington. These men were rich, respected, and powerful seaport merchants, land-rich northerners, and southern plantation owners who controlled the politics and government of the new republic. Their leadership roles seemed right, according to John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court who said, “Those who own the country are the most fit persons to participate in the government of it.”
John Quincy Adams was a giant of a man in government and in law, and his election was historic. His presidency, however, was not.
“The Era of Good Feelings” – Only on the Surface
The acrimonious election of 1800 ushered in an era of Democratic-Republican electoral dominance. The Democratic-Republican Party won six straight presidential elections, with three members of the Virginia gentry — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe — each serving two terms as president.
As the War of 1812 closed, the Federalist Party lay in tatters. The 1816 Presidential Election was the last with the Federalists running a candidate: Rufus King, who lost resoundingly to James Monroe.
The 1818 Congressional Election brought another landslide victory for Democratic-Republicans who controlled 85 percent of the seats in the U.S. Congress. James Monroe, yet another Virginian, followed Madison in the presidency for two terms from 1817 to 1825. Although this period has often been called the Era Of Good Feelings due to its one-party dominance, Democratic-Republicans were deeply divided internally. A new political system was poised to evolve from the old Republican-Federalist competition that had been known as the First Party System.
An American System
Although the Democratic-Republicans were now the only active national party, its leaders incorporated major economic policies that had been favored by Federalists since the time of Alexander Hamilton. President Monroe continued the efforts begun by Madison at the end of his presidency to build an American System of national economic development. The American System had three basic elements: a national bank, protective tariffs to support American manufacturers, and federally-funded internal improvements.
The first two elements received strong support after the War of 1812. The chartering of the Second Bank of the United States in 1816, once again headquartered in Philadelphia, indicates how much of the old Federalist economic agenda the Democratic-Republicans now supported. Whereas Jefferson had seen a national bank as a threat to ordinary farmers, the leaders of his party in 1816 had come to a new understanding of the need for a strong federal role in creating the basic infrastructure of the nation.
The cooperation among national politicians that marked the one-party Era of Good Feelings lasted less than a decade. A new style of American politics took shape in the 1820s and 1830s, the key qualities of which have remained central to American politics up to the present. In this more modern system, political parties played a crucial role building broad and lasting coalitions among diverse groups in the American public. Furthermore, these parties represented more than the distinct interests of a single region or economic class. Most importantly, modern parties broke decisively from a political tradition favoring personal loyalty and patronage. Although long-lasting parties were unanticipated in the 1780s, by the 1830s, they had become central to American politics.
Martin Van Buren
During the period from 1828-1854, rallies, marches, newspapers, and propaganda dominated the political process. New York politician Martin Van Buren played a key role in the development of the Second Party System. He rose to lead the new Democratic party by breaking from the more traditional leadership of his own Democratic-Republican party.
Van Buren perceptively responded to the growing democratization of American life in the first decades of the 19th century by embracing mass public opinion. As he explained, “Those who have wrought great changes in the world never succeeded by gaining over chiefs; but always by exciting the multitude. The first is the resource of intrigue and produces only secondary results, the second is the resort of genius and transforms the face of the universe.” Rather than follow a model of elite political leadership like that of the founding fathers, Van Buren saw “genius” in reaching out to the multitude of the general public.
New party leaders of the period — Van Buren among them — made careful use of newspapers to spread the word about party positions and ensure discipline among party members. In fact, the growth of newspapers in the new nation was closely linked to the rise of a competitive party system. In 1775, there had been just 31 newspapers in the colonies, but by 1835, the number of papers in the nation had soared to 1,200. Rather than make any claims to objective reporting, newspapers existed as propaganda vehicles for the political parties they supported. Newspapers were especially important to the new party system because they spread information about the party platform, a carefully crafted list of policy commitments that aimed to appeal to a broad public.
Van Buren embodied a complete disregard for the old way, the old system, which was based on the person more than the party. Elections in America — from the top to the bottom — were dominated by a system that relied on the respect of the electorate for the candidate. The candidates were usually men of some stature and reputation. They were more aloof, wealthy, and from prestigious families. These were the notables — trusted men of note. They approximated an aristocracy as existed in Great Britain.
Van Buren embraced a new system — one that asked the voter to vote for the party, not the person. He ensured party loyalty among his candidates by getting them elected using his paper as the tool for spreading the message. Voters were assured that they would know what they were getting with any candidate for any position — from U.S. senator (Van Buren) to governor to dog catcher — because every candidate would follow the party line.
Van Buren’s strategy was incredibly successful, and he took control of New York state with his “party not person” strategy. He then scaled the party not person strategy nationally while serving in Washington D.C. as a senator. Van Buren’s success did not go unnoticed, especially by Andrew Jackson, who was looking for a guarantee that the Election of 1828 would end differently than the Election of 1824. The only issue was whether Jackson, a southerner, and Van Buren, a northerner, could resolve their differences and learn to work together.
The Presidency of John Quincy Adams
Like his father who was also a one-term president, John Quincy Adams was an intelligent statesman whose strong commitment to certain principles proved to be a liability as president.
For instance, Adams favored a bold economic role for the national government that was far ahead of public opinion. Like the Democratic-Republicans who preceded him in the Era of Good Feelings, Adams supported a federal role in economic development through the American System that was chiefly associated with Henry Clay.
The American System had three key elements: protective tariffs to stimulate manufacturing, federally subsidized roads and canals to facilitate commerce, and a national bank to control credit and provide a uniform currency. Most of the programs to expand the roads and canals were defeated, in large part by the actions of Van Buren, along with many in Congress who took a “Jeffersonian” view. These opponents questioned the constitutionality of these measures since the Constitution did not give the federal government the power to fund these projects. However, in the end, Adams succeeded in extending the Cumberland Road into Ohio as a federal highway project. He also broke ground for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal on July 4, 1828.
North and South Divided
Adams’ policies were popular in the North where manufacturers, farmers, and businessmen anticipated benefiting from the bank and its policies, the protection offered by the tariffs, and increased infrastructure facilitating commerce. The South was a different story. Southerners were enraged by the policies. As the producers of the most inexpensive cotton in the world, they needed no protection. For them, the tariff was not only unnecessary, but it also raised the cost of the goods and materials they needed. The South would be forced to either pay more for heavily taxed British imports or buy the more expensive goods and materials from northern states. They blamed President Adams.
The tariff also generated additional fears among Southerners. In particular, it suggested to them that the federal government could, and would, unilaterally take steps that hurt the South. This line of reasoning led some southerners to fear that the very foundation of the South — slavery — could come under attack from a hostile northern majority in Congress. The spokesman for this southern view was none other than President Adams’ vice president, John C. Calhoun.
Adams’ vision of federal leadership was especially creative and included proposals for a publicly-funded national university and government investment in scientific research and exploration. However, few of Adams’ ideas were put into action. He hurt his own case by publicly expressing concerns about the potential dangers of democracy. When politicians in Congress refused to act decisively for fear of displeasing the voters, Adams chided them. He observed that they seemed to “proclaim to the world that we are palsied by the will of our constituents.” Adams steadfastly refused to campaign for his own re-election because he felt that political office should be a matter of service and not a popularity contest. Although his ideals were surely honorable, his statement, “if the country wants my services, she must ask for them,” gave the appearance of an elitist who disdained contact with ordinary people.
John Quincy Adams’ public dedication to unpopular principles helped assure his defeat in the Presidential Election of 1828. However, his principles also led him to take on causes that today seem impressive. For example, Adams overturned a treaty signed by the Creek Nation in 1825 that ceded its remaining land to the state of Georgia because he believed that it had been fraudulently obtained through coercive methods. Georgia’s governor was outraged, but Adams believed that the matter clearly fell under federal jurisdiction. Ultimately, Adams’ support of the Creeks didn’t prevent their removal to the West. It did, however, cost him political backing from Americans who widely believed that whites deserved access to all Indian lands.
Adams continued this course of following principle rather than popularity when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives after his presidency. Although not a radical opponent of slavery himself, he was an early leader against congressional rules that prevented anti-slavery petitions from being presented to Congress. He also successfully defended enslaved Africans before the U.S. Supreme Court in the celebrated Amistad case.
Adams was a politician and leader from an earlier political era, the era of notables, but America had moved on.
Originally published by TEL Library under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.