I hope this clears things up.
My dearest Jessica,
I’m writing this letter to hopefully address a growing source of frustration for you.
No, not the socks I leave on the bathroom floor or the unholy chaos of a post-breakfast kitchen. I’m talking about my love for John Quincy Adams.
Specifically, my answer to the question that I sometimes get on those rare occasions when we find time to mingle with adults. You know what I’m talking about, when I tell people I’m reading a biography of every US president in order and they politely ask, “Who’s your favorite so far?” before wandering off. My answer for some time has been John Quincy Adams.
This answer has not settled well with you.
You say that you haven’t gotten to know him through my writing like you’ve gotten to know other presidents, like John Adams or Thomas Jefferson. You have a point.
Looking back at my posts about JQA, it’s almost like I’ve been writing around him. I’ve written mostly about things he didn’t do. I wrote about the skinny dipping interview he never had, the pet alligator he never had, the childhood relationship with Jack the Ripper he never had – I haven’t really made the case for why he’s my favorite, not even to you.
My love for John Quincy Adams comes down to the fact that he represents four things I absolutely adore:
1) Specific personal details
2) A good sequel
3) Righteous indignation
4) A little bit of mystery
As my editor-in-chief, I know how much you prefer to have my articles broken into sections, so I’ve dedicated sections to each of those reasons in an effort to help you understand my feelings.
Let’s start with the details.
Specific Personal Details
You know how I wax nostalgic about the perfection of Weezer’s first two albums and how I spew bile-laced virtriol at the very thought of The Green Album and everything that came afterward? Well, that all comes down to my love for specific, personal details.
Listening to Weezer’s first two albums was like reading from a beautifully raw diary, and listening to their third album after a five year hiatus was like listening to a Stepford wife mumble in her sleep, if Stepford Wives even sleep.
Take these mind-numbing lyrics from Island In The Sun off Weezer’s third album:
On an island in the sun
We’ll be playing and having fun
And it makes me feel so fine
I can’t control my brain
We’ll run away together
We’ll spend some time forever
We’ll never feel bad anymore
Are you still awake? At first I thought the lyrics of that last line were “We’ll never feel that anymore” but then I was appalled to find out they were actually “We’ll never feel bad anymore.” What’s the difference, you ask? Thanks for asking. I clung to the hope that “that,” as horribly vague as it was, at least referred to something specific, a tiny bit of mystery referring to the backstory of these islanders. But nope. It was just “bad” which is just insipid.
Anyway, my love, this is exactly why I feel so strongly about John Quincy Adams. He kept a diary from the time he was twelve until his death at 80. From these pages and his family letters you get to see him as a 10-year-old boy pressured by his father to read Greek war history to prepare for “the part which may be allotted you to act on the stage of life.” Ten years old. That kind of pressure might be why he later talked about crying as a child because no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t understand why his parents loved Milton so much.
His diary entries from his twenties are filled with references to partying until three or four in the morning followed by massive hangovers. And there are gems like this about a dinner party from his single days:
“Mr. Porter and his lady are there…with a child about six weeks old, which forsooth immediately after dinner must be produced, and was handed about from one to another; and very shrewd discoveries were made of its resemblance to all the family by turns, whereas in fact it did resemble nothing but chaos… It appears to me that parents would do wisely in keeping their children out of sight at least untill they are a year old, for I cannot see what satisfaction, either sensual or intellectual can be derived from seeing a misshapen, bawling, slobbering infant, unless to persons particularly interested.”
Through his own words you get to see him grow from an emo kid writing bad poetry to a cranky old man writing bad poetry. You get to laugh with him, laugh at him, and feel his pain and anguish.
JQA didn’t seem to hold back, and he didn’t hide that he suffered from depression, often cursing his melancholy until it got so bad he asked God to “take me from this world before I curse my day of birth.” He acknowledged these feelings, and gave them thought and meaning. When so many of his generation kept their inner demons inside, he left windows to himself for future generations to look into and see themselves reflected in.
It’s not just the preservation of his diaries and letters that makes me feel connected to him; it’s the fact that he was a gifted writer who painted moments. Specific, relatable moments, by the truckload. I’m such a sucker for the specific.
Take these lyrics from Falling For You, off Weezer’s second album, Pinkerton, and compare them to Island In The Sun above:
Holy sweet goddamn! You left your cello in the basement
I admired the glowing stars
And tried to play a tune
I can’t believe how bad I suck, it’s true
What could you possibly see in little ol’ three chord me?
I can’t say I identify with the rest of the album’s race-fetishizing, narcissism, and sex addiction, but I absolutely appreciate the eloquence and specificity. I’m there for it.
Oh, dear. I’m writing around John Quincy Adams again, aren’t I?
I’ll do better. Actually, by identifying the need to do better and pledging to improve, I kind of already am doing better. I think I’m self-actualizing right now. This view from atop Maslow’s pyramid is lovely.
A Good Sequel
As you know, I was raised on a heavy diet of TV and movies. That instilled in me a deep love of sequels because they meant more of what I already knew and loved. They were like family reunions I could go to in my pajamas.
I remember one day when I was seven years old, walking through the Louis Joliet Mall with my mom. At that time, the mall had two bookstores and I would usually get a new book to read while my mom got her hair done. That day we were walking along and I saw a poster. It was the Ghostbusters sign, and the ghost was holding up two fingers.
Ghostbusters. Two. My little mind was blown. It was a good day.
Believe it or not, John Quincy Adams was a far better sequel than Ghostbusters 2. He’s almost up there with Terminator 2. He is the ultimate human sequel.
On one level, his life reads like a sequel to David McCullough’s biography John Adams or the HBO miniseries based on it that you enjoyed through your tears. JQA is literally John Adams: The Next Generation.
His life story has everything that makes a great sequel – returning characters like John and Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson – even a new love interest, Louisa, who doesn’t get along with Abigail. (Scandal!) And it develops one of the original’s characters, Abigail Adams, to let us see her in a new light; this loving wife is suddenly an overbearing, controlling mother.
Side note: I know I’ve compared you to Abigail Adams in the past in my post about their love letters. I wouldn’t compare you to Abigail as a mother; you’re an incredible mother. But let this be a warning: If our daughter grows up to be an ambassador and you write to the president—behind her back—saying the country she’s assigned to is too expensive and you think she should be fired, then I might start to compare you to Abigail Adams as a mother.
JQA’s life is so more than just a sequel to his father’s. It’s more like a sequel to the first part of the entire American Experiment. Think of Part 1 as the American Revolution and what followed – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the presidencies of Washington and Adams, etc. The United States: Part 1 is the origin story of the United States.
The United States: Part 2 is where the nation is already established but has to determine who it really is, and what it really stands for. A good sequel picks up on unresolved conflicts from the original and explores them, and that’s what John Quincy Adams did. As an adult, he didn’t have a revolution to fight for like his parents did, but he had an even nobler cause.
John Quincy Adams took on the beast his father never could and Jefferson never would – the great American hypocrisy that tainted the promise of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” John Quincy Adams took on slavery. He took on the south.
And that leads to what I love most about him.
When I say JQA is my favorite president so far, I should clarify – his presidency was the least interesting part of his career and by far the least fulfilling to him personally. He called it the worst four years of his life. What makes him so fascinating to me is that he didn’t fade away after his presidency; he became the first (and only) president to serve in Congress after being president.
That’s where he really found his voice, and his purpose. That’s where he found his most righteous indignation.
The biggest problem with righteous indignation is that everyone thinks their indignation is righteous. It isn’t. A slave owner’s feeling of being oppressed for having their “right” to own slaves impinged was not righteous indignation; it was hypocrisy. Adams knew that, and absolutely thrived on battling the Southern supporters of slavery in the House.
He abhorred his country’s “dastardly servility to the slave mongrel oligarchy” and said if he had the power, he would “have banished war and slavery from the face of the earth forever.” He didn’t have the power to stop slavery, but that didn’t stop him from trying.
Adams scored two of the greatest civil rights victories of his generation. The first was in the Amistad case, where he successfully defended enslaved men before the Supreme Court. Then he focused his righteous indignation on the “Gag Rule,” a ridiculous House rule that prevented petitions against slavery from ever being brought up. I don’t just love that he did this; I love how he did it…
The crafty activist Adams once brought up a petition so repulsive to his Southern enemies that they tried to formally censure him. Little did they know they were falling into his trap. Their accusation gave him the right to speak in his own defense for as long as he wanted, without limits on the content. He spoke for two weeks, and instead of defending himself he delivered an unrelenting indictment of Southerners and their desecration of American values. Then he quickly released written versions of his speeches so they could be printed across the country. How can anyone not love this man?
The resolution censuring Adams was overturned. After two more years of fighting, so was the gag rule.
Moves like this helped Adams become known as “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.” His friends called him Old Man Eloquent. His enemies called him The Madman from Massachusetts. No one called him on the telephone, because it hadn’t been invented yet. (I’m sorry; this is what you married.)
By the way, that same fierce passion about fighting injustice is one of the things I love about you, too. Except maybe when we’re having an argument and my socks on the bathroom floor are suddenly a war crime.
I feel that passion inside myself, too. It’s like little sleeper cells in my blood that remain dormant until they’re activated and suddenly get set to rage until the moral arc of the universe is bent back toward justice. In those moments I feel a little bit like John Quincy Adams, if he was just a random guy on Facebook.
A Little Bit of Mystery
When I said I’m a sucker for the specific, I should have been more specific. What really sucks me in is a combination of meaningful details and a little bit of mystery.
Remember when we took a little road trip to see Hamilton and we listened to songs by The Weeknd and tried to figure out exactly what The Hills was about? “I only call you when it’s half past five.” Why? Why 5:30? Not knowing all the answers and getting to project our own into the song made it even better.
The more I read about John Quincy Adams, the more I find specific little mysteries that entice me – like the dark period after his mother Abigail made him break up with his girlfriend. It’s unclear, but during this time he may have sought to satisfy his lustful urges by seeking out the company of ladies of the night.
Take this excerpt from James Traub’s John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit:
This was a dark time for Adams…[He] was also, or so his diary obliquely implies, tormented by unsatisfied desire… In the late summer of 1792 he began taking himself in a different direction, possibly westward along Beacon Street to the lower-class neighborhood known as Mount Whoredom, Boston’s red-light district. Prostitution had become increasingly common in Boston during the second half of the eighteenth century, and in the area near the wharves women openly offered sex.
Adams filled his diary with barely veiled references to his exploits: “Mall. I got fortunately home.” “As before – idleness instigates to everything bad.” “Oh! Shame. Where is thy blush! Late home.” “Evening at my office. Foolish adventure afterwards. Discretion prevailed.” Adams was horrified by his own behavior: he used the word “fortunate” to mean “nothing happened.” But sometimes he made a “lamentable mistake” – whatever that meant.
Based on this passage, John Quincy Adams either went whoring or he blew off steam by murdering some prostitutes. Or maybe he paid them just to sit there quietly while he read Homer. With him it could go either way, really.
The man certainly wasn’t perfect. As far ahead of his time as he was on civil rights, he still held some cringe-worthy racist and misogynistic views. And he clearly loved his wife Louisa but sometimes reading about his lack of consideration for her feelings felt like a punch in the gut. For me, these flaws are part of him but they don’t define him nearly as much as his lifelong drive to improve himself and achieve true world-changing greatness.
I love that there’s almost never a dull moment with this guy. He left behind tens of thousands of pages of written letters and diaries, and in every one I’ve looked at he pops off the page. And I’ve only begun to scratch the surface! More pages of his diary are being transcribed and put online as we speak, thanks to the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary Project at the Massachusetts Historical Society. (You can donate now to help.) ((We already did and they sent me a sweet bookmark!)) Thanks to work like theirs, I know I can drop in to Adams’s life anytime I want like I’m visiting an old friend.
Sometimes I’m rewarded with a bit of inspiration. One time I even found a mantra that seemed tailor-made just for me. Adams was talking about his addiction to reading and how it might not bring him wealth or honor, but he wasn’t about to quit, and he declared: “I must, therefore, continue to plod…”
What can I say? Plodders gotta plod. (I’m not sorry. You know who you married.)
When we visited D.C. a few years ago, one of my favorite parts was seeing the old House Chamber and the plaque marking where John Quincy Adams’s desk used to be. It meant so much to see exactly where he staged the final, triumphant act of his career — the place he spent the last 17 years of his life trying his damnedest to make a difference, right up until the moment he suffered a fatal stroke, just feet away from a young Abraham Lincoln. (Lincoln would be the undisputed star of The United States: Part 3, in case you were wondering.)
I love that reading Adams’s youthful diary entries feels like an 18th century version of Mortified, and that you get to see him grow from Holden Caulfield all the way to Larry David. I love that he totally rose to the immense pressure put on him by his parents from a young age, and he ended up fighting for a more noble cause than they did. I don’t love that he murdered countless prostitutes for Abigail, but I love that he fed on the fury of slave owners like you feed on Sour Patch Kids when you’re pregnant.
This is why, when people ask, “Who’s your favorite so far?” I can’t help but say John Quincy Adams.
I hope you understand.
Your Dearest Friend and Most Humble and Affectionate Husband,
Laugh out loud. That was one hell of an introductory to John Quincy Adams for someone not too familiar with him. We don’t get this kind of deep insight of the good, the bad, and the hilarity into presidents from textbooks. Thank goodness for the internet, therefore, we will continue to go deeper…
I’m thrilled that I was able to introduce you to John Quincy Adams. I can think of few greater honors than being a gateway drug to digging deeper into presidential history. Thank you for reading!
JQA and Weezer, WOW!. JQA is my favorite president and Weezer is one of my favorite bands.
“Listening to Weezer’s first two albums was like reading from a beautifully raw diary, and listening to their third album after a five year hiatus was like listening to a Stepford wife mumble in her sleep.”
Thank you! I’m so glad I finally found my demographic!
you are always a total joy to read Howard and you teach me things! I feel like I have hung around with this long dead presidents.
Thank you so much!
I loved the book by Paul Nagel, which provides such an insightful look into the life of JQA, as do you. I can see why he is a favorite of yours. He does not receive enough credit for what he accomplished…when he was not President.