New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 547 pp. $8.75.
John Quincy Adams was the last President to serve before the flood of Jacksonian equalitarianism permanently changed the tone of American political life. He was not a brilliant or a profound man; but he was an indefatigable worker who kept a diary of his activities for sixty years; a prodigious reader, learned in sciences other than politics; and he was a patriot of the Revolutionary school. Perhaps most important of all, he possessed a New England conscience, which means that he had character, however angular and lacking in charm. There were many uses for a man like this in the formative period of our republic, and history did not fail to match him with great events. “A boy tugging at his mother’s hand, he watched from a distance the battle of Bunker Hill,” and he served his country until the age of eighty, when he was fatally stricken on the floor of the House while making a speech on the Mexican War.
The great contest of his life was with Andrew Jackson, whom he defeated for the Presidency in 1824 only after the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. It stands as one of the few times that a mere civilian has been able to triumph over a military hero in a rivalry for the chief office of the land. Even so, it was an uneasy Presidency; Adams’ rather abstract program of “Liberty with Power” did not excite the popular mind, and the Jacksonians marked time until they could make their real power felt. After his term as President he was sent to Congress from the Plymouth district of Massachusetts in 1830, and he served faithfully in the humbler office for eighteen years.
During this period as legislator, Adams fought for an “equitable” tariff, supported the Bank of the United States as an instrumentality of Union, took a leading part in the anti-Masonic movement which at one time attained considerable political proportions, contended against the Southern “nullifiers” at every opportunity, and opposed the annexation of Texas as a nefarious scheme to increase the power of the slavocrats.
All of these matters the author relates in sober professorial style, with compendious footnotes. To say that the narrative is fresh or exciting would be unwarranted. It is a product of scholarly industry, with no aspect of Adams’ mature life considered too dull for liberal quotations and citations. Adams’ early career was similarly treated in Bemis’ previous biography of him.
No experienced reader of biography expects a biographer to be wholly impartial; the very fact that he has chosen a certain life to chronicle shows that he cherishes some sentiment in regard to it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that in two instances Bemis has been unduly partisan and lacking in critical candor. The first of these concerns his subject’s relation to the Texas Question. In his early years, Adams had been an expansionist himself, but when Texas entered the picture, he seemed to lose all perspective. He swallowed whole the current abolitionist view of the issue, which was that the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War constituted a gigantic plot on the part of Southern slave owners to add to their territory. Recent historical scholarship has proved that the facts are at variance with any such interpretation. On this matter Adams was parochial, shortsighted, and intemperate.
In the second instance, he seems most ungenerous to John C. Calhoun. Every stick is used to beat this American statesman. He chortles over Calhoun’s about-face on the tariff issue. In a fashion hardly congruous with critical scholarship, he captions Adams “Defender of Freedom” and Calhoun “Defender of Slavery.” It is just as if Adams had to have a “heavy,” and Calhoun is it. The reader gets no inkling from what is said here that Calhoun, through his doctrine of the concurrent majority, is one of the most effective of all antitotalitarian spokesmen, and that as far as political theory goes, he erected a sounder scaffolding for liberty with power than did Adams himself.
The vast amount of research which went into this work leaves every reader in Professor Bemis’ debt. But the execution as a whole leaves something to be desired. An excessive spirit of adulation rather frequently interferes with proportioning, and colors the author’s expression.
Richard M. Weaver