John Quincy Adams certainly seemed destined for greatness. He was the oldest son of a founding father and second president. At 11, he sailed with his father to France and studied there. As a teenager, he worked as secretary to Richard Dana, the American minister to the Russian court. After earning his degree at Harvard, he served as a diplomat in Holland, Prussia, and Russia. He served as the Secretary of State under James Monroe (at the time this position was a stepping stone to the presidency), and he negotiated with Britain to fix the northern boundaries between the United States and Canada.
But then he became president. The Electoral College’s votes had been inconclusive, and after some wrangling and dealing, he was declared the victor over war hero, Andrew Jackson. But, according to biographer Harlow Giles Unger, JQA was a man out of step with his times. He believed that everyone had “unlimited talents, restrained only by lack of educational opportunities that he believed the federal government should provide.” But this seemed elitist to the average American who just wanted to own enough land to feed his family and sell the extra. Basically JQA suffered through four years of Congressional obstruction; Congress brought government to a halt. And JQA, in his old-fashioned belief that the public “would recognize merit,” didn’t campaign for his proposals or answer his critics.
Here’s how Unger describes him: “Depressed, he moped about the White House, lost weight noticeably, and reduced his presidential routine to early-morning Bible reading, a daily walk or swim in the Potomac, dinner . . ., then an evening chat or a game of billiards. In the course of the day, he kept up with newspapers, signed letters, and received occasional visitors, but grew so moody he stopped writing in his diary, unable to understand why and how he had failed to make his countrymen understand what he was trying to do for them and his nation.”
When he lost to Jackson in 1828, JQA wrote in his diary, “The sun of my political life sets in the deepest gloom.”
But the sun had not set on JQA’s political life. In fact, he was just beginning what was to become the most noble part of his career. Elected to the House of Representatives, he rejected party politics and became an advocate for the abolition of slavery. When the House passed a Gag Rule to disallow abolition petitions, JQA attacked that as unconstitutional and found various ways to reintroduce the topic, so much so that southern House members charged him with treason. He led the legal team that freed the black prisoners on the ship Amistad. And he finally defeated the Gag rule.
When he died (in the House of Representatives) in 1848, according to Unger, “The nation mourned as it had not since the deaths of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. John Quincy lay in state in a committee room in congress for two days after his death; thousand filed by silently, often not knowing why exactly, but somehow realizing they had lost a champion of their rights–a representative of no single constituency, state , or region but of all Americans and of the whole nation.”
When we look for role models, we often choose those shining stars who seem to fly effortlessly from victory to victory. But often the most successful people are those who have tasted failure, but found a way to make a difference in spite of it.