Most students of American politics agree that John Quincy Adams was a great American, yet, besides the chapter on Adams in Ted Sorenson’s Profiles in Courage, he is seldom given a place in America’s pantheon. That may be changing. Many Americans saw Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Adams in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film “Amistad.” David McCullough, author of the bestselling biography of John Adams, is lobbying for an Adams family monument in Washington. These developments are welcome, for America could learn from John Quincy Adams’s story.

In the last few years, several scholars have tried to rise to the challenge. Unfortunately, none of their books is quite up to the subject. Paul C. Nagel, an expert on the Adams family, tries to capture the “inner” Adams by writing a heavily psychological study. James E. Lewis, a diplomatic historian, highlights the concern for the fate of the Union that drove much of Adams’s career. But his book is interesting more for its discussion about the politics of the Union than for its treatment of Adams. Lynn H. Parsons, who has been working on Adams for many years, provides a very readable general biography. In addition, William Lee Miller chronicles Adams’s heroic fight against the Congressional “gag” rule against anti-slavery petitions. All these books are serviceable, but none of them does justice to the subject.

According to the traditional account, Adams had two careers. The first was an eminently successful career as a diplomat. With the exception of his five years in the Senate from 1803 to 1808, Adams worked in the Union’s diplomatic corps from 1794 to 1825, culminating with his tenure as Secretary of State under President Monroe, 1817-1825. After a single, miserable term as President, 1825-1829, Adams returned to Washington to begin what scholars call his second career, as a representative from his home district in Quincy, Massachusetts. There he played our his life sparring with the “slave power.” Throughout both careers, Adams remained active in science and letters.

Given the scope of Adams’s life and works—poet, polemicist, historian, diarist, scientist, Harvard professor, diplomat, and politician—it is no surprise that he presents scholars with a challenge. Perhaps Adams’s biographer ought to make a virtue of necessity. Rather than trying to give due attention to each of Adams’s interests or arbitrarily triaging Adams’s life, a scholar would be wise to consider what drove a man to lead such a life. Perhaps we can bring coherence to Adams’s seemingly chaotic and eclectic life if we focus on his profound ambition.

When we take seriously Adams’s yearning for greatness, his diverse activities come together into a grand pattern. Adams set out not simply to continue the work that his father had begun, but also to build upon and transform it. In 1841 Adams published “The Wants of Man,” in which he wrote,

I want the genius to conceive, the talents to unfold
Designs the vicious to retrieve, the virtuous to uphold.
Inventive power, combining skill; a preserving soul,
Of human hearts to mold the will, and reach from Pole to Pole.

Five years later, looking over the diary which he had kept almost his entire adult life, Adams lamented, “If my intellectual powers had been such as have been sometimes committed by the Creator of man to single individuals of the species, my diary would have been, next to the Holy Scriptures, the most precious and valuable book ever written by human hands, and I should have been one of the greatest benefactors of my country and of mankind…[and] have banished war and slavery from the face of the earth forever.” Adams wished to stamp his benevolent imprint on the soul of man.

Where did that kind of ambition come from? In part, Adams got it from his parents. While he was busy leading the drive for independence in the spring of 1776, John wrote Abigail Adams to look after the children. “Take Care they don’t go astray. Cultivate their Minds, inspire their little Hearts, raise their Wishes. Fix their Attention upon great and glorious Objects, root out every little Thing, weed out every Meanness, make them great and manly.” Those lessons were not lost on his eldest son. Yet John Quincy’s ambition presented him with a problem. Historically, great men had been the founders of nations, but his nation had already been founded. The avenue open to Adams was to build on and consolidate the work of his father’s generation, within the new nation and in her relations with the rest of the world. Sensing that the American experiment was fragile, Adams sought to save the republic, earning enduring glory for himself in the process.

In his diplomatic career, as Lewis highlights, Adams sought to solve “the problem of neighborhood.” Wars undermined liberty throughout history. Faced with an armed enemy, a nation typically sacrificed domestic liberty for security. The Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, negotiated by Adams, made the neighborhood safe for American democracy. With title to land from Florida to Oregon, the American Union effectively became an island nation. The Monroe Doctrine, the framework of which Adams gave to his Chief Executive, built upon that work by keeping the European powers from re-establishing a strong beachhead in the Americas. Yet Adams worried that securing American dominance in North America would merely be the easy part of a larger project. Upon signing the Transcontinental Treaty, Adams wrote in his diary, “It is the work of an intelligent and all-embracing Cause. May it speed as it has begun! For, without a continuation of the blessings already showered upon it, all that has been done will be worse than useless, and vain.” From that day forward, Adams worried that his plans could backfire. Historically, republics had been small, and, the theory went, could only be small. America’s founders had hoped that a federal republic could secure liberty over a large territory, but no one knew how far the federal principle could be taken. In addition, the land was brought into a Union half-slave and half-free, with no guarantee that it would serve the cause of liberty.

From the start Adams intended to use his diplomatic victories to serve the larger causes of liberty and union. Though Adams seemed indifferent during the Missouri Crisis of 1819 and 1820, doing little more than having deep philosophical discussions of the matter with Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, he had long had the two-sided problem of slavery and sectionalism in his sights. He planned to use his presidency to unify the nation, and to propagate republican government across the continent. By selling the lands the nation had acquired between 1803 and 1819 and by erecting a tariff to protect domestic industry, the government would take the revenue necessary to build roads and canals, which would integrate the Union politically and commercially; and at the same time, those revenues would pay for improvements in the arts and sciences that would help the nation progress. The program would integrate the Union, rendering the sections so dependent on each other as to make sectionalism unthinkable. Gradually, it would extinguish slavery by modernizing the Southern economy. Sensing Adams’s design, the South fought against Adams’s program with all its might, arguing that it was defending American liberty against a tyrannical government. The South won.

At first, failure left Adams thunderstruck, but it ultimately mellowed him and made him wise. After losing the presidency to Andrew Jackson in 1828, Adams found himself reciting the French opera about Richard the Lionhearted which he had heard many years before in Paris. The minstrel sings to imprisoned Richard: “O, Richard! O mon Roi!/ l’Univers t’abandonne.” For years before his presidency, Adams had regarded himself, like his nation, as a child of destiny, but fate had other plans for him. In 1837, he reflected upon his plight, and his nation’s:

The great object of my life therefore as applied to the administration of the Government of the United States hasfailed—:The American Union as a moral person in the family of Nations, is to live from hand to mouth, to cast away, instead of using for the improvement of its own condition…to rivet into perpetuity the clanking chain of the slave, and to waste in boundless bribery to the west the invaluable inheritance of the Public Lands.

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If trends continued, the American continent would be a giant house of bondage; the bounty Adams secured for the nation in his diplomatic career would indeed be “worse than useless, and vain.”

As he contemplated the failure of his program, Adams concluded that he had been outmaneuvered not just politically but also rhetorically. The South defeated Adams in the name of liberty. Clearly that was paradoxical. How could the defenders of slavery speak of rights? As he thought about the problem, Adams grew more and more to agree with his father’s opinion that there was a defect in much Enlightened thought.

“The philosophical spirit of the last century,” Adams wrote, “under the fair and virtuous vizor of religious toleration, harbored a deadly hatred to Christianity, and a secret devotion to the absurdest of all dogmas, the superstition of atheism.” Though the Philosophes claimed to support liberty, their philosophy actually undermined it. Though they thought that reason alone upheld the rights of men, in fact, Adams concluded, it was the Christian teaching that all men were made in God’s image that did so. Hence, John C. Calhoun could speak unblushingly of his rights to liberty and property, even as he defended slavery.

Adams dedicated the rest of his life to fighting the South’s false liberal-republicanism; to promoting instead New England’s conceptions of liberty and union. Like most New Englanders, Adams believed that the principles of 1776 were the moral foundation of the American republic and he set out to spread that gospel. In July 4th orations in 1831, 1837, and 1843; in public eulogies of Madison, Monroe, and Lafayette; in a major address on the golden anniversary of the Constitution; and in many other speeches Adams spoke of the link that bound 1787 to 1776, and both to the Biblical tradition, with all the eloquence that the first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric could muster. Grateful admirers throughout the North soon dubbed Adams “old man eloquent,” for his work in the service of his country.

Haunted by the sense that his role in expanding the Union had unwittingly served the “sable genius of the South,” Adams spent his last years seeking atonement for the unintentional sins of his early career. He fought heroically with Southern defenders of slavery and Northern Union men to put the North on a firm anti-slavery footing. Like Daniel Webster, Adams had once thought that liberty could not endure the loss of union, but now he found that union was an inadequate organizing principle for American politics. It was a mistake to think that the Union would always serve the cause of liberty. Congressman Adams highlighted the threats to liberty within the Union by demonstrating the South’s true colors. Employing his caustic personality and whatever issues were at hand, Adams baited hotheaded Southerners to attack him. At one point, Southern congressmen even tried to impeach Adams, only to find themselves painted into a political, procedural, and rhetorical corner. Each sally Adams provoked from them only advanced Northern antipathy to slavery.

Adams died fearing that his rearguard action would fall short. While writing his brief for the Amistad case in the Spring of 1841, Adams reflected in his diary:

The world, the flesh, and all the devils in hell are arrayed against any man who now in this North American Union shall dare to join the standard of Almighty God to put down the African slave-trade; and what can I, upon the verge of my seventy-fourth birthday, with a shaking hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy brain, and with all my faculties dropping from me one by one…do for the cause of God and man, for the progress of human emancipation, for the suppression of African slave trade? Yet my conscience presses me on; let me die but upon the breach.

John Quincy Adams set out to save the American republic and ensure his own glory at the same time. By setting off the sparks that Abraham Lincoln would soon blow into the fire, Adams may have done both.