Regele on Traub, 'John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit'

James Traub
Lindsay Schakenbach Regele

James Traub. John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 640 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-02827-6.

Reviewed by Lindsay Schakenbach Regele (Miami University of Ohio) Published on H-FedHist (July, 2017) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

Why should we study John Quincy Adams? The answer, according to James Traub, is that he represents a “defunct evolutionary line in American political life” (p. xviii). Adams was at the same time conservative and progressive; principles, not partisanship, drove his actions. Traub blends Adams’s public service and family life to sketch a biographical portrait of a man both austere and loving, moral and realist. Over a career that spanned the nation’s founding to the Mexican American War, Adams simultaneously advocated for an activist government and attempted to transcend politics, to mixed success. Although Adams served as the nation’s sixth president, his greatest accomplishments occurred in Congress and the State Department. 

As the son of one of the nation’s most influential and accomplished couples, Adams was anxiously determined to carve out his own professional and political space. He expressed an elite conservatism early on, by siding against tax rebellions in Massachusetts and lambasting the French Revolution. His defense of President George Washington’s response to the controversial Citizen Genêt Affair earned him the post of minister to the Hague in 1794. In Holland, Adams observed the perils of a republic unable to defend itself and dependent on foreign power, and came to believe that “liberty would mean nothing without the force to repel predators” (p. 70). When Adams returned to the United States, he moved from diplomacy to legislation as a US senator. He refused to align with either the dominant Federalist Party of his home state or the national Democrat-Republican Party (even as his fierce admiration of Thomas Jefferson persisted). Traub portrays Adams’s tendency to take the political high road, opposing, for example, Massachusetts senator Harrison Gray Otis’s bank because it reserved shares for legislators. He also took a controversial stance on the Louisiana Purchase by arguing that it was unconstitutional. 
Adams served as the chief negotiator for the Treaty of Ghent at the end of the War of 1812, a stalemate that Traub argues was a significant American victory because it laid the groundwork for the United States to “become a continental nation with a size and power to rival Europe’s” (p. 195). As President James Monroe’s secretary of state, Adams fully emerged as the chief architect of American expansionism. Adams opposed Indian rights to land and supported American military aggression in Spanish territory. He also shrewdly and arrogantly negotiated for Florida and added “astringency” to the Monroe Doctrine (p. 285). Traub characterizes Adams’s diplomacy as an articulation of America’s continental destiny. “It was Spain’s misfortune,” according to Traub, “to be perched at the turbulent edges of the expanding American republic” (p. 220). 

As “an unsentimental realist on foreign policy and a Burkean skeptic of democratic romanticism at home,” Adams struggled against the idealist strain in American politics that would dominate most of the nation’s history (p. 325). He also failed to adapt to politics as a popularity contest. He won the presidential election of 1824 in a “corrupt bargain,” and was the first president to face a Congress controlled by the opposition. Adams pushed for an activist state that Americans were not ready for and ultimately, left the presidency feeling misunderstood. He retired to private life briefly, before he became the first and only president to serve in the House after his presidential tenure. Adams was effective in Congress in a way he never had been as president. He worked tirelessly for abolition, aligning against John C. Calhoun on states’ rights and tariffs, winning the Amistad case, and finally abolishing the “gag rule” that stifled antislavery discussion.

Throughout the book, Traub compellingly interweaves character with public service, which helps illuminate Adams’s policy decisions and his fraught relationships with such notable contemporaries as John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson (both of whom he admired early in his career). On Adams’s voyage to St. Petersburg to serve as minister to Russia, we see his fanatic devotion to public duty: the seas were so rough that the captain advised turning back, but Adams insisted that they continue, even as it put his and his family’s lives at risk. And despite his rectitude, Adams was not immune to egoism--he declined a seat on the Supreme Court because he viewed it as a lifelong prison sentence, but was thrilled the nomination was unanimous. He tended to have the sense that everyone was out to get him. At the end of the War of 1812, when Adams pushed harder than the other treaty commissioners for New England fishing rights, because his father had won them after the Revolution, he accused the other Americans of forming a “cabal” against him. Traub mines Adams’s 14,000-page personal journal for all of his anxieties and insecurities, but sometimes seems too willing to take Adams at his word. Adams conveniently stopped writing around the time of the “corrupt bargain.” He was a principled man, but he was also a politician. We know that he considered himself a man without a party, but who were his constituents? Traub, for example, mentions that as president Adams abandoned his cautious neutrality toward the revolution in Greece by deciding to send an official there. I wonder if Adams made that decision based on pressure from merchants who were economically interested in Greek independence. I found myself wanting a bit more engagement with scholarship on early American political development, but in a biography with a wide intended readership, the omission is forgivable. The text itself is free of notes and citation, but for curious readers, there is a section at the end that lists all pages that contain cited information. Each page number is followed by a chunk of bolded text and corresponding citation. 

All told, this is a balanced, accessible narrative that highlights Adams’s contributions to American governance and international relations. Traub does not fall into the hagiographic trap of many biographies; nor does he shy away from making clear his subject’s importance. Reflecting on Adams’s death in 1848, Traub writes, “in the national imagination, Adams had now merged with that founding generation” (p. 533).

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