H-Net Review: Barlow on Waldstreicher, 'A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams' (x-h-war)

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David Waldstreicher, ed.
Rhonda Barlow

Barlow on Waldstreicher, 'A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams'

David Waldstreicher, ed. A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Blackwell Companions to American History Series. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 584 pp. $171.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-118-52429-9; $213.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-470-65558-0.

Reviewed by Rhonda Barlow (University of Virginia) Published on H-War (November, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=44325

In 2008, millions of Americans watched HBO’s seven-part miniseries, John Adams. As Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein observe in their essay in the volume under review, “What had begun as McCullough’s valentine to John Adams turned into a media orgy over the supposedly forgotten founder and his spunky wife” (p. 488). Anyone wanting to know more about the Adamses after David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, John Adams (2001), and the subsequent miniseries can turn to A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

Edited by David Waldstreicher, who also authored one of the essays, the collection includes a very brief introduction, followed by twenty-five essays divided into three sections. In the first section, “The First Generation,” nine essays are dedicated to the elder Adams and two to the family matriarch, Abigail. The second section, “The Second Generation,” includes ten essays on John Adams’s son, John Quincy, and one on Louisa Catherine, John Quincy’s wife. Three essays in part 3, “Images and Legacies,” complete the volume. As is typical in such collections, the essays vary in organization and quality, but all include either a bibliographic essay or a list for further reading. The essays in the first two sections are arranged chronologically, and many of the essays are “parallel,” taking into account that both John Adams and John Quincy Adams served as diplomats, politicians, and presidents; that both endured difficult elections; and that both were married to women who left significant paper trails (p. 2). In particular, Margaret A. Hogan notes that Abigail Adams is “better documented than virtually any other eighteenth-century American woman” (p. 237).

“The First Generation” opens with a chapter on the life of John Adams, and the treatment of his life by biographers. This overview of Adams’s life provides a helpful context for subsequent chapters. Most of the essays reflect the attention scholars have given to Adams’s political career and writings. Chapter 2 addresses Adams as a child of the Enlightenment, in particular, the Scottish Enlightenment. Similarly, chapter 5 delves into Adams’s political thought. David J. Siemers notes that Adams “had explicitly borrowed so much that he did not think of himself as original, and yet the sum of these parts was a unique vision of government” (p. 118). Siemers’s overview of Adams’s political thought includes a section titled “The Mixed Republic in Practice.” His sympathetic assessment of Adams’s presidency should be compared with the much less laudatory treatment offered by Douglas Bradburn, who argues that Adams “lacked executive experience,” and that “although a brilliant observer, he was not a leader of men” (pp. 168, 169). Other chapters address Adams’s revolutionary politics from 1760 to 1775, his service in the Continental Congress and as a diplomat, and his complex views on religion. Abigail Adams receives a chapter on her life and biographers, and another considering her status as a feminist.

“The Second Generation” opens with “John Quincy Adams: The Life, the Diary, and the Biographers.” As Waldstreicher observes, “It seems clear that the main barriers to a rounded view of Adams lie in the length and breadth of his career.... Just as important, however, are the challenges posed by the long diary” (p. 261). John Quincy Adams started his diary in 1779 and made the last entry in 1848, meaning it spans two periods generally treated as distinct by modern historians: the early republic and the antebellum. Second, the diary is not a straightforward record of daily events but a complex work enhanced by Adams’s background in diplomacy and rhetoric, a work he expected would be published. In short, the diary “conceals as it reveals” (p. 246). Only a modest selection of Adams’s massive diary is in print, but there is an ongoing project to publish a full online edition.[1]

Most of the John Quincy Adams’s essays are repetitive, simply because any account of his domestic role in the National Republican Party, his failed attempt at internal improvements, his rocky elections, and his presidency must address the sectional division over the expansion of slavery. David F. Ericson offers a useful analysis of Adams as an antebellum politician balancing his dedication to a strong union “as a moral entity” with his strong antislavery sentiments; in contrast, John C. Calhoun was balancing loyalty to a strong union “as a confederation” while also being strongly proslavery (p. 373). Two chapters focus on Adams as an intellectual. The final essay is dedicated to Louisa Catherine Adams, who has lived in the historiographical shadows of both her famous husband and her famous mother-in-law, yet as a skillful participant in court politics in Russia and Washington, may have been an accomplished diplomat in her own right.

“Images and Legacies” opens with a chapter addressing the complex relationship between the Adamses and Thomas Jefferson. Herbert E. Sloan traces the emergence and development of their political differences that eventually resulted in their estrangement. Despite the renewal of their correspondence in 1812, Sloan concludes, “In fact, neither now, at the close of their lives, nor earlier had the two of them ever seriously attempted to understand the other” (p. 483). In The Adamses on Screen,” Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein challenge the view that John Adams has been “neglected” and analyze the portrayals of the Adamses in history, fiction, and film, including the HBO miniseries John Adams, the thirteen-episode PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles (1976), the Broadway musical 1776, first staged in 1969, and the film Amistad (1997). The volume concludes with an evaluation of the significance of the Adamses, and the importance of their surviving writings and portraits.

It is unfortunate that no essay is dedicated to John Adams’s important role in establishing the US Navy, and related scholarship does not appear in the bibliography. John Quincy Adams is credited with the renewal of the Prussian-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce, but his father’s role in negotiating the original treaty is also nowhere mentioned. Nor is the elder Adams’s diplomacy with the Barbary states.[2]

While there are advantages in treating the two Adamses in a single volume, pairing them privileges kinship over chronology. John Adams was president from 1797 to 1801; John Quincy Adams, from 1825 to 1829. In the interval, both the United States and the world changed dramatically, with the end of the wars of the French Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, the independence of much of Latin America, the Missouri Compromise, and escalating sectional tension over slavery. Separating the two Adams presidencies are the administrations of three two-term Virginians: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Pairing John Adams and James Madison could have encouraged parallel essays on their performance as wartime presidents, including their views on a standing army, navy, and the militia. Pairing James Monroe and John Quincy Adams could have invited comparison of their diplomatic careers and the origins of the Monroe Doctrine.

These caveats aside, this collection is a convenient overview of America’s first two presidents from New England. For readers familiar with the Adamses primarily through the HBO miniseries, Isenberg and Burstein’s chapter “The Adamses on Screen” is an entertaining corrective and a good place to start.


[1]. For images of the pages of all the volumes of Adams’s diary, see “The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection,” http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/php/. Ongoing transcriptions of the diary are available on “The John Quincy Adams Diary Digital Project,” https://www.masshist.org/publications/jqadiaries/index.php.

[2]. For example, see William G. Anderson, “John Adams, the Navy, and the Quasi-War with France,” American Neptune 30, no. 2 (1970): 117-132; Gregory E. Fehlings, “America’s First Limited War,” Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (2000): 101-143; and Michael Kitzen, “Money Bags or Cannon Balls: The Origins of the Tripolitan War, 1795-1801,” Journal of the Early Republic 16, no. 4 (1996): 601-624.

Citation: Rhonda Barlow. Review of Waldstreicher, David, ed., A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=44325

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