Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger

As I continue my reading of Presidential biographies, I arrived at just the right time in the list to pick up the newest bio of John Quincy Adams by Harlow Unger.  I finished the previous biography of James Monroe also by Unger, and it seemed fortuitous to continue with the same author.  Unger's writing is clean, interesting, well-researched.  It is not over-burdened with footnotes (and besides they're tucked out of the way in the back) and concentrates on looking at the life of his subjects from all aspects.  Numerous illustrations are interspersed throughout the book to add to its interest.  In fact, JQA was the first president to sit for an actual photograph, which picture is included in the book.

Unger is brutally honest about JQA's achievements:  his presidency is acknowledged to be notable for its lack of accomplishment and JQA's refusal to engage in political campaigning or any form of party membership or partianship while in the White House.  Instead his major contribution to the nation he loved was before and after his presidency - in his years of service overseas in diplomatic posts (starting at the age of 15 when he was sent to the Russian court at St. Petersburg).  His various European posts and accomplishments - France, London, the Hague, St Petersburg) are all delightfully portrayed and give us a feeling of affection for someone so young and so talented.

It is however, in his life after the Presidency that he truly shines.  As the only (so far) previous president to serve in the House after his presidency, JQA made a name for himself defending free speech, fighting against slavery, speaking before the Supreme Court, and finally learning the power of the political speech.  He made many enemies, but died a man respected by many more on both sides of the aisle. 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this biography.  It gave me the information I needed to understand why his presidency was so non-productive, to see the influences that shaped his thinking, to meet the friends, relatives and mentors who helped him become the truly great statesman he was.  In his last term as a Congressman (he died on the floor of the House while it was in session), he gave a speech that was so memorable about slavery and the need to abolish it, that a young 1st term Congressman from Illinois (one Abraham Lincoln) used his wording when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.

Reading facts like that convince me that my decision to read the presidents in order was a good one. I read Andrew Jackson (next in line) last year, but may skim back through it again before going on to Martin Van Buren.  It is an interesting, enlightening, and entertaining reading challenge.  Who else wants to join in?

Title: John Quincy Adams
Author: Harlow Giles Unger
Publisher: De Capo Press (2012), 384 pages
Subject: John Quincy Adams
Genre: biography
Source: Barnes & Noble, purchased for my Nook 
Why did I read this book now? Next president in line for the US Presidents Reading Challenge


  1. oh, this is right up the Bro's alley. I hear Christmas is approaching.....

  2. I've just started reading this bio. A friend who received two copies of it thought I would like it, and she's right. Now that my "chemo brain" is subsiding, I can enjoy reading books like this again.

    1. Barbara...good to hear from you. I 'm so glad you're feeling better. I really thought this one had just the right mix of research, background material and good settings. It's the perfect length for a non-academic reader. I hope he writes more, and I hope your health continues to improve.

  3. Congrats on your plan to read biographies of the presidents. A very worthwhile challenge.

    1. make me sound way too virtuous. I started this project back in 1990, and didn't get past Washington!!! I got serious again about 3 years ago when my sister and several friends joined in. It is a fascinating way to study history.


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