Monumental slight: John Quincy Adams short-changed

Lane Lambert

At first glance, you wouldn’t think President John Quincy Adams would have the least bit in common with the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield.

But maybe they do. Like Dangerfield, whose signature lament was, “I don’t get no respect,” some historians think the nation’s sixth president still isn’t getting all the respect he’s due.

“Presidential biographers just pass him over,” said journalist Joseph Wheelan, the author of the newly-published book “Mr. Adams’ Last Crusade.”

“JQA,” as he’s known among scholars, was one of the ablest secretaries of state in U.S. history, according to some scholars. And the “last crusade” of Wheelan’s book refers to his post-presidential campaign as an anti-slavery congressman – the only former president to pursue a legislative career after he left the White House.

But for most Americans, he still stands in the shadow of his famous parents, President John Adams and Abigail Adams – perhaps more than ever thanks to the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” which began airing in March and concludes on April 20.

In a city where the Adams name is literally all over the map, JQA’s is absent. Schools are named for him in Washington, D.C., Deer Park, N.Y. and Dallas, of all places. So is a residence hall at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. But no streets or institutions in Quincy bear his name.

In May, the U.S. Mint will issue a $1 coin in JQA’s honor, as they have for the first five presidents. But a bronze figure in Quincy Center may more accurately symbolize his eternally junior status: John Quincy Adams as a young boy, standing with a bronze of his mother. Both of them gaze across the street toward a life-size John Adams statue outside City Hall.

‘No one looks’

Wheelan’s Public Affairs volume comes more than a decade after JQA got his last high-profile attention – Paul Nagel’s biography “John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life,” and the movie “Amistad,” both in 1997. Wheelan hopes his new book will help restore the younger Adams to his proper standing.

“He was so bright, and so principle-driven by everything he did,” said the retired Associated Press reporter. “And it was such a unique thing for a former president to go back to Congress.”

Born in Braintree in 1767, Adams was president from 1825-28 and lost re-election in a bitter rematch with Andrew Jackson.

Nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” in his day, he served in the House from 1831 until his death in 1848, delivering pungent speeches to the end. Crowds gathered along the railway route to see the black-draped car that carried his coffin home to Quincy.

Like many others, Wheelan knew little of Adams’ later career until he researched an earlier book on the Mexican War of 1846. As he delved into Adams’ opposition to the U.S. invasion and his anti-slavery speeches and legislation, “I was fascinated,” he said.

Wheelan thinks JQA is overlooked in large part because he was “the son of a Founder” who served a “dismal” presidential term filled with partisan conflict. (In fact, discord and tension were the rule from the start: He is the only president ever elected by the House of Representatives.)

“No one looks at what he did after his presidency,” Wheelan said.

Nagel, a Minneapolis resident and longtime Adams family scholar, said Wheelan’s book is evidence of a JQA revival that’s long overdue.

“It’s true that his presidency was no great success,” Nagel said. “But his career as secretary of state and his splendid career after his presidency is getting increased respect.”

“He stood as a giant against the war with Mexico,” Nagel said. “You wonder why no one (in Congress) was like that before the Iraq invasion.”

At the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, deputy superintendent Caroline Keinath conceded that most visitors arrive with only a vague idea of what John Quincy Adams did. But she quickly disputed the Rodney Dangerfield comparison.

“Every visitor walks away impressed by what they learn about him,” she said.

Lane Lambert may be reached at