The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

From Hero to Barbarian: The Adamses on Andrew Jackson

As March 15 marks Andrew Jackson’s 250th birthday it will come as no surprise that this incredibly influential and controversial figure in American history provoked strong and memorable reactions from the Adams family as he entered their circle in the 1820s, eventually clashing with John Quincy for the presidency in 1824 and 1828.

The relationship between the Adamses and Jackson did not begin with hostility however. Louisa Catherine Adams recorded her first impressions of Jackson in her Diary in February 1819: “He is tall and very thin and when he smiles his countenance is very agreeable his manners are those of a Gentleman neither confidant or timid and on the whole he produced the most favourable impression— I heard much astonishment expressed by some persons not friendly to him at his being so polite as they expected to have seen him at least half Savage.” John Adams declared him a “Hero and a Conqueror” and even as the election of 1824 was underway, John asked his grandson John Adams 2d to “give my compliments to General Jackson and tell him, if I had strength enough in my old fabric I would take a “Journey to Washington” and pay my homage to the “deliver[er] of his country.” He also thought that “if General Jackson should be chosen,” that John Quincy should continue as Secretary of State for Jackson “untill he has time to look about him and choose a successor, and for what I care, throughout his whole administration.”

The controversial conclusion to the election of 1824 which saw John Quincy’s elevation to the presidency through the House of Representatives, and even more so, the bitterness and rancor that surrounded the election of 1828, which had included deeply personal attacks, ended forever any positive feelings by the Adams family for the newly elected Andrew Jackson.

This change in attitude and the depth of their animosity toward the man was fully revealed in 1833 in the reaction to Harvard University’s decision to award Jackson an honorary doctorate of laws. Louisa Catherine Adams mocked the idea in rhyme:

            Discerning old Harvard presents the Degree

            Old Hickory asks pray what means LLD?

            The Corporate Sages afraid of excess

            Reserve for themselves that of A.S.S.

John Quincy meanwhile recorded his conversation with the president of the university, Josiah Quincy III, on the matter in his Diary, declaring that as “an affectionate child of our alma Mater, I would not be present to witness her disgrace in conferring her highest Literary honours upon a barbarian, who could not write a sentence of Grammar, and hardly could spell his own name.” To Charles Francis Adams the event marked “the climax of absurdity in General Jackson’s elevation.”

A political feud too personal to overcome, even forgiveness was difficult and the Adamses and Jackson would have “no intercourse of a friendly character” ever again.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 15 March, 2017, 8:37 AM

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