John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State

(September 1817 to February 1821: President James Monroe’s First Term)

John Quincy Adams (JQA) had been in America just over a month when he set out from Quincy, Massachusetts, for Washington, D.C., on 9 September 1817. He arrived in the nation’s capital on the 20th and took the oath of office as United States Secretary of State the morning of the 22d. Richard Rush, who had served as acting secretary of state since March, assisted JQA in adjusting to life at the State Department. JQA kept the office staff that he found upon arrival; his chief clerk, Daniel Brent, is one of the most frequently mentioned individuals in the diary during this period.

Engraving of JQAEngraving by Francis Kearney, circa 1824Upon assuming his new role, JQA found that much of the State Department’s correspondence remained unanswered and that the agency’s office hours did not afford sufficient time to complete even basic duties. Work was interrupted by a constant stream of visitors, many of whom came with patronage appeals for themselves or friends. As secretary of state, JQA could appoint or recommend candidates for scores of diplomatic, consular, and administrative posts. Others came to request his intervention with foreign governments. Among them were merchants, ship owners, and southern planters who sought the department’s assistance in obtaining compensation for vessels, cargoes, and slaves illegally confiscated during the wars that preceded 1815. Because of the frequent distractions at his office, the bulk of his work reading and responding to diplomatic correspondence was completed at home, early in the morning or late at night. After less than one week, he complained in his Diary on 26 September that this burden had affected his eyes.

As a member of President James Monroe’s cabinet, JQA and his peers convened frequently to discuss foreign and domestic issues. JQA’s numerous and lengthy comments on these cabinet meetings provide insight into the personalities and motivations of the president and the department heads. The position of secretary of state had been the stepping stone to the presidency for the last three men to hold the office. JQA recognized the jealousy and competition among his peers in these meetings—especially that of Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, who lusted after the presidency. Henry Clay, who had wanted the office of secretary of state for obvious reasons, remained the administration’s most troublesome critic in Congress. Jockeying for position in the 1824 presidential election began before the end of Monroe’s first term. While JQA claimed to be above the fray, there is little doubt of his interest in the office.

Congress charged the State Department with additional obligations that ranged far beyond the diplomatic realm. Two duties that consumed much of the secretary’s time during the first term concerned the 1820 census and a report on weights and measures. JQA obsessed over the latter of these duties, studying the various standards employed in Europe and throughout the United States. He even obtained the instruments used by European governments to establish their official measurements. Despite his efforts, Congress tabled and ignored the book-length report he submitted in February 1821.

The question of Missouri statehood, raised in 1819, proved to be the most disruptive domestic issue during Monroe’s first term. JQA foresaw that the sectional divide, which had been apparent since the Constitutional Convention of 1787, could only be forestalled. JQA personally opposed the extension of slavery into the West and the creation of additional slave states. However, he valued the preservation of the union and accepted the Missouri Compromise of 1820. He found the solutions suggested to the problem of slavery in the United States, such as the plans of the American Colonization Society, to be naïve and unreasonable. He famously noted on 10 January 1820, “I take it for granted that the present question is a mere preamble; a title page to a great tragic volume.” His observations at the conclusion of the compromise on 29 November 1820 revealed his fear that the final resolution of the nation’s division over slavery would be found in civil war.

The Panic of 1819 set off a period of economic dislocation. Speculation, especially in land, was the primary cause, and failed banks and businesses the result. Many state banks failed and the Bank of the United States became severely stressed. JQA comments on the numerous institutional and personal bankruptcies as well as the revenue problems this crisis posed for the Federal Treasury.

As secretary of state, JQA interacted with diplomatic representatives from the major and minor powers of Europe. While the ministers from Russia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, and Sweden appear throughout the diary, they were much less prominent than those from Great Britain, France, and Spain. Sir Charles Bagot represented Great Britain for most of the period. He and JQA had extensive discussions on the unresolved problems that were the legacy of the Treaty of Ghent. Most important among these issues was the establishment of the northern border with Canada at the 49th parallel in the Anglo-American Convention of 20 October 1818. Stratford Canning, who replaced Bagot in September 1820, repeatedly pressed JQA for an American commitment to cooperate with the British prohibition of the Atlantic slave trade. Baron Jean Hyde de Neuville, the French minister, spent much of his time attempting to convince JQA to support the reduction of duties on his country’s exports to the United States. Hyde de Neuville also acted as an intermediary between JQA and Don Luis de Onis, the Spanish minister.

Spain and its problems in the Western Hemisphere consumed more of JQA’s time than any other diplomatic issue. Unable to control much of the land over which it claimed sovereignty, Spain made significant territorial concessions to the United States in the Adams-Onis (Transcontinental) Treaty, signed on 22 February 1819. Relinquishing its last claim to Florida and recognizing the United States’ expansion to the Pacific Ocean, Spain hoped to maintain control of its South American empire as long as possible. It took two full years before the Spanish ratified and returned the treaty for the U.S. Senate to approve. JQA took a cautious approach to the South American revolutions and independence movements. While he recognized the inevitability of independence in the region, he could not openly acknowledge or support the fact for fear of disrupting relations with the European powers, especially Spain. The South American revolutionary governments aggravated European-American relations by outfitting and manning privateers in U.S. ports, especially Baltimore. These privateers, often described as pirates by JQA, preyed on Atlantic and Caribbean shipping, especially that of Portugal and Spain.

Silhouette of Louisa Catherine Adams by Henry Williams, 1809Silhouette of Louisa Catherine Adams by Henry Williams, 1809JQA and his family’s relocation to Washington, D.C., in September 1817 proved to be a permanent move. While he continued to make regular short visits to Massachusetts, usually in the late summer and early fall, and would eventually inherit Peacefield, his father’s home in Quincy, his public service kept him in the nation’s capital. In 1820 he purchased a house at 244 F Street. Louisa Catherine Adams (LCA), his socially adept wife, made this home a congenial and inviting place for Washington’s powerful and influential residents to meet. JQA, who recognized his own shortcomings in this realm, relied on his wife’s social gifts. LCA, despite intermittent health problems, hosted dinners, parties, and regular receptions while an emerging Washington society struggled to establish a standard of etiquette during this period. JQA, who chafed under the ridged and time-consuming protocol, was assisted through the ordeal by his wife. Two of LCA’s sisters lived nearby; Carolina Johnson Frye and her husband Nathaniel, and Catherine Johnson Smith and her husband William Steuben were the most frequent and intimate members of the Adamses’ circle. These and other members of LCA’s family occasionally sought JQA’s patronage. His adherence to a strict rule against even a hint of favoritism created family conflict. JQA escaped the stresses at home and work with exercise. In addition to his regular bathing (swimming) in the Potomac River, he took frequent long walks.

The Adams children were in school during this period. George Washington Adams (GWA) and John Adams 2d (JA2) were at Harvard and Charles Francis Adams (CFA) attended schools in Boston and later Washington, D.C. When the boys were in the nation’s capital, their father encouraged them to attend congressional debates and Supreme Court sessions. Despite his efforts, JQA feared his sons would never become the men he hoped. An addition was made to the family in late 1817 when eleven-year-old Mary Catherine Hellen (MCHA), a niece, came to live with the Adamses. She would marry JA2 in 1828 and later be a companion for LCA.

JQA’s Congregationalist origins evolved toward Unitarianism during these years. In Washington, D.C., he attended religious services regularly, but of various faiths. He critiqued each minister and his sermon: speaking style, composition of the sermon, selection of text, and theological significance each received a grade. These reviews also offered him an opportunity to state his personal religious ideas.

View of the home of John Adams in Quincy, Watercolor drawing by Eliza Susan Quincy, 1822View of the home of John Adams in Quincy, Watercolor drawing by Eliza Susan Quincy, 1822The Quincy to which he returned almost every year had changed significantly and held more memories than future for JQA. His mother Abigail Adams (AA) died in October 1818, not long after he had visited, and he mourned her deeply. His father John Adams (JA), now in his mid-eighties, was in obvious decline. Brother Thomas Boylston Adams (TBA), his only living sibling, once his best friend and companion, had been reduced by drink and survived only with assistance from their father. JQA’s life and career was now permanently removed from the town of his birth.

Selected Bibliography for Further Reading

Diary and Autobiographical Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams, ed. Judith S. Graham, Beth Luey, and others, Cambridge, 2013; 2 vols.

Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, Charlottesville, Va., 2000.

Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy, New York, 1949.

Charles N. Edel, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic, Cambridge, 2016.

Robert Pierce Forbes, The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath, Chapel Hill, N.C., 2007.

James E. Lewis, Jr., John Quincy Adams: Policymaker for the Union, Wilmington, Del., 2001.

Paul Nagel, John Quincy Adams, New York, 1997.

Lynn Hudson Parsons, John Quincy Adams, Madison, Wis., 1998.

John Quincy Adams and the Politics of Slavery, ed. David Waldstreicher and Matthew Mason, New York, 2017.