Monday, February 17, 2014

Better Know A President! Series II (Introduction)

Last year I inaugurated an annual "Better Know a President" series with links to several blog entries I had written on the first five American presidents.  Since my research tends to focus on the colonial and early national eras, I've not written very much about the post-Virginia-Dynasty presidents, apart from the "Anti-Presidents'-Day" essays I wrote in response to a comment from Katherine Osburn.  For President's Day this year, rather than simply write "I haven't had much to say here about Jackson/Van Buren/Harrison/whoever," I plan instead to craft some new blog entries on each of the five presidents from J.Q. Adams to John Tyler.

Let's start with John Quincy Adams:

I've mentioned Adams before, apropos of his post-presidential service as a Congressman, foe of slavery, and founder of the Smithsonian Institution. Biographers of JQA usually also note his distinguished earlier career as a U.S. Senator, a diplomat to Britain, Russia, Prussia, and the Netherlands, and secretary of state.  And, if they are honest, they admit that he was a sublimely ineffective president. Adams's presidency was in some ways doomed from the start, as he was chosen for the office not by the Electoral College but the U.S. House of Representatives, where wire-pulling by Henry Clay later tainted both men with charges of corruption.  In his first State of the Union message, Adams further alienated potential supporters by urging Congress to embark on an expensive program of public works and scientific research, and not to be "palsied by the wills of [y]our constituents" (quoted in Ralph Ketcham, Presidents above Party (North Carolina, 1984), 136.) This extraordinarily anti-democratic remark is ironic, given that Adams was the first American president to refer to the United States as a democracy (or "representative democracy"), but it typifies his aristocratic aloofness.  Adams ignored the increasingly partisan nature of national politics in the 1820s, to the point that he refused to remove supporters of Andrew Jackson from his Cabinet. Jackson's more energetic, well-organized, and populist campaign easily crushed JQA in the 1828 election.

Among the charges that Jackson's partisans leveled against Adams in that election, incidentally, was the scurrilous claim that he had once pimped for Tsar Alexander I of Russia. It is probably just as well that this was untrue, as it would have made for some of the dreariest historical slash-fiction imaginable.

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More to come over the next few days, including Jackson and Indian Removal and the William Henry Harrison counterfactual.

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