Jennie: John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life, by Paul C. Nagel

I have to get something off my chest before I really get started with this – After reading John Adams by David McCullough and watching the mini-series I held John Quincy Adams to this level of awesomeness just because I “watched” him grow up. Not even 100 pages into this biography I had to admit to myself that he is a total jerk. Like the king of all jerks in the world. He should get a crown for his haughty attitude and general disdain – it seemed to ooze out of his pores and writings.

Aside from that, I thought his battle with depression was well explained and described in this book. It addressed it properly – giving it the weight it deserved, but also separating it from his general jerkiness. Once again in reading a non-fiction book about this time I am in awe of how far our medical environment has advanced – not only in acceptance for conditions like depression, but also just in treatment options. However, I wish that sabbaticals to visit “healing waters” would be reinstated. I’m pretty sure that taking a long vacation to a seaside town would do my attitude wonders.

One of the items I found most surprising about JQA is that his years as President were his least productive and the darkest of his life. I think I have always thought that the Presidential position was one of utmost success – touch and difficult yes, but still a time to feel a level of achieving the highest goal – but not for JQA in the slightest. He fought all through politics against the party attitudes and yet his time in the White House was so full of party lines he wasn’t able to accomplish much. This, of course, left him feeling unproductive and resentful.

He wasn’t always useless though – he worked tirelessly to bring the Smithsonian Institutes into reality. I have visited a few of the museum’s in Washington DC and they were impressive. To know that he used his love of art, history, and creative passions to establish such a treasure shows that his legacy lives on.

It seems that much of his life JQA spent doing things he didn’t like. He hated the practice of law, preferring rather to spend his time with the literary world. His time abroad included some of his best years – primarily due to his schedule allowing his creative interests to foster, especially with such close proximity to famed artists of all formats. He was a man of the arts, not a man of the law or politics. And yet, he took the political route many times just because it kept him from having to practice law to eat. The lesser of two evils as some might say.

I finished this book with a profound feeling of sadness. JQA spent much of his life chastising himself for frittering away time doing things that he enjoyed. He had such a strict expectation of himself that he couldn’t possibly live up to it. Yes, he was a jerk – but not just outsiders, he was a jerk to himself too. I wonder if he would have been a happier man had his duties as an ambassador for the US had kept him overseas longer than what actually transpired.

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