John Quincy Adams and John Adams: The First U.S. Political Family Dynasty

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams (left) followed his father John Adams (right) into politics. Both men were president of the United States. Adams senior was second president; Quincy Adams was the nation's sixth. Library of Congress/HowStuffWorks

Family dynasties in U.S. politics are not uncommon. Do the names Roosevelt, Kennedy and Bush ring any bells? But the original family dynasty was unquestionably the Adams family.

Founding Father John Adams served in the Continental Congress, as President George Washington's vice president, then as nation's second president (1797-1801). His eldest son John Quincy Adams was the country's sixth president (1825-1829).

But Adams and his son shared more than a career path.

"They both had a deep abiding duty to country and in the fundamental principles of American democracy," says Sara Martin, editor-in-chief of The Adams Family Papers, an extensive collection of Adams family writings owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society. "And they both spent the majority of their professional lives in service to the country."

Both men attended Harvard and studied law, though John Quincy also had the benefit of growing up as the son of "John Adams, Founding Father," and enjoyed some impressive experiences as a result. When he was just 10, he traveled to France with his father as John sought recognition and funds from the French government to support the American Revolution. When the support wasn't forthcoming, the father and son traveled to the Netherlands, where the Dutch came through with both recognition and financial assistance. When John Quincy was 14, he traveled to St. Petersburg to serve as a French-language interpreter and private secretary to Francis Dana, the U.S. Minister to Russia.

John served as America's first Minister to Great Britain. He negotiated the terms of the peace treaty to end the Revolutionary War and went to Paris for the signing in September 1783.

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John Adams as President

John became the nation's first vice president in 1788 under George Washington (it was a consolation prize no one really wanted.) And when Washington retired in 1796, John stood for president and was elected as a Federalist, though Martin says he was only loosely affiliated with the party.

John Adams
John Adams was the first vice president of the United States and the second president.
Library of Congress

"He was a Federalist president, but because he holds himself to principles over party, he actually runs into problems with the Federalist Party," she says. "The Federalist Party fractures during his presidency and contributes to his defeat in the election of 1800."

Foreign affairs dominated John's presidency, and his loyalty to his values (and perhaps his obstinacy) doomed his chances for a second term.

"When he takes office, U.S relations with France are deteriorating — the XYZ affair;the Quasi-War — these are the dominant issues," says Martin.

The U.S. was split along Anglo and French lines. John was viewed as pro-British and Federalists typically wanted a more aggressive policy toward France. John always sought diplomacy first. His biggest mistake was seeking a diplomatic solution without consulting his Federalist cabinet.

"He was battled from within his cabinet and from external forces," Martin says.

Ultimately, he lost his reelection bid. He returned to Massachusetts and his beloved wife, Abigail.

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Like Father, Like Son

"For John Quincy Adams, being his father's son, coming of age, he is aligned with the Federalists," says Martin. He became a U.S. senator in 1803 and, like his father, put principle over party, meaning there were times he voted with the Federalists and times he voted with the Democratic-Republicans.

John Quincy eventually split from the Federalist party and in 1809, he left the U.S. to serve as a diplomat overseas, helping negotiate the end of the War of 1812 in Ghent, Belgium, and serving in the same post his father did in Great Britain, U.S. Minister to the Court of St. James. John Quincy returned to the U.S. in 1817 to serve as Secretary of State under President James Monroe.

John Quincy's most significant contribution was developing the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. foreign policy that "respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own," to quote the document.

John Quincy stood as a loosely affiliated Democratic-Republican candidate in the 1824 presidential election with three other candidates from the same party, Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. Jackson won the popular vote but didn't get a plurality (an absolute majority of either the popular vote or the electoral vote). The contest was decided by the House of Representatives, who chose John Quincy, infuriating Jackson and his supporters.

"From day one, John Quincy's presidency was embattled because Jackson and his supporters opposed him at every turn," Martin says. "He had this ambitious view of internal improvements – canals, roads, even grander visions for a national university and a national observatory – but he couldn't get any traction for these ideas. He did not have a successful presidency."

John Quincy Adams
Like his father, John Quincy Adams voted with the Federalists, but eventually split with the party in 1809.
Library of Congress

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Problems and the Presidency

Foreign policy issues dogged his father's presidency, but domestic issues were John Quincy's bane, especially growing sectionalism — the matter of state's rights.

"It was really playing out in the issue of the federal government's relationship with Native Americans, specifically what was going on in Georgia," Martin says.

The governor of Georgia refused to honor federal treaties when settlers moved into native lands and Creek Nations defended their territory. John Quincy could have but didn't use federal troops to keep state troops in line, and a new treaty ended up causing Native Americans to cede more land.

"It becomes the further dispossession of native territory," Martin says, "The roots of the Trail of Tears are found in this incident."

Martin says both men frequently wrote of desiring a "quieter life" but believed it was their duty to serve the young nation in whatever way they were called.

"If you take their careers as a whole, their presidencies were the least successful of their public lives, and that's true for both of them for many of the same reasons," she says. "Neither were able to generate popular support the way their opponents did. Jefferson sold the idea of a more inclusive democracy; Jackson did the same thing. But you look at the scope of their lives; the presidency was only a small portion of it."

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