John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818

John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818

As an American diplomat in Europe during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, John Quincy Adams had ample opportunity to observe the effects of Napoleon’s military adventures. Though critical of Napoleon and pleased to see the end of his rule, Adams developed a sneaking admiration for the French Emperor, especially compared to the hereditary rulers of Europe.

A president’s son

John Quincy Adams (pronounced KWIN-zee) was born on July 11, 1767, in Braintree, Massachusetts. He was the son of John Adams – who in 1797 became the second president of the United States – and his wife Abigail.

John Quincy Adams followed in his father’s footsteps. He served as the sixth president of the United States from 1825 to 1829. During the time in which Napoleon in America is set, he was the Secretary of State in President James Monroe’s administration. He held this position from September 11, 1817 to March 4, 1825. There are numerous websites detailing his life and career (listed below), so I won’t repeat all that. Suffice to say he was a very accomplished man, and better as a diplomat than as a president. Instead I will focus on his character, and on his view of Napoleon.

Neither very agreeable nor very repulsive

John Quincy Adams possessed great intelligence, eloquence and integrity. He was also pedantic, stubborn and prone to depression. He was an uncomfortable politician, preferring to be more of a citizen-orator like Cicero.

John Spear Smith, who served under Adams at the US legation in Russia, wrote that Adams was

an unfortunate appointment for this court. He has no manners, is gauche, never was intended for a foreign minister and is only fit to turn over musty law authorities. You would blush to see him in any society, and particularly at Court circles, walking about perfectly listless, speaking to no one, and absolutely looking as if he were in a dream…. Dry sense alone does not do at European Courts. Something more is necessary, which something Mr. A. does not possess. (1)

Fortunately Adams’s wife Louisa, whom he married in London in 1797, made up for her husband’s lack of charm.

Congressional librarian George Watterston described Adams as follows:

[N]either very agreeable nor very repulsive…. He is regular in his habits, and moral and temperate in his life. To great talent, he unites unceasing industry and perseverance, and an uncommon facility in the execution of business….

Mr. Adams is extremely plain and simple both in his manners and habilements; and labours to avoid alike the foolery and splendour of ‘fantastic fashion’ and the mean and inelegant costume of affected eccentricity. He is evidently well skilled in the rhetorical art…[yet] with all his knowledge and talent did not attain the first rank among American orators. He wanted enthusiasm and fire; he wanted that nameless charm which, in oratory as well as poetry, delights and fascinates, and leads the soul captive….

[I]n close argumentation, in logical analysis, in amplification and regular disposition, he is said to have been inferior to none…. Mr. Adams has more capacity than genius: he can comprehend better than he can invent and execute nearly as rapidly as he can design…. He has all the penetration, shrewdness, and perseverance necessary to constitute an able diplomatist, united with the capacity to perceive, and the eloquence to enforce, what would conduct to the welfare and interests of his country. (2)

Adams kept a detailed diary and wrote lots of letters. These make fascinating reading if you enjoy 19th century history and language. Admirably self-critical, Adams comes across in his writings as a more endearing figure than many of his contemporaries found him. For example, on the occasion of his forty-fifth birthday, he reflected:

Two-thirds of a long life are past, and I have done nothing to distinguish it by usefulness to my country or to mankind. I have always lived with, I hope, a suitable sense of my duties in society, and with a sincere desire to perform them. But passions, indolence, weakness, and infirmity have sometimes made me swerve from my better knowledge of right and almost constantly paralyzed my efforts of good. I have no heavy charge upon my conscience, for which I bless my Maker, as well as for all the enjoyments that He has liberally bestowed upon me. I pray for his gracious kindness in future. But it is time to cease forming fruitless resolutions. (3)

And he wrote this, in 1819:

I am a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners; my political adversaries say, a gloomy misanthropist, and my personal enemies, an unsocial savage. With a knowledge of the actual defect in my character, I have not the pliability to reform it. (4)

What John Quincy Adams thought of Napoleon

John Quincy Adams accompanied his father on the latter’s posts as American envoy to France (1778-1779) and to the Netherlands (1780-1782). He also, at age 14, acted as secretary to the US minister to Russia. Adams himself served as US minister to the Netherlands (1794-1797) and Prussia (1797-1801). He was thus familiar with Europe and its diplomacy. Adams learned to speak several European languages, including French.

In 1809, Adams became the US ambassador to Russia. As such, he reported on Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of that country and the disastrous retreat.

It may well be doubted whether in the compass of human history since the creation of the world a greater, more sudden and total reverse of fortune was ever experienced by man, than is now exhibiting in the person of a man whom fortune for a previous course of nearly twenty years had favored with a steadiness and a prodigality equally unexampled in the annals of mankind…. It has pleased heaven for many years to preserve this man and to make him prosper as an instrument of divine wrath to scourge mankind. His race is now run, and his own turn of punishment has commenced. (5)

Adams admired Napoleon’s intelligence and military talent. However, he thought they were overshadowed by flaws in the Emperor’s character. In January 1814 he wrote to his brother from St. Petersburg:

The events of the last two years opened a new prospect to all Europe, and have discovered the glassy substance of the colossal power of France. Had that power been acquired by wisdom, it might have been consolidated by time and the most ordinary portion of prudence. The Emperor Napoleon says that he was never seduced by prosperity; but when he comes to be judged impartially by posterity that will not be their sentence. His fortune will be among the wonders of the age in which he has lived. His military talent and genius will place him high in the rank of great captains; but his intemperate passion, his presumptuous insolence, and his Spanish and Russian wars, will reduce him very nearly to the level of ordinary men. At all events he will be one of the standing examples of human vicissitude, ranged not among the Alexanders, Caesars, and Charlemagnes, but among the Hannibals, Pompeys, and Charles the 12th. (6)

In 1814, Adams was recalled from St. Petersburg to become the chief US negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent. This ended the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. In 1815, he was appointed US ambassador to Britain. Before leaving for London, Adams spent time in Paris, where he learned of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. He was as surprised as anyone. On March 19, 1815 he wrote to his mother:

At the first news of his landing I considered it as the last struggle of desperation on his part. I did not believe that he would be joined by five hundred adherents, and fully expected that he would within ten days pay the forfeit of his rashness with his life. (7)

Adams experienced the Hundred Days firsthand.

I saw [Napoleon] only at the windows of the Tuileries, and once at Mass; and I was present the only evening that he attended at the Théatre Français. The performance was by his direction the tragedy of Hector, one of the best that has been brought upon the French stage since the death of Voltaire…. The house was so crowded that the very musicians of the orchestra were obliged to give up their seats, and retire to perform their symphonies behind the scenes. And never at any public theatre did I witness such marks of public veneration, and such bursts of enthusiasm for any crowned head, as that evening exhibited for Napoleon. I certainly was not among his admirers when he was in the plenitude of his power, and I remember that David, the man after God’s own heart, was forbidden to build a temple to his God, because he had ‘shed blood abundantly and made great wars.’ Napoleon is no fit person to build a temple to the name of the Lord. But ‘neither do the spirits reprobate all virtue base.’ Had the name of Napoleon Bonaparte remained among those of the conquerors of the earth, it would not have been the blackest upon the list; and as to the mob of legitimates, who by his fall have been cast again upon their tottering and degraded thrones, where is the head or the heart among them capable of rising to the admiration of such a character as Hector? (8)

Though Adams was critical of Napoleon, he felt the allied punishment of him – exile to St. Helena – was harsh. He wrote in 1819 (a sentiment he repeats in Napoleon in America):

No agony of sufferance can be too exquisite, no prolongation of torture too excruciating, for the depth and magnitude of his offences against his species; but he is punished by instruments, in a moral point of view, no better than himself – base and ignoble instruments – who, with all his depravity, have none of his redeeming greatness. (9)

Other John Quincy Adams tidbits

In Napoleon in America, you will see reference to the Transcontinental Treaty, also called the Adams-Onís Treaty after its two principal negotiators. This was concluded in 1819 between the United States and Spain, and entered into force in February 1821. Spain turned Florida over to the United States and relinquished claims to Oregon north of the 42nd parallel. In exchange, the US recognized Spanish control over Texas west of the Sabine River, a claim Mexico inherited when it declared independence from Spain.

Adams also largely wrote the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which warned European nations against meddling in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere.

Aware that his long hours of reading and writing took a toll on his health, Adams was a inveterate exerciser. He jogged in the winter and swam in the summer. As described by Charles Ingersoll in 1823:

Mr. Adams ascribes his uninterrupted health during the several sickly seasons he has lived in Washington to swimming – he walks a mile to the Potomac for 8 successive mornings from 4 to 7 o’clock according as the tide serves, and swims from 15 to 40 minutes – then walks home again – for the 6 mornings of low tide he abstains – swimming 8 days out of 14. I have no doubt that it is an excellent system. (He is extremely thin.) (10)

Adams swam in the nude. It is said that journalist Anne Royall secured an interview with him by following him to the river, gathering his clothes and sitting on them until the President agreed to answer her questions.

In 1841, Adams represented the defendants in the Amistad case in the US Supreme Court. He successfully argued that the Africans, who had seized control of a Spanish ship on which they were being transported illegally as slaves, should not be extradited or deported to Cuba (a Spanish colony where slavery was legal), but should be considered free. He did not bill for his services.

Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams in 1843, the oldest existing photograph of a US president

Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams in 1843, the oldest existing photograph of a US president

In 1843, Adams sat for the earliest confirmed photograph still in existence of a US president.

After leaving the Presidency, Adams served as a Congressman for Massachusetts. On February 21, 1848, he collapsed from a massive stroke after exerting himself to oppose a measure in the House of Representatives. He died two days later, on February 23, at the age of 80, in the Speaker’s Room in the Capitol building. Click here to see a sketch made of John Quincy Adams on his deathbed, and to read his last words. Abraham Lincoln (with whom Adams overlapped three months in Congress) served on the Committee of Arrangements for his funeral.

Adams was initially buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC. Later he was interred in the family burial ground in Quincy, Massachusetts, called Hancock Cemetery. After Louisa’s death in 1852, their son, Charles Francis Adams, had Adams reinterred with Louisa in the family crypt in the United First Parish Church across the street, next to the remains of John and Abigail Adams.

There are excellent detailed biographies of John Quincy Adams on the National Park Service website and on the Miller Center website.  For a shorter version, see biography.com or the White House website. You can view Adams’s diaries in digitized form thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society. To download printed versions, visit archive.org.

You might also enjoy:

The New Year’s Day reflections of John Quincy Adams

Louisa Adams, social charmer

James Monroe and Napoleon

The Presidential Election of 1824

The Inauguration of John Quincy Adams

Last words of Famous People

When Louisa Adams met Joseph Bonaparte

  1. Nina Bashkina, David F. Trask, et al., eds, The United States and Russia: The Beginning of Relations, 1765-1815 (Washington, 1980), p. 666.
  2. George Watterston, Letters from Washington, on the Constitution and Laws; with Sketches of Some of the Prominent Public Characters of the United States (Washington, 1818), pp. 43-47.
  3. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1874), p. 387 (July 11, 1812).
  4. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. IV (Philadelphia, 1875), p. 388 (June 4, 1819).
  5. Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams, Vol. IV (New York, 1914), pp. 411-413 (Nov. 30, 1812).
  6. Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams, Vol. V (New York, 1915), pp. 10-11.
  7. Ibid., p. 291.
  8. Ibid., pp. 524-525.
  9. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. IV, p. 385.
  10. William M. Meigs, The Life of Charles Jared Ingersoll (Philadelphia, 1900), p. 122.

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His military talent and genius will place him high in the rank of great captains; but his intemperate passion, his presumptuous insolence, and his Spanish and Russian wars, will reduce him very nearly to the level of ordinary men.

John Quincy Adams