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John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub

First off, James Traub needs to write more books. Primarily a journalist for publications such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Traub typically covers current affairs. In fact, Militant Spirit is his first major historical work and it is an absolutely remarkable piece of writing. In fact, I consider it to be the best presidential bio I’ve read thus far. 

Over the course of nearly 600 pages, Traub weaves together the incredibly eventful life of America’s sixth president using Adams' remarkable journals as his primary source material. Let’s talk about those journals for a moment.

John Quincy Adams started keeping his diary in 1779 at the age of twelve, at the behest of his famous father, and continued until shortly before his death in 1848. All told, he amassed over 14,000 pages over the course of his life. Due to the tireless work of the Massachusetts Historical Society, you can read all 51 volumes of it online from the comfort of your home.

Traub refers to these invaluable journals as “not only a precious resource for historians but as one of the great works of American political literature.”

Where to begin in describing the life of Adams? 

He traveled across the ocean with his father at age 11, something many prominent Americans would never do in their lifetime. He spent two years in France and Holland before departing to serve as a translator to one of his father’s aids in St. Petersburg, Russia. He spent time in Finland, Sweden, and Denmark during these years and became fluent in French and Dutch as well as some German. 

He returned home and graduated from Harvard with a law degree. He was subsequently appointed by George Washington as minister to the Netherlands and then Minister to Prussia under the presidency of his father, John Adams. During the Jefferson administration, he returned home and was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature and then the U.S. Senate. He also taught at Harvard during this time.

During Madison’s presidency, he was appointed minister to Russia, where he lived for five years and was nominated for the Supreme Court while overseas, which he declined, and then served as chief negotiator of the U.S. commission for the Treaty of Ghent which ended the War of 1812. 

Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.
— John Quincy Adams

He then served as Secretary of State to James Monroe for the duration of Monroe’s two terms before being elected president of the United State, where, like his father, he would become only the second president to fail to win re-election.

After his Presidency, he went on to serve nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years, from 1831 until his death (he died on the floor of Congress).

Needless to say, this kind of resumé should serve as ample material for a great book. But if Traub simply detailed the primary occurences of Adams’ life, he wouldn’t have created the masterpiece that he has. Traub details Adams as a man in full: brilliant, grave, solemn, unwilling to pander or compromise his principles, and only occasionally warm or tender. In fact, Traub commits a good deal of time to Adams long-suffering wife Louisa as well, and she makes for a fascinating, if heartbreaking addition to the book. 

Because of the unprecedented source material, we’re treated to all sorts of quirky behavior along the way: Adams penchant for swimming nude in the Potomac, his obsession with obscure units of weights and measures, his enthusiastic attendance at a penis lecture in the 1820s, his writing of an insane 2000-line epic poem about a 13th century Irish prince named Dermot MacMorrough, his love of astronomy and gardening. 

We’re also treated to his many thoughts on himself. At one point, Adams writes that his best quality is his “capacity for drudgery.”

Adams most impressive moments, without a doubt, did not occur during his time as president. His formulation and public expression of the Monroe Doctrine, his years-long tormenting of the slavocracy and his passionate advocacy for the promotion of science and public works all eclipse his failed four-year occupancy of the White House.

All in all, Militant Spirit was, to me, just about a perfect book. Detailed and thorough, yet fluidly paced, it never felt dull for a moment. It’s beautifully written throughout, and Traub’s erudition and measured approach to his subject (Adams comes in for frequent, fair criticism throughout) makes the book an absolute joy to read. I give it my highest recommendation.