America’s Long Journey: Louisiana Purchase, Louisiana adjustments

To see it afresh, think of the Louisiana territory not as 828,000 square miles comprising all or part of 15 States, but as the bursting of the bounds.

In 1803, the country was only 20 years independent, and had been functioning under the constitution for only 14 years. On the map, America extended from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, but to the North, British troops still occupied territory on the northern frontier that they had seized during the revolution. To the south were the Spanish. Both countries were hostile, both of them were encouraging and often arming Indian nations to attack the new nation at its vulnerable western and southern extremities. West of the Appalachian Mountains, only Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio had enough settlers to qualify for statehood.

The purchase of Louisiana changed all that. America was one thing before the purchase, and something entirely different afterward.

It is important to remember how thinly populated these territories were. Painting a color on a map is not the same things as peopling the territory. None of this vast expanse of territory had any large European population. Indian tribes far outnumbered them all, and even the Indians were only thinly on the ground. (By the time the English landed at Jamestown in 1607, successive waves of epidemic diseases had already reduced the Indian population to perhaps 10 percent of what it had been.)

In 1802, James Monroe and Robert Livingston were in Paris to try to negotiate the purchase of the city of New Orleans. New Orleans controlled the Mississippi River, which was vital for the shipment of goods from anywhere west of the Appalachians. American merchants had enjoyed a “right of deposit” – the right to use New Orleans for storage and transshipment of goods – until in 1798 a Spanish governor unilaterally revoked it. Turned out, he was acting on his own hook, and was replaced, but still it made the Americans nervous. Suppose the Spanish government decided it was a good idea after all? They asked Spain about selling the city. Spain said they had to talk to Napoleon.

The Louisiana territory was French from 1699 until 1763, when it ceded the territory to its ally Spain at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. Napoleon took back Louisiana, hoping to build an empire, but he lost an army in Haiti and he knew that the long war with Great Britain was about to be renewed. When war resumed, the British Navy would certainly cut him off from any remaining overseas territory.

“New Orleans? Pah!” [he said in effect.] “Why don’t you buy Louisiana entirely?”

He passed instructions, and on April 11, 1803, the French Treasury Minister suggested that rather than New Orleans for $10 million, the Americans take the whole Louisiana territory for $15 million. (This turned out to be about three cents per acre.) Livingston wasn’t authorized to purchase Louisiana, only New Orleans. But he and Monroe took the chance offered, and signed the deal on April 30, 1803. The news reached the nation’s capital, appropriately enough, on July 4, 1803, and Jefferson announced it that day. The Senate ratified the treaty, twenty-four to seven, on October 20. France turned over the city of New Orleans on December 20, 1803, and on March 10, 1804, a formal ceremony in St. Louis transferred ownership of the territory.

Jefferson couldn’t scratch his nose without severe criticism from Federalist contemporaries and a certain school of historians. The Louisiana Purchase is a prime example of the “blame Jefferson first” school of statesmanship.

Historian Henry Adams argued that the whole sale was invalid: “The sale of Louisiana to the United States was trebly invalid; if it were French property, Bonaparte could not constitutionally alienate it without the consent of the Chambers [of deputies]; if it were Spanish property, he could not alienate it at all; if Spain had a right of reclamation, his sale was worthless.” But Spain did turn the territory over to France in a ceremony in New Orleans on November 30, a month before France turned it over to American officials. And Madison reminded the Spanish, later, that when America had approached Spain to purchase New Orleans, Spain itself had said that America would have to treat with France.

Others saw a contradiction between Jefferson’s strict constructionist view of the Constitution and his action in purchasing Louisiana. But the Louisiana Purchase was a treaty, and the Constitution specifically grants the president the power to negotiate treaties. Jefferson’s secretary of state, James Madison, assured Jefferson that the Louisiana Purchase was well within even the strictest interpretation of the Constitution, and who knew more about the Constitution than Madison?.

Jefferson was concerned whether a President had the constitutional authority to expand the nation’s territory. Make such a deal, and he worried lest increasing federal executive power might erode states’ rights. But he was a practical man. He had written to Livingston, the previous year, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce and contain more than half our inhabitants…. Spain might have retained it quietly for years…. Not so can it ever be in the hands of France.”

Of course there were other concerns. Would this vast new territory not absorb the natural population increase, eclipsing the New England and Eastern states? Would it not lead to more slave-holding states? Could the French and Spanish people living in New Orleans learn to become good citizens of a republic? Would it be safe to let them become citizens? The answers to all these questions would have to be worked out in practice.

Meanwhile, the American government paid a down payment of $3 million in gold, and issued bonds for the balance, using the banking house that became Baring Brothers, in London, as agents. Because Napoleon wanted to receive his money as quickly as possible, the two firms received the American bonds and paid cash to France. Bonaparte spent it all on his planned invasion of Great Britain, which never came off. But America had been transformed.

America’s Long Journey: Burr

While of course it isn’t true that “only the good die young,” the fact that Aaron Burr was 80 years old before he finally died lends the saying a certain plausibility. Burr has been described with many adjectives, including “intelligent, resourceful and clever,” but not, usually, “good.”

Burr, born in 1756, entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) at age 13, received his degree in 1772, and had begun to study law when the revolution began. He joined the army, taking part in Benedict Arnold’s daring attempt to capture Quebec, and the following year saved a brigade from capture in the retreat from Manhattan to Harlem. By 1777 he was a lieutenant colonel. He resigned in 1779, due to ill health, but even after that, General Washington assigned him to perform occasional intelligence missions. So, a good war.

Burr passed the bar in 1782, began to practice in New York City, and built up a reputation as a brilliant trial lawyer. He served in the New York State legislature, was appointed state Attorney General, served a term as United States Senator, then ran with Jefferson in 1800. He tried unsuccessfully to wangle an electoral fluke into the presidency (as we shall see), and did become Jefferson’s Vice President, but of course after that Jefferson never trusted him, and shut him out of party matters. In 1804, he was dropped from the national ticket. Instead, he ran for Governor of New York, but he lost by the largest margin recorded up to that date. That same year, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

At the time it was thought that he killed him deliberately, but maybe not. There was no profit for Burr in killing Hamilton, except perhaps some personal satisfaction, and there was plenty of downside, and a calculator like Burr would have known it. In any case, Burr, 45 years old, was politically washed up.

So he went west. Depending on who you believe, either Burr intended to invade Mexico (then still part of Spain) and perhaps obtain a crown, or he intended to effect the separation of the states west of the Appalachians and create another country centered on New Orleans, relying upon British protection from the government in Washington.

He met with Anthony Merry, the British Minister to the United States, and offered to detach Louisiana from the Union in exchange for a half a million dollars and a British fleet in the Gulf of Mexico. Merry wrote his superiors, “It is clear Mr. Burr… means to endeavour to be the instrument for effecting such a connection – he has told me that the inhabitants of Louisiana … prefer having the protection and assistance of Great Britain.” The following year, he asked for two or three ships of the line and money. Merry told him that London had not yet responded. But gave him fifteen hundred dollars. In early 1806, Burr told Merry that the attempt would be made with or without British support.

Burr left Washington for Pittsburgh, planning to meet his longtime friend General James Wilkinson, the new Governor of the just-organized Louisiana Territory. Wilkinson being delayed, Burr set off down the Ohio River, and in May enlisted the help of a rich man named Harman Blennerhassett. In Cincinnati, he met his friend, former Ohio Senator Jonathan Dayton, then Burr traveled overland to Nashville, and stayed as the guest of General Andrew Jackson. We may be sure that he was careful that Old Hickory got no hint of what he was up to! When he and Wilkinson finally met, the general provided him with a barge, a sergeant and ten men, and a letter of introduction to friends in New Orleans.

The beginning of the end for Burr came when in western Pennsylvania, he told a Colonel Morgan of his plans, and Morgan wrote President Jefferson, who sent a confidential agent to investigate. That agent uncovered important details of Burr’s plans, went to Chillicothe, which was Ohio’s capital city at the time, and convinced the governor to order out the militia to seize the boats Burr had ordered for his expedition. (Burr had contracted to purchase fifteen boats capable of carrying 500 men, and a large keel boat for transporting provisions, and had ordered large quantities of pork, corn meal, flour, and whiskey.) The boats were seized the day before they were to be delivered to Blennerhassett.

Meanwhile, Wilkinson had decided to abandon the Conspiracy. He later claimed that it was in July, 1805, that he first began to suspect Burr of treasonous intentions. (However, Wilkinson can’t be trusted. All during the time he was an American official, he was secretly on the Spanish payroll as an informant!) He ordered troops in New Orleans to be on alert for an attack, and sent Jefferson the ciphered letter from Burr’s (which he decoded), which detailed the plot, including (fanciful) assurances of British Naval assistance. He also sent a letter from co-conspirator Senator Dayton.

The conspiracy collapsed. Burr was arrested and was transported to Richmond to be tried for treason. However, luckily for Burr, the trial judge was the ex-Federalist politician John Marshall, now Chief Justice of the United States. (At this remove, with Jefferson’s greatness so firmly established, the degree of fear and hatred the federalists felt toward him is startling. None more so than Marshall.)

Despite disinterested testimony such as Morgan’s (“He said that with two hundred men he could drive congress, with the president at its head, into the river Potomac,”) Marshall refused to try him for treason, instead scheduling Burr for trial on a charge of high misdemeanor. Marshall construed the issue as narrowly as possible, but, on hearing Wilkinson’s testimony, the grand jury indicted Burr for treason and high misdemeanor. But, despite testimony, Marshall ruled that he could not be found to have committed treason based on the events at Blennerhassett’s Island, and stated that he would exclude testimony “relative to the conduct or declarations of the prisoner elsewhere and subsequent to the transaction on Blennerhassett’s Island.”

The jury’s verdict made it plain enough what they thought: “We of the jury say that Aaron Burr is not proved to be guilty under this indictment by any evidence submitted to us. We therefore find him not guilty.” In other words, given Marshall’s stage-managing of the case, they were obliged to find Burr not guilty, but they thought otherwise. Jefferson considered asking Congress to impeach the Chief Justice, and perhaps it is unfortunate that he didn’t.

Like most people, Burr was a mixture of qualities, and he inspired different reactions from different people. Quite a few historians have assumed, for reasons of their own, that Jefferson must have been at fault. But George Washington knew Burr from the time of the revolution, and he didn’t trust him. He trusted Hamilton, who was at least Burr’s equal at intrigue, and he trusted Jefferson and Madison, whose political thought was in some ways closer to Burr’s than to his own – but he didn’t trust Burr. This wasn’t because of Burr’s intrigue over the presidency, or his duel with Hamilton, or that he was accused of treason. Washington died in 1799, before any of that. In 1798, turning down Burr’s application for a commission, Washington wrote, “By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue.” He did, and it might have cost the country dear.

America’s Long Journey: Lewis and Clark

In 1803, as we shall see, Jefferson bought the world’s largest pig in a poke. He needed New Orleans, because our western farmers had to have guaranteed access to the mouth of the Mississippi for their produce. Napoleon, for reasons of his own, threw in the whole Louisiana territory, and the American envoys snapped it up. But what – besides the vital access to New Orleans – had we bought? The president sent Lewis and Clark to find out.

Meriwether Lewis, not quite 30 when the expedition began, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, not many miles from Monticello. When Jefferson entered the White House, he hired Lewis as a confidential secretary, and in 1803 chose him to lead the expedition, knowing him to be a skilled hunter and outdoorsman, with a lifelong passion for natural history. Once Jefferson had decided on Lewis to head the expedition, he had him instructed in medicinal cures by physician Benjamin Rush and the use of navigational instruments by astronomer Andrew Ellicott, and he gave him access to the extensive library of books at Monticello on North American geography.

William Clark, three years older than Lewis (and one of his commanding officers when they were both in the Army), was also born in Virginia, a younger brother of George Rogers Clark, who became the highest ranking American officer on the northwestern frontier. Beginning in 1789, William served with a number of militia and military units, and at age 24, he played a critical role at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in 1794, which successfully ended the Northwest Indian War. Clark exercised equal authority during the mission, concentrating on drawing maps, managing supplies, and hunting for game.

Remarkable men, whose life stories are worth a much closer look than they can receive here. Jefferson, explaining why the supposedly scientific expedition was not being headed by a scientist, said: “It was impossible to find a character who to a complete science in botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy, joined the firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods & a familiarity with the Indian manners and character, requisite for this undertaking. All the latter qualifications Capt. Lewis has.”

True enough, but there was more to it than that. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, Americans knew nothing about the area west of North Dakota except that the upper Missouri seemed to flow from the reported Rocky Mountains, and that on the other side of the Rockies the Columbia River (discovered in 1792) entered the Pacific. The expedition was tasked with exploring and mapping the territory, finding a practical route across it, and establishing an American presence on the Pacific, goals Jefferson preferred not to state where they could be overheard by foreign powers. Alexander Mackenzie’s book Voyages from Montreal (1801), which he had read in 1802, had convinced him of the importance of anticipating Britain in securing the Columbia River territory, and the best way to do so would be to document a prior American presence.

He charged the expedition thus: “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, & such principle stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce.”

And, that’s what they did. They went up the Missouri River, and spent the winter of 1804–05 in a camp they built in what is now North Dakota, in Mandan territory. Here they met Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trapper, and his young Shoshone wife, Sacagawea. When Spring came, Charbonneau, with Sacagawea, accompanied the expedition as translator. They journeyed to the Missouri headwaters, crossed the Continental Divide, and took to canoes to descend the Clearwater, the Snake and the Columbia. For its second winter, they camped at Fort Clatsop on the Columbia, at the site of present-day Astoria, Oregon. They passed a hard winter, short of food and many of them sick, but by late March, 1806, they were on their way home. They returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806.

Lewis and Clark met every objective set them. They reached the Pacific, mapped and established their presence, established diplomatic relations and trade with at least two dozen tribes (receiving help from most of them, though coming close to armed clashes with the Sioux), drew about 140 maps — the first accurate maps of the area they travelled through — and gained a general understanding of the geography of the Northwest. They documented more than 200 plants and animals that were new to science, and recorded and noted at least 72 native tribes. All this with only one man dead of disease. By any measure it was a success, a tribute to good leadership, thorough preparation, a decent amount of tact in dealing with natives. They had a bit of luck, too. But luck, Louis Pasteur later said, follows the prepared mind, and prepared they certainly were. All that they were tasked with, they accomplished, and more.

America’s Long Journey: The Embargo

We have seen that America got out of the War of 1812 as well as it did because the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1814. That ended the need for naval impressment and blockades, and it let the British realize the extent of their own war-weariness. But what if war between the United States and Great Britain had come five years earlier? America barely staggered through two years of war. Could it have survived seven? If not for Jefferson’s creative diplomacy, we might have found out.

All through America’s earliest years, America watched the world’s two most powerful empires fighting to the death. Every year, it got harder to stay uninvolved. In the 1790s, as we shall see, we only narrowly avoided war with France. But American shipping, and in fact American nationhood, was under pressure from the British Empire, in the person of the royal navy, every year during this whole time.

The Naval Battle of Trafalgar, in October, 1805, destroyed the French and Spanish fleets and left Britain mistress of the seas, But in December, the land battle of Austerlitz made the French army masters of the mainland. Deadlock. In the absence of a way for the whale to fight the lion, both sides turned to using trade as a weapon, each seeking to strangle the other economically. Naturally the big losers were the neutrals, and guess who had the largest neutral merchant fleet. Britain insisted that American ships trade through British ports before proceeding to Europe. France seized American ships that obeyed British regulations in defiance of the French paper blockade.

After Trafalgar, the British navy acted with ever-greater arrogance and ruthlessness. Thousands of American seamen were impressed into service – in essence, slavery — on British warships. American merchantmen were made to submit to examination within American waters, and many were seized, with their cargo, as contraband of war. Might was making right, without even a fig leaf. Americans seethed, but put up with it, seeing no choice. And then it got ever worse. In June, 1807, HMS Leopard, looking for deserters, attacked and boarded USS Chesapeake, an American frigate, outside the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.

How should America respond? By declaring war? Jefferson’s generation knew all about war. They had experienced the hazards of risking your life, your fortune and your sacred honor. Unlike the War Hawks of the next generation, they knew that war wasn’t anything to undertake lightly. America had only a few frigates, as opposed to England’s navy of hundreds of warships.

But if not war, what? Should the country – could the country — shrug its shoulders when its warship was attacked? Would this not amount to an open invitation to further and greater depredations, and might it not risk jeopardizing the nation’s existence quite as much as war? If only there were some response between war and inactivity.

There was, and Jefferson found it, or perhaps we should say invented it. His creative response was an experiment in economic warfare. Congress had already passed an act that refused entry to many British goods. In December, 1807, he recommended a full embargo, prohibiting all American ships from departing for a foreign port. The Embargo Act passed, and he signed it into law before the end of the year.

It was s drastic step, unprecedented, hazardous, unpredictable and ultimately unpopular – but then, the same could be said of war. It amounted to a unilateral shutting-down of America’s foreign trade, in the hope that either France or Britain or both would find the cost to their economy too great to bear. With luck, the resulting economic hardship would force one or both nations to stop harassing American shipping, and would force the British to end its practice of impressment.

Well, it didn’t. New Englanders conducted as much illicit trade as they could get away with. Border communities engaged in large-scale illicit trade across the Canadian border. The British picked up as much of America’s perforce abandoned foreign trade as it could. As it turned out, the embargo hurt various aspects of the American economy, yet proved ineffective in coercing either the British or French into changing policies.

Might it have worked, if more Americans had cooperated? Impossible to say. All areas of the United States suffered: shipping interests in New England and the Middle Atlantic states, and agricultural interests, particularly in the South. But if there ever was a chance, it was destroyed by the extensive smuggling operations that undercut it.

In Jefferson’s last months in office, his long successful leadership over Congress frayed, as the representatives naturally turned their eyes from their long time leader and turned to the man entering office. The embargo was revoked on March 1, 1809, three days before Jefferson left office. Historians often consider the Embargo to have been a failure, and perhaps they are right. The question remains, though. If Jefferson had not tried his great experiment, is there any reason to think the British would not have gone to ever newer extremes of coercion? And if those incursions had led the country into war five years earlier than happened in fact – seven long years before the overthrow of Napoleon removed what Britain saw as the necessity for conscription and economic warfare – would the country have survived?

America’s Long Journey: Jefferson

Historian Dumas Malone spent a lifetime studying, and writing six volumes, on the life of Jefferson. How in the world can anyone do him justice in a few hundred words?

John F. Kennedy, speaking to a gathering of Nobel Prize winners in the White House in 1962, famously said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”

He also could, and did, write the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and bring into being the University of Virginia – which were the only three achievements he wished mentioned on his gravestone, “because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”

Jefferson’s long life of public service included a term as wartime Governor of Virginia, then Ambassador to France under the Confederation that preceded adoption of the Constitution. While in Europe, he studied its architecture, and the style he liked best found its way into public buildings first in Virginia, then throughout the country. He studied its vineyards and agriculture, and sent seeds and samples of many useful plants back to his native land. He studied Europe’s society and morals under monarchist governments, and reinforced his existing preference for republican simplicity.

Returning home at George Washington’s request, he became the first Secretary of State, then retired, then was elected John Adams’ vice president, then served as president in his own right for eight difficult and momentous years. Throughout his political life, he fought the centralizing and power-accumulating tendencies of the federalists, organized what is now the oldest political party in the world, and stage-managed the first peaceful transition of power to a loyal opposition. So successful were his policies that his federalist opposition vanished like spring snow, the leaders remaining in opposition but their followers changing allegiance. (His administrations and those of his friends James Madison and James Monroe stretched 24 years, the so-called “Virginia Dynasty.”)

After his presidency, he returned gladly to Monticello, the home he had planned and built and repeatedly modified, an architectural achievement that, with his design for the University of Virginia, was one of only 41 structures to be included in the 1987 UNESCO World Heritage List. (Monticello keeps company with such structures as the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis.) At Monticello, he functioned as elder statesman, prodigious correspondent, farmer, naturalist, amateur scientist, father, grandfather and master of his estate.

That he and John Adams died on the same day – and that day the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — did not leave their compatriots unmoved. The New York American, in language a little flowery to our taste, but transparently sincere, said, in part:

“By a coincidence marvelous and enviable, THOMAS JEFFERSON in like manner with his great compeer, John Adams, breathed his last on the 4th of July. Emphatically may we say, with a Boston paper, had the horses and the chariot of fire descended to take up the patriarchs, it might have been more wonderful, but not more glorious. We remember nothing in the annals of man so striking, so beautiful, as the death of these two time-honored patriots, on the jubilee of that freedom, which they devoted themselves and all that was dear to them, to proclaim and establish.

“It cannot all be chance. It may be permitted to us to believe, that the prayer most natural on such a day, in the mouths of such men, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” was put up and favorably heard. The god who gave them being, and inspired their hearts in the day of peril, and in a desponding land, filled them with hope and with confidence … may in his wisdom, and in his tenderness, have seen fit to interpose, and on the fiftieth anniversary of the great day of independence, have recalled to himself the spirits of these mighty TWO, who, having seen fulfilled and surpassed all that in the most daring aspirations of youthful hope and ardor, they had ventured to anticipate for their country, and having attained to the highest honors which a grateful nation could pay, could no longer worthily linger upon earth.”

Not that he didn’t have enemies! His entire public life from 1789 was lived under an unending stream of accusation, the most persistent of which was that he was an enemy of religion, that he was a “Jacobin” (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century equivalent of calling him a Communist). But there were other charges: that he was a willing or unconscious dupe of Napoleon; that he was an impractical theorist who would ruin the country; that he intended to destroy civil liberties. Oh, and a few minor peccadilloes, as well: that he was perfidious, untruthful, treacherous – you get the idea. It all amounted to his having ideas of his own, and the ability to bring those ideas to a trial in real life. The fury and the calumny that pursued him for 30 years were based, as much as anything, in frustration that in fact his ideas mostly worked, and that the people mostly trusted and supported him.

If he had his failures and disappointments, and enemies who conceded him nothing – and he did! — what public figure has ever escaped any of this? With Washington and Lincoln, each of whom was great in different ways, he was one of the greatest men ever to fill the office of president of the United States.

A few final quotations from Emerson’s journals.

Emerson again. Still relevant as ever.

April, 1858:

“Because our education is defective, because we are superficial and ill-read, we are forced to make the most of that position, of ignorance. Hence America is a vast know-nothing party, and we disparage books, and cry up intuition…. [D]enouncing libraries and severe culture and magnifying the mother-wit swagger of bright boys from the country colleges, we have even come so far as to deceive everybody, except ourselves, into an admiration of un-learning and inspiration, forsooth.”

February, 1858:

“Felton told of [scientist Louis] Agazzi, that when someone applied to him to read lectures, or some other paying employment, he answered, ‘I can’t waste my time earning money.’”

October, 1862:

“George Francis Train said in a public speech in New York, ‘Slavery is a divine institution.’ ‘So is hell,’ exclaimed an old man in the crowd.”

July (?), 1865:

“I think it a singular and marked result that the War has established a conviction in so many minds that the right will get done; has established a chronic hope for a chronic despair.”

Autumn, 1868:

“In the perplexity in which the literary public now stands with regard to university education … the one safe investment which all can agree to increase is the library.”

May, 1869:

“God had infinite time to give us; but how did He give it? In one immense tract of a lazy millennium? No, but He cut it up into neat succession of new mornings, and, with each, therefore, a new idea, new inventions, and new applications.”


“One thing is certain: the religions are obsolete when the reforms do not proceed from them.”


America’s Long Journey: John Adams’ Son

John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States, following James Madison and defeated by Andrew Jackson. Everyone knows that, even if they don’t know anything that happened during that term, and even if they know nothing of the congressional career that followed it, or the term as Secretary of State that preceded it. But even those who know that much often have little idea of his breadth of learning and experience or his long public service before he ever became Madison’s great Secretary of State.

Let’s look at his background. At age 10, he accompanied his father to Europe, where the elder Adams served as American envoy first to France, then to the Netherlands. When Francis Dana was sent to St. Petersburg, Russia, to seek diplomatic recognition from the Czar, he took along 14-year-old Adams as his secretary, and Adams spent the next three years in Russia, including travel in Scandinavia and Silesia. When he returned to the United States, he was fluent not only in Latin and Greek, learned from his father, but in French and Dutch, with working knowledge of several other European languages.

Adams earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Harvard College, gained admittance to the bar, and began to practice law, but his life took a decisive turn at age 26. He had won national recognition for a series of articles supporting Washington’s decision to keep America out of the hostilities surrounding the French Revolution. Washington appointed him minister to the Netherlands. He liked his quiet life of reading, and probably would have rejected the post, but his father persuaded him to take it.

At the end of his appointment, he wanted to return to private life, but Washington appointed him minister to Portugal, \then promoted him to the Berlin Legation. Washington called Adams “the most valuable of America’s officials abroad.” After that, his father, becoming President, named him minister to Prussia, where he served until his father was turned out of office in 1801.

On his return to the United States, Adams was appointed a Commissioner of Monetary Affairs in Boston by a Federal District Judge; but Thomas Jefferson rescinded the appointment. Adams entered politics, and was elected to the Massachusetts State Senate in April 1802. He was elected to the U.S. Senate, and served from March 4, 1803, until 1808, when he broke with the Federalist Party. Adams, as a Senator, had supported the Louisiana Purchase and Jefferson’s Embargo Act, actions which made him very unpopular with Massachusetts Federalists. The Federalist-controlled Massachusetts Legislature chose a replacement for Adams on June 3, 1808, several months early. On June 8, Adams broke with the Federalists, resigned his Senate seat, and became a Democrat-Republican.

Disowned by the Federalists and only partially accepted by the Republicans, Adams devoted his time to his Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. The times were passing him by, not because he was unaware but because he remained loyal to principles that were passing out of favor. He remained true to the neo-classical politics of the founding generation, while the country at large moved to the commercial ethos and mass democracy of what would become known as the Age of Jackson.

In 1809, President James Madison named him our first minister to Russia. From the Czar down, he was popular, as was his English-born wife Louisa. (The Czar often met him on his walks.)

In 1812, Czar Alexander offered to mediate peace between the United States and Great Britain. The U.S. accepted, but the British declined. Finally, in 1814, Adams was recalled from Russia to serve as chief negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. From 1815 to 1817, he served as minister to Great Britain, the post first held by his father. When he returned home to become Secretary of State, none could deny that he knew as much about foreign affairs, first hand, as any other American, perhaps more than any. He brought to his new position a wealth of training, experience and learning unsurpassed by anyone in our history. As we have seen, the preparation bore impressive fruit.