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John Quincy Adams

The Eighth -- And Probably Best -- U.S. Secretary of State

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Updated October 29, 2012

He was dour, reportedly humorless and stiff. As president, he was unlikeable and unremarkable; he got only one term. But before that, he was perhaps the best foreign diplomat and Secretary of State the United States has ever had.

John Quincy Adams was both the eighth U.S. secretary of state and the sixth U.S. president. He was the son of John Adams, the second U.S. president (who also got but on term.).

John Quincy Adams was deep in U.S. foreign policy at a critical time. The nation was young, striving for acceptance and respect on a global scale. Adams, with a background in diplomacy from shadowing his father at a young age, performed remarkably when the time came.

Early Years

John Quincy Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, in 1767. Thus, he grew up during the critical years of the American Revolution. He was three at the time of the Boston Massacre; six during the Boston Tea Party, and eight when the war began at Lexington and Concord in 1775.

In 1778, at age 11, John Quincy traveled to France with his father, who had become a "commissioner" to that nation. In that year, France recognized American independence, and the elder Adams' position was something like a "minister" or ambassador. He also followed his father to the Netherlands when John Adams took a similar appointment there.

In addition, at age 14, John Quincy Adams became secretary to Francis Dana on a mission to Russia. Based in St. Petersburg, Dana sought Russian recognition of American statehood. That appointment lasted until John Quincy was 17. Adams also served as a secretary to his father in 1783 when the elder Adams was helping negotiate the Treaty of Paris, 1783, that secured American Independence from Great Britain.

He learned several languages in his travels across Europe, and he studied at various schools across the continent.

Returning to the United States, the younger Adams graduated from Harvard in 1787, the same year that the U.S. Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. He passed the Massachusetts bar in 1791.

Early Diplomatic Efforts

John Quincy Adams was ambivalent about public service, preferring instead to run a private law practice. He endeared himself to President George Washington, however, when he supported the president's decision not to aid France in that country's revolutionary wars.

As such, Washington picked Adams to become U.S. minister to the Netherlands. That job led to a position as minister to Portugal, which in turn brought Adams an appointment as minister to Berlin, Prussia.

Adams served abroad until 1801. He returned home and began a political career. In 1802 he won election to the Massachusetts State Senate; the next year he became U.S. senator from Massachusetts, serving until 1808. He also taught logic and rhetoric as a professor at Harvard and Brown Universities.

Diplomacy Under Madison

When President James Madison took office in March 1809, he appointed John Quincy Adams as U.S. Minister to Russia, a post he held until 1814. From St. Petersburg, Adams was able to watch and record Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia in 1812.

During Madison's first term, however, the United States was most concerned with its inability to get Great Britain to recognize its neutral trade rights on the high seas. Frustration over that issue, plus the expansionist desires of Democrat-Republicans who wanted part of Canada, prompted the United States to declare war on Great Britain in summer 1812.

The subsequent War of 1812 lasted until December 1814 (officially, that is; the famous Battle of New Orleans occurred after it ended.) John Quincy Adams was part of the American delegation that went to Ghent, Belgium, to craft the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war on December 24.

That's quite a diplomatic career, and John Quincy hadn't even become secretary of state yet. For that, read Part 2 of this biography.

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