September 20, 2012


John Quincy Adams. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $27.50.

The People Pick a President. By Tamara Henneman and Carolyn Jackson. Scholastic. $5.99.

      Every presidential election year in the United States inevitably brings comparisons of current chief executives, and would-be chief executives, with their predecessors – and the comparisons rarely favor modern officeholders.  Harlow Giles Unger’s John Quincy Adams is not specifically intended to evoke nostalgia for better presidents in better times; indeed, whether times were better in an agricultural, slaveholding nation beset by wars and severe economic problems is certainly arguable.  But readers of this fact-packed, dense biography will certainly come away feeling that politicians like John Quincy Adams do not exist anymore.  What is interesting is that, with rare exceptions, they did not exist in Adams’ own time, either.  He was the first president elected with a minority of votes; a one-term president humiliatingly defeated by a man he thought thoroughly incompetent to lead the nation (Andrew Jackson); and the first anti-slavery president (first to support abolition publicly and first to propose emancipation).  But Adams today is better known for nonpresidential things that he did than for his four years in office: he won freedom for the African prisoners aboard the Amistad and returned to politics, as a member of the House of Representatives, after his humiliating defeat by Jackson.  It is simply unthinkable today that a former president would return to serve the country in this way.  In addition, Adams was the first son of a president to become president himself (and the only one until George W. Bush); and he was an obsessive diarist, keeping a record of events from the 1770s to the 1840s – at 14,000 pages in all, it is the most complete record in existence of the early days of the United States.  Often overlooked by chroniclers because his presidency itself was widely labeled a failure, Adams has long had champions among careful students of American history – including John Kennedy, who singled him out as the first among nine great Americans in Profiles in Courage.  Adams was exceptionally independent in his thinking and behavior, voting against his own Federalist Party in favor of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, then voting against Jefferson’s Republicans when they planned to raise taxes.  The result, from a historical perspective, is that Adams comes across as a man of tremendous honesty and integrity.  From the perspective of his own time, though, he was an unreliable politician with few friends and few backers, hated by the “slaveocracy” (as he termed it) in Congress and bereft of any sufficiently strong political connections to sustain his presidency or the respect of the voters and most other politicians of the nation’s early years.  Unger, who has written about many of the Founding Fathers, has little to say about the manifold differences between Adams and today’s politicians, nor has he much to say about the ways in which Adams’ independent thinking on some issues stood in contrast with other attitudes of his (he strongly opposed Jackson because he truly believed in the Platonic ideal of rule by the most highly educated and accomplished men in society).  Instead, relying heavily on Adams’ own writings, Unger traces Adams’ life from its earliest days – the family forebears had been among those who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 – through the influence of Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, and most particularly the way in which the younger Adams was groomed for statesmanship by his father.  John Quincy Adams was, on paper, superbly qualified to serve as president, but it is amazing how often on-paper qualifications have proved to be of little value in that office: James Buchanan, a few years after Adams’ death, was also superbly qualified but feckless, while Buchanan’s successor was the apparently much-less-capable Abraham Lincoln.  The strong detail orientation of Unger’s book makes reading it slowly a necessity, and the book will be something of a chore for those not already fascinated by or steeped in American history – that is, those not intrigued by a sentence like this: “By spring, when the time came to return to Quincy, he had reread Childe Harold, Don Juan, and other works of Lord Byron – and written his own epic, 2,000-line poem titled Dermot MacMorrogh, on Henry II’s conquest of Ireland.”  Literary allusions aside, it seems unlikely that politics in the United States will produce the intellectual strength, commitment to public service and unflinching across-party-lines honesty of John Quincy Adams again.

      For what the American political process will produce, Scholastic’s The People Pick a President offers young readers a quick and easy guide.  The complete table of presidential elections, given at the book’s end, of course includes the dubious triumph of John Quincy Adams over Jackson in 1824, even though Jackson had more popular and electoral votes.  The table is a fascinating look at the name changes of political parties over the generations, and of such short-lived parties as the Anti-Masonic (1832), Free Soil (1848 and 1852), Constitutional Union (1860) and Greenback (1880 and 1884).  The main part of the book, though, is about the election process itself, which is explained clearly enough for children and wouldn’t be a bad thing for adults to read as well.  For example, the answer to the question of “Who Really Elects the President?” explains, “When the Constitution was written, the founders worried that would-be tyrants would appeal to uneducated voters.  To guard against this, they decided that the people would not directly elect the president and senators. …It still says that a group of electors from each state, not the voters, select the president.  Originally, these electors were educated men who were expected to use their independent judgment.  Today, electors are expected to cast their ballots for the candidate who receives the most votes in their state on Election Day.  Usually, that’s what they do, but they are not legally bound in every state.”  The book explains what the president does, how campaigns are put together, how vice presidents are chosen, what happens at polls, how winners and losers typically behave after the votes are counted, and what sorts of controversies can occur.  It is not an in-depth guide to presidential elections and is not intended to be, but The People Pick a President is a clearly written election primer that should help young readers, and their parents, understand more about what is going on besides the usual round of accusations, counter-accusations, claims, counterclaims, and generalized mudslinging and nastiness that collectively represent the face of U.S. presidential elections to voters – and to observers around the world.

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