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John Quincy Adams: American Visionary
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71 of 77 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon May 11, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Biographies are difficult to write. A biographer seldom approaches the subject with a clean slate. Many (most?) presidential biographers approach the subject from a historical or political perspective and emphasize events or societal currents, sometimes to the detriment of the subject of the biography. In the case of this biography, we have a retired English professor writing a biography of an extremely prolific political figure who had real literary talent. The focus of this work is clearly on the person and writings of Adams rather than other aspects of his life. And yet, even accepting this prospective bias, I am left unsatisfied by this work.

On the positive side, it is an exhaustive study of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, 17-year Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State, professor, author, diarist (50 volumes!), and anti-slavery advocate. His is a remarkable story, and the author tells it in great detail, relying on correspondence and journals to provide a first-hand account of many incidents in Adams' life.

That being noted, I found this book to be very tiresome, oddly organized, and lacking in historical and political context. For example, the author spends over 100 pages on the childhood and education of Adams but less than 40 on his presidency. What many authorities consider to be Adams' most significant period, his time in Congress, receives only a bit more coverage than childhood and early legal career. The author mentions significant historical events, e.g., the XYZ affair on page 156, without previous explanation. Elsewhere, the author begins to discuss a topic but leaves off without completing the discussion or explaining the significance of the matters mentioned. For example, the author mentions that Adams sent dozens of letters home from his travels in Silesia and was open to the possibility of their publication, and yet no mention is made of their ultimate publication in a 387-page book titled "Letters on Silesia" by a London publisher. The whole episode in Prussia and the travels in Silesia is given quite extended treatment in a chapter almost as long as the chapter on Adams as president, while Unger - another Adams biographer - considers this period in a chapter of just 15 pages, a much more appropriate allocation of space and effort.

At various points in this otherwise literary-focused biography, there are interesting insinuations of political insight that attempt to co-opt Adams' legacy for progressive politics, notwithstanding the popular and long-standing view that Adams is properly considered a moderate conservative (even Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a very progressive scholar, put Adams in that part of the political spectrum). At one point, the author describes Adams' political legacy as "land-grant universities, the Panama Canal, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Federal Reserve, and the Interstate Highway System," and the back cover of the book links Adams to "FDR and Obama." Suffice it to say that the book did not persuade me that the Adams lineage extended quite so far in that direction, and further elaboration (in an already overlong book) would have been necessary to properly substantiate such an assertion.

A biographer must sift the sources and make assessments of the relative weight of various segments of the subject's life. These tasks are especially important when dealing with someone whose personal diaries extend to 50 volumes, for whom there are many public records and speeches, and who has been the subject of many other biographies. This book would have benefited from a heavy and objective editing, and, absent such, I cannot recommend this book to any but fans of the author or enthusiasts of Adams for whom less lengthy - and more effective - biographies do not suffice.
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58 of 65 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
. . . and give it a reluctant -- but earned -- three stars.

First -- the good bits (and there were quite a few!) The most valuable part of of this book begins with the fact that it was written at all. Critical biographies of significant leaders who have fallen out of the mainstream of public view are extremely important because they provide context and background and can thus provide a different and unique perspective that can be missed.

I learned a great deal about a President about whom I already knew a fair amount. I knew that he was well-traveled in his youth -- but had no idea as to the extent of that travel. I knew that he was, at one point, Minister to Russia -- but was unaware of several of his other diplomatic postings. I knew that he was a remarkably well-educated and well-read individual -- but not to the depths of the matter. I knew that he served for 17 years with distinction in the United States House of Representatives following his Presidency -- but didn't previously know that this was public service that he felt was his duty to undertake -- even against his family wishes, and, in the end, to the detriment of his health.

In short, I found that I had learned a great deal -- and that what I learned was interesting and informative.

There were two glaring negatives, each one costing the book a star.

1) Both in the promotional material sent to me (understandable) AND in the blurbs and introduction to the book itself (much less appropriate) both the author and the publisher go out of their way to pre-dispose the reader to a particular conclusion: namely, that John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Barak Obama viewed the Presidency in similar ways and had similar progressive points of view which guided their respective Presidencies. Now this may be true or this may be false (and in my view, the author did not make that case) but as an avid reader of history and historical biography, I want to be allowed to form my own conclusions without prompting.

2) In a somewhat similar vein, there were times in the text when one could not be sure if Quincy Adams' view was being presented, or if Fred Kaplan's view about what he thought Quincy Adams' view was (or should have been) was being presented. For example, during the discussion of the Mexican-American War during the Polk administration, it was clear that Quincy Adams opposed both the war and the President. So far, so good. But while the author was analyzing the opinions of the House during the war, it was difficult to ascertain whether Quincy Adams felt the war was illegal; whether Kaplan felt the war was illegal (a subject for a different book); or whether Kaplan "felt" that Quincy Adams felt the war was illegal. In other words, was I reading Quincy Adams' view (which is what I wanted to learn) or was I reading the author's view (which wasn't supposed to be the point of the book.)

Just let me read the book and form my own conclusions . . . if I want further information, I know how to find it.
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55 of 62 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 26, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
At the risk of stating the obvious, John Quincy Adams should be remembered for more than being the son of a Founding Father and a one-term President. So a new biography to bring him out of the historical fog is a welcome and well worthy endeavor. Unfortunately - at least for this reader - this book isn't it.

First, this cradle to the grave biography is a very concerted effort to humanize JQA; a very admirable task, for much like his father, John Quincy took his public service and sense of duty very seriously; and therefore also much like his father, he was not the easiest to person to "like". The reader is presented with JQA's extensive reading list, his writings/ opinions and prose/poetry - much of this quoted directly from his letters, speeches and his lifelong journal. So there are a lot of quotes - too many for this reader - this over-reliance resulting in the narrative both losing its flow and poignancy.

Don't get me wrong, there is much I learned here - particularly how much JQA traveled during his lifetime - this when 50 miles was a "journey" - how hard he worked - and another for instance - Mrs. JQA's health issues. Poor Louisa Adams seemingly never feeling well for any extended period of time causing much concern and never permitting the marriage to blossom into the partnership the senior Adams and Abigail had.

One other quirk of the narrative worth mentioning here. Events in JQA's life are stated - his marriage, appointments, elections - with the circumstances leading to them subsequently covered. Not necessarily a bad technique in and of itself, but here the transitions aren't smooth and at times, aren't coherent - which became confusing.

Lastly the closer JQA came to center stage in his life - meaning Washington, DC - the less detailed this narrative becomes - his presidency and time served in Congress - almost 25 years - covered superficially in the last 140 pages of this almost 600 page book.

John Quincy's was an accomplished life - many of his achievements outside of the public/historical spotlight, i.e. the Monroe Doctrine, the Treaty of Ghent. He was much more than simply his father's son and much like David McCullough's bio did for his father, deserves to come out of the historical shadows. This book makes a valiant effort, but alas, results only in a step in the right direction.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Fred Kaplan's book John Quincy Adams: American Visionary is remarkably good, far more interesting, insightful, and informative than I had expected. I had imagined that our sixth president was an inconsequential mediocrity who inherited his political status from his father, John Adams, our second president, and commonly regarded as one of America's founding fathers. I had no good reason for my unfavorable assessment of John Quincy. He simply had the misfortune of being a one-term postscript to the revolution who took office long before the Civil War. Given my limited knowledge of eighteenth and early nineteenth century American history, there was nothing historically momentous with which I could connect him. Following Kaplan, however, I now think that my ignorance led me to vastly undervalue a genuinely brilliant and undeniably capable patriot who served his county well in a variety of official and unofficial ways over the course of a life that lasted eighty years. In truth, John Quincy embodied just about every virtue that I never expected of a little-remembered Nineteenth Century politician.

From childhood, John Quincy was insatiably curious and a voracious reader. At an age when I had just gotten past the Dick and Jane reader, he was already studying the classics. Shakespeare and Alexander Pope quickly became his favorites, and when he learned Latin he developed a lifelong fondness for Cicero, whose writings seemed to prefigure John Quincy's experiences in the world of politics and diplomacy, providing him with inspiration and solace. When he was only fourteen, he accompanied an American emissary to Moscow and served as his translator and interpreter. The language mandated for the highest level of government and international affairs in Russia was French, and John Quincy already spoke it fluently. Throughout his life, John Quincy wrote voluminously and with abundant and varied knowledge in a refined but masculine style that made each of his essays, reports, written speeches, his precious diary, and numerous other documents an instructive pleasure to read even today.

A Harvard graduate, anyone reading Kaplan's richly detailed biography might conclude that John Quincy was destined to be a man of letters and the arts, and he was, but he also had to make a living. Though it interested him little, he followed his father's example by selecting the law as his career. He was apprenticed to prominent practicing attorneys for three years, and subsequently established a practice of his own. It's difficult to imagine a man of John Quincy's eloquence and learning failing in the practice of law, and he proved himself capable even if decidedly unenthusiastic. However, the city of Boston, the town of Quincy, and the rest of his native New England had a surfeit of lawyers, and John Quincy made ends meet but little more. Throughout his remarkable life, his generosity and sometimes misplaced trust in friends and relatives assured that money was nearly always a concern, an important factor in delaying his age at marriage until thirty.

Whether working as an attorney, serving in political office, or instructing Harvard students in rhetoric, John Quincy's family, both nuclear and extended, was prominent in his heart and mind. Were they second to his patriotic sense of duty? It's a tough call. In any case, this was a time when a family was not a family without children. John Quincy's beloved wife Louisa suffered four miscarriages before the difficult birth of their first child, who they named George Washington Adams. More miscarriages, more children, a still birth, and a daughter who died before she reached her second birthday were to follow. John Quincy, his wife, and their children, throughout their lives, were often quite ill with infections and unidentified ailments of various kinds. Life in the first half of the Nineteenth Century seems to have been almost unendurably difficult, for women especially, but for men as well. The medicine of the time relied on bleeding with leaches to diminish infection and on laudnam to relieve pain and anxiety, and whatever else was customary, regardless of its efficacy.

As President, John Quincy relied on the wealth of wisdom he had acquired serving as a legislator and as an effective Secretary of State. Much as today, however, his time in office was one of gridlock, with opposing parties and ideologies short-circuiting the effective function of government. John Quincy's view was that the federal government had an obligation to promote the economic development of the nation through investment in infrastructure, reform of an outmoded and risk-ridden banking system, fostering educational opportunity, promoting commerce and industry, and in a variety of other ways contributing to the creation of a cohesive and prosperous union.

His adversaries, however, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson conspicuous among them, saw such reforms as a threat to states' rights and, more importantly, a thinly veiled challenge to the slave-based agricultural society of the south. It's true that John Quincy was opposed to slavery, but he was not a radical abolitionist. Nevertheless, he brilliantly foresaw that maintenance of the status quo would surely result in a bloody civil war. As long as the three-fifths clause remained in the constitution (each slave was worth three-fifths of a citizen), the South would have an Electoral College advantage that the North would not indefinitely tolerate.

During his one term as President, contemporary-sounding gridlock prevented John Quincy from achieving the union-strengthening reforms he had long championed. Later, his New England constituents persuaded him to run for Congress, and he served with distinction in the House until his death. Even when aged and ill, his oratorical skill and stamina remained impressive.

In many ways, John Quincy Adams was a man of his times -- he abhorred miscegenation, did nothing on behalf of illegally dispossessed Native Americans, and had an oddly circumspect view of Jews. Furthermore, he could have given his long-suffering wife a reprieve from numerous exhausting and painful pregnancies had he followed the example of the Biblical character Onan. Though proscribed by the Bible, failure to do so seems simply cruel. Nevertheless, John Quincy was a man with learned foresight and the attainments of an accomplished intellectual who also understood the world of slash-and-burn politics and dreaded the ignorance of its practitioners. The timing and circumstances of his political career prevented him from becoming commonly regarded as a great man, but Fred Kaplan's biography makes abundantly clear that he was no ordinary political operative with a limited, unreflective, self-serving agenda. In my view, given the time and the place, he was about as good as could be found.

Kaplan's book, moreover, is excellent, based on mastery of historical materials, a clear and accessible prose style, and a gift for turning a massive amount of information into an intelligible and interesting life story. Kaplan's book is long and time-consuming, but it's worth the time and effort.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Overall, this book was at least what JQA deserved, in that JQA accomplished a lot in his career and most other books don't do him justice. That being said, if you are looking for purely a story of history, reading this will cause you to skip whole pages. Mr. Kaplan primarily writes biographies of writers and literary analysis and is an English professor. All things I realized (yes I know this is public knowledge but still) when I finally looked at his other books after reading page after page of analysis of the plays JQA went to see in London. The book goes into WAY too much detail about his analysis of everything he read and has pages and pages of his poetry. Which is great if you're into that kind of thing, but something I wish I had known going in. I really don't care about how moral he thought play XYZ was. Another critique is the awful timing of the book. The author often jumps around and I caught several instances of Mr. Kaplan confusing himself with years and events. If you are going to write history, get it right. Furthermore, out of 570 pages, the author only spent roughly 40 (one chapter) on his actual presidency. While reality is that he only served one term and was largely blocked from action during it, if you can find enough information on his views on 18th and 19th century poets, you can find more than just a flimsy review of his presidency.

That being said, I thought this book had one of the best discussions of the causes of the Civil War I've ever read. The chapters covering his time in the House of Representatives were superb and the author seemed to refocus himself. Long story short, if you're willing to skip over the literary analysis and over-the-top poetry, it paints a good portrait of the man, for all his faults.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Over the past several years there have been a number of books published about our sixth president, his wife, and the times in which they lived. John Quincy Adams, a one-term president (and a minority one elected by the House of Representatives), led a very high profile, influential life on both sides of his presidency. Before, he was an accomplished diplomat and after he served as a member of the House of Representatives - the only former president to so serve.
Son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy was an intellectual, forward-thinking American with exceptional literary talents and was the consummate diarist, one to rival the Englishman, Samuel Pepys. He negotiated treaties ending wars, settled land boundaries and acquired territory for the country. As president, he proposed an extensive program for internal improvements, supported a high tariff and reduced the national debt by more than half. The lack of a solid political network left many of his plans adrift and left him, like his father, a one-term president.
Kaplan's book is a slow read, filled with many fascinating details. Settle in and enjoy the journey.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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John Quincy Adams wasn't the warm and fuzzy type. Like his father, he was easily angered and had very strong opinions, many which rubbed his contemporaries the wrong way. Yes, he made mistakes and was a one term president, but this man hated slavery and was correct in many opinions he held. This book provides a good portrait of the president and how his views were ahead of his time. You can admire him from afar, and understand why he might have been intolerant of humankind.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 20, 2014
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Written with a view of highlighing his interest in and his ability as a writer of both prose and poetry and his passionate desire for a unified and thriving nation, Fred Kaplan's newest book and newest treatment of the sixth President of the United States is, in my opinion, an honest, fair, and comprehensive treatment of John Quincy Adams.

Having read Marie Hecht's 1972 biography, John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of An Independent Man, almost four and a half years ago, I was interested to compare, as best I could remember, her treatment with Kaplan's treatment of JQA, John Quincy Adams:American Visionary (HarperCollins Publisher). What I find with Kaplan is a fuller and as already stated, comprehensive treatment of Adams apart from his Presidential legacy.

Of note to me is Kaplan's ability to paint a strong emotional portrait of Adams who was in turn, a deeply grieved father-to-be whose wife Louisa had nine miscarriages and one stillborn child; a hopeful, but disappointed, and grief stricken father over two of his sons, one of whom committed suicide, who caused the family much embarrassment and pain; a devoted husband of over 50 years to Louisa whose health was chronically unstable; and an anxious man who wondered, throughout his life, if his work mattered.Yet Kaplan does a wonderful job of weaving in the constant thread of a firm believer in the Union and a passionate supporter of a strong and vital central government as a tool in developing a better educated and prosperous nation who was not above using his sharp mind and sharp tongue to advance his agenda. The result is a very human portrait of a man who served as chief US diplomat of a developing nation at an age thought unthinkable today, who served in both houses of Congress, was Secretary of State, and President.

I also found Kaplan's study of Adams' views of character and ethics fascinating. His detailing of his unrelenting work ethic, his catalog of Adams' strong view of honor and teamwork that was often bruised and battered in the changing political climate of America's first half-century, his long practice of journaling as well as reading, translating, and writing poetry, and noting his acceptance of Christianity but without the theological dogma that would place him at odds with much of at least Evangelical belief today, provided this reader with a portrait of a deeply personal, independent, well educated, and yet passionately committed public servant and person.

Another significant sketch is found in the transitional segments of life Adams experienced when he returned from his diplomatic duties and found America to have significantly changed in his absence. Of note in this regard was the change in both personal attitudes toward him, especially after his eight year absence during the first and second decades of the 1800's, following his resignation as US Senator. Such passages creates a sketch of JQA as one who often seemed to be of both a recent past and a distant future at the same time and often at odds with the political status quo.

The result of this effort is however, a highly readable and very informative telling of Adams' life and times. And it is this readability and informative nature which makes this book a very important addition to the every expanding bibliography of the American Presidency.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon February 11, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I found this book very well written and very informative. In my opinion this is a very good book for anyone interested in US history and those who want to learn more about a greatly underrated President of the US. The book greatly increased my understanding of what was perhaps the best prepared and one of the most talented presidents of the US, but also one whose election was one of the most contentions. This book does a good job of raising Adams from the ranks of failed presidents, where his is generally placed because he served only one term and most of his legislation was stymied by congress. The book makes a strong case for judging Adams as perhaps the best prepared and one of the most intellectual presidents. I think that it does a good job of describing Adams the man, what he believed and why his term as president is generally deemed to have been a failure. There are lengthy reviews of this book that cover Adam's life and accomplishments, so I will restrict myself to just commenting on the book as opposed to Adam's life.

The book uses Adam's diaries as a primary source and as such tells the story of his life from Adam's perspective, as opposed to the historical perspective of most history books. As such the book is somewhat more literary than the general history book. For instance, it covers Adams the poet as well as the diplomat - Adams the scholar as well as Adams the politician. While somewhat literary, the book does not neglect the historical facts, of which there are a huge number included in the book. I particularly liked the fact that it rightly gives Adams the real credit for the Monroe Doctrine, espoused by him while he was Secretary of State under President James Monroe. While I was aware of this, I was not aware that he supported General Andrew Jackson against President Monroe and the rest of the other cabinet who wanted to punish him for his actions in Florida.

My only reservation, and why I ended up rating this book four instead of five stars, is that after a wonderful exposition of Adams term as perhaps the best Secretary of State that the US has ever had, the book seems to run out of steam when covering his presidency and subsequent terms as a congressman. I would have liked more about his life as president and congressman.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Author Fred Kaplan is a stickler for detail. He describes in elaborate details the early childhood of John Quincy Adams, his years in France and Russia, and then his life back in Massachusetts post Revolutionary war. He was close to both parents and siblings and enjoyed a privileged life. When Adam's father died in 1826, however, things change for the man who later became the sixth president.

Kaplan shows how John Quincy lived in the shadows of his cantankerous father and domineering mother in his early life. But whatever privilege John Quincy enjoyed in his early years came back to haunt him when he ran for the re-election to the presidency against Andrew Jackson. John Quincy Adams faced relentless scrutiny and distrust from his own Congress.

Kaplan portrays Adams as a progressive ahead of his time: he had foreseen the end of slavery, the equality of women and native Americans, and the development of super highways for easier transport of goods. He comes across as man wanting respect for the native American tribes, whose land rights often fell to the states that held them. Kaplan also credits Adams for foretelling the war on slavery, as Adams didn't seem to think too well of the southern states.

There certainly is much to gain from reading this book as the details are immense. I knew about the many treaties that Adams had worked on or had created, but I knew little about his married life to Louisa, and the children he had with her. Alcoholism seems to have been handed down via the genes.

Kaplan quotes endlessly from Adam's diary and prolific letters that he wrote to his parents, wife, children and close friends. His writings helped show Adams for the man he was: well-educated and determined to leave his children educated and well-rounded as well. Adam's career outside the White House was no less productive than his four years inside it. His time on earth certainly are full of our country's founding history.

Anyone who enjoys history will appreciate the research and time devoted to this work. The writing style is engrossing without being overburdened with scholarly rhetoric.
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