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38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Biography But Not Enough Politics
John Quincy Adams had a really amazing career of public service. Being the son of one of our country's founding fathers and second president John Quincy Adams had a lot of advantages. But it was his intelligence and hard work that merited him his many positions.

It's almost hard to fathom all the public positions held by JQA in his life. From a legislator in...
Published on August 1, 2004 by C. Baker

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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More character analysis than historical biography
John Quincy Adams has long endured the reputation of an aloof, pugnacious elitist totally out of touch with his constituency and his times. In this recent biography, Paul Nagel seeks to go beyond the historical negative image of our sixth president to uncover the man behind the mask.
Given the author's stated intention, this book is as much character analysis as...
Published on July 23, 2002 by T. Graczewski


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38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Biography But Not Enough Politics, August 1, 2004
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This review is from: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Paperback)
John Quincy Adams had a really amazing career of public service. Being the son of one of our country's founding fathers and second president John Quincy Adams had a lot of advantages. But it was his intelligence and hard work that merited him his many positions.

It's almost hard to fathom all the public positions held by JQA in his life. From a legislator in Massachusetts, to a long and distinguished career as a diplomat in Europe - most notably Russia where he was a close confidant of the Tzar Alexander - to Secretary of State, sixth President of the United States, and U.S. Congressman. He even turned down an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Relying heavily on a very personal diary JQA kept nearly his entire adult life, this biography delves deeply into the psyche and private life of JQA, giving us an intimate portrait of his personality, family life, religious beliefs, and even some of the things that shaped his thoughts and personality. We literally follow JQA in his day to day life. The biography, as it stands, is extremely interesting.

The downfall of the book is that it does not deal enough with JQA's politics. We end up knowing far more about JQA's religious beliefs at the end of the biography than we do about his political thought. A perfect example is that JQA, as Secretary of State, was the primary influence behind the Monroe Doctrine dictating that European powers could no longer attempt to influence politics or colonize countries in the Western Hemisphere. Other than crediting JQA for this, the author does nothing to explore the details of how this extremely important political stance came about.

Further, while JQA's presidency may have been somewhat of a failure - mostly because he was a president elected not only by a minority of voters but a minority of the electoral college as well - it certainly deserved more than one chapter of the book. And that chapter is almost devoid of political analysis. (Note the House of Representatives ended up choosing the president since none of the candidates had a majority of electoral college votes, therefore JQA's power was significantly weakened and his presidency was one where the legislative branch was dominant). This biography begs for second volume just about JQA's public or political life.

Despite that flaw I did find the biography fascinating. It certainly did give one an appreciation for JQA's pragmatism and irascibility, which are clear in his political stances and behavior.

Two pieces of trivia that many readers probably know. John Adams and John Quincy Adams were the only father and son to both be President of the United States until George Bush and George W. Bush. Secondly, JQA is the only ex-President to subsequently become a member of Congress (in this case the House of Representatives).
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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More character analysis than historical biography, July 23, 2002
By 
T. Graczewski "tgraczewski" (Burlingame, CA United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Paperback)
John Quincy Adams has long endured the reputation of an aloof, pugnacious elitist totally out of touch with his constituency and his times. In this recent biography, Paul Nagel seeks to go beyond the historical negative image of our sixth president to uncover the man behind the mask.
Given the author's stated intention, this book is as much character analysis as historical biography. Other reviewers of this book listed below have criticized Nagel for neglecting an in-depth accounting of JQA's public accomplishments. Clearly, they didn't read the preface (in which the author clearly lays out the focus of the book) and would have been much better off reading a different volume on Adams' life, such as Samuel Flagg Bemis' masterwork, "John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy," which won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and provides a comprehensive analysis of JQA's many public achievements.
Using JQA's private diary as the primary source, Nagel describes a talented but conflicted man tormented by a life of extreme self-doubt and merciless self-criticism. From an early age JQA was groomed for greatness by his parents. But that preparation - which included a stint as secretary to the US Minister to Russia while only 14 years old, the best classical education a young American of his time could dream of, and close contact with many heads of state and intellectuals - proved to be more curse than blessing in a nation rapidly shifting toward the popular democracy of Jacksonianism. The intense pressure to succeed and a public increasingly hostile to his aristocratic upbringing and bearing caused JQA a lifetime of great personal anguish and ultimately national rejection.
For those interested in learning more about Adams' role as chief negotiator at Ghent during the War of 1812, his storied tenure as Monroe's secretary of state, his disastrous presidential administration, or his controversial career in the House in later life, there are much better volumes to read than Nagel's. However, few biographies exceed Nagel's insight into Adams' personal life - his pettiness, self-pity, disappointment, and grief.
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73 of 81 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional biography, January 2, 2001
By 
Candace Scott (Lake Arrowhead, CA, USA) - See all my reviews
It's a matter of debate who was our most intelligent President: Lincoln, Madison and Jefferson would certainly garner their share of votes. But John Quincy Adams warrants serious consideration: he was an intellectual titan with an astounding breadth of intellect. He was impossibly well-read, sober, amazingly articulate with a rapier-like ability to demolish opponents or defend his position. It's debatable whether he was, in fact, America's most brilliant President, but this book goes a long way in making that case.
Nagel wisely delves into Adams' private side and quotes extensively from his own words. If you are looking for a glum recitation of Adams' political life, look elsewhere, this is a more human biography. There was a refreshing amount of material focusing on Adams' boyhood, and the chapters covering his Congressional years are especially interesting. His story reads like something from a novel: failed President transformed into one of the most influential Congressmen who ever serve in the House.
My only minor criticism is that Nagel does not sufficiently explore or explain Adams' brilliant son, Henry, who grew up to be a caustic and clever chronicler of the late 10th century. Otherwise, this is a solid book, well-written, thoroughly researched and illuminating.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A little more politics would be nice..., May 8, 2000
This review is from: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Paperback)
I agree with a few of the other reviewers: the "public life" of JQA (one my favorite presidents...) gets a tad too little attention for my taste in the book. Just a tad: what is there is well-written and interesting enough to propel the book forward.
Though I am no expert on the subject, I thought Nagel was a little tough on JQA'S mother Abigail Adams. Actions and words that Nagel seemed to condemn as overbearing in her I found to be...well...*nothing* compared to my mother's ability to nag (Sorry, ma). That is, they were the sort of keep-your-nose-clean-and-your-trousers-buckled exhortations I'd pretty much expect from anybody's mommy.
But this is a small quibble with an otherwise good book. I found the best, most moving writing when Nagel describes JQA's last years in Congress. Here, Nagel evokes respect and sympathy for the JQA who was both drawn to and repulsed by political discourse. And Nagel's treatment of the obvious love between JQA and his wife was touching but not cloying--the best kind of love story.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Well Balanced Account of A Difficult Man, August 4, 2003
This review is from: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Paperback)
I can't decide if this book is as good at David McCullough's biography of John Adams (a five-star book for sure), but if not, it is very, very close. Drawing on John Quincy Adams' diaries, Paul Nagel has written a very readable account of a not so likable man and does such a thorough job of showing every side of the man that I came away feeling respect, admiration and sympathy for JQA.
One of the surprises to me in this account of the eminent Adams family is that Abigail Adams was overbearing with her children and possibly did not command the affection of her eldest son, JQA. (Maybe I'm thick, but I didn't get an inkling of this in the McCullough biography of JQA's father.) What may not be quite so surprising is that JQA had little respect for woman in general, apart from their role as mothers and housekeepers. Nagel makes the observation that JQA's wife Louisa, who was apparently literate and intelligent, would have surpassed her husband in ability had she been provided a similar education. A book about their relationship and the social mores that kept them together would be fascinating!
The story of JQA's life might be described as replete with conflicts. His struggle between a scholarly career vs. a political career is well documented and ongoing until the last years of his life. Obviously, he finally came to realize that he needed the political forum since he spent the last 17 years in the House of Representatives, the only former president to do so. His four years as president were probably the most miserable of his life, but he wanted to be re-elected. He constantly berated himself for indolence while generating more work than several people put together.
He was quite a character, habitually swimming in the Potomac River (almost drowning while he was president)and walking several miles a day, timing himself while doing so. In his seventies and suffering from a malady that produced ugly boils on his bald head, he appeared at dinner parties wearing a turban. And he absolutely loved to antagonize his fellow congressmen by taking the floor of the House of Representatives.
What's sad about JQA is that he was not satisfied with what he accomplished. It seems that even more than his father, he resented not have a "proper place in history". He wanted to be another Caesar, but realized that he was not endowed by nature with sufficient abilities. Given everything that he had accomplished as foreign diplomat, college professor, Secretary of State, President and, finally, Congressman (to say nothing of being a devoted family man), it's really too bad he couldn't relax and enjoy himself more.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars John Quincy Adams: A Private Life, November 12, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Paperback)
I was disappointed with this biography of arguably the greatest public figure in United States history. Nagel's book should be called, "John Quincy Adams: A Private Life." Nagel spends an enormous amount of time looking over Adams' diary and, it seemed to me, hardly any time looking at original documents. The book concentrates on the subjective perceptions of Adams who was a great diarist. Adams meticulously kept a journal of the great events of his life (he was Minister to Great Britain and Russia, Secretary of State, President and later Representative to the U.S. Congress) and the great men with whom he came in contact (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, etc.). However, Adams' diary entries must be matched with other contemporary works and official documents to get a full picture of Adams and his times. Nagel spent the vast majority of this book interpreting Adams' journals and not enough pages on the details of the events about which Adams wrote. Lost are the details of the War of 1812 for which Adams was leading peace negotiator at Ghent. Adams' great abolitionist efforts are also not fully detailed by Nagel who gives short thrift Adams' post-Presidency congressional career. The best work on John Quincy Adams remains Samuel Bemis' two volume biography.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Study of a Difficult Man, April 23, 2001
By 
Dana Keish (Ohio, United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Paperback)
Concentrating more on the character of John Quincy Adams rather than his career, author Nagel does a brilliant job of bringing the 6th President of the United States to life. His relationship with his famous parents, John and Abigail Adams is fully explored and the reprecussions of his difficult relationship with his mother is felt thoroughout his life.
Accompanying his father to France as a youngster, John Quincy is viewed somewhat as a prodigy. His other trips during this time when he was between 10-16 are remarkable. He comes back to America and finishes his education and then begins to read for the law. Learning to quickly despise the law, he becomes involved with politics. All the while however, he is more interested in his scholarly pursuits. After travelling to London as a diplomat, he meets his future wife, probably the only woman who could have lived with John Quincy and not lost her sanity. John Quincy was subject to deep depressions which left him unable to function for months at a time.
The author also does an excellent job detailing the problems with his children. The two older sons became alcoholics, probably because he subjected them to the same kind of stresses that his parents did. He seems to have realized this at one point but was unable to make any significant changes.
I found this biography much more interesting than just a pure recitical of his political accomplishments and really felt that I got to know and begin to understand the complex character of a prodigy unable to live up to the high standards set by his parents.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An inexcusably poor biography, August 18, 2007
This review is from: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Paperback)
After noting the ratings and browsing the titles of other reviewers, I realize I am in the minority in the low review I have given this book. I find it even more peculiar given my disposition to normally be quite favorable in my reviews. I will not flinch, however, in my belief that this biography is ill conceived, inadequately researched, and poorly written.

First, I will tackle why this book is ill conceived. Nagel makes the assertion that he will be able to add new insight into the inner workings of John Quincy Adams, a task he points out that no previous biographer has been fully successful, by writing a biography utilizing JQA's diary. This certainly seems like an acceptable approach but in practice Nagel simply uses it as an excuse to write a biography without doing any real research. In fact, you will not find a single footnote in this entire volume, simply an explanation basically telling you that his primary research was JQA's diary with the gaps filled in by other biographers work. Even more inexplicable, beyond a couple of lines of poetry, Nagel never quotes directly from JQAs diary except for short sentences or phrases trapped within his mechanical prose. The dumbfounding outcome of this is a book that purports to tell JQAs story utilizing his diary, yet never gives the reader any sense of what JQAs diary was actually like.

The preceding criticism might be overlooked had Nagel actually written an enjoyable biography. Unfortunately, Nagel's writing is as lazy and thoughtless as his research. Nagel makes no effort to craft his work in a way that would be appropriate to his subject matter or complement his desire to use JQAs diary as the basis for the book. I would encourage anyone thinking of buying this book to read the excerpts available through the "Look Inside" feature. Nagel continues the exact same paragraph structure throughout the entire book. The book is strictly chronological, basically following a "then this happened, then this happened, and then this happened..." approach that is about as compelling as a high school level history assignment. Nagel treats events big and small with the same level of detail (not much) and never elaborates on events that seem to provide an opportunity for adding interest or bringing the reader to a better understanding of John Quincy Adams and his place in history. I would call this a "feather duster" biography - it glides along the surface without ever taking the time to go into any depth.

Those interested in learning about JQAs presidency will be the most disappointed. Nagel explains that he only devotes a chapter to JQAs presidency because JQA himself did not think his presidency was very important. This is an absurd defense and a smokescreen for the fact that he did not do the necessary research. In fact, the chapter devoted to JQAs presidency is mostly about events that happened to JQA during his presidency unrelated to his presidency.

In conclusion, I will call this book exactly what it is - an abridgement and paraphrased version of JQAs diary and a very poor one at that. I am still perplexed at how so many others found this book satisfactory, but I found it to be the worst biography that I have ever read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Allergic to analysis, August 8, 2010
This review is from: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Paperback)
Obviously, there's nothing wrong with a good narrative, but at least at some point an author should try to actually analyze and understand his subject, not simply recount his actions. Nagel argues that he is the first historian to use the entire JQ Adams diary; that's debatable in and of itself, but even if true, he should try to USE it, not simply tell us what it says.

To be sure, Adams' life IS a very good story: the man was extremely intelligent, and witnessed (not to mention participated in) many of the most pivotal events of US (and European) history during the early national and Jacksonian periods. And Nagel writes well. What could be bad?

Well, it's not as if that story hasn't been told before. I don't quibble with Nagel's decision to focus on Adams the man -- if he actually could tell us something about him. But I find that lacking. For example, he confidently tells us that Adams suffered from "clinical depression," which is quite a claim given that he was not, and could never have been, clinically diagnosed. So maybe Nagel could make the case for it, set forth the pros and cons. That, however, would have required him to actually do more than going through the diary.

Similarly, we learn about his political ineptness, particularly as President. But where did that come from? Why did it happen? The man was elected President, after all, albeit by the House: surely that means that he had SOME political skills.

While this book is unparalleled, then, in giving us the details of Adams' private life, it really doesn't tell us much about the strenghts and weaknesses of Adams the man. At the beginning of the book, Nagel tells us that he has wound up really liking Adams personally. But why? What's the basis for that judgment? (This is especially so, given his concession in one of his earlier books, The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters, that Adams was an often unkind husband. What changed?).

Although its treatment is much less detailed than Nagel's on Adams himself, for my money (and time) I'd go with Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States). Howe dedicates his book to Adams, and you can see why: it really makes the case for why Adams was right in his policies, as well as why his personality and world view made his Presidency a failure.

JQ Adams' life and character are so intrinsically fascinating that this book has ample value. But it could have been so much more.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life of Amazing Service That Should Be Much Better Known, May 2, 2003
This review is from: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Paperback)
John Quincy Adams was a remarkable man who served his country for over sixty years. In his youth, he was a very important diplomat in foreign courts at our nation's founding. He was instrumental in bringing an end to the war of 1812. He was a distinguished Senator and then Secretary of State. As Secretary of State he helped shape the policy known as the Monroe Doctrine. His presidency was a low point, but his vision for our country is still inspiring, if too far ahead of his own time.
After his Presidency he served in Congress until the day he died. His career in the House of Representatives turned out to be the highlight of his amazing career. There he was an important voice against slavery and against those who would sacrifice the treasures of the new nation for personal gain. His was an important voice for the Union being something permanent rather than a compact between otherwise independent states. This became a critical point leading up to and during the Civil War. It is an important point today.
He fought tirelessly against the southern doctrine of Nullification (that states had the power to nullify federal laws with which they disagreed) and against the Gag Rule (which prevented anti-slavery petitions from being heard for many years). The present Smithsonian Institution owes him a debt. When James Smithson's gift came from England many wanted to use it for superficial short term benefit rather than found something permanent and wonderful as the present institution.
JQA had a keen mind and loved learning. His youth was largely spent in Europe with his father and he was fluent in French and Latin and also learned Greek. He loved culture: theater, opera, poetry, art, and dancing. He taught rhetoric and oratory at Harvard and was a greatly esteemed public speaker throughout his long life. The whole nation mourned when he passed on February 23, 1848.
His remarkable wife, Louisa, is also given a fine account in this wonderful book. She was at least JQA's intellectual equal and was a source of strength to him that cannot be overestimated. JQA loved his children, but the first two sons had sad, difficult, and short lives (JQA and Louisa had lost a young daughter when they served as diplomats in St. Petersburg). When they died he grieved deeply.
Maybe being raised apart from their parents while they served our nation as diplomats in Europe hurt the older sons beyond recovery. If so, they are victims of our need whom we should mourn. The third son, Charles, was with his parents in their travels as JQA served in Washington and abroad. Charles became a fine and successful man, husband, and father who also found the energy to take care of his father when JQA became old and needed many forms of help.
I loved this book and greatly admire John Quincy Adams. Before I read this valuable book I didn't know anything about him. I am so grateful for knowing more about this great American and his amazing life. He should be much better known by every one of us. We would be better off knowing about his service and the strength and energy he expended in fighting for his ideals. He is more important to the present existence and preservation of our Union than I would ever have expected before I read this book.
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John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life by Paul C. Nagel (Paperback - April 15, 1999)
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