One of my goals is to read a biography of each of our presidents. I just finished reading John Quincy Adams – A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel. JQA was president number six.
I also have a goal to read 100 books in 2009. I may not make it but the list so far in 2009 is here.
According to Nagel, John Quincy Adams' presidency "was a hapless failure and best forgotten." Which made me think about how a man's life should not be judged by his time in office. Adams' life as a diplomat and secretary of state before his Presidency and as a congressman and anti slavery fighter after the presidency was very successful and included many substantial accomplishments and contributions.
Did you know that he can take much of the credit for the establishment of the Smithsonian Institute? In 1835 James Smithson, an Englishman, "left his entire estate, amounting to somewhat more than $500,000 in gold, to enable the United States of America to increase knowledge among its citizens." Adams worked for over ten years to keep the Smithson bequest form being "wasted upon hungry and worthless jackals." The Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846.
Adams kept a journal of daily entries about his life for fifty years. Nagel says "Adams' Diary is rightly acclaimed the most discerning and useful personal journal kept by an American …… By joining so many descriptions of his inward state with innumerable astute reports on his larger life, Adams created a diary that deserves to rank near if not next to that of Samuel Pepys."
A Puiblic Life a Private Life is primarily the story of Adams life based on this diary. That is what makes the book so fascinating and different from other Presidential biographies I have read. You see Adams the man with all his warts and all his strengths. You see why he was so loved by his family and you can see how much he reviled those he perceived as enemies.
I very much enjoyed this book. Adams watched the smoke of the Battle of Bunker Hill with his mother, Abigail, from a hill near his house when he was 9. He lived to be 80 and died in the Capitol after trying to rise to give a speech against the Mexican American war. He traveled extensively both as a diplomat and privately. His view of the world during his 80 years grabbed my imagination.
In his introduction Nagel explains how his objective in this book is to illuminate the previously unexplored private side of JQA as well as his public side. Nagel says "Indeed, after completing this book I find myself not only admiring Adams for his many achievements but actually liking the man – despite his frequently exasperating behavior, now to be understood with sympathy." I couldn't have said it better myself!