Negative Interest

Harlow Unger on the underappreciated John Quincy Adams

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Encyclopaeda Britannica interviews Harlow Unger, author of the new biography John Quincy Adams (h/t Andrew Sullivan).

On the contributions that most Americans might not know about:

One, his courageous sixteen-year struggle in the House of Representatives for free speech and and there being the first proponent of abolition and emancipation. Two, John Quincy Adams’s brilliant argument before the U.S. Supreme Court that the African captives on the slave ship Amistad were kidnapped freemen who had exercised their legitimate rights to defend themselves against their kidnappers when they killed the captain and mate of the ship. And three, during John Quincy Adams’s single term as a U.S. senator before becoming president, he successfully prevented President Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to criminalize political dissent by impeaching Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase because Chase disagreed with Jefferson’s politics. John Quincy Adams successfully defended Chase—and free speech in America—by proving that political disagreement with a president does not fall in the category of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

On the aspects of his life that might most surprise contemporary readers:

There are two such aspects. The first is the amazing span of John Quincy Adams’s life, covering the first, eighty formative years of the American republic, from the Revolutionary War to the eve of the Civil War. He served under George Washington and with Abraham Lincoln, worked closely with the nation’s first five presidents as well as some of the world’s greatest figures—Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, the Duke of Wellington, Frederick the Great, and so on. John Quincy Adams’s accomplishments are even more astounding: a Harvard professor, American ambassador to six countries, secretary of state for eight years, a courageous congressman for sixteen years and the first to call for abolition, chief U.S. negotiator at the peace talks that ended the War of 1812, a brilliant lawyer who pleaded precedent-setting cases (including the Amistad case) before the U.S. Supreme Court, a founder of the Smithsonian Institution, and the father of space exploration in America, sponsoring construction of about a dozen of the first astronomical observatories across America and calling them “lighthouses of the sky … links between earth and heaven … [and] the means of acquiring knowledge.”


Written by negativeinterest

September 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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