John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams grew up with his parents’ expectation that he would serve his country as president. His father, John Adams, took him at the age of 10 to Europe on a diplomatic mission to Paris. He spent his teenage years in France, the Netherlands, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. After graduating from Harvard, he served under President George Washington as Minister to the Netherlands; he served under his father, President John Adams, as minister to Prussia; and he served under President James Madison as Minister to Russia and later to the United Kingdom. He also served one term as a Senator from Massachusetts, and served under President James Monroe as Secretary of State.

With all his training and all these credentials, how was it that he became the worst, most ineffective, president in history? The short answer is that all his education taught him how to relate to the educated elite of society. He was a great diplomat because he spoke many languages and could connect with European royalty and high society. His education taught him to speak to the intellectual elite – he never bothered campaigning or speaking to the common people of the country. As president, he alienated the American people and most of Congress by appearing to make a deal with Henry Clay to give Clay the position of Secretary of State in exchange for Clay’s delegates’ votes for the presidency, thus stealing it from Andrew Jackson, who had won the popular vote for the presidency.

However, after his one term as president, he was given another national political life as an independent member of congress from Massachusetts for 17 years, where he was a defender of justice, winning freedom for kidnapped Africans on the slave ship Amistad. During his time in Congress he learned to connect with people all across the country, bringing their petitions to the floor of the House of Representatives. He fought against slavery and by doing so alienated his fellow House members, who created a new rule that became known as the Gag Rule in order to keep him from talking about slavery. At the end of his career, he finally got the Gag Rule repealed with the help of Abraham Lincoln.

The most important leadership lesson I gleaned from John Quincy Adams is that a leader needs to speak the language of the people. A leader cannot be disconnected from the people that he serves. John Quincy’s ideology disconnected his from most of his fellow representatives, but he was reelected time and again because he spoke the language of and served the abolitionist cause of the people of the northern United States.

Next up: Andrew Jackson

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