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Founding Fathers

History teachers and trivia buffs are fond of posing trick questions to their respective audiences. So here goes:

I was leafing through a magazine article about the many restored Virginia homes of our founding fathers recently and when I got to James Monroe, our fifth president, I learned that not only is his home open to the curious public, but so is his former law office located in nearby Richmond. But I was a bit taken aback to read that it contains – and I quote – ‘the Louis XXVI Secretary that is believed to be the desk on which he wrote the Monroe Doctrine”.  Here comes the trick question: Who really wrote the Monroe Doctrine? After this build-up, I’m sure that you have already figured out that it wasn’t President Monroe! It was actually written by his Secretary of State and future President, John Quincy Adams! He was also the first president to be sworn into office wearing long pants.

But I digress.

Our sixth President served his country well and certainly long. John Quincy Adams was perhaps the most successful Secretary of State in the history of the US. In addition to ghost-writing the Monroe Doctrine, he had enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a European diplomat, won a seat in the Massachusetts state senate, and served a term in the US Senate. He also somehow fit in three years as a “Professor of Oratory” at Harvard. His resume concludes with the singular achievement (by a former president) of serving seven terms in the US House of Representatives.

But his presidency was distinguished mainly for being the second one-term president (his hapless father was the first.) Neither apparently understood that the Presidency is basically a popularity contest. They each insisted on doing their duty as they saw it, and damn the consequences. His term was deemed an abject failure because Jacksonians united to criticize and block his every initiative. (Is this starting to sound familiar at all?)

In retrospect, his agenda – aimed at creating national unification – was not only ambitious, but very worthy. One of his most original and important ideas was that the federal government should oversee “internal improvements” – building roads, bridges, canals, harbors and the like. He understood that only the federal government had the funds and power to execute such projects. And it didn’t stop there: He envisioned and advocated land grant universities, the Panama Canal, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Federal Reserve, and the Interstate Highway System – all eventually implemented by later presidents with less recalcitrant Congresses.

“Let not foreign nations with less liberty exceed us in ‘public improvement’. To do so would ‘cast away the bounties of Providence’ and doom what should become the world’s most powerful nation ‘to perpetual inferiority’.” (p. 403, Lions of the West by Robert Morgan).

While his presidency seems irredeemable, his overall reputation has been burnished over the years by more thorough research and an excellent new biography by award-winning historian, Fred Kaplan. I’m guessing that much of this information is news to most Americans.

But I’m something of an Adams groupie and received the book as validation rather than surprising. I’ve been a fan of the Adams family since the early seventies when PBS produced a wonderful series called “The Adams Chronicles”. I’ve since read many books on the family (including “The Education of Henry Adams”, the two volume autobiography of JQA’s grandson, which I’ve actually read twice), and thoroughly enjoyed the more recent HBO series on John Adams (based on David McCullough’s biography of Adams) starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.

This fascination may seem a bit excessive even given my natural predilection for American history, unless you factor in my dirty little secret. It seems that JQA’s mother, Abigail, was related to famous Pilgrim John Alden, and guess who else can claim this connection? My relatives may not have come over on the Mayflower, but somebody in my family tree married into the Alden family shortly after arriving on these shores in 1630. How cool is that?

OK, I was taught – and fervently espouse – that you are what you have been taught; not what’s running in your veins. Still, it could be at least a partial explanation for what may be turning into an actual Adams obsession. I guess there are worse things to obsess about.



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