John Quincy Adams was one of the most fascinating men in the history of the United States. Born the son of John and Abigail Adams he served his nation over a longer period and in more positions that probably anyone else in history. As a young man he watched from a distance as the British and Americans fought around Boston in the opened fights of the War of Independence. He traveled with his father to France as his father worked with Benjamin Franklin at the court of Versailles. At the age of fourteen he traveled as secretary and interpreter to Frances Dana, the first American ambassador to Russia. After returning to France he became a sort of adopted nephew to his father's close friend Thomas Jefferson.
After graduating from Harvard at the age of 20 he studied law. At the age of 26 George Washington appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands. Three years later at Washington's insistence he was appointed the first Ambassador to Prussia. After Jefferson beat his father in a contentious election Adams resigned and returned him. He served as a Senator from Massachusetts, then as the Ambassador to Russia, then as Ambassador to England. During this time he helped to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812. He serves as James Monroe's Secretary of State and was elected to the Presidency. After losing the next election, Adams quite naturally thought he career over. Two year later he was elected to the US House of Representatives and served as a Congressman for the next fifteen years.
During his time in the House he fought hard to bring down the gag rule that prevented discussion of the slavery issue. He represented the Amistad prisoners. He also fought hard for internal improvements. Adams was an amazing man and has been largely neglected by history. He deserves to be studied. This accessible biography from Harlow Giles Unger is a great place to start learning about this truly great American.
Andrew Jackson is one of the most important and one of the most controversial presidents in American History. During his lifetime the United States came into being and gained large new tracts of territory. Much of that territory was rough and wild, as were the people who lived there. Andrew Jackson became a lawyer and judge in Tennessee. He met and married his beloved Rachel. Their relationship was controversial at the time because they were married before her divorce from her prior husband had come through. For the rest of their lives allegations of Rachel's character would haunt them. At least one man was killed by Jackson in a duel over this. As a military leader Jackson twice invaded Spanish Florida chasing Creek raiders who raided into George and Alabama and escaped to Florida. As a military commander he is most known as the US commander at the Battle of New Orleans. At that battle a ragtag group of regular soldiers, militia, volunteers, Choctaw warriors, and Baratarian pirates defeated a large British army.
The book covers these issues, but it is focused on his two terms as president. Jackson won a contentious election. Over the next eight years he would confront many controversies. He sought to bring more prestige and power to the office of the President. An opposition party would form to battle his policies. They called themselves Whigs after the British party that opposed royal authority. Jackson despised the idea of a National Bank and did everything he could to not only block the re-chartering of the Bank, but to bring it down ahead of it's time. When the South Carolina legislature claimed it had the authority to nullify a federal law Jackson was ready to invade the state to assert Federal authority. In fact Lincoln would cite Jackson's example in the early days of his administration. The act that would be remembered the most in future generations was the Indian Removal Act. This act forced native people to sell their land (often at cut rate prices) and move west of the Mississippi. The mostly ended up in Oklahoma. The suffering encountered by these people would be remembered as the Trail of Tears.
Meacham paints a fascinating portrait of this complicated man. You may or may not like Jackson after you read this book, but you will have a better understanding of this important man. Perhaps like every other person in history we should learn how to admire the good things that a man does while disapproving of the bad. This is a great book and is well worth reading.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize for his masterful biography of Andrew Jackson, Jon Meacham turned his considerable skills to the most enigmatic man in American History: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson ranks at the top of any list of most important men in the history of the United States.
Born to the planter class in Virginia he never knew anything other than a life of luxury. That did not shield him from the troubles of life. Loss was something that Jefferson knew quite well. He lost his father at a young age. His beloved wife died from complications of childbirth. He outlived all but one of his children. He was also a man who loved liberty. His vision of a nation of liberty would come to dominate the debate in the formative years of the United States. Here we encounter the enigma. Jefferson was a believer in freedom who owned slaves. The story of Jefferson's slaves are very much wrapped up in his own story. Meacham comes back to this topic over and over again. The subject of Sally Hemmings is never far away and it makes for an interesting topic.
Jefferson was a man of many accomplishments. He served in the Virginia legislature, the Continental Congress, as governor of Virginia, as ambassador to France, As the first secretary of state, as the second vice-president of the United States, and as the third president. He wrote letters, books, and legislation. Of course he is famous as the author of the Declaration of Independence. On his tombstone he only asked that three items be remembered. Those accomplishments are the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statutes of Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. In some ways this sums up his life quite nicely.
Any biography of Thomas Jefferson is a daunting task. There is a wealth of primary source material and an avalanche of secondary material. Huge multi-volume biographies are out of style in our time and that may not be a bad thing. Instead of trying to cover every aspect of Jefferson's life in detail he gives an overview of Jefferson's story, but the focus of the book can be found in the title. Jefferson was a man who craved the power to make the world a better place. This is part of the contradiction. In the thought of the time no leader of a free society was supposed to desire power. Jefferson actively desired power, but had to cultivate an image of indifference. A vocal enemy of political parties he helped to create and lead the first political party in the United States. In a usual Jeffersonian twist this party was an opposition party that he led as Washington's secretary of state and Adams' vice-president.
Meacham has given a wonderful start to Jefferson studies for this generation. His prose is always delightful to read. The book is well researched, but is accessible to the general reader. It is doubtful that we will ever truly be able to understand Thomas Jefferson, but this volume will help to gain insight into fascinating person.