The Presidency of John Quincy Adams


In the presidential election of 1824, John Quincy Adams narrowly defeated Andrew Jackson. Even though his ‘American System’ modernized the American economy, his support for a protective tariff and his tolerant attitude toward Native Americans forced him to resign after only one term.

Adams experienced a consistent animosity from the Jacksonians in Congress as president, explaining his lack of significant accomplishments during his time in office. He advocated a progressive national plan that included federal support for an interstate highway and canal system and the establishment of a national university.

Critics, particularly Jackson’s supporters, maintained that such achievements went beyond the federal government’s constitutional jurisdiction. While Adams was in office, the Erie Canal was constructed, connecting the Great Lakes to the East Coast and allowing the grain, whiskey, and agricultural produce to flow to Eastern markets. Adams also attempted to award Native Americans with land in the West, but this failed to get traction in Congress like so many of his other ideas.

Infrastructural Projects

President Adams outlined an ambitious plan to form a national market in his first annual speech to Congress, which included highways, canals, a national university, a national astronomical observatory, and other activities. Many members of Congress, including some of his allies, expressed reservations about his suggestions. His detractors questioned his perceived arrogance as a President who a razor-thin margin had elected.

Adams had several initiatives to modernize the United States by improving infrastructure and education. Several road and canal-building projects were initiated, even though most of his designs were never implemented. During his presidency, significant foreign policy achievements were reciprocity treaties with several countries, notably Denmark, Mexico, Prussia, Austria, the Hanseatic League, and the Scandinavian countries.

Adams, they believed, did not have the authority to act as if he had acquired a national mandate. They mocked his observatories as “skylight houses.” In contrast, others pointed out that the President’s internal improvements would benefit some sections of the country more than others and involve the federal government in regional matters. Nonetheless, the administration made significant headway supporting harbor improvement and road and canal expansion by utilizing military engineers for survey and construction operations, public land grants, and governmental subscriptions to company stock issues.

The Cumberland Road was extended into Ohio, with surveys for its continuation west to St. Louis, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was started, the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal and the Portland to Louisville Canal were built around the Ohio Falls, connecting the Great Lakes to the Ohio River system in Ohio and Indiana, and the Dismal Swamp Canal was enlarged and rebuilt in North Carolina.

The Tariff of Abomination

On this date, the House of Representatives passed the Tariff of 1828, sometimes known as the Tariff of Abominations, by a vote of 105 to 94. The tariff was intended to safeguard northern and western agricultural products from import competition; nevertheless, the accompanying charge on foreign goods would raise the cost of living in the South and reduce New England industrialists’ earnings. Nonetheless, President John Quincy Adams signed the law on May 19, 1828, ensuring his defeat in the 1828 presidential election to Andrew Jackson.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina wrote the South Carolina Exposition and Protest in reaction to the tariff later that year, explaining the idea of nullification. The doctrine emphasized a state’s power to reject federal legislation within its borders and questioned whether taxing imports without an explicit objective of earning money was lawful.

Although other southern states opposed the tariff, South Carolina was the only one to use nullification. In the winter of 1833, after a few stressful months, South Carolina agreed to a compromise tariff. The constitutional crisis was only averted briefly, as tensions persisted across the country.

Suspension of the Treaty of Indian Springs

Few whites in the 1820s embraced Adams’ goal of gradual absorption of Native Americans through consensual agreements. On the other hand, Adams was a strong supporter of the United States’ westward expansion. Settlers on the frontier, always looking to expand westward, cried out for a more expansionist strategy that ignored Native American concerns. Adams suspended the Deal of Indian Springs early in his presidency after finding that Georgia Governor George Troup had pushed the treaty on the Muscogee. In January 1826, Adams signed a new contract with the Muskogee, allowing them to stay but ceding most of their land to Georgia. Troup refused to accept its terms, and all Georgian people were permitted to expel the Muscogee.

Foreign Policies

During his presidency, John Quincy Adams’ government had a mixed record in foreign affairs. On the one hand, it significantly increased trade by signing commercial treaties with many countries, including Austria, Brazil, the Central American Federation, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, which extended reciprocal trading privileges to the United States. Adams agreed for a commercial convention with Britain to be developed forever, and he settled unresolved disputes about the British seizure of property during the War of 1812.

Border Disputes

As president, Adams pursued a deal with Britain on territorial concerns, especially the unresolved border dispute between Maine and Canada. Gallatin advocated separating Oregon Country along the Columbia River, but Adams and Clay were adamant about not giving up land north of the 49th parallel. Shortly after the United States and Spain approved the Adams–Ons Treaty, Mexico obtained independence, and the Adams administration approached Mexico about renegotiating the Mexico–United States border. The ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, tried unsuccessfully to buy Texas. The Fredonian Rebellion was started by American settlers in Texas in 1826, but Adams prevented the US from getting involved.

Engagement with Latin America

The government proposed sending a representative from the United States to the Congress of Panama, a convention of New World republics held by Simón Bolvar in 1826. Clay and Adams believed that the conference would kick off a “Good Neighbor Policy” among the Americas’ independent republics. However, finance for a delegation and approval of delegation nominations became entangled in a political dispute over Adams’ domestic policies, with opponents like Senator Martin Van Buren stalling the confirmation process. The Panama Congress was seen by Van Buren as an unpleasant departure from President George Washington’s more isolationist foreign policy, while Calhoun was keen to discredit a Clay project. The Senate finally confirmed the delegation, but it never made it to the Panamanian Congress because of the Senate’s delay.

Later Years

In 1828, when he ran for reelection, suspicions of corruption and criticism of his unpopular domestic policy, among other concerns, harmed Adams; he lost badly to Jackson, who won the majority of the southern and western votes. Adams became only the second president in US history to lose a re-election bid; the first, his father, had done so in 1800.

He only lived in Massachusetts for a short time before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1830. For the rest of his life, he was a powerful congressman, acquiring the moniker “Old Man Eloquent” for his vigorous advocacy of free speech and universal education, as well as his forceful arguments against slavery, the “peculiar institution” that would rip the country apart just decades later. John Quincy Adams was laid to rest on February 23, 1848, after having two strokes at 80.

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