Chronicles of an American Diplomat: John Quincy Adams

*Editor’s Note: Chronicles of an American Diplomat: John Quincy Adams is a series following John Quincy Adams from his education at his father’s side during the American Founding Period though to his own official embarkment on a diplomatic career, and the events that transpired during the era that he had to navigate. This essay provides a historical and biographical sketch of John Quincy’s entrance into public life. Subsequent installments or “Dispatches” will focus on events and John Quincy’s reflections in a chronological timeframe.


John Quincy Adams was born into politics and war. His father, John, was a prominent member of the Patriot movement in Massachusetts, which challenged increasingly repressive British imperial rule over the colonies. As a small child in Boston, John Quincy lived in a town under British occupation. From the heights near the family farm in Braintree, he and his mother Abigail witnessed the distant fire and smoke of the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. John Adams, while serving in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, sent home to the family detailed reports of the move towards independence; and of the military resistance and diplomatic steps needed to sustain the revolution. He encouraged John Quincy and his other children to contemplate these profound events and to prepare themselves, as future statesmen, to meet the challenges to the new country.

John Quincy soon had the opportunity to prepare himself in a manner unique among his contemporaries. He accompanied his father on two wartime diplomatic assignments in Europe, beginning in February 1778. As a teenager he served as John Adams’s personal secretary after the elder Adams helped negotiate the treaty with Britain that ended the war in 1783. He served in a similar capacity for Francis Dana during Dana’s assignment as American envoy to Russia from 1781-1783. He became fluent in French, the universal diplomatic language of the day, and at The Hague and in Paris he studied classical texts with his father. He eventually achieved various degrees of proficiency in Latin, ancient Greek, German, Dutch, and Italian.

Most importantly, he imbibed the substance and style of his diplomat-father. In addition to being on the Congressional committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, and writing a widely influential pamphlet on the proper form of republican government, John Adams had been chiefly responsible for the development of a Model Treaty. Also known as the Plan of 1776, it was initially intended to guide negotiations with the French, but also to serve as a template for American foreign policy going forward. The guiding principle was to make only commercial connections with other nations, while avoiding military and political ties, all in the name of avoiding foreign entanglements. The Model Treaty challenged the existing closed mercantile system in favor of opening the markets of the world to all states. It sought to protect neutral rights, especially the carrying trade, during wartime.

In his personal conduct of diplomacy, John Adams stressed the importance of an independent American foreign policy, not one reliant on France or any other nation. He believed that in the future the United States should aim to avoid war, even a defensive war, unless it was absolutely necessary. The new nation needed time to consolidate its economic position, develop a true sense of national sovereignty, and strengthen the government, especially the executive branch. His approach and tactics reflected his often cantankerous personality — he frequently clashed with his colleagues (especially Benjamin Franklin) and foreign statesmen (notably Vergennes, the French foreign minister), all in the name of asserting American freedom of action. He knocked loudly on locked doors, such as the Dutch Republic, to gain recognition and money for the fledgling nation. These were the times and experiences that exposed John Quincy to the early foundations of American foreign policy.

As a child and young man, John Quincy developed distinctive impressions of the peoples and governments with whom he would later deal in an official capacity. He and his sister Abigail (Nabby) frequently compared thoughts on the “National Characters” they had observed in Europe — these characters were “very strongly impressed upon most People.”

In his late teens, John Quincy had the opportunity to remain in Europe to continue his studies at a great university like Leyden or Oxford, or to serve as an aide to John Adams, who had been appointed in 1785 as the first American minister to the Court of St. James. But John Quincy was determined to return to the country of his birth. To remain any longer abroad, he believed, was to forfeit his character as an American, and the opportunity to serve his country, which was at the center of the Adams’s family creed of duty. So after seven years abroad, he returned to Massachusetts to study at Harvard College.

In the aftermath of Shay’s rebellion against the policies of the Massachusetts government, which seemed to challenge the established order, John Quincy delivered a Commencement Oration to his graduating class in July 1787, which stressed the importance of maintaining the nation’s credit and reputation. This, while his father John Adams was struggling to keep vital American loans from collapsing in the Netherlands. From his father’s posting in London, the family reported that Britain was not truly reconciled to American independence; that America’s financial and political standing was rapidly sinking on the continent under the Articles of Confederation; that a revolution in the Dutch Republic had been suppressed by foreign intervention; and that a revolution of sorts seemed to be brewing in France.

After graduation from Harvard, John Quincy studied law in Newburyport under a prominent attorney, Theopolis Parsons. There, he followed the debate over the ratification of the proposed federal Constitution — which he initially opposed, believing that it excessively favored the aristocracy and thus violated John Adams’s theory of republican government, based on a balance among the one, the few, and the many. To his surprise, as his father returned to America in 1788, he learned that John Adams favored ratification, but agreed that the Constitution was not properly balanced. Specifically, the executive lacked sufficient prestige and power, and the federal government was too weak relative to the states. The elder Adams sought to become vice president — the presidency was sure to go to George Washington, if he was willing — in order to be in a position to address these problems. In that office, although he loyally supported the policies of Washington, he unsuccessfully attempted through various means to realign the new government

Meanwhile, John Quincy began to scratch out a living with a law practice in Boston. His first notable appearance on the international scene came when he joined a heated transatlantic debate on the merits and proper form (or constitution) of republican government, and the appropriate means of bringing about political change. The French Revolution, which began in July 1789, gave an urgency to these controversies. The most famous and influential of these arguments were Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Thomas Paine’s riposte, The Rights of Man. Most Americans, notably John Adams’s old friend, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, were delighted with developments in France, which they regarded as the natural extension of their own revolution. One prominent public figure differed — John Adams. The vice president wrote a series of newspaper essays, under the title “Discourses on Davila,” which continued his campaign to strengthen the executive and the federal government, and which in effect warned that the French Revolution was ill-conceived and bound to end in violence and anarchy.

When the American edition of Paine’s tract was published in Philadelphia in April 1791, it included a preface written by Jefferson: “I am extremely pleased to find it will be reprinted here, and that something is at length to be publicly said against the political heresies which have sprung up among us. I have no doubt our citizens will rally a second time round the standard of Common Sense.” John Adams (and everyone else) immediately assumed that Jefferson’s allusion to “political heresies” referred to him. His early performance in office as vice president, and the Davila essays, had given John Adams the widespread reputation that he hankered after monarchy, especially given his prominent criticism of the French Revolution.

John Adams did not reply to Jefferson’s apparent public insult, but his son did. A writer in a Boston newspaper — Publicola — responded with an attack on Jefferson and Paine, which in effect elaborated on John Adams’s arguments. Jefferson and many others assumed that Publicola was the vice president. In fact, it was John Quincy. These public arguments cemented the rift between the elder Adams and Jefferson and was one of the decisive events leading to the public creation of opposing political parties, known to history as the Federalist and Republican parties.

John Quincy’s Publicola essays brought out several important themes that later marked his diplomatic career. First, Publicola was the beginning of a life-long effort by John Quincy to distinguish in the public mind between the American and French Revolutions. Second, he argued that the standard for justifying the resort to revolution was very high, and that outsiders should not encourage or support foreign revolutions, as Paine was attempting to do in England. Third, and most controversially, Publicola defended the principles underlying the English Constitution, the best of which he claimed had been adopted in republicanized fashion by the United States. Publicola suggested that these principles should guide political change in other nations, adapted prudently to the particular character of their peoples — a course which he did not believe the French revolutionaries were following. Fourth, he emphasized the importance of vesting the powers of conducting foreign relations (diplomacy and war and peace) in the executive rather than the legislative branch, with due allowance for the role of the legislature in preventing the abuse of those powers.

As John Quincy struggled to establish his law practice in Boston, he occasionally sent John Adams political intelligence and began, at his father’s urging, to become involved in town politics. These often involved purely local matters, such as the organization of the constabulary and a prohibition against theatrical performances, but increasingly, they reflected the growing national division of parties, centered around supporters and skeptics of the French Revolution. French refugees from the continent and particularly from the West Indies sought refuge in Boston. John Quincy’s dislike of the Revolution was hardened by the time he spent with these men, as did news of the execution of Louis XVI, and the growing political violence in France, which culminated in what became known as the Terror.

The matter became more urgent when the French declared war on Britain in February 1793, (revolutionary France was already at war with the reactionary continental monarchies). The Washington administration faced a critical choice. The Anglo-French war was bound to affect U.S. maritime commerce and its vulnerable frontiers — and indeed, under various pretexts, the Royal Navy began seizing American ships. The French cause was highly popular in America, and the United States had strategic commitments to France stemming from their alliance of 1778. What to do if, for example, the new French minister to the United States, Edmund Charles Genet (Citizen Genet), demanded that the United States enter the war on its behalf to defend its West Indies possessions?

Some American supporters of the French Revolution wanted to be drawn in to the war, as part of a global crusade for democracy. But the Washington administration responded with a proclamation of neutrality in April 1793 (the word neutrality did not appear in the proclamation, but everyone knew what it meant). Secretary of State Jefferson privately thought that the proclamation was premature and failed to show the proper gratitude to France. The United States, at the very least, should have first required Britain to pay a diplomatic price for the United States to remain neutral. But others of a conservative bent, such as Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, preferred a neutral posture that inclined toward Britain.

As it turned out, Citizen Genet did not ask the United States to enter the war by invoking the treaties of 1778. Formal American neutrality actually served France better, because it kept open channels of commerce between the two republics that the Royal Navy could legally sever entirely if the United States became a belligerent. But Genet — who had been wildly received by the public after first arriving in America in June 1793 — undertook a number of actions that the Washington administration opposed, as contrary to American neutrality and national interests.

Although Genet had a sympathetic ear in the cabinet through Jefferson, the administration generally opposed these measures. It was widely rumored that, in retaliation, Genet had threatened to appeal to the people over the head of the President. Years later, John Adams spoke (in exaggerated fashion) of “the terrorism excited by Genet in 1793 when ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia day after day threatened to drag Washington out of his house and effect a revolution in the government or compel it to declare war in favor of the French Revolution and against England.”

These events enticed John Quincy back into the national arena through a series of newspaper essays and public addresses. Marcellus (April-May 1793) offered the first serious public defense and explanation of the Washington administration’s policy of neutrality, although John Quincy did it without prompting or inside information about the president’s intentions. Marcellus articulated a principle that would guide John Quincy’s approach to American foreign policy throughout his career — that of maintaining neutrality in all wars among European powers and involving exclusively European interests. Justice, self-interest, and self-preservation were the touchstones of John Quincy’s insistence that neutrality was to the nation’s fundamental advantage. It was not to be overridden by revolutionary sympathies or the temptation to take advantage of Europe’s distresses by playing the balance of power game.

John Quincy’s defense of the Washington administration’s policy of neutrality in the Marcellus essays, and his previous support for the English constitution in Publicola, left him open to the charge of being an anti-republican reactionary at a time when American enthusiasm for the French Revolution was at its height. A Fourth of July Oration in 1793 gave him the opportunity to refute these charges. He proudly proclaimed that the American colonies, in rebelling against British tyranny, had met the high standard for regime change. He hailed the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution as world-historic events, planting the seeds of liberty and heralding the approaching fall of the governments of Europe amidst the dissolution of the feudal order. John Quincy expressed optimism that the outcome would be new governments founded upon the principles of freedom and political equality. On this score he certainly had near-term doubts, but he did believe that the old order was going; and that the rights of man would, or at least could, eventually win out. But that required the United States to remain true to its revolutionary principles; and probably, for a great deal of time to pass. He was silent here on whether the United States should intervene in this process, but he pointedly did not recommend it.

As the subversive actions of Citizen Genet became publicly known, and as the Terror in France continued, John Quincy took the opportunity to warn his countrymen of the dangers to union and independence created by foreign influence in the American political process. Writing as Columbus (October-November 1793), he outlined the various ways in which foreigners could act to subvert the republic and destroy the American character. Perhaps the most critical problem, as Columbus saw it, had less to do with Genet’s subversive actions themselves than with the tendency of domestic factions to link themselves with a foreign nation as a means to gain political power, which they could not otherwise achieve on the merits. Their political opponents, as a matter of political calculation and self-preservation, were bound to seek out a political connection with another foreign power. John Quincy also stressed the value of traditional authorities on the law of nations, especially the general prohibition against interference in the domestic arrangements of other nations.

But France was not the only problem. The British accelerated their seizures of American vessels allegedly destined for France or French possessions. Britain also continued to refuse to evacuate military posts in the American Northwest, as was required by the treaty of peace that ended the Revolutionary War, claiming that the United States had not upheld its part of the peace settlement. Americans feared that the British were using those posts to supply hostile Indian tribes, thus destabilizing the frontier— another example that London still had not truly reconciled itself to the independence of its former colonies.

Boston was roiled between those supporting and those opposing efforts to retaliate by imposing significant economic restrictions on Britain, which in the opinion of the Federalists would likely lead to war. John Quincy reported to his father about these debates in Boston. Adams (father and son) agreed that British depredations were unacceptable, but opposed extreme retaliatory measures, such as the sequestration of British debts, which they deemed both unjust and likely to be ineffective. They believed that diplomacy was the best of bad choices and therefore supported Washington’s decision to appoint a special envoy to Britain, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, to try to settle outstanding differences.

John Quincy’s views about American foreign policy were widely circulated outside Massachusetts. They found an especially appreciative audience in the presidential residence. Through these writings and personal meetings, President Washington had clearly formed a favorable opinion of the younger Adams. John Adams was careful not to promote his son, but it seemed likely that John Quincy would soon be rewarded with some official duty. He was — but it was an entirely unexpected position, which would determine the whole pattern of his life thereafter.

President Washington appointed John Quincy as Minister Resident to the Dutch Republic, one of America’s few overseas diplomatic posts—and did so during a time of grave national security crisis.