The 2016 campaign for the White House prompted many Americans to consider what being presidential means — a question that continued to pop up during the first year of Donald Trump’s controversial administration.
History offers plenty of models for the American presidency, whether it’s the moral gravity of George Washington, the homespun shrewdness of Abraham Lincoln, the seemingly effortless charm of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Now, a former LSU professor has given us one more name to think about: John Quincy Adams. In “The Lost Founding Father,” his new biography of Adams, William J. Cooper offers Adams as a case study in a cosmic shift of America’s political landscape — a transformation that in many ways echoes our own period of raucous change.
As portrayed by Cooper, an LSU Boyd professor emeritus who now lives in Atlanta, Adams comes across as the ultimate creature of what we would today call The Establishment. He was the son of former president John Adams and had extensive experience in diplomacy and government, including a stint as secretary of state.
“Then in 1825 he became the sixth president of the United States,” Cooper tells readers. “That path alone should have secured him a prominent place in the national pantheon. Yet, that elevation did not take place. Just as John Quincy entered the presidency, a mighty upheaval began to revolutionize American politics.”
Cooper calls Adams “the last Founding Father” because he was the last president with a direct link to the men who had created the country. They represented a political culture that operated as a kind of gentleman’s club, something that Andrew Jackson turned upside down. Using a sophisticated party machine to reach the broad masses, Jackson essentially coined the presidential campaign as we now know it, defeating Adams’ bid for reelection in 1828.
“The politics of our time,” Cooper notes, “really began at this moment — a combination of parties directed by political professionals, vigorous, even raucous, campaigns, legions of voters demanding attention, and candidates striving to connect with those same voters.”
Jackson, who would go on to serve two terms in the White House, is the man who overshadowed Adams’ place in history. Shortly after taking office, Trump placed a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, citing Old Hickory’s populism as a good example to follow.
But what of John Quincy Adams? After leaving the White House, he remained politically engaged, serving a lengthy tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives. There, Adams distinguished himself as an early and persuasive critic of slavery. He died in 1848, having helped lay the groundwork for the elimination of America’s greatest national evil.
Perhaps there are better models than John Quincy Adams for being presidential. But as a standard for being ex-presidential, he’s second to none.