Up to now, there has been only one father-son pair of presidents, although many feel that may change after the next election. John and John Quincy Adams were very much alike, and share many unique similarities.
In the first half-century of the presidency, John and John Quincy Adams were the only two presidents not re-elected to a second term. Both felt it was beneath the dignity of a President to beg for votes; both were defeated for re-election by large majorities. And both left town early rather than participate in the inauguration of their political rival. Besides the two Adamses, only one other president (Andrew Johnson) has refused to participate in the inauguration of the newly elected president. But beyond simple poor sportsmanship, there were more marked similarities in their personalities and their careers.
Both men were fiercely independent. A later politician made the famous statement that he would rather be right than be president. But the Adamses followed that philosophy throughout their careers. Both opposed their own party on more than one occasion in order to do what they felt was best for the nation.
Both men served as Minister to the Court of St. James (minister to Great Britain), and both at difficult times. The senior Adams served immediately after the Revolutionary War, when the British felt more like hanging him as a traitor than welcoming him as a diplomat. John Quincy Adams served shortly after the War of 1812, again a time when British feelings towards Americans were not good.
During the term of John Adams, problems with France brought the U.S. to the brink of war. The pro-British Federalist Party, of which John Adams was the titular leader, was anxious for a war with France in order to solidify its power over the pro-French Democratic-Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson. John Adams opposed the war, and prevented it by continuing to seek a peaceful settlement. He accomplished a peaceful solution, for which many Federalists never forgave him.
John Adams was very proud of this accomplishment, even though it cost him important support in his unsuccessful re-election bid. John Adams later wrote his own epitaph: “Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of the peace with France in the year 1800.”
John Quincy Adams also opposed his own party in order to do what he thought best for his country. In 1807, John Quincy Adams was a Federalist US Senator from Massachusetts. His party vehemently opposed Jefferson’s Embargo Act, but the younger Adams voted for it, because he felt it was in the best interests of the nation as a whole. His party was so angry over his vote, that the Massachusetts legislature elected his replacement several months early, before the scheduled election. (State legislatures elected US Senators until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.) This also effectively marked the end of his membership in the Federalist Party. John Quincy Adams immediately resigned his Senate seat and returned home to become a professor at Harvard. He was called upon to serve as minister to several foreign nations, and eventually Secretary of State under James Monroe. In each of these later positions, and in his election as President, he was a Democratic-Republican, the party that defeated his father.
Both men were known for their somewhat prickly personality. The senior Adams was often called “His Rotundity” because of his fondness for titles and his portly figure. The younger Adams so frustrated his political allies that the usual formal toast of the times, “To the President of the United States, may he confound his enemies,” was once replied to by Henry Clay (his Secretary of State) who loudly whispered, “As he has already done his friends.”
There may soon be a second father-son pair of presidents, but none quite like this unique family. With modern elective politics, it is almost a certainty that we will never again see the likes of the Adams family in the White House.
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