John Quincy Adams

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The great problem of legislation is, so to organize the civil government of a community … that in the operation of human institutions upon social action, self-love and social may be made the same.

John Quincy Adams (July 11, 1767February 23, 1848) was an American statesman who served as the sixth president of the United States from 1825 to 1829. He also served as a diplomat, a senator and member of the House of Representatives. He was a member of the Federalist, Democratic-Republican, National Republican, and later Anti-Masonic and Whig parties. John Quincy Adams was the son of former President John Adams and Abigail Adams.

As a diplomat, Adams played an important role in negotiating key treaties, most notably the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. As secretary of state, he negotiated with Britain over the United States' northern border with Canada, negotiated with Spain the annexation of Florida, and drafted the Monroe Doctrine.

May our country always be successful, but whether successful or otherwise, always right.


This is a land, not of privileges, but of equal rights.
The nation which enjoys the most freedom must necessarily be in proportion to its numbers the most powerful nation.
To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is … the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind. It prolongs life itself and enlarges the sphere of existence.
The conflict between the principle of liberty and the fact of slavery is coming gradually to an issue. Slavery has now the power, and falls into convulsions at the approach of freedom.
  • I can never join with my voice in the toast which I see in the papers attributed to one of our gallant naval heroes. I cannot ask of heaven success, even for my country, in a cause where she should be in the wrong. Fiat justitia, pereat coelum. My toast would be, may our country always be successful, but whether successful or otherwise, always right.
    • Letter to his father, John Adams (1 August 1816), referring to the popular phrase "My Country, Right or Wrong!" based upon Stephen Decatur's famous statement "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right, but our country, right or wrong." The Latin phrase is one that can be translated as : "Let justice be done though heaven should fall" or "though heaven perish".
  • All the public business in Congress now connects itself with intrigues, and there is great danger that the whole government will degenerate into a struggle of cabals.
    • Journal entry (January 1819)
  • There is one principle which pervades all the institutions of this country, and which must always operate as an obstacle to the granting of favors to new comers. This is a land, not of privileges, but of equal rights. Privileges are granted by European sovereigns to particular classes of individuals, for purposes of general policy; but the general impression here is that privileges granted to one denomination of people, can very seldom be discriminated from erosions of the rights of others. [Immigrants], coming here, are not to expect favors from the governments. They are to expect, if they choose to become citizens, equal rights with those of the natives of the country. They are to expect, if affluent, to possess the means of making their property productive, with moderation, and with safety;—if indigent, but industrious, honest and frugal, the means of obtaining easy and comfortable subsistence for themselves and their families. They come to a life of independence, but to a life of labor—and, if they cannot accommodate themselves to the character, moral, political, and physical, of this country, with all its compensating balances of good and evil, the Atlantic is always open to them, to return to the land of their nativity and their fathers.
  • The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls. In the abstract they admit that slavery is an evil, they disclaim it, and cast it all upon the shoulder of…Great Britain. But when probed to the quick upon it, they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vainglory in their condition of masterdom. They look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee’s manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat negroes like dogs. It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice: for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?
    • From the private journal of Secretary of State Adams (1820)
  • Individual liberty is individual power, and as the power of a community is a mass compounded of individual powers, the nation which enjoys the most freedom must necessarily be in proportion to its numbers the most powerful nation.
    • Letter to James Lloyd (1 October 1822)
  • This house will bear witness to his piety; this town, his birthplace, to his munificence; history to his patriotism; posterity to the depth and compass of his mind.
    • Epitaph for John Adams (1829), inscribed on one of the portals of the United First Parish Church Unitarian (Church of the Presidents), Quincy
  • In the seventh century of the Christian era, a wandering Arab of the lineage of Hagar, the Egyptian, combining the powers of transcendent genius, with the preternatural energy of a fanatic, and the fraudulent spirit of an impostor, proclaimed himself as a messenger from Heaven, and spread desolation and delusion over an extensive portion of the earth. Adopting from the sublime conception of the Mosaic law, the doctrine of one omnipotent God; he connected indissolubly with it, the audacious falsehood, that he was himself his prophet and apostle. Adopting from the new Revelation of Jesus, the faith and hope of immortal life, and of future retribution, he humbled it to the dust by adapting all the rewards and sanctions of his religion to the gratification of the sexual passion. He poisoned the sources of human felicity at the fountain, by degrading the condition of the female sex, and the allowance of polygamy; and he declared undistinguishing and exterminating war, as a part of his religion, against all the rest of mankind. THE ESSENCE OF HIS DOCTRINE WAS VIOLENCE AND LUST : TO EXALT THE BRUTAL OVER THE SPIRITUAL PART OF HUMAN NATURE.
    Between these two religions, thus contrasted in their characters, a war of twelve hundred years has already raged. That war is yet flagrant; nor can it cease but by the extinction of that imposture, which has been permitted by Providence to prolong the degeneracy of man. While the merciless and dissolute dogmas of the false prophet shall furnish motives to human action, there can never be peace upon earth, and good will towards men. The hand of Ishmael will be against every man, and every man's hand against him.
  • The highest, the transcendent glory of the American Revolution was this — it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the precepts of Christianity.
    • Letter to an autograph collector (identified: "Washington, 27th April, 1837"), published in The Historical Magazine 4:7 (July 1860), pp. 193-194; this became slightly misquoted by John Wingate Thornton in The Pulpit of The American Revolution (1860): "The highest glory of the American Revolution, said John Quincy Adams, was this: it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity".
  • Why is it that, next to the birth day of the Saviour of the World, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day? … Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birth-day of the Saviour? That it forms a leading event in the progress of the gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth? That it laid the corner stone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity, and gave to the world the first irrevocable pledge of the fulfilment of the prophecies, announced directly from Heaven at the birth of the Saviour and predicted by the greatest of the Hebrew prophets six hundred years before?
    • Newburyport Oration (4 July 1837)
  • In charity to all mankind, bearing no malice or ill will to any human being, and even compassionating those who hold in bondage their fellow men, not knowing what they do.
    • Letter to A. Bronson (30 July 1838); a similar idea was later more famously expressed by Abraham Lincoln, "With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right".
  • 30th [June 1841]. Morning visit from John Ross, chief of the Cherokee Nation, with Vann and Benn, two others of the delegation. Ross had written to request an interview with me for them on my appointment as Chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs. I was excused from that service at my own request, from a full conviction that its only result would be to keep a perpetual harrow upon my feelings, with a total impotence to render any useful service. The policy, from Washington to myself, of all the Presidents of the United States had been justice and kindness to the Indian tribes—to civilize and preserve them. With the Creeks and Cherokees it had been eminently successful. Its success was their misfortune. The States within whose borders their settlements were took the alarm, broke down all the treaties which had pledged the faith of the nation. Georgia extended her jurisdiction over them, took possession of their lands, houses, cattle, furniture, negroes, and drove them out from their own dwellings. All the Southern States supported Georgia in this utter prostration of faith and justice; and Andrew Jackson, by the simultaneous operation of fraudulent treaties and brutal force, consummated the work. The Florida War is one of the fruits of this policy, the conduct of which exhibits one (un)interrupted scene of the most profligate corruption. All resistance against this abomination is vain. It is among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring them to judgement—but as His own time and by His own means.
    • Diary entry (30 June 1841)
  • My wants are many, and, if told,
    Would muster many a score;
    And were each wish a mint of gold,
    I still would want for more.
    • The Wants of Man, stanza 1, published in The Quincy Patriot (25 September 1841)
  • I want the seals of power and place,
    The ensigns of command,
    Charged by the people's unbought grace,
    To rule my native land.
    Nor crown, nor scepter would I ask
    But from my country's will,
    By day, by night, to ply the task
    Her cup of bliss to fill.
    • The Wants of Man, stanza 22 (25 September 1841)
  • The Constitution of the United States recognizes the slaves, held within some of the States of the Union, only in their capacity of persons — persons held to labor or service in a State under the laws thereof — persons constituting elements of representation in the popular branch of the National Legislature — persons, the migration or importation of whom should not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808. The Constitution no where recognizes them as property. The words slave and slavery are studiously excluded from the Constitution. Circumlocutions are the fig-leaves under which these parts of the body politic are decently concealed. Slaves, therefore, in the Constitution of the United States are recognized only as persons, enjoying rights and held to the performance of duties.
  • We know the redemption must come. The time and the manner of its coming we know not: It may come in peace, or it may come in blood; but whether in peace or in blood, LET IT COME.
    • Remarks to "the colored people of Pittsburge, Pennsylvania" in 1843, as quoted in History of the Rebellion : Its Authors and Causes (1864) by Joshua Reed Giddings; Alabama Representative Dellet quoted the speech in the House of Representatives and added "though it cost the blood of thousands of white men?" Adams replied Though it cost the blood of millions of white men, let it come. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall. Miller, William Lee (1995). Arguing About Slavery. John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress. Vintage Books. p. 469. ISBN 0-3945-6922-9. 
  • To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is … the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind. It prolongs life itself and enlarges the sphere of existence.
    • Report on the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution (c. 1846)
  • This hand, to tyrants ever sworn the foe,
    For Freedom only deals the deadly blow;
    Then sheathes in calm repose the vengeful blade,
    For gentle peace in Freedom’s hallowed shade.
    • Written in an Album (1842)l compare: "Manus haec inimica tyrannis / Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem", Algernon Sidney, From the Life and Memoirs of Algernon Sidney.
  • The conflict between the principle of liberty and the fact of slavery is coming gradually to an issue. Slavery has now the power, and falls into convulsions at the approach of freedom. That the fall of slavery is predetermined in the counsels of Omnipotence I cannot doubt; it is a part of the great moral improvement in the condition of man, attested by all the records of history. But the conflict will be terrible, and the progress of improvement perhaps retrograde before its final progress to consummation.
    • Journal of John Quincy Adams (11 December 1838), Miller, William Lee (1995). Arguing About Slavery. John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress. Vintage Books. p. 344. ISBN 0-3945-6922-9. 
  • Who but shall learn that freedom is the prize
    Man still is bound to rescue or maintain;
    That nature's God commands the slave to rise,
    And on the oppressor's head to break the chain.
    Roll, years of promise, rapidly roll round,
    Till not a slave shall on this earth be found.
    • Poem
  • I told him that I thought it was law logic — an artificial system of reasoning, exclusively used in Courts of justice, but good for nothing anywhere else.
    • Diary record of a comment made by Adams to John Marshall, Charles Francis Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy Adams : Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848 (1875), p. 372
  • All men profess honesty as long as they can. To believe all men honest would be folly. To believe none so is something worse.
  • This is the last of Earth! I am content.
    • Last words (21 February 1848)
  • La molesse est doce, et sa suite est cruelle.
    • Idleness is sweet, and its consequences are cruel.
    • Attributed as a diary entry, as quoted in Respectfully Quoted : A Dictionary of Quotations (1992) by Suzy Platt

Oration at Plymouth (1802)

Among the sentiments of most powerful operation upon the human heart, and most highly honorable to the human character, are those of veneration for our forefathers, and of love for our posterity.
Adams' commemoration of the landing of the Pilgrims (22 December 1802)
  • Among the sentiments of most powerful operation upon the human heart, and most highly honorable to the human character, are those of veneration for our forefathers, and of love for our posterity. They form the connecting links between the selfish and the social passions. By the fundamental principle of Christianity, the happiness of the individual is Later-woven, by innumerable and imperceptible ties, with that of his contemporaries: by the power of filial reverence and parental affection, individual existence is extended beyond the limits of individual life, and the happiness of every age is chained in mutual dependence upon that of every other.
  • Respect for his ancestors excites, in the breast of man, interest in their history, attachment to their characters, concern for their errors, involuntary pride in their virtues. Love for his posterity spurs him to exertion for their support, stimulates him to virtue for their example, and fills him with the tenderest solicitude for their welfare. Man, therefore, was not made for himself alone. No; he was made for his country, by the obligations of the social compact: he was made for his species, by the Christian duties of universal charity: he was made for all ages past, by the sentiment of reverence for his forefathers; and he was made for all future times, by the impulse of affection for his progeny. Under the influence of these principles, "Existence sees him spurn her bounded reign." They redeem his nature from the subjection of time and space: he is no longer a "puny insect shivering at a breeze;" he is the glory of creation, formed to occupy all time and all extent: bounded, during his residence upon earth, only by the boundaries of the world, and destined to life and immortality in brighter regions, when the fabric of nature itself shall dissolve and perish.
  • The barbarian chieftain, who defended his country against the Roman invasion, driven to the remotest extremity of Britain, and stimulating his followers to battle, by all that has power of persuasion upon the human heart, concludes his exhortation by an appeal to these irresistible feelings — "Think of your forefathers and of your posterity."
  • Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air. These qualities have ever been displayed in their mightiest perfection, as attendants in the retinue of strong passions.
    • In recent years this has often been misquoted as: "Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish".
  • Religious discord has lost her sting; the cumbrous weapons of theological warfare are antiquated: the field of politics supplies the alchymists of our times with materials of more fatal explosion, and the butchers of mankind no longer travel to another world for instruments of cruelty and destruction. Our age is too enlightened to contend upon topics, which concern only the interests of eternity; and men who hold in proper contempt all controversies about trifles, except such as inflame their own passions, have made it a common-place censure against your ancestors, that their zeal was enkindled by subjects of trivial importance; and that however aggrieved by the intolerance of others, they were alike intolerant themselves. Against these objections, your candid judgment will not require an unqualified justification; but your respect and gratitude for the founders of the State may boldly claim an ample apology. The original grounds of their separation from the church of England, were not objects of a magnitude to dissolve the bonds of communion; much less those of charity, between Christian brethren of the same essential principles.

Independence Day address (1821)

Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind.
Adams' address as Secretary of State to the U.S. House of Representatives. (4 July 1821)
  • And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind? Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.
  • America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet on her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world; she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit. . . . Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.

Oration on Lafayette (1834)

He devoted himself, his life, his fortune, his hereditary honors, his towering ambition, his splendid hopes, all to the cause of liberty.
Oration before the US Congress on the character of Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette (31 December 1834)
  • Pronounce him one of the first men of his age, and you have yet not done him justice. Try him by that test to which he sought in vain to stimulate the vulgar and selfish spirit of Napoleon; class him among the men who, to compare and seat themselves, must take in the compass of all ages; turn back your eyes upon the records of time; summon from the creation of the world to this day the mighty dead of every age and every clime — and where, among the race of merely mortal men, shall one be found, who, as the benefactor of his kind, shall claim to take precedence of Lafayette?
  • There have doubtless been, in all ages, men, whose discoveries or inventions, in the world of matter or of mind, have opened new avenues to the dominion of man over the material creation; have increased his means or his faculties of enjoyment; have raised him in nearer approximation to that higher and happier condition, the object of his hopes and aspirations in his present state of existence.
    Lafayette discovered no new principle of politics or of morals. He invented nothing in science. He disclosed no new phenomenon in the laws of nature. Born and educated in the highest order of feudal Nobility, under the most absolute Monarchy of Europe, in possession of an affluent fortune, and master of himself and of all his capabilities at the moment of attaining manhood, the principle of republican justice and of social equality took possession of his heart and mind, as if by inspiration from above. He devoted himself, his life, his fortune, his hereditary honors, his towering ambition, his splendid hopes, all to the cause of liberty. He came to another hemisphere to defend her. He became one of the most effective champions of our Independence; but, that once achieved, he returned to his own country, and thenceforward took no part in the controversies which have divided us. In the events of our Revolution, and in the forms of policy which we have adopted for the establishment and perpetuation of our freedom, Lafayette found the most perfect form of government. He wished to add nothing to it.
  • When the principle of hereditary dominion shall be extinguished in all the institutions of France; when government shall no longer be considered as property transmissible from sire to son, but as a trust committed for a limited time, and then to return to the people whence it came; as a burdensome duty to be discharged, and not as a reward to be abused; when a claim, any claim, to political power by inheritance shall, in the estimation of the whole French people, be held as it now is by the whole people of the North American Union — then will be the time for contemplating the character of Lafayette, not merely in the events of his life, but in the full development of his intellectual conceptions, of his fervent aspirations, of the labors and perils and sacrifices of his long and eventful career upon earth; and thenceforward, till the hour when the trump of the Archangel shall sound to announce that Time shall be no more, the name of Lafayette shall stand enrolled upon the annals of our race, high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind.

Letter to the 12th Congressional District (1839)

  • The first steps of the slaveholder to justify by argument the peculiar instutitions is to deny the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. He denies that all men are created equal. He denies that he has inalienable rights.
    • As quoted in letter to the citizens of the twelfth congressional district (29 June 1839), The Hingham Patriot, MA. As quoted in Thomas Huges Rare and Early Newspaper catalog, No. 141


  • The precept of the Koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God. The vanquished may purchase their lives, by the payment of tribute; the victorious may be appeased by a false and delusive promise of peace; and the faithful follower of the prophet, may submit to the imperious necessities of defeat: but the command to propagate the Moslem creed by the sword is always obligatory, when it can be made effective. The commands of the prophet may be performed alike, by fraud, or by force.
    • in The American Annual Register for the Years 1827–8–9 (New-York: E. & G. W. Blunt, 1830), Chapter X, p. 274


  • Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.
    • Attributed in The Rebirth of a Nation : With a Bill of Rights for America's Third Century (1978) by Robert S. Minor, p. 10; this is a paraphrase of a statement by his father John Adams in a letter to his mother Abigail Adams (27 April 1777): "Posterity! you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it".

Quotes about Adams

  • Opposition to the slaveholding interests was led by the Massachusetts representative and former president of the United States, John Quincy Adams. He not only denounced slavery, but advanced progressive views on the right of women to engage in political activity.
    • Bettina Aptheker Woman's Legacy: Essays on Race, Sex, and Class in American History (1982)
  • John Quincy Adams, born in 1767, was the last surviving American leader with strong ties to America’s founding: As a young diplomat he had been praised and respected by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison; under President Monroe he had been one of America’s greatest secretaries of state (perhaps the greatest). Though party politics had undermined the goals of his own presidency, as an aging congressman he led the ultimately successful nine-year battle against Southerners to defeat the House of Representatives’ “gag rule” against the reception of antislavery petitions. In the midst of this battle, Adams served as the key legal adviser to Roger Sherman Baldwin, before becoming the senior defense attorney in the Amistad trial before the U.S. Supreme Court. At ages seventy-three and seventy-four, as Adams fought slavery on two fronts, he exemplified the noblest meaning of the Revolutionary heritage. As he told William Jay, the abolitionist son of the first chief justice, John Jay, the blacks had “vindicated their own right to liberty” by “executing the justice of Heaven” upon a “pirate murderer, their tyrant and oppressor.” Adams’s view that the Africans had freed themselves by “self-emancipation” won surprising support from the Northern press.
    • David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the Americas (2006)
  • Because he was both introspective and uncommonly candid in admitting his own shortcomings, Adams remains the best source for a description of his personality. "I am a man of reserved, cold, austere and forbidding manners," he confided to his diary, "my political adversaries say, a gloomy misanthropist, and my personal enemies, an unsocial savage. With a knowledge of the actual defect in my character, I have not the pliability to reform it." In a letter to his wife he admitted, "I never was and never shall be what is commonly termed a popular man, being as little qualified by nature, education, or habit for the arts of a courtier as I am desirous of being courted by others... I am certainly not intentionally repulsive in my manners and deportment, and in my public station I never made myself inaccessible to any human being. But I have no powers of fascination; none of the honey which the profligate proverb says is the true fly-catcher. Ironically, a man famous for his cold demeanor was the most successful American diplomat of his time. In the ticklist art of negotiation, Adams assiduously checked his temper and performed the diplomatic amenities.
    • William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (1984), p. 89-90
  • John Quincy Adams may have been gratified by the result, but he, too, was disturbed by the way it had been achieved, through chicanery and cheap political slogans and unchecked hostility between the parties. He considered it "a revolution in the habits and manners of the people," and being an Adams, he worried about what it portended for the future. "Their manifest destiny is to civil war," he concluded glumly. Some -those who won- saw it as the vindication of democracy. But the tawdriness of this campaign, with its false claims and easy sound bites, signaled what Henry Adams would later call the degradation of the democratic dogma. Out on the Illinois prairie, a young friend of Lincoln's, Albert T. Bledsoe, worried that "pandemonium had been let loose upon earth."
    • Ted Widmer, Martin Van Buren (2005), p. 139-140

See also

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