John Quincy Adams was one of the most brilliant and well-qualified men ever to occupy the White House. A deeply religious, intensely scholarly man, he read Biblical passages at least three times a day--once in English, once in German, and once in French. He was fluent in seven foreign languages, including Greek and Latin. During his remarkable career as a diplomat and secretary of state, he negotiated the treaty that ended the War of 1812, acquired Florida, and conceived the Monroe Doctrine.
But Adams lacked the political skills and personality necessary to create support for his program. Like his father, Adams lacked personal warmth. His adversaries mockingly described him as a “chip off the old iceberg.”
Adams’s problems as president did not arise exclusively from his temperament. His misfortune was to serve as president at a time of growing partisan divisions. The Republican Party had split into two distinct camps. Adams and his supporters, known as National Republicans, favored a vigorous role for the central government in promoting national economic growth, while the Jacksonian Democrats demanded a limited government and strict adherence to laissez-faire principles.
As the only president to lose both the popular vote and the electoral vote, Adams faced hostility from the start. Jackson and his supporters accused the new president of “corruptions and intrigues” to gain Henry Clay’s support. Acutely aware of the fact that “two-thirds of the whole people [were] averse” to his election as president, Adams promised in his inaugural address to make up for this with “intentions upright and pure; a heart devoted to the welfare of our country.” A staunch Nationalist, Adams proposed an extraordinary program of federal support for scientific and economic development that included a national university, astronomical observatories (“lighthouses of the skies”), federal funding of roads and canals, and exploration of the country’s territory--all to be financed by a high tariff.
Adams’s advocacy of a strong federal government and a high tariff enraged defenders of slavery and states’ rights advocates who clung to traditional Jeffersonian principles of limited government and strict construction of the Constitution. They feared that any expansion of federal authority might set a precedent for interference with slavery. Thomas Jefferson himself condemned Adams’s proposals, declaring in a stinging statement that they would undermine the states and create a national elite--“an aristocracy...riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.”
Adams met with further frustration because he was unwilling to adapt to the practical demands of politics. Adams made no effort to use his patronage powers to build support for his proposals and refused to fire federal officeholders who openly opposed his policies. During his entire term in office he removed just 12 incumbents, and these only for gross incompetence. He justified his actions by saying that he did not want to make “government a perpetual and unremitting scramble for office.”
Adams’s Indian policies also cost him supporters. Although he, like his predecessor Monroe, wanted to remove Native Americans in the South to an area west of the Mississippi River, he believed that the state and federal governments had a duty to abide by Indian treaties and to purchase, not merely annex, Indian lands. Adams’s decision to repudiate and renegotiate a fraudulent treaty that stripped the Georgia Creek Indians of their land outraged land-hungry Southerners and Westerners.
Even in the realm of foreign policy, his strong suit prior to the presidency, Adams encountered difficulties. His attempts to acquire Texas from Mexico through peaceful means failed, as did his efforts to persuade Britain to permit more American trade with the British West Indies.
The “American System” and the “Tariff of Abominations”
President Adams was committed to using the federal government to promote national economic development. His program included a high protective tariff to promote industry, the sale of public lands at low prices to encourage western settlement, federally financed transportation improvements, expanded markets for western grain and southern cotton, and a strong national bank to regulate the economy.
Adams’s secretary of state, Henry Clay, called this economic program the American system because it was supposed to promote growth in all parts of the country. But the program infuriated Southerners who believed that it favored Northeastern industrial interests at their region’s expense. Southerners particularly disliked a protective tariff, since it raised the cost of manufactured goods, which they did not produce.
Andrew Jackson’s supporters in Congress sought to exploit the tariff question in order to embarrass Adams and help Jackson win the presidency in 1828. They framed a bill, which became known as the Tariff of Abominations, to win support for Jackson in Kentucky, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania while weakening the Adams administration in New England. The bill raised duties on iron, hemp, and flax (which would benefit Westerners), while lowering the tariff on woolen goods (to the detriment of New England textile manufacturers). John Randolph of Virginia accurately described the object of the bill as an effort to encourage “manufactures of no sort or kind, except the manufacture of a President of the United States.”
The Tariff of Abominations created a political uproar in the South, where it was denounced as unconstitutional and discriminatory. The tariff, southerners insisted, was essentially a tax on their region to assist northern manufacturers. South Carolina expressed the loudest outcry against the tariff. At a public meeting in Charleston, protesters declared that a tariff was designed to benefit “one class of citizens [manufacturers] at the expense of every other class.” Some South Carolinians called for revolutionary defiance of the national government.
Vice President John C. Calhoun, a skilled logician well versed in political theory, offered a theoretical framework for Southern discontent. Retreating from his early nationalistic position, the South Carolinian anonymously published the “South Carolina Exposition,” an essay that advanced the principle of nullification. A single state, Calhoun maintained, might overrule or “nullify” a federal law within its own territory, until three-quarters of the states had upheld the law as constitutional. In 1828 the state of South Carolina decided not to implement this doctrine but rather to wait and see what attitude the next president would adopt toward the tariff.