Saturday, September 16, 2023

Ambition and truth

Romney's decision not to run for reelection led Richard Brookhiser to reflect on the ambitions of John Quincy Adams:
JQA left his and his father’s party, the Federalists, when they took the pox of disunion during the Jefferson and Madison administrations. This partisan defection served his ambition, because his new (first) Republican Party friends were political winners.

But by 1820 he saw another emerging cadre of potential disunionists: southern slaveowners. In a March 3, 1820, conversation with fellow cabinet member John Calhoun (JQA was SecState, Calhoun SecWar), Calhoun told him that slavery “had many excellent qualities.... It was the best guarantee to equality among the whites.” JQA was shocked, not least because he respected Calhoun so highly. If this was what his colleague thought, his fellow southerners must think the same. Maybe, JQA wondered in his diary that night, the country should break up then, since it was bound to anyway.

But he had to become president first. Ambition took precedence over prophecy. By hook and by crook he beat Calhoun, Henry Clay, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson for the White House in 1824. He had a plan to forestall the crisis — govern as a nationalist — but he kept his motives well concealed.

JQA lost his reelection bid in 1828, crushingly, to Jackson, whom he considered a barbarian. He sulked for a few years, even angling for the Anti-Masonic Party nomination in 1832. (He offered to reveal the secrets of Phi Beta Kappa; the Anti-Masons weren’t interested.) Then he got elected to a safe seat in the House.

Having nowhere else to go, he could finally speak the truth. ....

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