The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams
by Phyllis Lee Levin.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Hardcover, 544 pages, $35.

“This, in essence, is the dilemma of John Quincy’s life. Respecting him as a statesman, as ‘Old Man Eloquent’ was one thing. Liking him was another,” writes Phyllis Lee Levin. Even to himself, after years of achievement and fame, Adams appeared (in her words) a “cold, austere and forbidding character,” oblivious to his adventurous youth and bearing no relationship to the passionate man who had married for love and written in the kind of romantic style that makes him a much more modern figure than anyone—except this biographer—has supposed. JQA, the neglected hero, is the man Ms. Levin sets out to recover. She forswears all concern with his presidency and later life, focusing instead on the scion who learned to fashion his imaginative temperament to suit the family business of politics and public service. Her story ends prematurely in 1817 with the announcement that President Monroe will make John Quincy his secretary of state, following on President Madison’s 1815 appointment of Adams as ambassador to Great Britain. This truncation of a long life (1767–1848) serves Ms. Levin’s particular purposes, but it also has consequences that inhibit her narrative and stifle her story.

But first the palpable reasons for Ms. Levin’s approach have to be explained. Only recently, she reports, has it been possible to read John Quincy’s diary in his own hand. Not only does this—as she puts it—“fascinating and demanding” experience bring us closer to the man himself, the original diary, is, in effect, a new work of literature, liberated from the compression and redactions imposed by Adams’s son Charles Francis, who eliminated the “details of common life and events of no interest to the public.” Thus did the son “drain”—to employ another of Ms. Levin’s words—the lifeblood out of his father’s biography. Like A. N. Wilson’s Victoria: A Life (2014), which wrests a robust and candid royal highness from her bowdlerized diaries, Ms. Levin’s life of John Quincy restores the man who forgot himself and, save for the biographer’s intervention, would be lost to posterity.

Ms. Levin’s case hews faithfully to both the letter and spirit of what John Quincy actually wrote about his own early trials and triumphs. Missing from her narrative is the all-knowing biographer—one like, say, Fred Kaplan in John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (2014), who engages all too often in the “little did he know” school of biography, telegraphing what is in store for his subject. With Ms. Levin, we are immersed in the hero’s day-to-day vagaries, in which he presents himself not as a product of history so much as a contender for the love of women and the respect of his male contemporaries. His watchful mother, Abigail, for example, is afraid John Quincy may succumb to the wrong female’s charms—so enamored is he of female company—while his dutiful father seeks to overcome JQA’s scruples about taking diplomatic posts that just might have been offered because John Quincy is an Adams. In short, without using any devices that trick out her biography so that it flows like a novel, Ms. Levin’s agile prose nevertheless excites a powerful pull—as if John Quincy is the very Pip.

So overwhelming is John Quincy’s voice, and so enraptured has his biographer become with making his case, that other dissenting speakers are hardly allowed a word. This rebuff is especially pronounced in the case of John Quincy’s wife, Louisa Catherine, who is dismissed because of her “embittered, corrosive” memoirs, in which she disdains much of the world that shaped John Quincy. “One is hard pressed to think of a more unsuitable partnership, this marriage between the romantic and the puritan,” Levin remarks—although she does praise Louisa Catherine as a “faithful and beloved wife.” But Ms. Levin’s primary quarrel is with Louisa Catherine’s after-the-fact-accounts, which do not square with at least some the behavior she exhibited while her husband was alive, and, more importantly, do not accord with John Quincy’s own account of his marriage. He was passionately devoted to Louisa Catherine and continued to write her love letters well into their marriage. Of Puritan stock he was, to be sure, but the family and John Quincy himself had long since abandoned their ancestors’ strict construction of Protestantism and were well on their way to developing the sensibility that shaped Nathaniel Hawthorne’s critique of Calvinism. Ms. Levin herself does not treat John Quincy as a Puritan, except where Louisa Catherine is concerned. So the animus Ms. Levin expresses toward Louisa Catherine is a bit baffling, especially when one turns to other accounts of the Adams marriage—such as Fred Kaplan’s. He is not taken in by Louisa Catherine’s memoirs even as he acknowledges the differences in temperament between husband and wife. But he nonetheless endows Louisa Catherine with a humanity that is largely undetectable in Ms. Levin’s diatribe. That John Quincy could have enjoyed and benefited from a more imaginative and tolerant wife may well be true, but that is not how he seems to have regarded his marriage. And so, by her own principles, Ms. Levin must be found wanting.

A greater problem with The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams is that it suffocates its subject. Little context is provided for his thoughts and feelings, because Ms. Levin has attached herself so closely to her subject’s own writings. How a figure appears to the world is an important aspect of biography, and as Kaplan shows, evidence abounds about the young John Quincy’s affability and superb resources as a young diplomat, especially in Russia. And even when it comes to John Quincy’s writing, Ms. Levin mines this source mainly for facts and narrative joins, so to speak. Kaplan, on the other hand, makes some astute comments about how John Quincy’s prose style reflect both his period and his own peculiarities as a person. Kaplan shows, in short, how John Quincy grew up as a public man, not only watching how others treated him, but also shaping himself into the dutiful son and servant that his father expected—especially after the other Adams offspring dissipated their inheritance.

Unquestionably Ms. Levin succeeds in making a man out of John Quincy Adams, not the effigy that both he and the public were content to respect, if not love. But it is dangerous for a biographer to so love her subject that much of his world is lost in the affair. Partisan biography can be a successful enterprise. Witness, for example, Michael Foot’s biography of Welsh statesman Aneurin Bevan: an act of homage, but also one that fully recreates the world in which Bevan struggled and thrived, in which he, more than any other individual, was responsible for creating Britain’s National Health Service. Lacking at least some attention to the sweep of JQA’s life—his crucial role as an architect of American foreign policy, for example—she deprives this biography of a satisfying denouement.

To bisect John Quincy’s life, so that the later public and private selves never join up, leaves readers on the launchpad, so to speak, wishing to soar with the subject rather than settling for the promise of flight.  

Carl Rollyson is the author of American Biography and the forthcoming A Private Life of Michael Foot.