Friday, January 18, 2013

John Quincy Adams, the Corrupt Bargain, and the Art of Dinner Conversation

When John Quincy Adams took the oath of office in 1825, it was under a cloud of controversy. The election of 1824 had been a bitterly contested four-man race between Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, William Crawford, and Adams.

Since no candidate had won a majority of electoral votes, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives where Clay, as Speaker of the House, threw his support to Adams, even though Jackson had won the most popular and electoral votes. Adams then quickly appointed Clay as Secretary of State. Outraged and feeling cheated out of the White House, Jackson and his supporters called the deal a “Corrupt Bargain.”

With these accusations hanging over his head, President Adams faced problems from the start. Aware of the fact that “two-thirds of the whole people” did not want him to be president, Adams promised in his Inaugural Address to make up for his lack of support with “a heart devoted to the welfare of our country.”

But his four years in office weren't easy ones. Although his intelligence, family background and experience should have made him a great president, John lacked the charisma needed to create a base of loyal supporters.

Nevertheless, he and his wife Louisa hosted many dinner parties at the White House, as required. But his cold personality had a chilling effect on others and guests seated near the president at dinner often said that he had a hard time engaging in casual conversation. Aware of his inability to make small talk, John wrote this in his diary:

I went out this evening in search of conversation, an art of which I never had an adequate idea. Long as I have lived in the world, I never have thought of conversation as a school in which something was to be learned. I never knew how to make, control, or to change it.

I am by nature a silent animal, and my dear mother’s constant lesson in childhood, that children should be seen and not heard, confirmed me irrevocably in what I now deem a bad habit. Conversation is an art of the highest importance, a school in which, for the business of life, more may perhaps be learnt than from books. It…consists more in making others talk than in talking. Therein has been, and ever will be, my deficiency – the talent of starting the game.


Like his father, John Quincy Adams was a very intelligent man, but he lacked personal warmth and his critics called him “a chip off the old iceberg!”

FAST FACT: Adams’ policies favoring a strong federal government angered many southern slave holders who feared that that any expansion of federal power might interfere with slavery. His Indian policies also cost him supporters. Like Jefferson and Monroe, Adams wanted to remove Native Americans west of the Mississippi River, but believed that the government should honor Indian treaties and purchase rather than forcibly or fraudulently take Indian lands.

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