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John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams - Harlow Giles Unger Are You Smelling What I’m Stepping In?Thanks to the blessing I have of working in the Young Adult Program with addicts 18 to 25, I am privy to the latest, hippest, and most advanced slang on the planet. True, I typically understand only 6 to 17% of it, but that’s not important now. What is important is that my current favorite way to ask if someone understands the concepts, relationships, and theories I am espousing at the time is to inquire, “Are you smelling what I’m stepping in?” If nothing else I at least have their attention. Lately, my attention has been captive to Harlow Giles Unger’s biography of John Quincy Adams. Speaking to a room of Nobel Prize winners, nominees, and their guests, President Kennedy said, “I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” The only possible challenge to JFK’s assertion is John Quincy Adams. The list of achievements by John Quincy Adams, the staggering breadth of his expertise, places the horizon of President Adams’ accomplishments far past the vision all that followed him. Only one or two of President Adams successors in the Oval office could demonstrate a comparable range of knowledge, Theodore Roosevelt for example, but even then they remained in more shallow waters. While we have been blessed to have as our leaders great patriots and men with a searing passion for our republic, Adams’ dedication was born while just a boy as he saw first hand the awful grip of tyranny, and the horrible cost of freedom bought through 18th century warfare. Undress your understanding of the world to that of a third grade boy, and imagine what his heart must have felt as his eyes witnessed Bunker Hill. His service began with observing the birth of our country, and those who labored as midwives including Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, not to mention his father, and the nation’s second president, John Adams. The life given in service ended when a stroke claimed him on the floor of the House of Representatives. Though no one knew it that day, he stood on the floor with a young Congressman from Illinois who would save the union from the cancer that could not be removed before it’s birth, and in rescuing the adolescent nation, become her greatest president. Many argue about the merit of such high praise given to John Quincy Adams, but there are two facts which seem contested by none. The integrity of Mr. Adams was above question, and when an honest broker was needed to find compromise, all eyes, friend and political foe alike, turned to the trusted eyes of John Quincy Adams. The second fact, also not disputed by his contemporaries is that John Quincy Adams was possibly the most arrogant and caustic son-of-a-bitch to ever stand within eye sight of the White House. Most of the political failures he experienced were caused by his own patronizing and belittling attitude. Governance and diplomacy each came with a structure, an understanding, a set a rules that gave cover to the disdain Mr. Adams so often expressed for lesser men, men lacking his intellect and skill like a mint covers bad breath. Without that cover the stench of his arrogance kept folks at `such a distance they could know little else about him. To tell a group of people who, less than 50 years earlier, inspired by words like “Give me liberty or give me death!”, were willing to stand against the most skilled military on the planet that Congress should not be "palsied by the will of our constituents" is just plain stupid.Even then, Adams continued to find a place of service to his country, and to others regardless of the expense to his family, his reputation, and even his health. Mr. Unger’s work allows us to appreciate all aspects of Mr. Adams, even his arrogance, and acknowledge and understand the gifts of a man whose skill, intellect, persistence and love of freedom were given to in the fullest, even to his very last breath.