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  • The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics by William J. Cooper
  • Carl Paulus (bio)
The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics. By William J. Cooper. (New York: Liveright, 2017. Pp. 526. Cloth, $35.00; paper, $18.00.)

In this exceptional biography of John Quincy Adams, William J. Cooper examines the remarkable life of the sixth president while using Adams's expansive career to describe how American politics changed over his lifetime. Cooper writes that Adams's defeat by Andrew Jackson in the presidential election of 1828 "signaled the beginning of a popular politics buttressed by organized, vigorous political parties. . . . Never again could a presidential candidate claim to wear a mantle that had literally been possessed by the Founding Fathers" (258).

Although the title of Cooper's book casts him as a "lost" Founding Father, it may be more useful to think of Adams as the last one—the final in a line of American leaders who did everything possible not to wear the badge of being a politician, but who also, one way or another, participated in the affairs of the nation at every turn. Cooper explains how the ideals of the American Revolution and being the most famous son of a Founding Father shaped Adams's aspirations to uphold the Founders' legacy.

Despite holding true to his Revolutionary-era conviction that he must not be perceived as a mere office seeker, Adams keenly understood America's political and electoral system. Cooper writes, "His conviction about the right policy overrode all other considerations. He would stand where it placed him, even if he stood alone" (82). Most of the time, however, as the book makes clear, his convictions found him standing alone only for a brief period. After all, John Quincy Adams was the only American to serve in, or be nominated to, all branches of the federal government (while serving abroad, he declined a seat on the Supreme Court after being confirmed unanimously by the Senate). In short, Adams knew how to play the game of American politics. Cooper's book demonstrates how. [End Page 138]

Adams "was an American convinced not only of American uniqueness but of his determination to maintain, even to advance, his country's stature in the world" (143). Cooper does a wonderful job displaying how this confidence affected Adams as secretary of state and president, when he negotiated a treaty to make the United States a continental nation and strove "to make sure that internal disagreements and squabbles did not endanger what he saw as the future glory of his country. . . . Following that path would be a moral act, for the United States was a moral as well as a political entity" (143–44). The Lost Founding Father illustrates well how those two convictions shifted over time, eventually becoming contradictory as the issue of slavery became central to American politics during the second half of Adams's life. This point serves as the most significant contribution Cooper makes to the historiography.

Following a single chapter about the election of 1824 and John Quincy Adams's presidency, Cooper details the most politically active and important postpresidency in American history. The author outlines the Bostonian's evolution from a politician who tolerated slavery to preserve the Union (which symbolized the legacy of his father) to a chief public opponent of the slave power. Cooper writes that the debate over the Missouri Compromise had a "profound impact" on the then secretary of state and stayed with Adams while he lived in the White House and during his long career afterward (172). The Lost Founding Father tracks this transformation deftly and skillfully uses the personal change in Adams to reflect on the change over time in American politics that occurred during the final decades of his life.

From the Bank War and debate over the tariff to the fight against the gag rule and the Amistad case, this biography details how John Quincy Adams found himself in the middle of almost every issue during his postpresidential, nine-term stint as a member of the House of Representatives. Cooper depicts this period of his life...


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pp. 138-140
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