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John Quincy Adams had a bit of a leg up in starting his political career.
He was the son of America's second president, John Adams, and totally destined to be a politician. In 1775, he and his mother stood watching the Battle of Bunker Hill from their farm in Braintree. In 1783, at the tender age of 16, he was in Paris taking notes at his father's side during peace negotiations with Great Britain. He wasn't just in a history class—he was watching history happen.
During the Washington and Adams administrations, John Q served as a diplomat and earned Washington's praise as "the most valuable public character we have abroad." (This would only grow more true over time: much later, he served as President James Monroe's Secretary of State and helped conceive the massively influential foreign policy known as the Monroe Doctrine.)
Once the older John Adams left the presidency—or, rather, was kicked out by his political rival Thomas Jefferson—John Quincy became a Senator from Massachusetts. In Congress, he proved to be more than just his father's son, supporting some of Jefferson's policies, including the controversial Embargo Act of 1807, which banned all overseas trade.
Adams's expertise in maritime rights and his other foreign experience made him Madison's choice to be the first-ever minister to Russia in 1809—and later, to head the United States delegation at Ghent in 1814.
At the negotiating table in Ghent, Adams' objective was defensive—basically, to avoid giving anything up to the empire that was busy sacking the nation's capital.
The American ambassadors were pretty much on their own in Ghent, since getting word from the homeland took weeks. By dragging the negotiations out, Adams and his crew were able to frustrate their opponents until the war-weary British they gave up their greater demands—an Indian barrier state, annexation of northern Maine, and a neutral Great Lakes region (source). Adams would later sum up the treaty by saying "nothing was adjusted, nothing was settled" (source).
Adams had helped the Americans get off easy. Under his leadership, the U.S. won the negotiations, even though it arguably lost the war. Madison kept him on as Minister to England until 1817, when he came back to accept President Monroe's offer to be his Secretary of State.
In that role, he was able to keep using his serious negotiating chops. In the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, Spain gave East Florida to the United States and renounced their claims to West Florida. In exchange, the U.S. promised not to mess with Texas. The two countries defined the western border of the Louisiana Purchase and Spain agreed to give up any ideas about conquering territories in the Pacific Northwest (source), ensuring that Season 4 of Portlandia wouldn't be cancelled.
In 1818, he had another shot at negotiating the U.S.-Canadian border, this time along the north boundary of the Oregon Territory. Boundaries were getting to be his specialty.
Although it wasn't named after him, Adams's ideas hugely influenced James Monroe in his eponymous Doctrine, which was set out in a speech to Congress by the president in 1823. Monroe was responding to some events of the time, but the doctrine would shape American foreign policy for the next hundred years, making the U.S. the policemen of the New World.
Basically, it told the Old World (Europe and vicinity) that they wouldn't interfere with their internal affairs or the affairs of existing colonies in the Americas; that the days of any more European colonization were over; and that any meddling by Europe in the affairs of anyone in the Western hemisphere would be considered an act of war.
The British suggested that the U.S. and G.B. issue such a policy jointly, but Adams counseled against it. This was the U.S.'s policy statement and nobody else's. We police the Western Hemisphere. End of story.
The Secretary of State job had long been assumed to be the last step before the Presidency. But things weren't so easy for Adams when his time came in 1824. Surely no one was more qualified for the office. Instead, five candidates were in the running from different regions of the country, including Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson.
Andrew Jackson actually got more popular votes than Adams, but no candidate got an Electoral majority, so the decision went to the House of Representatives. Clay decided to support Adams, and he was elected. And you'll never guess who he appointed as his Secretary of State.
Oh, you did guess.
Andrew Jackson was not amused, calling it the "corrupt bargain." Jacksonian Democrats made Adams's term in office miserable, opposing his plans for investing in roads and canals, building a national university, slapping protective tariffs on imported goods, and encouraging research in science. His opponents saw this "American System," initially proposed by Henry Clay, as a huge federal overreach, and in the 1828 election, he was trounced by Jackson (source).
Adams, an intellectual, stuffy guy not suited for the kind of glad-handing campaign Jackson was running—barbecues, rallies, buttons, etc.—, knew he'd probably lose the election. In his diary, one entry reads, "[I]n a popularity contest, in a political contest, no man could stand against the Hero of New Orleans" (source).
Instead of the typical post-presidential life of golf, windsurfing, and learning to paint, Adams got himself elected to the House of Representatives, where he spent nine consecutive terms. An ardent anti-slavery advocate, he got Congress to abandon a "gag rule" that prohibited the topic of slavery to be even mentioned on the floor of the House.
One of the high points of Adams's and Stephen Spielberg's career came in 1841, when he defended the captured African slaves from the Spanish slave ship Amistad, free Africans who'd been kidnapped and were on their way to be sold in Cuba. The British reminded the U.S. of Article 10 of the Treaty of Ghent, a commitment to end the slave trade, but President Van Buren didn't want to alienate his southern constituency and took a neutral stance on the whole issue.
After a Connecticut district court and the circuit court ruled in favor of the Africans, the U.S. attorney appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a dramatic moment, Adam's drew the Court's attention to a copy of the Declaration of Independence that was mounted on the wall of the courtroom. Dismissing all the laws and treaties that had been cited as reasons why Spain should be allowed to keep the slaves, he said, "[I know] no law, statute or constitution, no code, no treaty, except that law…which [is] forever before the eyes of your Honors" (source).
Adams totally crushed it, and the Africans were allowed to return to Sierra Leone.
Adams collapsed from a stroke on the floor of the House in 1848, and died a couple of days later, having held just about every political office possible in his long career.