Wednesday, June 3, 2009

JQA – What a ball!

One of my favorite biographies ever has been David McCullough’s life of John Adams. Recently I’ve moved forward a generation to read Paul C. Nagel’s biography of John Quincy Adams. The son, it appears, inherited all of his father’s brusque and contentious personality and enlarged upon it.

A brilliant scholar and accomplished diplomat, John Q. Adams was less successful as a politician. Serving as Monroe’s secretary of state in the years leading up to the presidential election of 1824, he held the second most powerful position in the land. It wasn’t enough. He hoped to be elevated to the presidency, as three of his predecessors had, but he had scruples that are entirely foreign to our generation. He wanted to be called into the position by the House of Representatives, who then elected presidents, without campaigning for the position or even acknowledging his ambition for it.

After persisting in this high-minded approach for most of 1823, he finally found a way to throw his hat into the ring without quite acknowledging it. His strongest rival for the position was Andrew Jackson, who was not timid about admitting his own ambition. On January 8, 1824, John Quincy and Louisa Adams threw a ball honoring the 9th anniversary of Jackson’s defeat of the British at New Orleans. Adams’ goal was to gain the attention of a lot of people and to maneuver Jackson into settling for the vice-presidency.

An estimated one thousand people attended the ball at the Adams residence. Wow! The Adams home was admittedly a large one where John Quincy and Laura did a lot of entertaining, but one thousand people? It raises two questions in my mind, the first being: this was supposedly a ball, but how could that many people crowd into even a large home and leave enough space for anyone to dance?

My second question is, what did this big shindig cost? It was a large campaign investment for a man who did not even admit he was campaigning.

The irony is that it didn’t change a thing with Jackson. He couldn’t decline the honor of the ball, but he could and did refuse to lower his own sights and close down his campaign for the presidency.

What a ball! And all for a victory that was fleeting and sour. It makes me look again at my own goals and priorities. What price will I pay for that which does not satisfy and does not last?

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