It also made life in Massachusetts seem provincial by comparison. Adams enjoyed conversation and conviviality as a student at Harvard in the late 1780s. But he hated living in small New England towns as he prepared for a career as a lawyer, a profession that held no joy for him. He despised both the tedium of the work and the necessity of soliciting clients. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he accepted an appointment as ambassador to the Netherlands in 1794. Adams was never happier than when he escaped to Europe.
In 1794, on a stopover in London, he fell in love with Louisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of the American consul. Typically, Adams wanted to delay marriage as long as possible. The problem was not love but his desire to be independent. Louisa finally talked him into it with the mixture of assertion and affection that would serve their long and happy marriage well.
Back in New England, Adams showed no interest in politics until his father lost a presidential reelection bid in 1800. When his parents moved back to Massachusetts, Adams suddenly found the prospects of life in Washington, D.C., attractive. He won election to the United States Senate in 1802, ostensibly as a Federalist, but he confounded nearly everyone by siding with the Jefferson administration so often that he had to resign his seat in 1808. Adams then escaped again to Europe in a series of diplomatic posts, which made him the obvious choice for secretary of state when James Monroe was elected president in 1816.
Adams always justified his rebellious behavior as a matter of principle. But it was not until the 1830s, after his single term as president, that he became a spokesman against slavery and the power its defenders exercised in Congress. He found an issue that combined principle and pique. Denouncing the arrogance of Southern slaveholders allowed him to rage against abusive authority and win the approbation of growing numbers of Northerners. John Quincy Adams found what he most craved, independence, and was content at last.
Ironically, the great virtue of Nagel's engaging biography is also its great liability. His primary source is Adams' massive diary. By quoting liberally from the daily entries and from John's and Louisa's letters, Nagel effectively re-creates the texture of Adams' eventful life. We learn about his houses and his clothes, the books he read and the parties he attended, his devotion to early morning walks and swims. We learn about his sexual desires and his delight in writing poetry. We get to know Adams in a way few biographers of American political figures have ever achieved.
The price that Nagel pays for this extraordinary accomplishment is that he tells his story almost entirely from Adams' perspective. We are in his world. With the exception of Louisa, the people who pass through his life rarely speak for themselves. Because we see these people through Adams' often angry eyes, we have nothing to balance his opinions of Abigail Adams, Andrew Jackson and many others who figured prominently in his life.
Some historians may find Nagel's preoccupation with Adams' mental health anachronistic. They may find that he overemphasizes late 20th century concerns with low-self esteem and rebellion in his analysis of Adams' personality, creating a John Quincy Adams for the narcissistic 1990s. Others will point out quite rightly that the ambivalence about public service and hostility to partisanship that Nagel attributes to Adams were commonplace in the early American republic. They may argue that Nagel distorts Adams' quest to live as a gentleman, a leisured person of letters and a statesman into an occupational crisis more appropriate to the late 20th than to the late 18th century.
Still, his approach has much to recommend it. One wonders from reading many recent biographies and monographs whether public figures in this period of American history ever did anything but obsess about capitalism and republicanism. It is somehow reassuring to read about Adams' struggles with the issues of birth, life and death, the attractions of love and hate, which make up the bulk of most people's lives. Nagel has given us a John Quincy Adams with a heart as well as a head.