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John Quincy Adams

by Harlow Giles Unger (Da Capo)

Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man

by Walter Stahr (Simon & Schuster)

John Quincy Adams was a stuffy prig whose Federalist reign was overturned by Andrew Jackson in the dawn of American democracy. William Seward spent $7.2 million to buy Alaska from the Russian czar—a deal instantly dubbed “Seward’s Folly.” What else do you need to know?

These two leading historians serving up new biographies will tell you, in great detail. Each argues, with justice, that his man was at the forefront in facing the great issues of his time. In fact, this apparently unlikely duo shared fundamental views: Adams was the only Federalist senator to vote for Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase (the original model for Seward’s 1867 buy); both men looked to the federal government to develop and support infrastructure and the economy; and both came to realize early that slavery was undermining America morally and economically.

In Unger’s hands, Adams comes close to becoming an inspiring character. Close, because this crusty curmudgeon, descended from New England royalty, can never be made cuddly. Unger makes him seem as overweeningly intelligent, clever, headstrong, insecure, brave and insightful as he probably was. Unger also reminds us that John Quincy’s mom, Abigail Adams, worshiped of late as a founding mother, was a dominating shrew who helped warp her multilingual child prodigy into the cold, spiteful old man we usually picture. As president, secretary of state (Adams wrote the Monroe Doctrine and used Andrew Jackson as Monroe’s cat’s paw to annex Florida) and the only former president who returned to the House of Representatives, Adams played a unique role in our history. Unger explains how and why with enough flair to carry a few inevitable dull patches.

Stahr, too, has painted a complete picture of his subject’s life with some stretches that invite nonhistorians to skim. Like Adams, Seward marked his greatest achievements as secretary of state. The ambitious ladies-man lawyer rose from local New York Whig politics to governor to founder and leader of the Republican Party. His 1860 presidential nomination seemed certain until a far less known Illinois upstart captured the party’s imagination with his plain-speaking yet artful speeches. Seward bowed to the inevitable gracefully, as he often did, and joined Abraham Lincoln’s fabled “Team of Rivals.” So dominant did he seem there, however, that other Republicans importuned Lincoln to remove him before the 1864 election, declaring that many believed Seward to be the government’s real chief—a belief Seward often did little to discourage. And then, of course, came John Wilkes Booth’s ambitious mass-assassination plot (Seward was nearly slain on the night Booth shot Lincoln), Alaska and President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment.

Iconic figures in American history can be like carousel horses: As they ride round and round through revisionist cycles, their stock goes up and down. John Quincy Adams and William Henry Seward both deserve fresh looks, and with these well-crafted biographies, they get them.


Originally published in the February 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.