In 1788, John Adams left London, never to return to Europe. His son, John Quincy Adams, would assume his father’s post at the Court of Saint James 27 years later. While both men represented the United States in Great Britain after wars, JQA had a more successful time in establishing stronger ties between the two nations than his father had. This article by Steve Strathmann follows the first in the series here and details the ups-and-downs of John Quincy Adams’ time in London.
The Experienced Diplomat
John Quincy Adams first came to Europe with his father during the Revolutionary War. In addition to working for his father, he spent three years in Russia serving as secretary for an American mission at the tender age of fourteen. After graduating from Harvard, he was appointed Minister to the Netherlands by George Washington. During his time in The Hague, he travelled frequently to London on business, where he met his future wife Louisa Johnson, the American daughter of a Maryland father and English mother. In fact, the church where they were married, the Church of All Hallows Barking, still stands today near the Tower of London and has a plaque outside marking the occasion.
JQA would later serve terms as American minister to Prussia and Russia. While at St. Petersburg, he was asked to join the American group negotiating to end the War of 1812. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed, he hoped to return home, but was asked to serve as President Madison’s Minister to the Court of St. James. The offer was too tempting for Adams to refuse and he crossed the English Channel in May 1815.
Official Relations with Britain
John Quincy Adams presented his credentials to the Prince Regent on June 8, 1815. The prince did not seem prepared for the meeting, at one point even asking if JQA “was related to Mr. Adams, who had formerly been the Minister from the United States here.” The new minister established an office on Charles Street and rented a house outside of London in the village of Ealing. While in Britain, John Quincy and Louisa would have their whole family (sons George, John and Charles) together for the first time in six years.
Adams maintained good relationships with both Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh. His primary mission was to help negotiate a treaty of commerce with the British. The result of these negotiations would only be a commercial convention, but the Americans did make some gains. These included a prohibition on discriminatory duties, the opening of British East Indies ports to American shipping and ‘most favored nation’ status for the United States.
There were still outstanding issues left over between the two nations after the War of 1812. These included the impressment of sailors, the return of slaves that fled to the West Indies with British help during the war, and the opening of Canadian waters to American fishermen. Castlereagh said in response that these were issues that could be dealt with at a later date when the Anglo-American relationship was stronger. Adams did not press the foreign secretary, especially over the escaped slaves. A life-long abolitionist, Adams only brought up the topic because his diplomatic instructions called for it.
One area where significant gains were made was on the Canadian border of the United States. On January 16 and March 21 of 1816, Adams proposed to Castlereagh that there should be a reduction of arms on the Great Lakes. The foreign secretary agreed and the negotiations that followed led to the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817. This pact reduced the two lake fleets to four ships apiece that were to primarily deal with customs issues. This agreement was “the first reciprocal naval disarmament in the history of international relations”, according to historian Samuel Flagg Bemis. Others have added that it is also the most successful and longest-lasting deal of its kind.
Outside the Office
In addition to his good relations with Liverpool and Castlereagh, Adams struck up friendships with other notable Brits. One was the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Though the two men had differing views on certain topics, they became friends due to their appreciation of each other’s intellect. John Quincy and Louisa also were invited to a wedding held at the Duke of Wellington’s home.
Adams enjoyed going to the theater and opera in London, especially to see the works of William Shakespeare. He read Shakespeare often, and his diaries contain reviews of London performances of Richard the Third and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
John Quincy and Louisa were thrilled to have their family together and being able to watch their sons’ growth. George and John were enrolled in an Ealing boarding school, while Charles attended school during the day. While he loved his boys, JQA worried that they did not focus enough on their studies. According to biographer Fred Kaplan, he hoped that someday they “would be his intellectual companions” much like he was to his father.
Unfortunately, Adams did have to deal with some health issues during his London tenure. He injured his writing hand and also had several eye infections. These afflictions were especially hard on a man who was a vociferous reader and writer. Louisa helped during this period by taking dictation and reading aloud to her husband. Adams eventually healed and was able to resume all of his diplomatic duties.
In April 1817, Adams received a message from President James Monroe, asking him to return to Washington and become Secretary of State. Though John Quincy hesitated, the rest of his family were excited about the prospect of returning to the United States, including his elderly parents. He eventually decided that he would accept the cabinet post, and on June 10, 1817, the family left London for the long journey home.
In 1861, Charles Francis Adams would return to take the post that his father and grandfather held before him. His primary duty: keep the British out of the American Civil War. But that’s for next time…
We shall have the next article in this series next month.
If you enjoyed the article tell the world! Tweet about it, like it or share it by clicking on one of the links below.
Kaplan, Fred. John Quincy Adams: American Visionary. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.
Remini, Robert V. John Quincy Adams. New York: Times Books, 2002.
Unger, Harlow Giles. John Quincy Adams. Boston: De Capo Press, 2012.