Monday, April 12, 2021

This Day in Presidential History (Birth of George Washington Adams, Byronic Scion)

Apr. 12, 1801—George Washington Adams, who, though gifted with good looks and a flair for poetry, would stagger under the weight of expectations as the son and grandson of Presidents, was born in Berlin, where his father was serving at the time as U.S. Ambassador to Prussia.

I have to chuckle every time someone brings up the misbehavior of Hunter Biden and the alleged influence exerted on his behalf by his father. Leave aside the convenient amnesia of these critics when it comes to the prior President and the personal and financial misdeeds of his three older children. The fact is that, going back to the founding of the republic, Presidential children (particularly, far more often than not, Presidential sons) have given their parents fits.

Or, as Doug Wead recalled about a 1988 study he did for George W. Bush in his history of this group, All the Presidents' Children: “Research showed that being related to a president brought more problems than opportunities. There seemed to be higher than average rates of divorce and alcoholism and even premature death. Some presidential children seemed bent on self-destruction.”

The biggest case in point: the Adams family. The trouble started with the alcoholic male in-laws of patriarch John Adams. That tendency towards substance abuse, along with a predisposition towards depression, carried over to the following three generations of this American political dynasty.

Say what you want about Hunter Biden, but the grandson of John Adams, George Washington Adams, got there first.  Traumatized by parental separation early in life? Check. A fling with the female darling of one’s brother? Check. Overshadowed not just by a powerful father but a brother of great promise? Check. A major substance abuser for much of his adult life? Check. A headache who gave his father’s political foes plenty of ammunition? Check.

Young Adams’ father, John Quincy Adams, became America’s greatest Secretary of State, then its sixth President. In his post-Presidential career, he became the most relentless congressional foe of slavery and advocate for the constitutional right of petition. But in private life, his personality—anxious, taciturn, dour, and demanding—often darkened the lives of his wife and children. 

Paul Nagel’s superb collective biography of the family was called Descent From Glory. At times, however, I thought it might be better called Descent Into Despair. George epitomized the latter title.

His birth was greeted with joy, relief—but also with trepidation. It came one month after John Adams, the first President to lose a reelection bid, left the White House peevishly rather than witness the inauguration of rival and former friend Thomas Jefferson. A child to continue the family line was seen as balm for the old man’s spirits.

The successful delivery of the baby also soothed, at least for awhile, the anxiety of John Quincy and wife Louisa Johnson Adams, who had already suffered a couple of miscarriages. The new mother and her son were each “fat and rosy,” the diplomat assured concerned relatives and friends.

That jocular tone was uncharacteristic of the ambassador. His wishes for his son were best expressed through the pillar of integrity and restraint he was named for: President Washington, who in his second term had been so impressed by his Vice President's son that he predicted John Quincy would head America’s diplomatic corps in time. “I implore the favour of Almighty God that he [George] might live and never prove unworthy of [his name],” John Quincy wrote after the birth.

It was not to be.

When John Quincy Adams was appointed America’s first envoy to Russia in 1809, he decided to take two-year-old son Charles Francis Adams with him and Louisa to St. Petersburg but to leave eight-year-old George and six-year-old John Adams II in the care of relatives in Massachusetts. The parents were gone for so long—six years—that, upon their return, they did not recognize the now teenage George.

The reports they received in the interim about George—that he was, as Nagel put it in John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life, “hyperactive, erratic, brilliant but undisciplined, effeminate, and lazy”—were not reassuring.

The diplomat father—brilliant but ultra-disciplined—had already been peppering his son with letters advising him about Bible study, good companions, and the necessity to rise before 6 am to learn Greek and Latin. Now he decided to take an even stronger hand in directing his George’s future.

Grandfather John, maybe regretting his own hectoring for driving John Quincy’s brothers Charles and Thomas towards insolvency, alcoholism and despair, delicately tried to warn his son against also exerting too tight a control over his children, writing of the grandson he wished had been named for him, “George is a treasure of diamonds. He has a genius equal to anything, but like all other genius, requires the most delicate management.”

That “genius” was manifested in an area that John Quincy wished he could have indulged more—poetry. George was so good at writing verses that when he attended Harvard, he won the prestigious Boylston Prize over a formidable competitor: Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But whatever pride John Quincy might have felt in his son’s accomplishment was lessened by his otherwise lackluster performance at a school that his father had trained, pushed, and pulled strings for him to enter. With no American until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow more than two decades later making his living solely through poetry, it was necessary that George work at another profession: the law.

Even with excellent mentors—John Quincy and Senator Daniel Webster—George showed little interest in this career, and also underperformed when he followed father and grandfather into politics. Successful races for the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Boston City Council preceded service in these bodies, where he evinced little interest in his work.

What really interested George were ladies and liquor. Like his literary hero, the Romantic poet Lord Byron, he drew women to him with his good looks. He would be deeply sorry for one of those conquests: the beautiful niece of his mother, Mary Hellen, who took up with him after playing with the affections of the youngest son, Charles Francis Adams—and who, after breaking off her engagement with George, married instead middle brother John Adams II.

From this point onward, George’s downward spiral accelerated. Mounting gambling debts increased the problems caused by lack of career success. Looking at Charles Francis, he saw a paler but unmistakable image of his father: introspective, self-critical, but high-minded and responsible enough to carve out a public niche.

Worse, love-on-the-rebound led George to impregnate the maid of the family’s Boston doctor. The threat of scandal deepened his depression.

With John Quincy having repeated his father’s Presidential electoral loss, he turned his attention again in the spring of 1829 to his oldest child, summoning George to DC to help with the family transition back to Massachusetts.

Being under the thumb of his relentlessly demanding father was more than George could bear. Before leaving for the nation’s capital, he was already confiding in associates his intention to commit suicide. Before dawn on April 30, he either jumped or fell overboard from a passenger liner in New York Harbor. It would be a month before his remains washed ashore.

In pondering in his diary the news that his son was lost, the former President momentarily deluded himself into thinking that the death had been precipitated by “the motion of the Stage and Steamboat in twenty-four hours [which] had produced a fever, with a rushing of the blood to the brain,” but what followed sounded more like soul-crushing guilt over this probable suicide:

“Blessed God! Forgive the repining of mortal flesh, at this dispensation of thy will! Forgive the wanderings of my own mind under its excruciating torture!”

Agony caused by George continued to plague the family for a few years. Charles disposed of his brother's papers, but refused to be blackmailed concerning George's illegitimate child. Two years later, the family had to suffer through the publication of a 44-page pamphlet that divulged all the secrets of the affair.

Over a century later, a more successful President, Franklin Roosevelt, surely thinking of his own children’s struggle in the public eye, observed, “One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a President. It’s a terrible life they lead.” Though a more playful and warm-hearted father than John and John Quincy Adams, even FDR could only pray that his children could survive a life disrupted by parental ambition as best as they could.

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