The Last Founding Father: John Quincy Adams



JQA 1835 Asher Brown Durand




The canto is a selective biography of John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), John Adams’s eldest son and the 6th President of the United States (1824-29). After a brief introduction of two lines referring to a dinner at the White House in 1807, the canto follows the entries in JQA’s diary from 1809 to 1845. “The Canto thus covers JQA’s most productive 40 years” (Terrell “Montage” 185). Nevertheless, the canto avoids the areas of Adams’s career that are most hotly debated among historians, such as the potentially corrupt election of 1924 and the electoral campaign of 1929; it barely touches on what historians consider to be Adams's main services to the nation, such as his central role in the peace of Ghent, The Florida Purchase, and the formulation of the Monroe doctrine; the canto does not let us even suspect the prestige Adams acquired in his later years as Congressman for Massachusetts in the struggle against slavery, particularly his defense of the slaves on Amistad. Further, Pound avoids the period of Adams’s presidency (which is generally regarded by historians as ineffectual) and concentrates on key periods of his life on both sides of his term in the White House, presenting his life as an interweaving of his public activities and his personal interests. Pound uses luminous details that look personal and colourful to imply important events that lie behind them - he does not tell the reader what these are.

The important biographical and historical periods included in the canto are roughly the following:

1809-1814 – JQA is ambassador to Russia and interacts with the Russian minister Rumyantzev in the preamble of two important wars, (a) Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and (b) the armed conflict between the United States and Britain that explode almost simultaneously in June 1812.

March 1815 – As JQA is in Paris, he follows Napoleon’s approach from Elba: he tracks it in his diary and goes out into the streets to take the pulse of the times when Bonaparte has reached the capital.

1817-20 – JQA returns to the United States and acts as secretary of state under President James Monroe. Pound includes details that point to the Adams-Onís Treaty (The Florida Purchase) and to the elaboration of the Monroe doctrine.

1830-45 – JQA loses the second presidential mandate to Andrew Jackson after a brutal, personalized elections campaign. He comments acidly on the main figures of his successor’s political environment: Martin van Buren, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, William H. Harrison, John Tyler. Adams’s comments prefigure canto XXXVII, where we find again the same politicians seen from his rival’s, Martin van Buren’s perspective. Indeed Pound’s letters indicate that his interest in this cast of characters and van Buren himself was born as he was reading the Adams material: while finishing the canto Pound was hunting for van Buren's Autobiography through his booksellers. See Calendar.

JQA is indignant against the injustice that the Jackson government perpetrates on Native Americans, especially the Cherokee nation, a moral stance that links him with his illustrious predecessors, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Pound also includes a short, almost disparaging reference to Adams’s failing powers as he reviews his defence of the slaves on Amistad in 1841.

Pound’s canto aims to give details of Adams’s personality and interests over and beyond politics and avoids openly tackling well-trodden areas. He insists on Adams’s culture, his skills, his travels and his reading. Since Adams had learned French very early and routinely used the language in his diplomatic work, various French expressions crop up in his diary and also in the canto. Adams’s first love was literature, in which he had a MA degree from Harvard. Pound is careful to mark this interest by including JQA’s comments on his readings and his often reduced possibilities of conversing with others on literary subjects. Pound paints the portrait of an American aristocrat, a solitary man who goes against his own heart for the sake of political service. Adams himself wrote in his diary: “I have been a lawyer for bread/a statesman at the call of my country” implying that his affections and interest lay in the enjoyment and study of literature rather than in the pursuit of politics. Pound shows Adams as a moral observer of both American and international politics. Like his father, JQA has an ethical approach to governance, relying on his own moral and religious judgement, not political expediency or party interest. 

Carroll F. Terrell studied the entries of JQA’s Diary relevant to this canto in depth and gave ample quotations, both from the diary itself and from collateral works of biography and history, so as to contextualize Pound’s references in more detail. His results were published in his article, “Canto XXXIV: The Technique of Montage” published in Paideuma in 1977. 

Terrell concluded: 

“One cannot help read the source Pound used along with collateral matter and not speculate on his principles of selection or, as much to the point, why he leaves material out. Resolution of such questions must await another generation of scholars. For the moment my hypothesis is simple: Pound attempts to provide the widest possible range of details to display the breadth of interests and the depth of character of his protagonist as he can manage in the briefest possible space. Also, he tends to leave out anything which the student is likely to know in order to include a sufficient phalanx of particulars about what he is less likely to know. As with the Jefferson, Van Buren, Adams and other cantos, he allows his protagonist to speak for himself” (Terrell 187).

See also the Timeline of Adams’s biography in Resources for a broad, neutral overview of his life. 


Cantos in periodicals

A Draft of XXX Cantos

Eleven New Cantos

The Fifth Decad

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