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Adams, John Quincy

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Significance: A strong advocate of a powerful federal judiciary, Adams was unable as president to make appointments that strengthened the Supreme Court.


Admitted to the Massachusetts bar as a young man, Adams found the practice of law tedious and boring. Discontinuing his practice after four years to become a diplomat, he resumed practice between 1801 and 1809 while continuing to pursue a political career, including a term in the U.S. Senate. During this time, Adams argued several commercial cases before the Supreme Court. In Fletcher v. Peck (1810), he argued against the validity of Georgia's recission of a land grant when the case first came before the Court, but he did not participate in the final arguments that led to the Court's ruling in favor of the position that Adams had earlier espoused. While serving as ambassador to Russia in 1811, Adams was appointed by President James Madison to serve as an associate justice of the Supreme Court and was confirmed by the Senate in a voice vote. He rejected the appointment because he preferred to remain in politics. After continuing his diplomatic career, he served as secretary of state from 1817 to 1825. As president, Adams failed to convince Congress to adopt his proposal for a comprehensive program of “internal improvements” that would have strengthened the federal government. He was no more successful in helping to enhance federal power through his Supreme Court nominations. His nomination of Robert Trimble of Kentucky in 1826 was influenced by Trimble's staunch defenses of federal power during his service as a lower federal judge at a time when states’ rights advocates in Kentucky were fiercely attacking federal power. Although Trimble continued to defend federal power as a justice, his impact was slight because he died after only two years. Adams nominated John Crittenden of Kentucky to replace Trimble in December, 1828, but the Senate refused to act on the nomination, which was made after Adams had been defeated for reelection. Adams later served in the House of Representatives, where he championed the cause of the abolition of slavery. In 1841 he appeared once more before the Court to successfully argue the case of Africans who sought freedom from Spanish slave traders in United States v. The Amistad (1841).



Further Reading

  • Ross, William G. “The Legal Career of John Quincy Adams.” Akron Law Review 23 (Spring, 1990): 415-453.