Quincy Adams’ Economic Agenda

John Quincy Adams Shakes Hands with Admiral of the Fleet James Gambier. By: Amedee Forestier.

President John Quincy Adams, in his First Annual Message to Congress delivered on December 6, 1825, set forth his agenda for developing the American economy. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 251.

President Adams advocated for the development of infrastructure and education, realizing these were important underpinnings for further economic development. See id. at 252 citing Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, ed. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner (Indianapolis, 1981), II, 723. He also endorsed “negotiating free-trade agreements based on reciprocity and ‘most favored nation’ clauses with as many countries as possible, meanwhile building up the navy to protect American ocean commerce.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 252.

Undoubtedly, President Adams was putting forth an ambitious agenda. Prior to revealing that agenda to the American public, he “laid the draft of this message before his cabinet, [and] all save Richard Rush considered it too ambitious.” Id. at 253. Nonetheless, President Adams insisted on using the White House as a “bully pulpit,” confident that the American people would accept his “compelling vision of national destiny and mission.” Id. citing John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, VII, 58, 63.

Up until President Adams, the status quo had been that federally involved infrastructure improvements would not occur absent constitutional amendment, as explained further in The Transportation Revolution and The Defeat of the Bonus Bill. President Adams was single-handedly changing that unwritten doctrine. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 254 citing John Larson, Internal Improvement (Chapel Hill, 2001), 67-68, 149-50, 165-66; William Appleman Williams, Contours of American History (Cleveland, 1961), 211.

During the Adams administration, Congress approved the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, fulfilling George Washington’s dream. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 254. The construction for the canal was comprised of a public-private enterprise, involving Maryland, Virginia, municipalities, and the federal government all cooperating. Id.

Further, President Adams worked with John McLean, postmaster general, to ensure that the postal network would be completed. Id. at 255. This would have the effect of increasing transportation and communication throughout the country. Id.

President Adams’ lofty agenda, embracing the development of the American economy, not only helped Americans to communicate and navigate, it set a precedent for the government’s role in society. While previously, only states would engage in improvement projects like the Erie Canal, President Adams was showing what was possible with an active government. The federal government could work in tandem with states and municipalities to build projects throughout the country, just as was done with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

Perhaps more consequentially, President Adams was ambitiously setting priorities for the country as a whole. Economic development was now a key objective for America, and it would start with the fundamental step of bringing the country closer together through increasing communication and transportation. These were necessary steps for the country, as widespread development could not occur without a sufficient infrastructure. In this way, President Adams’ ambition, despite its unprecedented scale and despite his own cabinet’s doubts, significantly helped fuel the growth of early America.

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