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John Quincy Adams: Christian Nationalist?

October 26th, 2022 | 4 min read

By Miles Smith

In the February of 1824, politically active Calvinists across the northern United States finally got their wish for a godly devout president who made the American republic a more explicitly Christian and righteous nation. The House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams over three other men to be the sixth president of the United States. Adams became the first president not to win a majority of the popular vote, and the first president to lose the popular vote to an opponent. He took office with less relative popularity than his predecessors, but Adams’ Puritan forebears taught him that right and righteousness were far more important than electoral popularity. Adams’ mandate came from the God of the Puritans, and he set out to remake the United States into a more Christian nation.

Since Donald Trump substantively entered American electoral politics in 2015, it’s been in scholarly and journalistic vogue to compare him, and his devotees, to Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonians. After all, we’re told Jackson was a populist—a point that I’d argue is considerably overstated—and his southern Protestant roots fit the bill of what academics the telemedia class think of as white southern evangelicals who comprise a sizable portion of the modern Republican electoral coalition. What is interesting however is how fundamentally different Jackson and Trump are. Jackson was largely a free trade supporter; Trump ran on protectionism. Jackson made himself a champion of immigrants, particularly German Lutherans, Dutch immigrants and the small but growing numbers of urban workers from Great Britain and Ireland.

Most importantly, Jackson refused to use religion as a vehicle for electoral success. John Quincy Adams made state-sponsored Christianization a hallmark of his presidency. Jackson refused to join a church for fear of being seen as sponsoring a specific religion in office. Adams’ presidency represented the first attempt at political Christianization in the United States’ history, and it failed miserably. Puritan Calvinism, particularly in its political form, seemed moralistic and pedantic to a majority of Americans. The godly Commonwealth might have been popular among Yankee Evangelicals, but southerners and westerners rejected the Puritan nation in favor of the burgeoning liberal democracy offered by the Jacksonians.

The Puritan nation informed John Quincy Adams’ conceptions of statesmanship and nationhood throughout his political life. Steven K. Green rightly noted that Adams contributed—along with contemporary hagiographers—to the creation of a Puritan founding myth for the nation at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. The Second Great Awakening’s theological innovation and exciting heterodoxies fire the imaginations of Evangelicals who saw their chance to begin the world anew and cleanse society of impurities. With the right politics, the right religion, and the right people, American Evangelicals could bring about the millennium. Religious dynamics in the Early Republic fueled this new type of Postmillenialism. So too did academic life amongst New England elites.

The publication of prominent Unitarian and Puritan devotee George Bancroft’s History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent represented a form of Puritan cultural imperialism whereby the narrative of the United States’ various state histories were subsumed in to a unitary narrative of Puritan creation. Divergent political and social traditions disappeared to the glee of Yankee Reformers who saw sociological homogenization as a necessity to cure the American republic of its various moral and social ills: slavery, intemperance, poverty, gambling, etc. The first attempt at Christian nationalism in the United States was, interestingly enough, largely a product of progressive heterodox New Englanders.

John Quincy Adams served as a sort of tribune for politically active northern Evangelicals. They worried less about trinitarian orthodoxy and more about remaking society. Adams—no stickler about the Trinity himself—carried their standard throughout his term, and resented political opposition to his program of nationalization. Adams’ tendency to rely on his very real moral rectitude for political capital became a political liability. Accusations of hypocrisy stuck, largely because his public religiosity and moral speechifying could easily be contrasted with the profligacy of his ally Henry Clay, who had a reputation as a womanizer. Adams’ enemies were able—successfully—to paint he and Clay as “the combination, unheard of till then, of the puritan with the blackleg” that should be thrown out of office for their hypocrisy and moralism. Adams lost the election of 1828. His nationalism might have paved the way for the nationalism of the later Republican Party, but the Christian aspect of it was uneven, unpopular, and it ultimately became unchristian.

Certainly Protestantism informed the development of North American political life, but that did not create a unitary Puritan nation any more than Protestantism might have created a unitary political nation in Early Modern Northern Europe. David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed noted that varying different folkways in British North America developed different social and political approaches even as they shared Anglophone Protestantism. There was, and has never been, a unitary Christian nation in North America. What approximated it was instead the so-called Benevolent Empire of generally Northern Protestants who used moral and social energy to build a Christian nation in the Nineteenth Century. Their successes—the end of slavery, and prohibition in the Twentieth Century—were mixed. They also bred the worst excesses of American imperialism, eugenics, and the social progressivism that eventually destroyed the mainline.

Latter-day Christian nationalists, particularly converts from Baptistic Evangelicalism to higher church forms of Calvinism, might see in Adams a forerunner, but there is no reason to believe that this succeeding generation of Puritans aspiring to a politically Christianized nation has transcended human depravity to gain special knowledge to finally get it right. Right wing excesses—racialized politics, and white identity politics, are just as problematic as the Benevolent Empire’s progressivism. The search for a Christian politics remains a worthy goal, Christian nationalism ala its folk Calvinist permutation remains won’t help reach it.

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Miles Smith

Dr. Miles Smith IV is a historian of the American South and native Carolinian. Follow him on Twitter @ivmiles.