The Colossus of Independence: John Adams

An image of John Adams from the collection of the New York Public Library.

John Adams, from the collection of the New York Public Library

If you haven’t heard from me on this site in a while, it is not because I haven’t been reading about the Presidents!  I started writing this post after reading McCullough’s “John Adams” in January.  Alas, many, many things prevented me from completing this post until now.  Enjoy!

Poor John Adams! Reading David McCullough‘s remarkable John Adams, you feel a little sorry for the guy. He was a hard-working, diligent public servant, a man of humble beginnings and humble means. Frugal, industrious, and dutifully loving towards his soul-mate Abigail, he really had few faults as a man. Yet, he never seemed to  measure up in the eyes of the public.

He served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, esteemed by his peers for his eloquence in the cause of liberty.  He risked his life crossing the Atlantic to serve as an ambassador in France. On his second trip to France aboard the Sensible, the ship sprung a leak.  Passengers and crew worked hand pumps night and day to keep the ill-fated vessel afloat as it limped to port in Spain. Undaunted by this detour, Adams and his entourage scaled the Pyrenees in winter by mule train.  After a thousand mile journey, they arrived in Paris late, but unharmed. To say that this goes above and beyond the normal call of duty seriously understates his commitment to service.

In Paris, Benjamin Franklin, the famous and flamboyant American diplomat, ostracized Adams.  At that time, Franklin was a somewhat doddering old man well past his prime. If his fractious relationship with Franklin hurt him, his pain was soothed by his growing friendship and affection for Thomas Jefferson.  The two forged a life-long bond that would eventually be torn asunder over politics, but in their older years rekindled via a series of remarkable letters between the two founders.  Adams went on to secure financial backing for the American cause from the Dutch government and financiers in Holland, bolstering the war effort financially.

His trek across the Pyrenees notwithstanding, the greatest hardship Adams faced in Europe was the absence of his beloved wife Abigail. Their affectionate letters to each other,  cast across the seas on trans-Atlantic merchant vessels, speak volumes about the great love they had for each other.   Filled with longing, he wrote to her

“If I were to tell you all the tenderness of my heart I should do nothing but write to you.”

For her part, Abigail was left without a husband for many years, separated as they were by distance and the difficulty of travel.  Yet through it all, their relationship survived with undiminished affection.

Abigail was no shrinking violet.  Eventually, she crossed the ocean to be with her beloved John. Both of the Adams’ came to admire and thoroughly enjoy the company of their compatriot Jefferson, dining with him regularly as they both toiled in Franklin’s shadow and negotiated their way through the court of the French monarchy.

Adams went on to serve as Washington’s Vice-President. He was the first Vice-President, an undefined role of which he famously said

“My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”

Adams took the limited duties defined for him in the Constitution seriously. He spent his waking moments gavel in hand, presiding over the work of the Senate, occasionally settling controversial issues by casting the deciding vote. If Washington left him out of many cabinet meetings, as he often did, he was more than happy to serve his able President in other ways.

Washington stepped down after two terms, returning to his beloved Mount Vernon farm and away from the hurly-burly of politics.  Adams won office in 1797, the first man elected in a contested election.   As the second president, Adams served his country in the shadow of George Washington, but adopted policies nearly indistinguishable from him.  Like Washington, Adams believed a strong national government was necessary to protect and bind together the young United States.  In fact, he chose to keep much of Washington’s cabinet in place, but this was an error he came to regret as the interpersonal feuds between ambitious cabinet members eyeing the president’s office with envy.

On top of the feuding holdovers from Washington’s cabinet, Adams was paired with Thomas Jefferson as his Vice-President.  In those days, the runner-up in the Presidential contest served as Vice-President.  Adams had won the Presidential contest, barely defeating his old friend Thomas Jefferson.  In the years since their friendship in Paris, Jefferson and Adams had drifted apart personally and politically.  Adams identified himself as a Federalist, a supporter of robust federal authority over the individual states.  Jefferson was an arch-Republican, an ardent proponent of state sovereignty, and an anti-Federalist.  Assuming the Vice-Presidency, Jefferson saw his job for what it was, a title of little value in support of a President with whom he held principled disagreements.  The Republican strain in American political life at the time was driven by a fierce opposition and justifiable fear of monarchy.  Jefferson spent much of his time in office at hillside retreat in Virginian, and through a handful of surrogates directed opposition against the President.

Adams’ critics were legion in his time, and many people still regard his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts as the earliest example of Presidential overreach.  But even that act has to be regarded in the spirit of the times.  The Founding Fathers built our country on the idea of a free and active press.  But during Adam’s presidency the opposition press stridently attacked the sitting president.  The Federalists, the political party that Alexander Hamilton rallied in support of strong banking policies, found a reluctant champion in John Adams.  While he disdained the idea of political parties, his political sensibilities told him the Federalist principle of a strong federal government would bind the various states together like no other force.  Adams’ foes, including his vice-president Thomas Jefferson, took inspiration from the French Revolution.  They saw armed revolution as a reasonable answer to perceived executive excesses.  Adams recognized the French Revolution for what it was: a movement with noble purpose that had descended into chaotic bloodshed.  He saw the Alien and Sedition act as sensible tools to prevent the outrages of Francophile revolutionaries from coming to American shores.   Furthermore, it should be noted that these acts were authored by Congress, not Adams.  Adams’ signature made them law, but the Acts had sufficient legislative support in Washington to carry these acts to the Presidents desk.

McCullough’s book, the inspiration for the 2008 HBO series “John Adams”, is a portrait of a hard-working man who never seemed to get a break.  He was a scholar and a statesman, a man of simple means who rose to the greatness of his times, only to be sandwiched between two of the leading lights of the American revolution.  There is no monument or memorial for Adams in Washington. If his life and achievements are overlooked, it is only because we have chosen to look elsewhere, and we are the worse for it.


About Chris van Hasselt

I eat, sleep, play guitar...but wait, there's more!
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