'You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other' wrote John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in 1813, a year when the glory days of each man was well behind him. It was also a year when the sometimes-rocky friendship of the two men was initiated again after an icy pause, and a fourteen-year correspondence was begun. In fourteen years, they had plenty of time to explain themselves to one another. It is for us today, rather, to take an opportunity to explain a remarkable man named John Adams, the second President of the United States of America.
With Abigail Adams, his beloved, intelligent wife, at his side, he governed the country from 1797 to 1801 and served it for much of his life – remaining dedicated to it from the first moments of its inception which he roused to his dramatic death in 1826.
I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy... in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry and music.
Of all of America’s founding fathers, and possibly of all American Presidents, history knows John Adams most personally. Through an extensive correspondence and his habit of writing everything down in a diary, historians pick up the full character of America’s second President. In his book 'Alexander Hamilton', Ron Chernow lists a few of the adjectives that could be used to describe Adams as 'crotchety, opinionated, endearing, temperamental, frank, erudite, outspoken, generous, eccentric, restless, petty, choleric, philosophical, plucky, quirky, pugnacious, fanciful, stubborn, and whimsical'.
He was constantly nervous and his mind’s ailments seemed to manifest themselves in him often – through terrible headaches, insomnia, nervous tics on his face and eventually the erosion of his eyesight. The cold air of Massachusetts forced colds upon him easily and gave him chest pains. As President, he had lost all his teeth (and unlike Washington, he refused to wear dentures, so he spoke with a pronounced lisp) and his hands shook involuntarily. He must have seemed like a very pathetic old man nearing the end of his time… and yet, one of his most pronounced qualities that was noticed by all was his vanity. He did have much to be proud of, not least that he somehow outlived most of the revolutionary generation – lasting until age 90.
Perhaps the one essential component of his character, however was his independent streak. He did not like to be subject to another man, and along with his cousin Samuel Adams1 helped move his colleagues in the Continental Congress towards American independence with firey rhetoric. He did not, however, like being 'typecast' into a role. He did not let his prominent role as an American patriot detract from his belief in justice under law when he defended the British soldiers who took part in the infamous Boston Massacre. As President, he exhibited the sort of Independence that his predecessor George Washington called for in his famed Farewell Address, by refusing to serve as leader of a political party and refusing to align the nation with any European power.
Another essential part of his character, his nervous temperament, had some upsides and downsides. He was a nervous wreck during the formative moments of the American Republic. Not only was there the ever present fear of the British army ending the great experiment, but Adams also was scared of what might happen if the people were left to govern themselves. He was a believer in Republicanism, no doubt, but he recognized that the masses could be tyrannical just as well as a despot if left to their own devices. To help assure the success of his project, he thrust himself into his life's effort – that of American independence and a viable government. In the Continental Congress, he sat on 90 committees and chaired 25 of them, including an all important war committee. He found himself as the de facto Secretary of War during many crucial moments in the revolution.
He also made some important recommendations. He was one of the first to recognize George Washington as the best choice for Commander-in-Chief of the army and recommended Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence when the time came for that. It may be a testament to his contrarian nature, though, that he did not consider the most momentous act of Congress to be the passage of the Declaration of Independence. He believed that the directive from the Congress to the states to draft individual state constitutions was the most important. In some ways, he had a point. While a bold statement of separation from Britain, it also embodies the ideas of Federalism, Republicanism and self-government in ways that the Declaration of Independence does not. In any case, he dutifully composed the Massachusetts state constitution almost single-handedly.
His contrarian nature caught the eye of Thomas Jefferson when they were both serving as American representatives in Europe. In Europe, Adams helped secure Dutch recognition of US independence and a loan from Amsterdam. But Thomas Jefferson saw the curmudgeon in him, 'He hates Franklin, he hates Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English. To whom will he adhere? His vanity is a lineament in his character which had entirely escaped me.' Jefferson saw an advantage to this, though 'His dislike of all parties, and all men, by balancing his prejudices, may give the same fair play to his reason as would a general benevolence of temper.' Jefferson was right that Adams didn’t like Benjamin Franklin – another major representative of the new Republic in Europe. Franklin noticed some oddness beneath the surface of Adams as well, once writing, 'He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.' Adams was a bit crazy at times. He never forgave a slight, and seemingly kept a catalogue in his head of perceived wrongs done to him. Many of these wrongs were just that – perceived. He often let his imagination run away, leaving behind his better sense, and by the end of his life had alienated many of the powerful figures in American history. His relationships with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in particular stand out.
Adams catalogued plenty of insults and slights from Hamilton and Jefferson over the years. Hamilton, though was especially hated by Adams. Not only were there plenty of insults for Adams to brood over, he believed that Hamilton was a mal-intentioned power hungry young man who would run the country into the ground. When Adams was elected as Vice President in the George Washington administration, the VP was disallowed from speaking in the Senate as he was seen as a part of the executive branch. Washington didn’t consult Adams much because he saw his role as President of the Senate. However, Adams saw the work of Hamilton, who had much influence with Washington, in hurting his influence in the government.
The ire of Adams for Hamilton knew no bounds. Hamilton published a pamphlet denouncing Adams shortly before his election as President in 1796. Jefferson, a warm friend of Adams for most of his life, took care never to directly insult Adams, but he got wind of a few bad comments through third parties. During his Presidency, as Federalists were divided between Adams and Hamilton, noted Republican James Madison and Thomas Jefferson orchestrated a strong opposition to him. This was, by the way, while Thomas Jefferson was serving as Adams' Vice President. Two of the epithets Jefferson and Madison cast upon Adams were 'monarchist' and 'aristocrat'.
These are interesting choices of words to describe a man of Adams' upbringing. Born in 1735, he did not have a patrician upbringing like Madison or Jefferson, but rather was the son of a poor but respectable shoemaker in Braintree, Massachusetts. They are not, however, altogether inaccurate representations of Adams' views. He did believe that America came into formation precisely because of a sort of Republican aristocracy. The greatest minds of the nation came together to fight the British and set up a government. Adams firmly believed that those who had been present throughout the American revolution – who had 'revolutionary credentials' were the natural ruling class of that generation2. They were, in a sense, a Republican elite, or aristocracy – but the very word aristocracy would get Adams into as much trouble as the word 'monarchy'.
Incidentally, supposed monarchial sympathies did get Adams in trouble. He was a proponent of a strong executive branch, and was ridiculed over a minor matter – the proper way to address the chief executive of the nation. Adams put forth the title of 'His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties', which struck some as being a bit too close to kingship. In fact, though, Adams was one of the first supporters of having three branches of government and had nothing but sympathy for the cause of democratic government. His political enemies found fodder for their monarchial attacks in the fact that Adams was the first President to have a male heir – and the last one for a long time. They supposed that if he assumed the Presidency, he would pass it on to his son, John Quincy Adams. This obviously never happened, but John Quincy did get elected President in his father's lifetime.
The topic of the role of elites and aristocracy in government came up frequently in the correspondence between Jefferson and Adams in the later years of their lives. They were great rivals and friends – Adams having beaten Jefferson for the Presidency in 1796 and Jefferson beating Adams in 1800. During this time, when they had both awkwardly outlived their usefulness and political relevancy, the torch of government passed from the revolutionary generation to their sons and they found themselves simply waiting and debating the past.
As the 50 year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence approached on 4 July, 1826, Jefferson and Adams formed two thirds of the surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence3. However, they were both very old and ill and were unable to properly celebrate the occasion. The day before the anniversary, Jefferson slipped into a coma and expired about noon on 4 July. Just as Jefferson died, Adams collapsed in his reading chair and fell into unconsciousness. After a few hours, he uttered his famous last words – 'Thomas Jefferson still lives', or depending on your source, 'Thomas Jefferson survives' and died within hours of his colleague on the 50th birthday of the nation they had both done so much for. Of course Adams' last words aren’t technically accurate - Jefferson had been dead for about five hours. Nevertheless, as historian Joseph Ellis notes, 'he was wrong for the moment but right for the ages.'
Adams had felt he was living in Jefferson's shadow for some time. Jefferson had a largely successful Presidency, and was beloved by the public by the time of his death. Adams was all but forgotten and his problematic Presidency relegated to the memories of historians. Adams had worried that Jefferson's star would outshine his because Jefferson had such an enigmatic, interesting personality and a fortunate career. Adams probably pitied himself, and didn’t even acknowledge George Washington’s primacy among the Founding Fathers.
Adams, however, should not be forgotten. A cranky old coot at times though he was, Adams helped bring about American independence, win the war, secure the peace and steer the fledgling Republic away from hazardous areas – like a war with a European power. His impressive role in guiding America from conception through infancy should not be overlooked.