“You and I have passed our lives in serious times,” wrote John Adams to his old friend and political rival, Thomas Jefferson. And no one responded to the times with more conviction and courage than Adams. Yet of all the great founders of the American Republic, he remains the least revered. Compared to the noble Washington, the crafty Franklin and the brilliant Jefferson, Adams has always seemed a rather dull fellow, the butt of jokes and the long-winded object of ridicule as in the musical 1776, where everyone keeps repeating, “Shut up, John.”
But if Jefferson was the pen of the American Revolution, Adams was its voice. More than any other delegate to the Continental Congress, he forced the issue of American independence and remained a passionate advocate for American freedom throughout his long and eventful life. No one served the fledgling United States in a greater variety of important roles and no one served her more honorably or with greater dedication.
David McCullough’s biography of Adams has the power, sweep and spectacle of a superb novel. Unlike the other “Founding Fathers,” Adams is remarkably accessible. An inveterate letter-writer, more than 1000 passed between him and his thoroughly admirable wife, Abigail, of which perhaps 400 have never been published. Adams wrote like he spoke, bluntly and with vivid imagery. Hardly the cranky curmudgeon of modern myth, he was a likable, often charming man, with great humor and good cheer. Irascible at times, he was nonetheless his own harshest critic. It might be said that almost everybody admired John Adams except perhaps John Adams.
Even before he became Washington’s vice president, he had provided great service to his country by negotiating Dutch loans at a critical time in the Revolution and played the central role in negotiating the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution.
As vice president, Adams stayed aloof from party considerations. He was then elected the second president of the United States by three electoral votes over Jefferson. But his old friend (and Abigail’s as well) was a schemer. Jefferson subsidized the loathsome James Callendar who scurrilously attacked Adams as a “repulsive pedant” and a “gross hypocrite.”
As planned by Jefferson and Madison, Callendar was duly arrested, tried and convicted under the Sedition Act, a piece of legislation that will forever tarnish Adams’ memory. But when Callendar turned on Jefferson, who he felt had not paid him enough for his dirty work, the whole, sordid story of Jefferson’s involvement came out. Abigail never forgave him, though Adams did.
If the Sedition Act was the greatest blot on Adams’ presidency, his effort to avoid war with France was his greatest achievement. Among other things, a war with France would have rendered impossible the Louisiana Purchase, that huge expanse of American territory that laid the foundation for America’s eventual emergence as a great power.
Defeated by Jefferson in the 1800 election, Adams retired to his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, not to brood but to return to the joys of ordinary family life. In 1812, he initiated a correspondence with Jefferson that, as McCullough observes, is one of the finest in the English language. Adams lived to see his eldest son, John Quincy, elected the sixth president of the United States in 1824.
In failing health, both Adams and Jefferson, two of the last three surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence, strove to stay alive until July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of that great document which Adams and Jefferson had drafted. Both men died that day. Adams’ last words were the hopeful “Jefferson lives.” But, alas, he did not.