John Adams - Second President of the United States of America
Created | Updated Jul 23, 2013
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'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 by which the glory days of both men were long past. It was also a year in which the sometimes-rocky friendship of the men initiated again after an icy pause, with the beginning of a 14-year correspondence. During those years they had plenty of time to explain themselves to one another and here we discuss this as well as taking a look at the life of 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 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 are able to 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: '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 frequently to manifest themselves in terrible headaches, insomnia, nervous tics on his face and the eventual erosion of his eyesight. The cold air of Massachusetts forced colds upon him easily and gave him chest pains. As president, he 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; yet one of his most pronounced and noticeable qualities was his vanity. He did have much to be proud of, not least that he outlasted most of the Revolutionary generation by living to the age of 90.
Perhaps the single most essential component of Adams's character was his independent streak. He did not like to be subject to another man, and along with his cousin Samuel Adams,1 helped move his colleagues in the Continental Congress towards American independence with fiery rhetoric. He did not, however, like being typecast. He did not let his prominent role as an American patriot detract from his belief in justice under law; consequently, he defended the British soldiers who took part in the infamous Boston Massacre. As president, he exhibited the same 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 integral part of his character, his nervous temperament, had its 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 was scared of what might happen if the people were left to govern themselves. He believed in republicanism, but he recognised that the masses could be as tyrannical as a despot if left to their own devices. To help ensure the success of his project, he thrust himself into his life's effort - that of achieving American independence and creating 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 serving as the de facto secretary of war during many crucial moments during the Revolution.
He also made some important recommendations. He was one of the first to recognise George Washington as the best choice for commander-in-chief of the army, and he recommended that Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence. It may be a testament to his contrarian nature, though, that he did not consider the passage of the Declaration of Independence to be the most momentous act of Congress. He believed that Congress's directive to the states to draft individual state constitutions was the most important. In some ways, he had a point. The move was a bold statement of separation from Britain, and it embodies the ideas of federalism, republicanism and self-government in ways that the Declaration of Independence did 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.' Franklin also noticed some oddness beneath the surface of Adams, 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 seemed to keep a mental catalogue of perceived wrongs done to him. Many of these wrongs were just that - perceived. He often let his imagination run away without his better sense, and by the end of his life had alienated many of the powerful figures in early American history. His relationships with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton stand out in particular.
Adams catalogued plenty of insults and slights from Hamilton and Jefferson over the years. Hamilton, though, he hated in particular. Not only were there plenty of insults for Adams to brood over, but he believed that Hamilton was a malintentioned, power-hungry young man who would run the country into the ground. When Adams was elected vice president in the George Washington administration, the vice president was barred from speaking in the Senate, as he was seen to be part of the executive branch. Neither did President Washington consult Adams much; he saw his role as that of President of the Senate. However, Adams saw this slight as the work of Hamilton, who had much influence with Washington. The ire of Adams for Hamilton was boundless - and nearly justified. Hamilton published a pamphlet denouncing Adams shortly before his election as president in 1796.
Jefferson was a friend of Adams for most of his life and took care never to directly insult him, but Adams got wind of a few bad comments through third parties. During his presidency, Federalists were divided between Adams and Hamilton. Noted Republican James Madison and Thomas Jefferson orchestrated a strong opposition to Adams. This was, by the way, while Thomas Jefferson was serving as Adams's 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's upbringing. Born in 1735, Adams was the son of a poor but respectable shoemaker in Braintree, Massachusetts, and did not have the patrician upbringing of Madison or Jefferson. These words, however, are not altogether inaccurate representations of Adams's views. He did believe that the US 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'.
Supposed monarchical 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, 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 monarchical 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 the elite and aristocratic 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 had beaten Jefferson for the presidency in 1796 and Jefferson had beaten 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, 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 celebrate the occasion properly. 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 for which they had both done so much. Of course, Adams's last words are not 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 as greatness overlooked, and didn’t even acknowledge George Washington’s primacy among the founding fathers.
Adams, however, should not be forgotten. Though a cranky old coot at times, 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.