Passionate Sage

Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John AdamsBy Joseph J. Ellis.W.W. Norton.After losing the bid for a second term as president of the United States, John Adams confided in a letter to Benjamin Rush his fear that future generations would not appreciate his contributions to America's political foundations."How is it that I, poor, ignorant I, must stand before Posterity as differing from all the other great Men of the Age?" he wrote. He then went on to list his gallery of "greats" -- Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Franklin, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison -- and concluded that even when his own name was added to the list, it was often accompanied by the judgment that Adams was "the most vain, conceited, impudent, arrogant Creature in the World."And he was right, according to Joseph Ellis, the author of Passionate Sage.The Ford Foundation professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, Ellis says events conspired to place Adams in a historical situation that virtually assured personal and political failure.First and foremost, he had the misfortune of following George Washington, whose impeccable credentials and bottomless reputation assured a national consensus that any successor would be hard-pressed to sustain.Jefferson, who was defeated by Adams in the election of 1796, had an uncanny appreciation for his own good fortune in losing. As he explained to James Madison, Washington was "fortunate to get off just as the bubble is bursting, leaving others (the next administration) to hold the bag."While Adams recognized the danger of Washington's shadow, he regarded all thoughts of political self-interest as violations of virtue. He was, writes Ellis, one of the most astute political analysts of the era, whose understanding of the shifting configurations of power that shaped the national interest had few equals.Slavery is just one example of Adams's foresight.In 1820 he alerted several of his correspondents that "we must settle the question of slavery's extension now, otherwise it will stamp our National Character and lay a Foundation for Calamities, if not disunion."Negro slavery is an evil of colossal magnitude," he wrote to William Tudor, "and I am therefore utterly adverse to the admission of slavery into the Missouri territory."According to Ellis, Adams was the leading advocate of independence and the premier political thinker in the First Continental Congress. It was natural that he was chosen to chair the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence and that he delivered the major speech for its passage.However, Adams also showed himself in Congress to be an intensely sensitive and thin-skinned public figure. Often he took criticism as a personal affront and frequently accused those who disagreed with him of being motivated by selfish personal prejudice.Lest we judge our nation's second president too harshly, the author reminds us that to understand Adams we must understand his background.As a lawyer and later a public official, Adams carried with him the moral obligations and self-imposed expectations of the New England ministry. He was obsessed with interior integrity. Humility, piety, self-denial and other habits were not just means to an end for him but the ends themselves.Ellis says next to Abigail and their grandchildren, books were Adams most valued companions throughout his retirement. He talked back to them in marginal notes as if their authors were sitting around the fireside in the library. He was, by the common consensus of his contemporaries, the best-read member of his remarkably literate generation.Much of Ellis's biography, drawn from "The Adams Papers" contained on 608 reels of microfilm, focuses on Adams's correspondence with Jefferson that began in 1812 and lasted until their deaths 14 years later. Both died on the same day, which also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.Of the 158 letters exchanged, Adams wrote 109, more than doubling the pace of the correspondence from Monticello and usually setting the agenda for the subjects discussed. Once completed, the author says, the letters quickly became a landmark in American letters and eventually a classic -- some would say the classic statement of the founding generation.To Ellis's credit, he allows these legendary figures to speak for themselves in what turns out to be lessons in early American political thinking.Slavery is just one example of Adams's foresight. "Negro slavery is an evil of colossal magnitude," he wrote to William Tudor, "and I am therefore utterly adverse to the admission of slavery into the Missouri territory."Barry O. Johnson is assistant vice president for communication and marketing at Wright State University and a reviewer for The Dayton Voice.


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