John Adams, Mensch of New England
David McCullough begins his biography of John Adams with the future President riding on horseback on a cold, snowy winter night in 1776 ("the ground ... frozen solid to a depth of two feet"). Adams is en route from his farm in Braintree, Massachusetts to consult with George Washington, the commander of American forces resisting the British in Boston. From there he will ride to Philadelphia to take a seat as a representative from Massachusetts to the Second Continental Congress.
As a student of American history I never thought much of Adams, but McCullough grabbed my interest immediately. Any rural New Englander who has driven a wooded back road in the heart of a real New England winter knows the physical feeling of chill and isolation that John Adams was experiencing. But what we cannot experience is the heat of excitement that Adams was feeling. We, in our cars with the heaters going, have a country with a national identity and a political history of more than 200 years. Adams was off to Philadelphia to help create that country and invent its political system.
In the pantheon of founding fathers, John Adams is the least appreciated. Even his second cousin, Sam Adams, gets better press. Not only for the beer that celebrates his name but because he was an activist (the Abbie Hoffman of the American Revolution), a political organizer who rallied the people of Boston on behalf of American independence.
John Adams, by contrast, was a stolid small-town farmer and lawyer; bookish, talkative, opinionated, definitely uncool (i.e., rude in manner) and with no dash of political charisma. He's the forgotten President between Washington and Jefferson but, as McCullough shows, his accomplishments were extraordinary.
It was Adams who conceptualized the revolutionary idea of "no taxation without representation." His patriotism was steeped in justice, even when justice went against narrow jingoism and political passion. After the Boston Massacre, in which British troops fired upon a patriotic gathering, Adams rose to defend the British soldiers in a Boston court because he believed that even they deserved the due process of a fair trial.
Within the Continental Congress, Adams was the most effective advocate of American independence. In 1777 he began the first of his European diplomatic missions, securing recognition and financial aid from Holland that was decisive to the success of American independence. Back home, he drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, which became a model for the federal constitution and the constitution of other states. As President, he defied popular passions and kept the country out of a war with France, thus making it possible, McCullough argues, for his successor, President Jefferson, to make the Louisiana Purchase.
Proof of Adams' eminence was his marriage to Abigail Adams. Theirs is a great love story, passionate and egalitarian. "I must go to you or you must come to me. I cannot live without you," he wrote her during one of their long separations when he was representing revolutionary America in France.
Separated for years because of his political duties, she ran their farm, and through their extensive correspondence, was his political confidante and chief advisor. "Remember the ladies," she counseled, "....If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." Abigail was a little premature in her prediction, but the feminist revolution ultimately happened.
Together and separately, John and Abigail maintained a stormy relationship with Thomas Jefferson. The contrast between them is telling. Jefferson's brilliance is acknowledged. But he was also somewhat of a fop, a compulsive shopper and spender, a conniver, a man who hated personal conflict and so secretly encouraged others to make partisan attacks on his political opponents. Under Jefferson's prodding, Adams was viciously slandered as mentally unstable, a madman, a monarchist and worse.
A man of intellectual abstractions, Jefferson described the bloodshed in revolution as "natural manure" that refreshed "the tree of liberty." He, however, stayed away from the barricades, preferring his estate in Monticello where, surrounded by slaves, he celebrated the rights of man and proclaimed all men as equals. What a contrast to Adams who, nurtured by the actual experience of small-town New England, distrusted mob rule and insisted, in life as in rhetoric, in the dignity and equality of all men and women.
The issue of slavery and what it does to human character is a subtext of McCullough's book. Adams' hands, McCullough says, were those of a farmer who cut his own wood and pitched his own hay. Abigail and John paid their help and enjoyed working with them. They lived simply, within their means. They abhorred slavery, believing it demeaning to both slave and master. When Abigail left to join John in Europe, she placed their property in the care of a free black couple who lived in their house and kept the farm going. When the Braintree public school refused to admit a black child whom Abigail had taught to read and write, she, with John's support, made a stink and the school was integrated.
John and Abigail were keen observers of human nature. What most counted most for them was "character" -- what people did with their lives, the ethics and morality of their actions. There's no quarreling with the idea of Jefferson's genius; but it's Adams' life, the personal and political, that comes off as luminous. John Adams emerges resurrected as one our country's great visionaries, a brave and incorruptible public servant, as well as a mensch -- which, in our melting-pot cross-cultural world, I use to describe a quintessential New Englander.
The world needs leaders of character like John and Abigail Adams. The world needs incorruptible men and women, learned and experienced, who think for themselves and say what they think, whose ambition for public service is not motivated by greed and power.
Marty Jezer's books include Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel and The Dark Ages, Life in the U.S. 1945-1960. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.