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John Adams, on his birthday

October 30 is the birthday of John Adams, our second president.

John Adams was one of America’s greatest statesmen--and one of its worst politicians. Adams was many things—bold, stubborn, fearless, vain, a deeply profound thinker, honest to a fault, indiscreet, and naive. It was his naivety that caused him tremendous heartache and ultimately his reelection as president. JOHN ADAMS, a book by John Patrick Diggins, is number two in The American Presidents series. Though relatively short (176 pages), it’s an insightful character study, first-rate history, and a think-piece. Mr. Diggins may be a liberal, but I place him beside conservatives Garry Wills and Forrest McDonald as among our most penetrating writers of Early American history.

It’s debatable whether or not there would have been an American Revolution without John Adams. At the Second Continental Congress, he berated fellow delegates day and night until they stepped up and declared what they believed in their hearts. It was Adams who chose Thomas Jefferson to write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence because, he said, the Virginian was a better writer. It was Adams, too, in Paris with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, who negotiated peace with England thereby assuring American independence. And it was Adams—now in Amsterdam—who negotiated three crucial loans with a consortium of Dutch financiers that kept the young republic financially afloat until the new federal government took effect and made provision for the skyrocketing public debt. Among the glittering array of Founding Fathers, we sometimes forget just how popular and well-respected Adams was among the citizenry. In the 1789 election for president, Adams was second in the balloting, behind the already legendary George Washington. Eight years later, in 1796, when Washington stepped down, Adams was elected over Jefferson to the highest office in the land. Ironically, it was as president that Adams’ considerable reputation took a beating.

Why Adams’ reputation suffered as president consumes much of Diggins’ book. The author places a fair amount of the blame on the shoulders of Thomas Jefferson, who secretly orchestrated a savage newspaper campaign against Adams. Incredibly, Jefferson labeled Adams a monarchist, a charge tantamount to being labeled a communist in the McCarthy era. Jefferson leveled much the same charges against Alexander Hamilton, but the New Yorker orchestrated an equally savage newspaper campaign in retaliation. Adams had no stomach for such a fight, and naively believed that the facts would prevail over an obvious smear campaign. How wrong he was. The author makes the point that politics has no time for facts. “Many of those who voted against him accepted ‘word against evidence’ and thought they were ridding America of a monarchist, when they were actually deposing both a moralist and a modernist.”

The author also blames Adams himself. Unlike Washington, as president Adams was not a consensus builder. He preferred working in isolation and rarely asked his cabinet for advice. On occasion he would take off for his home in Braintree, Massachusetts and be gone weeks and months at a time, leaving his cabinet in charge of the government. Adams also bore grudges instead of trying to shed them. He held one of his biggest grudges against Hamilton who, the author points out, had a great deal in common with Adams both politically and philosophically (both were advocates of a strong federal government, both opposed slavery, and both greatly admired the writings of Scottish philosopher David Hume). One can’t help but think that had Adams buried his pride and made Hamilton a confidant—as Washington had done before him— his presidency would have gone more smoothly and he would have been reelected. As it was, nothing seemed to go right: the XYZ Affair, the “Quasi War” with France, the Alien and Sedition Acts—all hurt Adams politically. Even so, in the 1800 election, Jefferson barely squeaked out a victory—over his running mate Aaron Burr. Adams placed a distant third. It was after the election and right before leaving office that Adams performed his last great political act—appointing John Marshal chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Years later, long after Jefferson had completed his second term and returned to Monticello, the two buried the hatchet and began exchanging letters. Adams, not Jefferson, initiated the exchange. Jefferson never could explain why he had labeled Adams a monarchist. In the turbulent 1790s, the Virginian cited Adams’ writings as the source, particularly his “Discourse on Davila.” John’s wife, Abigail, defied Jefferson to provide evidence, yes, to cite exactly where it was Adams had written such nonsense. The Virginian did not have an answer. Had he been candid, he would have told Adams the election had not been about whether or not he was a monarchist; it had been about power. Adams had the power, and Jefferson wanted it.

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