Friday, June 12, 2009

John Adams

George Washington is most undoubtedly considered the father of our country. Thomas Jefferson is most undoubtedly considered the father of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams should most undoubtedly be considered the father of our government and one of the most brilliant thinkers of all our founding fathers.

For my second book of my goal to read a biography on each of our American presidents, I dug into the hefty 750+ page volume written by David McCullough on John Adams.
When I started the biography on George Washington, I at least knew some of the events of his life before, during and after his presidency but with Adams, I knew nothing except that he had been our first vice president and second president of the United States. Adams isn't on Mt. Rushmore, he doesn't have any memorials in Washington D.C., that I know of, and we don't celebrate his birthday as a national holiday. After reading this book, I wonder why since in my opinion, he did more for our country than Washington ever did.

Where Washington had a minimum of education, Adams was very well educated for his time having gone to Harvard as a student, taught there as a professor, and being a voracious reader. Like many American presidents, he began his career as a lawyer and owned a very successful practice in his hometown of Braintree, Massachusetts and what later became known as Quincy, Massachusetts. He was known far and wide as being a lawyer of uncommon skills and when he argued the defense of some British soldiers accused of murder during the unpopular time during the lead up to the Revolutionary War, he sealed his character as one of uncommon integrity.

During the First Continental Congress, Washington was known for his silence. Adams on the other hand was known for his speeches as both the First and Second Continental Congresses. Adams was "not graceful nor elegant, nor remarkably fluent, "but spoke "with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats," said Thomas Jefferson. In the darkest hours of July 1rst, 1776 when the fate of our country rested squarely on John Adam's shoulders and his ability to refute John Dickinson's appeal against premature separation from Britain, Adam's speech for independence reignited the fires that led to the unanimous vote for independence from Britain. New Jersey delegate Richard Stockton would say Adams was "the Atlas" of the hour, "the man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independency.... He it was who sustained the debate, and by the force of his reasoning demonstrated not only for the justice, but the expediency of the measure."

Perhaps no man sacrificed more to his country than Adams. He spent many years as a member of the continental congress and in various committees that kept him away from home. When that job was almost complete he was elected ambassador to France and sent over seas in the middle of the Revolutionary War. With family and children left behind, he served his country as an ambassador to several countries for the better part of ten years with only the last couple together with wife. A decade later when he came home, it was to a country five years removed from a war for independence and with a fledging government that he was instrumental in designing now preparing for the first elections. Soon, he found himself yet again serving his country this time as the elected Vice President of the United States and later as President. In all, he spent most of his life as a public servant and the greater part away from his family.

Although Adams wasn't in favor of a hereditary monarchy, he was in favor of a strong executive branch and thus was often misunderstood by many of his peers on this subject. His tenure at Vice President started off rocky due to his opinions on several subjects like titles for the President and whether or not a national bank was needed that could be misconstrued as someone in favor of a monarchy and earned him many scathing reviews in newspapers and making him unpopular to many. Combine this with a plot by Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist like Adams, to have certain states not vote for him so as to give Washington the clear majority in the first election meaning Adams came in second and thus elected as a vice president with a slim lead over his competitors, he was not very popular to many during his first term as vice president. Though these reviews, untrue statements and the first election plot which he found out wounded Adams deeply, he never publically showed it and eventually he emerged during the second elections and decidedly came in second and securing a second term.

I have read and posted George's Washington's farewell speech on this blog before where Washington talked about the dangers of a two party system. I had always assumed that perhaps many years or decades went by before his prophecy became true. I was surprised to learn that it only lasted for three elections, the first two happening before the speech was written. John Adams was elected the second president of the United States though by a 3 vote margin and thus kicked off the "either with us or against us" mentality that cropped up again so strongly in our last president. Adams did several brilliant things such as starting up a Navy which was instrumental in him being able to negotiate peace with France when nearly everyone in this country wanted war, one that we would have surely lost and thus ended our country as a brief footnote in the world's history as a republic that failed.

Though classified as a Federalist, he was ostracized by Alexander Hamilton and his own party for not being Federalist enough and by Jefferson, his Vice President and the rest of the members of the Republican Party. Hamilton and Jefferson both worked tirelessly during Adam's first term to tear him down every chance they got. Adams was extremely wounded by Jefferson who served with Adams as an ambassador for many years and became really good friends with him. Adams tried to stay out of party politics but to no avail and was defeated by Jefferson and Aaron Burr who tied in votes, in the fourth presidential election.

After his defeat, Adams went back to his farm at Quincy and retired from politics to be a farmer and to be there for his kids. One died of alcoholism; another of breast cancer and a third fell from the graces of society and his law practice to become an alcoholic as well. Only John Quincy Adams, his first son, would remain alive and on tract and eventually would become our sixth president. Eventually in their old ages after both were retired from politics, Jefferson and Adams would once again become good friends though they never would see each other again due to their ages and the distances between Monticello and Stoneyfarm. Their bond as being two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence still alive became stronger than any political differences they may have had. In the end, they both died on July 4th, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day of the signing and our country lost two of its biggest patriots.

Although this tome was hefty and difficult at times to maintain my interest while reading, it was well worth the read if broken up so it wasn't read all in one sitting. I broke it up with other books here and there which allowed me to keep my interest and absorb the information better. I have a couple more books on my reading list before I get to the third presidential biography on Thomas Jefferson but I'm looking forward to it. I may also take a break to read a biography on Benjamin Franklin who played prominently in the lives of Adams and Jefferson. So many books, so little time.


Lezlie said...

I really liked all the information on other people this book contained. I agree that it was tough to keep going with it at times, but it is a great book. And a great review!


sage said...

If you could have read this book in one sitting, you'd be hospitalized with butt sores! It's a great book and I am always amazed that Adams and Jefferson's death on the same day and on the 50th anniversary of the most important event in their lives. I was also impressed with the writing of John Q Adams (guoted in the book)

sage said...

btw, looking at the picture, I didn't know I could have watched the movie!

TC said...

I think about all I know about Adams is that he has lots of illegitemate offspring with his slaves.

Ed Abbey said...

Lezlie - And thanks for your fabulous site which I have used in ordering books of yet unread presidents.

Sage - I had heard there had been a movie but I haven't seen it. It is on my Netflix list to see. I was also impressed with John Quincy Adams and can't wait to read about him. He sounded like he was every bit as smart as his father.

TC - Well I guess you will have to scratch off one more thing you "know" about Adams since it was Jefferson who slept with at least one of his slaves and had several offspring. Adams wasn't home enough to sleep with even his wife very often and was fervantly against slavery.

R. Sherman said...

McCulloch is a great writer and really hits it out of the park with his presidential biographies. I've yet to read Adams but I'm sure it will be as good as Truman.


Beau said...

Wonderful, thoughtful review. Adams is next on my list. Thanks.

Ed Abbey said...

R. Sherman - I really really want to read his book on Truman but have promised myself to only read them in order so I have to wait. Perhaps by then I can get a used copy cheap.

Beau - I tried anyway. I have a really hard time writing on books but this one I wrote a little bit after every major section in the book so I wouldn't forget and then rewrote it at the end to make some sense.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Did more for this country than Washington ever did... if you say so.

Lose a war to France? That's funny.

Max Byrd's historical novel "Jefferson," takes place in pre-revolution Paris in the 1780s and mentions Adams. Byrd characterizes him as loud and coarse, in other words, very much like many of the folks that live in the Boston area today. Some things never change.

Ed Abbey said...

Phil - This whole project has been an eye opener for me and our founding fathers. I am finding they are more human than I had thought. As I'm sure you know, back then, we had no military especially a navy and this was during an era when wars were won or lost at sea. France had a huge navy and until Napoleon took over, a ruler that was itching to fight America. In our very weakened state post revolution, we wouldn't have stood a chance.

I really enjoyed the friendship/hatred/friendship between Jefferson and Adams and can't wait to tackle Jefferson next. I can believe that Adams was loud but have a hard time believing he was coarse since he was so well educated and some of his writings are so elegant. It will be interested in what another biographer focusing on Jefferson will say about Adams.

Aaron said...

While the book isn't on "the list" I do have the DVD series queued in Netflix. I guess after the previous 234985 movies arrive, I'll eventually watch it.