The Tide Comes in For John Adams

The inauguration of John Adams took place the city of Philadelphia in the House Chamber of the Congress on March 4, 1797. As David McCullough in his book John Adams, paints the scene, “There was a burst of applause when George Washington entered the room…More applause followed the appearance of Thomas Jefferson…[A]nd `like marks of approbation’ greeted John Adams, who on his entrance in the wake of the two tall Virginians seems shorter and more bulky even the usual.”These three men, Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, are the preeminent American Founding Fathers. The occasion of the inauguration of Johns Adams was last time that all three appeared on the same platform. Many people attending the inauguration suspected as much.

The reputations and popularity of different American heroes ebb and flow as the times seem to demand the different qualities associated with different Founding Fathers. Perhaps the reputation of George Washington alone has remained stable over time.

For a country that was largely prosperous and self-involved over the last two decades, Thomas Jefferson seemed a likely icon. The brilliant and articulate Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was the most rhetorically gifted of the three and could be idolized in an age of glibness. In an era devoted to self-improvement and “self actualization,” the expansive curiosity and intellectual depth of Jefferson was a perfect fit.

Jefferson’s recent popular decline and Adams’s ascendancy began with John Ferling’s book, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, and Jefferson and the American Revolution. George Washington is portrayed in Ferling’s book as heroic if sometimes bumbling and stiff. His popular stock remains stable. Jefferson’s brilliance is painted in contrast to his glaring failings: his irresponsible extravagance, his affair with a slave in his custody, and his refusal to free his slaves upon his death. Jefferson’s stock falls into a recession. Adams plodding constancy, particularly in foreign affairs, as well as his simple honesty supported a more bullish assessment.

Nonetheless, of the big three, Washington, Adams and Jefferson, John Adams is perhaps the least known and least understood, that is, until David McCullough’s new book. John Adams has been on national bestseller’s list for months. Despite the book’s over 700 pages, McCullough’s adroit prose and command of illuminating detail make the book a joyful read.

What is perhaps least known about Adams is his success in foreign affairs. During the Revolutionary War, Adams endured a dangerous ocean voyage beset with threats by the British and a torturous overland journey to represent US interests in France. While there, Adams worked first to gain support from the French in the War of Independence. After the French entered the war on the side of the Americans, he toiled to keep the French from negotiating a separate peace with Britain at the expense of American interests.

Unlike Jefferson’s, Adams’s personal life is a model worthy of emulation. He was a devoted father who lived simply and focused on the education his children. Adams’s relationship with his wife, Abagail, is legendary. Although Adams’s work for the United States and the slow transportation of the time sentenced the couple to months and even years of physical separation, their voluminous correspondence revealed an intellectual, emotional, and physical intimacy that anyone would envy.

Whereas Jefferson’s profligacy in book purchases was just one extravagance of many, Adams built an enormous library. When Jefferson died his estate was so worthless he could not free his slaves without burdening heirs with debt. Through frugality, wise management, and without the aid of slave labor, Adams left a substantial estate to his family.

McCullough’s book demonstrates that Adams’s simple virtues strike an important resonance with contemporary Americans. Unfortunately, the recent attack on America has probably jolted the country into a different mind set. We will now look for leaders and models with martial rather than diplomatic virtues. Adams’s popular ascendancy may be short-lived replaced by America’s first war hero, George Washington. Perhaps the public will even reach beyond the generation of the Founding Fathers, to Abraham Lincoln who led the country through its darkest times.

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