September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
For four generations, from John to cousin Samuel, to Henry and Brooks, the Adams family was devoted to public service—and to its own reputation. They would be keenly interested in an overrated/underrated ranking of themselves.
The most overrated are John, the second President, and his wife, Abigail. He is justly honored as a patriot and diplomat, and her feisty letters are quoted in every book on the period. John’s biographers overplay their hand, however, when they defend his Presidency. Confronted by a menacing France, he lurched from war hawk to peacenik with an abruptness that finished his career and the Federalist party. Abigail monopolizes attention as supposedly the only bright lady of the Founding; among many others, though, was her friend Mercy Otis Warren, who published a history of the Revolution that, incidentally, trashed John.
Most underrated is the sixth President, John Quincy Adams, not as a President—he was terrible—but as a writer. His diary is a masterpiece of observation and venom (e.g., Jefferson had “a memory so pandering to the will that in deceiving others he seems to have begun by deceiving himself”). He also wrote one excellent poem, an imitation of Horace’s ode I.22 that would have pleased Cole Porter.