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Adams In Eruption

June 2024
5min read


For the first few years of his long retirement,; Adams was obsessed with establishing nisi proper place in recent American history. “How is it,” he asked Benjamin Rush, his closest confidant outside the family, “that I, poor, ignorant I, must stand before Posterity as differing from all the other great Men of the Age?” He then went on to list his gallery of “greats”—Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison—and concluded that even when his own name was admitted to the list, it was usually accompanied by the judgment that Adams was “the most vain, conceited, impudent, arrogant Creature in the World.”

In Virginia, where, as Adams observed, “all Geese are Swans,” the great heroes of the Revolution all had magnificent estates. Jefferson had Monticello; Washington had Mount Vernon; Madison had Montpelier. “Every one of these gentlemen had noble sentiments,” he acknowledged, and the nobility of their sentiments was nicely embodied in the splendor of their surroundings. But then there was John Adams, who harbored “the childish vanity to think that in some lucid intervals in my life, I have had some generous sentiments.” Yet he had retired to a modest country home in Quincy that seemed to symbolize his impoverished reputation, a dwelling that one French visitor described as “a small house which a sixth-rate Paris lawyer would disdain to choose for his summer home.”

Typically, Adams turned the painful realization that his humble home was an accurate reflection of his tattered reputation into a joke. “You may call me,” he told his younger son, “the monarch of Stoney Field, Count of Gull Island, Earl of Mount Arrarat, Marquis of Candlewood Hill, and Baron of Rocky Run.” As the letters began to pour out from Quincy, he soon listed his location with a variety of comical and cynical titles, beginning with “Mount Wollaston” and fastening at last on “Montezillo” as his favorite. “Montezillo,” he said, “is a little Hill. Monticello is a lofty Mountain.”

John Quincy, sensing the wounded pride that festered beneath such jocular gestures, suggested that his father write his autobiography in order to set the record straight and deal directly with his personal demons. The result was less like a crafted work of literature than an open wound; like the life it chronicled, Adams’s biography was impulsive and candid. After an opening section that described his early years, Adams got down to the serious business of eviscerating his enemies.

Alexander Hamilton was the chief villain. The fact that he had only recently died in a duel with Aaron Burr was no cause for mercy. Adams claimed to feel no obligation “to suffer my Character to lie under infamous Calumnies, because the Author of them, with a Pistol Bullet through his Spinal Marrow, died a Penitent.” Hamilton was a “Creole Bolingbroke.… Born on a Speck more obscure than Corsica … as ambitious as Bonaparte, though less courageous, and, save for me, would have involved us in the foreign war with France & a civil war with ourselves.” Writing to Judge Francis Vanderkemp at the same time, he amplified his accusations: Hamilton was “a bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar” who lived constantly “in a delirium of Ambition.”

Tom Paine ranked second only to Hamilton in Adams’s rogues’ gallery. He was “a Disastrous Meteor,” “a disgrace to the moral Character and Understanding of the Age.” Everyone knew that Benjamin Rush had given him the title for his wildly popular pamphlet, Common Sense , and that the arguments about the inevitability of American independence that Paine advanced had, in fact, been circulating throughout the Colonies since 1760. Paine was “the Satyr of the Age … a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a Bitch Wolf.”

The verdict on “the American untouchables”—Jefferson, and Washington—was less vitriolic but sufficiently equivocal to sense Adams’s ego throbbing just beneath the surface. Both American “greats” served as an illustration of the principle “that Eloquence in public Assemblies is not the surest road, to Fame and Preferment, at least unless it be used with great caution, very rarely, and with great Reserve.” This was the lesson of “eternal taciturnity” that Adams preached to anyone who would listen, and it derived from his realization that as “the Atlas of Independence” who made the fierce and ferocious speeches that were needed to assure separation from England in 1774 and 1775, he inevitably made lifelong enemies. Men who played leading roles in controversies became controversial. Jefferson, on the other hand, “had attended his duty in the House [the Second Continental Congress] but a very small part of the time and when there had never spoken in public.” Adams recalled, with a mingled sense of admiration and accusation, that “during the whole Time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.”

Jefferson was acknowledged as a stylist; Adams claimed to have “a great opinion of the Elegance of his pen and none at all of my own.” It was for this reason that Adams, as chairman of the subcommittee encharged with the task, had chosen Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, according to the Adams version of history, was no more than an important clerical ornament. Like Paine, he put into words the sentiments and ideas that others—like Adams—had hammered out in combat with lukewarm Whigs and surreptitious Tories in the real but unrecorded conversations within the corridors and subcommittees of Philadelphia. “I admire Bonaparte’s expression The Scenery of the Business,’ ” he wrote Rush. “The scenery has often … at least in Public Life, more effect than the Character.” Then he added, more explicitly, “Was there ever a Coup de Theatre, that had so great an effect as Jefferson’s Penmanship of the Declaration of Independence?” Propagandistic documents like Paine’s Common Sense and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence were “a theatrical side show.… Jefferson ran away with the stage effect … and all the glory of it.” Even to Jefferson himself, Adams belittled “the importance of these compositions,” claiming that they were “like children’s play at marbles or push pin.… Dress and ornament rather than Body, Soul and Substance.”

Of course, the ultimate “untouchable,” transcending mortal appreciation or analysis, was George Washington. In his autobiography even Adams regarded Washington’s reputation as off limits. Indeed, there were two subjects—the institution of slavery in the South and the symbolic significance of Washington—that Adams considered too elemental and too fraught with danger to explore candidly in any writings that might find their way into the public press. Still, in private letters to trusted friends Adams expressed his unease with the emerging mythology about cherry trees and godlike wisdom. Whenever the celebration of Washington’s birthday was reported in the Boston newspapers, Adams cringed and usually fired off a letter of protest. “The feasts and funerals in honor of Washington,” he wrote Rush, “is as corrupt a system as that by which saints were canonized and cardinals, popes, and whole hierarchical systems created.”

When an aspiring historian asked Adams if Washington’s famous decision to repudiate the offer of king or dictator-for-life after the war did not deserve admiration, Adams replied stiffly that had Washington accepted the offer, “he would have become the contempt and abhorrence of two thirds of the People of the United Colonies,” who collectively deserved the lion’s share of credit for the successful Revolution. Adams constantly bemoaned “the pilgramages to Mount Vernon as the new Mecca or Jerusalem.” When John Marshall’s mammoth biography of Washington appeared, Adams described it as “a Mausoleum, 100 feet square at the base, and 200 feet high,” and “as durable as the Washington benevolent Societies.”

And of course, Washington was the supreme example of “eternal taciturnity.” At times, especially in letters to Rush, Adams came close to suggesting that Washington was primarily an actor, playing a role he never fully understood: “We [in the Washington administration] all agreed to believe him and make the world believe him.” Adams described a conversation he had with Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, in which Pickering claimed that Washington often dozed in cabinet meetings, never read dispatches, wrote few, if any, of his own speeches, needed chalk marks on the floor to know where to stand at receptions and levees, and was, in general, an illiterate, intellectually incompetent cipher who was propped up in public by his staff. But Adams was careful to put these scandalous (and, to our post-1980s, familiar) accusations in Pickering’s mouth rather than his own. Adams hinted at his own sense of intellectual superiority to Washington, suggesting that as far as he could tell, all of Washington’s philosophy was derived from a cursory reading of Rollins’s Ancient History . Beyond that level of glancing criticism, Adams was unwilling to go, preferring to “take my deepest secrets to the grave.” Washington should be esteemed but not adored. He was an object lesson in the efficacy of enigma. But he was also the one American leader whom even Adams grudgingly acknowledged as an overall superior in terms of virtuous public service.


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