John Adams by John Trumbull, 1793, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Like many who watched the excellent 2008 miniseries John Adams with Paul Giamatti in the title role and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, my interest in the United States’ second president increased quite a bit after watching it. And when I subsequently read John Ellis’ Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, I found myself thoroughly engrossed. I read of a man who was brilliant, insecure, honest, vain, visionary, retrograde, loving, selfish… all character traits which I believe are often found in the most interesting and accomplished people. The same traits that drive people to do wonderful and unusual things are often the same as, or found in conjunction with, those which make people thoroughly insufferable. For example, the insecure egoist’s need to be loved and admired provides the drive for accomplishment, and those who are intelligent enough to surpass most others in this regard are also intelligent enough to recognize it, which can result in an overinflated ego. Perhaps because I don’t have to put up with him personally, I can freely admire and even feel affection for Adams as the sensitive, flawed human being revealed in his massive correspondence; an egoist who nevertheless was obsessed with justice and did his best to see it done in the world, who sacrificed his own posterity and a second term in office to preserve his new country from the existential threat of an ill-conceived war; whose dignity was far too easily wounded but at times proved himself a loyal friend even to those that betrayed him – Thomas Jefferson being a prime example.
Americans may have more easily forgiven all of this if he hadn’t championed the Alien and Sedition Acts and signed them into law, parts of which are seen today as contrary to essential American principles. In his fear that the bond between the states in his newly united country would break apart under the strain of war and the spiraling controversies of party politics, Adams overreached. But his legacy shouldn’t be overshadowed by this one, though admittedly significant, mistake. As Ellis writes for Encyclopædia Britannica,
Although Adams was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most significant statesmen of the revolutionary era, his reputation faded in the 19th century, only to ascend again during the last half of the 20th century. The modern edition of his correspondence prompted a rediscovery of his bracing honesty and pungent way with words, his importance as a political thinker, his realistic perspective on American foreign policy, and his patriarchal role as founder of one of the most prominent families in American history.
Learn more about the oh-so-human, brilliant president John Adams at:
John Adams ~ Miniseries by HBO, 2008
John Adams As He Lived: Unpublished Letters to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Professor of Physic at Harvard College ~ published in The Atlantic, May 1927
John Adams: The Case of the Missing John Adams Monument ~ Lillian Cunningham for the Presidential podcast series presented by The Washington Post
John Adams: President of the United States ~ Joseph J. Ellis for Encyclopædia Britannica
Plain Speaking: In David McCullough’s Telling, the Second President is Reminiscent of the 33rd (Harry Truman) ~ by Pauline Maier for The New York Times: Books, May 27, 2001
Sorry, HBO. John Adams Wasn’t That Much of a Hero ~ Jack Rakove for The Washington Post, April 20, 2008
*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy
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