John Adams: `fiercely independent'

OCTOBER marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of John Adams -- Founding Father, diplomat, vice-president, President, and author, roles that should have entitled this early American to a special place in history. Such would not be the case, however. Even among some of his con- temporaries, Adams would be known by such ugly names as ``The Duke of Braintree,'' ``His Rotundity,'' and ``Mr. President by Three [electoral] Votes.'' Among subsequent historians, Adams would receive a so-so rating. The problem was he was a man of contrasts. He reflected the Puritan sense of purposefulness, love of land and farming, and respect for parental and political authority. But he found it difficult to check his ambitions. He believed himself the intellectual better of any man and remained fiercely independent. By the time he was a young man, these traits had blended into complex and sometimes tortured patterns.

No doubt that Adams was brilliant, but he was also a fidget. ``The only thing I fear,'' he wrote as a rising lawyer, ``is that all my Passions . . . will go down into an everlasting Calm.'' But society required that his passions follow the proprieties of the day; thus, he suffered physical and mental collapses throughout his long life. His brilliance led to a few distinctive successes (the diplomatic feat of extracting Dutch recognition of US independence), and also to his growin g pessimism about democratic government.

He had little faith in people, because they neither recognized nor appreciated his brilliance and forthrightness, preferring style instead of substance. ``The Examples of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson,'' Adams wrote, ``are enough to shew that Silence and reserve in public are more Efficacious than Argumentation or Oratory.'' Little wonder, then, that although Adams's portraits of his contemporaries are perceptive, they were unlikely to win them as friends. They were, however, reciprocated, as for example by Franklin, who wrote, ``I am persuaded . . . that he [Adams] means well for his Country, is always an Honest Man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.''

Adams tried to be a good colleague. He befriended Jefferson, but only in his ebbing years; he trusted Alexander Hamilton, who worked against Adams during his presidency; he was infatuated with the spirited Hannah Quincy but eventually married the sober, tasteful Abigail Smith. Adams tried, also, to be a good vice-president and President, but he was unsuited temperamentally for political office. In Washington's administration, he had too few duties for his fidgety nature. In spite of the nation's crisis in foreign policy during his presidential years, he spent too much time in Quincy, Mass., diffusing his energies in reading Frederick the Great and Voltaire and answering, in essay form, the numerous letters he received each day.

Adams's forte was literary and intellectual. Books and ideas were often more important than people. Witness his writings during the American Revolution, his diplomatic and political works while abroad, and his numerous tracts and letters during retirement days. Yet, like their author, the writings were disordered, personal, passionate, inconsistent, and impetuous -- traits that scarcely add up to a popular leader.

Most of all, Adams was a real loner. ``I must think myself independent, as long as I live,'' he wrote. Appropriately, he died in 1826 on Independence Day.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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