Second president gets his due - 200 years later
WASHINGTON — He was short, stout, abrasive, and grumpy. His presidency lasted only one term; his political party, only a few years longer. He told people truths they didn't want to hear, bluntly.
All that helps account for why the man dubbed by Thomas Jefferson "the colossus of independence" is a century or two late in getting his own memorial in Washington.
But, suddenly, Founding Father John Adams is enjoying an acclaim unlike anything he experienced - or expected - in his lifetime.
And in a city where monuments spark furious controversy, the proposal to honor him is on a fast track to marble and granite.
"It's long overdue. There is no other American - no other patriot- with the exception of George Washington, who did more toward winning the Revolution and establishing our republican form of government than John Adams," says biographer David McCullough. Three weeks after its publication, his "John Adams" is in its eighth printing and breaking sales records. (See review, page 15.)
Any one of his principles for a new nation would justify a monument: a nation of laws and not men, equality before the law, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, the "duty" of governments to educate everyone.
But what is prompting the surge of interest and affection for this man is more a result of his character than his political theories. In recent years, the portraits of other revolutionary heroes - most notably Jefferson - have become more complicated. Adams, a loving husband and the only Founding Father not to own slaves, remains a man of solid virtue, even under a biographer's probing eye. That straight-forward morality has a great appeal today.
"I think it's a response to a great interest in virtue, honor, and sacrifice - what is public and not just what is popular," says historian Joseph Ellis, whose 1993 book "Passionate Sage" inspired others, including Mr. McCullough, to take a closer look at John Adams.
"There's a hunger for these qualities, and you find them in the Revolutionary generation more than any other.... We're sensing that we once had these qualities and now we don't, and how can we get them back," he adds.
There's inspiring material in all aspects of Adams's public and private life. His devotion to the public good (not popularity) was his defining quality, historians say.
At the same time, he demonstrated a life-long capacity for friendships. His rich relationship with his wife and "Dearest Friend", Abigail, is documented in more than 1,000 letters. A patriot in her own right, she was her husband's most reliable - and often only - adviser. "You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator.... We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them," she wrote.
He also made the first move in repairing a breach with Jefferson, who as vice president financed a slander campaign against Adams when they ran against each other in 1800 - one of the most bitter campaigns in US history. He would later describe his relationship to Jefferson in these terms: "He is the last and oldest of my confidential bosom friends, let party faction and politics say what they will."
This skill at mending breaches extended as well to his work as a diplomat. Adams took on the highly charged assignment as the first ambassador to the court of King George III after the Revolution. And he counted as the most significant act of his presidency the avoiding of war with France in 1799 - at a time when it almost certainly would have won him another term as president.
Significantly, this proposed monument is not just to Adams but to the public service of his extended family, including at least Abigail and John Quincy Adams, his son, who carved out an even more distinguished career in the House of Representatives after serving one term as president. "The Adamses occupy a position in American history unequaled by any other family," says Rep. Tim Roemer (D) of Indiana, who is leading efforts for the memorial.
Historian Ellis, in Washington to lobby Congress to approve a memorial for Adams, says he hopes it will be built on the Tidal Basin, close to the Jefferson Memorial, "... so that he and Jefferson could take turns casting shadows over each other's facades," as they did in life.
In fact, that prospect is unlikely. In January 2000, the commissions that process new monuments in the capital adopted a policy not to approve any future sites on the central axis of the Mall. (This extends from the Lincoln Memorial to the bottom of the Capitol grounds, and from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial.)
Officials say there would be "serious reservations" about siting any new monument in this area. But they add that Washington has many prominent sites - and that so far, the Adams proposal has not had a whisper of the controversy that threatened to derail plans for monuments to the Vietnam War and World War II.
"With Adams, we are getting back to the roots of this country and what made it all come together the way that it did," says Charles Atherton, secretary of the National Capital Memorial Commission. "The subject is great, and I don't think anyone is anticipating any problems on this one."
Supporters say they expect Congress to approve this memorial by July 4.
It's a decision that would surprise no one more than Adams. "Mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me," he wrote in 1790.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor