Our culture is under attack. With the constant distortion of our history by those who likely have never taken the time to read it, it is now more important than ever to tell the stories of our nation’s founders. These men made us who we are, and their ideas endure today as the trusses that hold up our American way of life.
This year on Independence Day I watched the stream of the Broadway production Hamilton when it become available online. The music is great, and the story is captivating. One of my favorite songs from the show is entitled I Know Him. The song is sung from the perspective of none other than King George when he first learns of the election of John Adams as President of the United States.
“I know him. That can’t be. That’s that little guy who spoke to me, all those years ago back in ’85, that poor man they’re going to eat him alive. Oceans rise, empires fall, next to Washington they all look small.“
I love the song because I imagine that sentiment is emblematic of European thought on America then, and even more so today. Adams, the pugnacious prognosticator of federalism and good-government was not a site to behold. Unlike the tall and mighty Washington or the eloquent Jefferson, Adams, the squatty brawler, was easy to dismiss and look down upon, as Europeans have done with our nation for centuries. His enemies nicknamed him “his rotundity” for his weight and grandiose manner of carrying himself. He was unassuming, in your face, and a brilliant American enigma.
Adams had a long and distinguished career in public service, but any understanding of him, and his character, begins with the Boston Massacre. The Massacre, if you are unfamiliar, was a conflict between British soldiers and Massachusetts colonists which resulted in the soldiers, ultimately scared for their lives at the hands of a mob, firing into the masses and killing a handful of patriots. Adams ideologically supported the patriots, and was one of the earliest proponents of full American independence. He opposed the British Parliament with his fiery oratory and writing for years before there was a Continental Congress. However, when the soldiers approached him and informed him that no lawyer in all of New England would defend them in court, Adams did what he often would do when faced with a moral conflict throughout his life. He sided with principle over politics. Though he supported the cause of the mob, and knew that his decision would be personally costly, he chose to defend the British soldiers in court. He never received payment for his legal work.
“I must study politics and war so that my sons may study mathematics and philosophy” – John Adams
Thomas Jefferson once called him the colossus of the revolution. Adams, before almost any other, advocated for total separation from the British crown, and it was his fiery oratory in the congress that won many to the cause. It was he who nominated George Washington to be commander of the revolutionary armies, and he who secured the foreign loans that kept the revolution afloat in its darkest hours.
Perhaps his most defining characteristic is his pragmatism. The Declaration of Independence, which he helped write, he considered merely a formality. Always self aware, he insisted Jefferson be the official scribe, knowing that his fingerprints would serve no purpose but to polarize opinion on the ever so important document. “I, John Adams, am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise,” he told Jefferson. He pushed for each state to form its own constitution, stating that constitutions are independence themselves.
“In politics, the middle way is none at all.” – John Adams
As Washington’s Vice President, he languished. Hamilton, ever his foe, forced him out of the nexus of power, and left him to preside as a figurehead over the senate. Unable to merely sit by and bide his time for eight years, he still holds the record for most tie breaking votes cast by a VP in the upper chamber. Eight years later, when he was elected President, Hamilton and Jefferson worked in concert to undercut him at every turn. He is our first one-term president, sent packing in the dead of night before the inauguration of his enemy, Jefferson, but his presidency is not without accomplishment. The most important thing Adams did as president was ensure a peaceful transition of power, and establish precedent for transitions of power going forward. He kept all of George Washington’s cabinet members in place, knowing they were under Hamilton’s control and would soon undercut him, because he wanted to avoid partisanship and secure the first peaceful transition of democratic power from one man to another in modern human history.
Years after leaving office, he reconciled with his friend turned foe, Thomas Jefferson. The two exchanged 158 letters in their twilight years, discussing God and politics. These are a national treasure and are preserved in the Library of Congress. On July 4, 1826, the 50 year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration, Adams died. His last words were “Jefferson still lives.” He could not have known that only hours earlier, his friend and fellow architect of a free world, Thomas Jefferson, preceded him in death.
“Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make a good use of it.” – John Adams
Adams is not enshrined in marble on some hallowed hill in Washington. He is not in the pantheon of greats, or carved into a mountainside alongside his successor and predecessor as president. History largely overlooks him. However, a student of history will recognize that he needs no monument, our very nation is his monument, and our liberties his legacy. He was too principled for politics, not adept at backroom dealing or glad-handing. He was vain, but self aware. He was bombastic, but deeply principled. He was human like you and me. But without his leadership, his fiery speeches on those sweltering summer days in Freedom Hall, there would never have been an America at all.