The first stout-hearted Atlas was descended from the mythic Titan of Seas, Lakes, Rivers, and Oceans, and he summoned the power of his forefathers to hold the heavens high. Our Atlas of Independence, John Adams, was descended from the great Puritan migration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His forefathers were the source of his most deeply held values, which would time and again be Adams’s saving grace, and the nation’s.
At the end of his life, Adams chose not to write his own epitaph and lionize his own accomplishments. Instead, he placed a stone at the first Henry Adams’s grave, evoking virtues we all could aspire to:
This stone and several others have been placed in this yard by a great, great grandson from a veneration of the piety, humility, simplicity, prudence, frugality, industry and perseverance of his ancestors in hopes of recommending an affirmation of their virtues to their posterity.
His decision is telling. The noble virtues were Adams’s finest inheritance, greatest ambition, and most important legacy to his children.
By all accounts, Adams was a notably honest man, independent, and hardworking, even if he was obliged to confront his vanity, jealousy, and occasional intemperance.
His virtues were rooted in a lineage that arrived in the New World by 1638. Edith Squire and the first Henry Adams imparted them to their nine children and eighty-nine grandchildren.
Adams was proud of his descent from “a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers.”
“They were people who earned their daily bread by the work of their hands,” writes biographer David McCullough.
The men were all farmers who, through the long winters, in New England fashion, worked at other trades for “hard money” …. The first John Adams … was a farmer and shoemaker, a man of “sturdy, unostentatious demeanor,” who, like his father, “played the part of solid citizen,” as a tithing man, constable, lieutenant in the militia, selectman, and ultimately church deacon….
Adams admired his father’s superior “wisdom, piety, benevolence and charity….” He channeled these qualities and, with Abigail, nurtured them in his children.
“Let frugality and industry be our virtues,” he wrote to Abigail in a letter about their children. “Fire them with ambition to be useful.”
Lest we gain an altogether too pious image of Adams, we should recall that he is the same man who called Alexander Hamilton “the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler”; Thomas Paine “a mongrel between pigg and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf”; and Paine’s Common Sense “a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass….”
Adams’s venom tongue may well have been what kept him from the ministry — a calling he considered through his childhood, adolescence, and young adult life. For Adams, it would have been, in biographer Joseph Ellis’s words, “in its clearest and purest form, a commitment to the virtuous life.”
He chose law over church, but not vice over virtue. “I set out with firm Resolutions … never to commit any meanness or injustice in the Practice of Law,” Adams wrote. His profession did not “dissolve the obligations of morality or of Religion.”
Adams “carried with him into the secular calling of lawyer and later public official the moral obligation and self-imposed expectations of the New England ministry,” writes Ellis. His impossibly high standard of virtue, disinterestedness, and purity, “seemed to require isolation and unpopularity as evidence of its authenticity.”
Thus we arrive at Adams’s most fortunate inheritance: a fierce independence.
He had a dark — if well-informed — view of human nature unleashed:
We may appeal to every page of history we have hitherto turned over, for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power.
Adams stood by what he judged virtuous and correct, not what he judged popular. He was suspicious of popularity, and he often equated popular measures with corrupt motives. It was the blessing and curse of his political career.
The decisive example cost him his prospects for a second presidential term.
Much of Adams’s presidency was ailed by war fever. During the Quasi-war with France, French privateers assaulted U.S. shipping, killing 20 Americans, wounding 40, and diverting more than 300 American sailors and their cargos. The economic effects were crippling.
It was an undeclared war sliding toward the official transatlantic conflagration Washington had warned against in his Farewell Address. The union was too young, its resources too meager, its military might too nebulous. The outcome, Adams knew, would be disastrous.
When news reached American shores of the XYZ Affair — French Minister Talleyrand’s demand for bribes in exchange for negotiations — cries for an American declaration of war grew deafening.
As a wartime president, Adams’s popularity soared. The song “Adams and Liberty” became a national anthem. Characteristically, Adams grew suspicious, and at the height of the war’s popularity he sent a new — highly unpopular — peace mission to France.
He consulted no one. Opponents inside and outside of his party universally described themselves as “Thunderstruck.”
Adams … consulted not a single member of his cabinet or party, made no effort to persuade or prepare the political leadership in Congress and, most incredibly, proceeded to absent himself from the seat of government for the next seven months, remaining ensconced in Quincy while reading the collected works of Frederick the Great.
The peace mission succeeded in preventing the escalation of a disastrous war. The Convention of 1800 ended hostilities. The United States was set on a path toward the Louisiana Purchase and an eventual coast-to-coast, continental empire. The nation was primed for one of the greatest demographic and economic booms in its history.
Alienated, isolated, stout-hearted Adams lost his presidency.
This is the second in a four-part series on the “Fortunate Son of Liberty — John Adams.”
Part I: “Fortunate Son of Liberty”
Part II: “Stout-hearted Atlas”
Part III: “The scythe and the mare”
Part IV: “Long-suffering Portia”