View Full Version : JBS: Who Was John Adams?

04-07-2008, 12:24 PM
Who Was John Adams?

The John Birch Society (http://www.jbs.org/)
April 7, 2008


With a recent biography and a new mini-series, it is likely that John Adams has never been as popular as he is today. But were his political ideas as admirable as his current populatiry suggests?

Follow this link to the original source: "John Adams (http://www.hbo.com/films/johnadams/)"


Though according to Benjamin Franklin he was "sometimes and in some things (http://books.google.com/books?id=UBAFAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA1-PA52&lpg=RA1-PA52&dq=%22always+an+honest+man+often+a+wise+one%22&source=web&ots=iorW4ml4sn&sig=jTlfHedvQ8Slrt_ZNf7vjR7If7A&hl=en#PRA1-PA52,M1) absolutely out of his senses," John Adams is riding a wave of popularity now, thanks to a recent biography and an HBO mini-series. Adams is the quintessential Founding Father, an honest, prickly, dutiful, witty patriot who sacrificed himself and his family to his country. Thanks to his voluminous diaries and letters, we glimpse the man behind the legend, and heís surprisingly like us. He doubts himself; he can be petty or magnanimous; heís preoccupied with his health; he enjoys a fine meal and desperately misses his wife. But despite his Everyman qualities and his dedication to the new nation, was Adams actually all that admirable?

In January 1776, he penned sentiments (http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch18s7.html) that Hillary Clinton or Michael Bloomberg could cheerfully spout: "Öit is the Part of a great Politician to make the Character of his People, to extinguish among them the Follies and Vices that he sees, and to create in them the Virtues and Abilities which he sees wanting." Talk about an overweening faith in government! And a prescription for a big one, too: how many "Politicians" will snoop on our "Follies and Vices"? How many more are needed to "create" our "Virtues and Abilities"? No wonder it takes a village to raise a child.

We might hope this totalitarianism was an aberration, but it tainted Johnís entire career. As a young lawyer in Braintree, Massachusetts, and a brilliant one who would eventually earn top rates, Adams resented the "pettifogging meddlers" who cut into his business. Because they hadnít trained at Harvard as he had, they charged less for legal services. Farmers hoping to swap a few chickens for a will or deed patronized them, and Adams coveted that business. He agitated for licensing laws to bar these competitors from the bar. Elected to a minor post in Braintree, he sought licensing for taverns, too, so that only those he approved could remain in business.

John Adams fought as hard as anyone for America, dedicating his life to the struggle. But he often battled for goals vastly different from the other Foundersí. While Thomas Jefferson (http://wiki.monticello.org/mediawiki/index.php/A_little_rebellion) considered rebelling against government "a good thing" and Tom Paine (http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/milestones/commonsense/text.html) dismissed the State as "armed banditti" and "a necessary evil," Adams adored political power. When an acquaintance called politics "the grandest, the noblest, the most useful and important science in the whole circle," Adams not only agreed, he noted it in his journal (http://books.google.com/books?id=BGYFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA303&lpg=PA303&dq=%22the+grandest+the+noblest+the+most+useful+and +important+science%22&source=web&ots=QWXCVtTWts&sig=M-D7rynfSueLUjX2KmfCEVbaxps&hl=en). And in the spring of 1775, after the battles at Lexington and Concord had killed almost 100 colonists and 273 Redcoats, he enthused, "Everybody must, will and shall be a soldier." Nor did the casualty rate of almost 40 percent at Bunkerís Hill trouble him: five months after its carnage, he rhapsodized, "Politics are the science of human happiness and war the art of securing it."

Political power seduces because it seems to effect great changes effortlessly and immediately. Itís much easier to pass a law against smoking nicotine in some places or marijuana in all places than it is to persuade our neighbors against indulging. And if we judge power solely from results and from the satisfaction it gives of imposing our will on the world, it trumps the Golden Rule. But might never makes right. It was precisely so that each man could live as befit his convictions and circumstances, without others forcing him to their dictates, that Americans fought a Revolution.

Except for John Adams. He often seemed to battle more for an American government staffed with Americans than for liberty, as though home-grown tyrants are preferable to ones 3,000 miles away. While the other Founders worried about preserving freedom in the new nation, Adams fretted lest citizens disrespect their rulers. In 1789, during Congressís first session, Vice President Adams urged Senators to address the Speaker of the House as "Honorable" (they voted him down). And what if someone mistook "the President" for the mere head of a cricket club? To prevent that calamity, Adams dreamed up "His Highness (http://books.google.com/books?id=6Q4eo7h_cPkC&pg=PA297&lpg=PA297&dq=%22gentlemen+i+feel+great+difficulty+how+to+act %22&source=web&ots=UEOTRUoPQ1&sig=LRh22eIuExdJ0pCU8Kauk82LEY8&hl=en#PPA298,M1) the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the States." Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania hooted at such "silliness," but this was serious business to Adams: government must be revered, because "the Form of Government (http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch18s7.html) Ö gives the decisive Colour to the Manners of the People, more than any other Thing."

Being married to John Adams was even harder than enduring the Senate with him. He and Abigail famously pined for togetherness over the decades that John spent in Philadelphia and overseas, but duty to the State always came first. He harbored opinions worthy of ancient Sparta (http://thenewamerican.com/node/1972): "There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest, honor, power and glory Ö and this public passion must be superior to all private passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private pleasures, passions and interests, nay, their private friendships and dearest connections, when they stand in competition with the rights of society." John was no hypocrite, nor did he exaggerate his devotion to "the public good": he lived what he wrote, as his lonely wife and children could attest. But when "private passions" are "sacrificed" to the "rights of society," citizens become slaves. A government that demands the surrender of our pleasures and dearest connections is a police state.

Most of us would have a hard time living up to John Adamsís definition of patriotism, in which case, heíd probably have few qualms about compelling us to. Certainly, he could never have imagined the current kudzu on the Potomac. But the seeds for much of its poisoned fruit sprout in his ideas.