America's moment of global preeminence would be a fine time for a John Adams revival. Not only does the second president deserve the recognition he has rarely achieved but, strangely enough, much of what the man had to say can be addressed to our own generation, the feckless children of this wildly successful United States. We'd do well to listen to the cranky old New England prophet of limits and responsibility. Now, right on time, a compelling new biography by the celebrated public historian David McCullough restores to life this wise and endearing American original.
Adams has languished as the half-forgotten member of that famous company once rendered in reverent uppercase as the Founding Fathers. He's the missing man, the unknown soldier of the American Revolution. In our hearts, on our money, it's always the same familiar triumvirate: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Even Alexander Hamilton, Adams' archenemy, gazes out, bigger than ever, from the face of the new $10 bill. Yet Adams did more to win independence and create the republic than any other statesman except Washington himself. Franklin was a generation older--a founding grandfather--who died in 1790, just a year after the U.S. government got its start. Jefferson won immortality for composing (at Adams' urging) the Declaration of Independence. But after 1776, Jefferson largely sat out the Revolution.
But Adams stood in the thick of battle for almost 40 years, from the beginnings of patriotic resistance to British imperial policies in the 1760s until his defeat by Jefferson in the crucial presidential election of 1800. The Harvard-educated lawyer first became a leader in his native Massachusetts, the most defiant of the 13 rebellious colonies. When Massachusetts sent him to the Continental Congress, Adams emerged as the most influential delegate--the "colossus on the floor"--and an outspoken radical. It was Adams who pushed his colleagues toward the unconditional break with England. The Declaration of Independence was Adams' child, even if the grandeur of its language was Jefferson's. Then Adams sailed to Europe, where he helped work out the all-important military alliance with France and later negotiated the 1783 peace treaty with a humbled Britain. He went on to London as first U.S. ambassador to the British court.
He came home to take office as the first vice president in 1789, serving eight years under Washington. (Adams summed up the vice presidency as well as anyone when he described it as the "most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived," while also observing that "I am nothing, but I may be everything.") When Washington said farewell in 1797, Adams was elected. He was the first president to preside in Washington, D.C. (The man who gave his name to the new capital had served his presidential terms in New York and Philadelphia.) John and Abigail Adams were the first to live in the unfinished Executive Mansion. Progenitor of a distinguished political and literary dynasty, he was also the first and, until this year, the only president to father a president. And, to his abiding chagrin, Adams became the first one-term president, the first incumbent defeated for reelection.
The presidency had been his finest hour. At the sacrifice of his political career, Adams avoided an unnecessary war with France and, by so doing, saved the Union, preserving the fragile experiment in popular government. The United States was a small power struggling to stay afloat in a world convulsed by war between the European superpowers, revolutionary France and monarchical Britain. But the threat was not invading armies or hostile fleets. Domestic turmoil, even civil war, was the real danger facing a country so divided into fiercely ideological "French" and "British" parties. The decade of the 1790s is remembered with good reason as an "age of passion," a time when clinical paranoia seemed to undergird every political platform. The two-party system was only beginning to take shape; rivals were not viewed as legitimate opposition so much as traitors, criminals, enemies of the people. In this overheated climate, the war against France demanded by the pro-British Hamiltonian wing of President Adams' own Federalist party would have shattered the 10-year-old Union. When Adams made peace with France, Hamilton resolved to bring him down, assuring the election of Jefferson, Adams' vice president and an old friend now turned bitter enemy. With his party united behind him, Adams would have been reelected. The presidential election of 1800 was every bit as close as the one that took place exactly 200 years later: Just 250 additional votes would have given the incumbent New York's electoral votes and a second term.