I’m fascinated by John Adams, and the HBO mini-series depicting his life is one of my favorites. Given that he died on July 4th, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it seems fitting to think of him today. Ironically, Thomas Jefferson, his sometimes friend and sometimes adversary, died on the same day.
John Adams, first vice-president, second president, and father of our sixth president, was a complicated man with great strengths and well-documented weaknesses. While some praised his brilliance and diplomacy, others thought him vain and stubborn. I think one of the things I like most about him is that his wife, Abigail, was his “chief advisor”. He was also against slavery at a time when many of his peers, including Jefferson, owned them. He was outspoken and fervent in his beliefs. You can sense his personality in his letters, especially those to Abigail. But there is also wit and wisdom in his early letters to his father. His father wanted him to be a minister. John decided to become a lawyer. He wrote to his father that he found among lawyers “noble and gallant achievements" but among the clergy, the "pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces." It was a fitting conclusion for the times. And he further irritated his father and friends by later becoming a Unitarian.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were key figures in the formation of the country we know today, but I think Mr. Adams in particular would be appalled by where some of our freedoms have taken us. He favored America’s aristocracy and believed in the power of money. He didn’t value the opinions of the common man or seem to care much about their immediate needs. He was a man of principles and vision. It was the “big picture” that occupied his mind. He abhorred being vice-president, “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived”, yet he served in that capacity for two terms- for the good of his country.
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that John Adams was “always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” I suppose we could say the same about many of our past presidents. Maybe it’s that last part that makes Mr. Adams so interesting.