No monument adorns the National Mall for John Adams, our second president (1797-1801). Yet Adams’ contributions, habits, and foresight are extraordinary. If Washington was the dogged warrior and first president, Jefferson a sage, Madison distiller of rights, something attaches to Adams – that is, even now, strangely in tune with our time and worth revisiting.
Adams was innately human, a man of principle and political passion, outspoken to the point of boredom and ire, suddenly alive with historical references, then self-critical, aware of his many flaws, often as sure he would be forgotten as have some lasting effect on the future.
He was quick to sacrifice for his country and family – his two loves, so often in contention that his later life was filled with regret he had not two to live. Thinker, his essay “Thoughts on Government” guides us today, explaining why three branches, “checks and balances,” matter.
He was human in strangely modern ways. As he pressed the idea of one America, worked to secure independence, shape our Constitution, assure rule of law, serve as diplomat, vice president, and president, he suffered personal plagues.
His sons Charles and Thomas died of addiction – consumed by demons and drink. His daughter “Nabby,” or Abigail for her mother, died of breast cancer. Two daughters, Susanna and Elizabeth, died near birth. He could not save them.
While eldest son John Quincy became our sixth president, what John Adams felt must have tested his core. A leader who loves deeply – family, principle, and country – is rare. One who leads through such a devastating storm is extraordinary, makes modern life seem less daunting.
For Adams, the answer was faith – which never left him, buttressed by personal fortitude – which came in waves. The alloy was a sense of destiny – the idea that he had to give all. Unblinking, he did.
Why else should we remember Adams, especially now? He was good at balance, humble and articulate, farmer and lawyer. He was filled with passion, sharing labors and observations on life – with his wife. He was hot-headed but never without a loving heart, and she knew it. She wrote and advised him on it; he listened.
When he took risks, she often took them with him – consoling him as he successfully defended British soldiers after the “Boston Massacre,” risking life for liberty, Europe for diplomacy, defamed by old friends when in office. Respect was mutual, effect remedial, synergy historic.
Both John and Abagail disdained slavery, never owned, and never hid their revulsion for it. While they understood freedom lay with time’s passage, envisioned it, wrote for it. Adams represented slaves seeking their freedom and decried the practice as an “abhorrence.”
At odds with Jefferson, who undermined Adams, the two friends fell off for years. Then, inspired by a different kind of courage, Adams – not Jefferson – lifted his pen. He reopened the friendship with kindness. Over their final 14 years, the two were again close – until both died on July 4, 1826 – 50 years after the Declaration. But this is big stuff, the small matters.
John and Abigail both thought deeply, codified ideas in writing, read avidly, relayed reflections, and shared feelings on their reading, elevating each other’s thinking. That benefits us now.
How? They did not duck hard questions on morality, liberty, or life – posed by themselves or each other. They did not repeat what others said but revered independent thought, and in this way, taught. They were surrounded by what others thought yet thought for themselves.
As a boy, Adams resisted education – preferring the outdoors. His father insisted on education, so he began at Harvard, age 16. Once he got the bug, began reading, he never quit. As liberties were oppressed, Adams took up the cause, found his stride. That he never quit either.
Perhaps most like us, Adams was impatient, determined liberty was America’s destiny. He had no social media to manage but wrote incessantly – six in the morning to nine at night. In the Continental Congress, he sat on 90 committees, chaired 25, was always first to arrive.
As a diplomat, he was tireless – and blunt. Mid-Revolutionary War, he told the French their alliance was worthless if they did not send their Navy, which earned him French scorn. He went to the Netherlands, where his efforts also seemed unavailing. He suffered anxiety, what some describe as a nervous breakdown. Still, he never quit, never lost hope, stayed committed.
Hope was rewarded. In 1781, the Americans shocked Europe, winning at Yorktown – as the French Navy arrived, credit to Adams. The Dutch gave money. History got made.
So much of Adams’ life was faith, family, hard work, unbroken hope, enduring belief through grief. He was never interested – truth be told – in a monument. His interest was posterity – those of us who here walk in the freedom he created. He hoped we would understand.
Wrote Adams – words that resonate now: “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. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.”
Looking at his purposeful handwriting, exclamation point on parchment, dip of his pen to assure clarity of thought, one is caught – in the wonder of how he saw so far ahead. We owe him, and all the early defenders of liberty, to look as far back as they looked ahead. And now … is time.