Walter Isaacson — who, as the biographer of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, knows something about difficult men — wrote that America’s second president “could be argumentative, vain, stubborn, cantankerous and despairing.”
Historian Adrienne Koch adds that John Adams was “salty, testy, peevish.” His biographer David McCullough throws in “cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed” and “quick to anger.” And so on.
As Adams himself readily acknowledged, he had his faults. But he was also a man of courage, integrity and high ideals. And despite his passionate nature, he was an individual of prudent judgement, honed by his extensive reading and his knowledge of history, and the influence of his closest confidante, his beloved wife Abigail.
This Presidents Day – during a time when indignation often seems to pass for morality and name-calling for debate — both the mistakes and accomplishments of this colorful Founding Father are as important as ever.
Consider a now-familiar confrontation: one group wearing symbolic red and the other filled with anger, feeling their rights had been trampled. It took place in 1770 and became known as the Boston Massacre, a skirmish that resulted in the deaths of five colonists. As a lawyer, Adams — a man so committed to the cause of breaking from English rule that he became known as the Atlas of Independence — agreed to defend the British soldiers. He was motivated by the simple belief that everyone deserves a fair trial and the assumption that emotions can cloud justice. The captain, Thomas Preston, and most of the soldiers ended up being acquitted.
“He had a penchant for doing the right thing, most especially when it made him unpopular,” wrote Joseph Ellis, who has written extensively about Adams and his legacy.
One time Adams didn’t do the right thing was his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made American citizenship significantly more difficult for immigrants and curtailed free speech. Put forth as a wartime measure when armed conflict with France seemed likely, the laws were a partisan move by the Federalist Party to weaken political opposition. Adams came to recognize, and regret, his signature on the bills as his greatest political blunder.
But the looming war with France was also the occasion for his proudest political accomplishment and the defining act of his presidency.
By 1799, he faced both popular and political pressure to go to war. Instead, he doggedly insisted on avoiding a conflict that was misguided and perilous for the future of the new nation. He succeeded in negotiating peace, but it almost certainly cost him reelection to a second term. (Contrarian that he was, Ellis observed, the personal defeat made him even more convinced that he had followed the right course.)
So Adams returned to Massachusetts, and his Revolutionary brother, friend and political rival Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office.
Ellis, who has written biographies of both men, states that many people are insatiably curious and hold strong feelings about Jefferson. Yet not so Adams. (“The most common response from my nonacademic friends was that they knew the Adams face because it appeared on their favorite beer, but they were mistaking John for his cousin Sam,” Ellis wrote in his 1996 book on Jefferson.)
Nonetheless, Catholics and all Americans of good will might remember his example in this era of heightened political rhetoric, when terms like “fake news” and “alternate facts” have entered the language. At stake are the lives of many innocent people, including the unborn, and those risking dangerous journeys to cross the border, desperate to build better lives in the country John Adams helped create.
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence,” Adams said in defending the British soldiers who were vilified because they were an unwelcome presence in Boston.
Of himself, he once wrote, “Thanks to God he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.”
Carl Peters is the Catholic Star Herald managing editor.