As portrayed by John Ferling, author of a biography of George Washington and of numerous works on the American Revolution, John Adams was a tissue of contradictions—a reluctant revolutionary who feared the “excesses” of democracy, a radical who was so conservative that at times he advocated a hereditary monarchy, a Puritan who became a Unitarian, a man who at times celebrated the basic decency of humanity and at other times viewed human nature as depraved, a politician who feared that too much democracy would enable the “poor and vicious” to plunder “the rich and virtuous” yet whose greatest fear was of the accumulation of wealth by the few, a war hawk whose greatest accomplishment as president was the preservation of peace, a family man who spent much of his married life away from his family, a workaholic whose happiest years were those of his retirement, and a vain and ambitious man of the utmost integrity.
The son of a deacon, farmer, and cordwainer, Adams realized from boyhood on that his greatest goal was recognition and esteem, the attainment of historical immortality. Thus, he took up the study of law because it seemed the readiest road to advancement. He had trouble getting his law practice established and succeeded more through hard work than through brilliance. At this time, Adams believed himself to be dull, confused, and lacking bright ideas. Often awkward as a public speaker, he was not a good actor, but he became a keen observer of successful people and tried to emulate their style. This was not easy, for Adams too often showed a prickly personality; he could be irritable and quick-tempered, and he too often hid kindness and gentleness behind a severe exterior that made people think him haughty and aloof. He faulted himself for pride and confessed that he was driven by a “Passion for superiority” while wishing to “subdue every unworthy Passion and treat all men as I wish to be treated by all.” Superiority did not come easily to him; despite his acute intelligence, he lacked the glibness of Benjamin Franklin and the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson; instead, Adams succeeded through determination and discipline.
In 1764, he married Abigail Smith, a woman of remarkable intelligence and ability, but for too long he sacrificed his marriage and family to his work and the ambition that drove it. The year after his marriage Adams called “the most remarkable” of his life, for it was then that his cousin Samuel Adams, opposing the Stamp Act, began the American resistance movement against Great Britain. John Adams began publishing essays in support of the protest movement, formulating ideas about “universal liberty.” Had the American Revolution not taken place, Adams might have languished in obscurity, but when the moment came, he was the man to match it. Cautious by nature, he became an activist only gradually and discreetly, writing at first anonymously. When John Hancock’s ship was seized for violating Britain’s Acts of Trade, Adams became Hancock’s counsel. Putting the law above popular passions, he also consented to be counsel for the defense of the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre, six of whom were acquitted and two found guilty of manslaughter.
By now one of the leading lawyers in the colony, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts legislature and then was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he was a key player through his legal skills and intellectual grasp. Ferling calls Adams “sober, learned, reflective, and meditative” and observes that he was an incredibly hard worker who carried a vastly heavier load than any other congressman, serving on ninety committees and chairing twenty-five of them. It was Adams who nominated George Washington to command the Continental army. When John Dickinson spoke opposing independence, it was Adams who rose to answer him, extemporaneously. Holding forth for two hours, Adams gave the greatest speech of his life. Jefferson called him “our Colossus on the floor,” who spoke “with a power of thought and expression, that moved us from our seats.”
Ferling makes it clear that the American Revolution was a civil war, one that alienated Adams and many others from some of their friends. Taking issue with previous Adams scholars, Ferling sees Adams fluctuating toward the popular resistance movement, not becoming a revolutionary until 1773, but unwavering once he was fully committed. Ferling finds that Adams developed a national rather than a provincial outlook much earlier than most of the founding fathers. Although he foresaw that war would be long and hard, Adams realized the need for independence and helped crystallize sentiment for it.
Adams, the first choice to draft the Declaration of Independence, declined because he had too heavy a work load, but he was on the committee that revised the declaration before its approval. What sort of independent nation did Adams want? He argued that the second stage of revolution, the “most difficult and dangerous Part,” was the creation of independent American institutions. Consequently, in 1776, Adams wrote Thoughts on Government, perhaps his most influential writing. Believing that a “ravenous beast of prey” lurked in the heart of each man, Adams created the concept of checks and balances. As a conservative, he thought the essential revolution had occurred before the fighting began, and loathing the “Rage for Innovation,” he did not wish further sweeping changes. Ferling maintains that Adams wanted to conserve the basic American system that existed before the war except for the royalist and imperialist elements. Adams was not an egalitarian but believed in hierarchy; he therefore wanted to restrict voting to property owners and wanted to let them elect only the members of the lower...
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