I had wanted this post to be about a love story that I chanced upon recently. I had wanted it to be about the most enviable bond that the second president of the United States, John Adams, shared with Abigail, his wife of 54 years. I started thinking about it when I came across their correspondence when John had to be away from home, frequently and for considerable swaths of time, in service to their country, leaving Abigail to tend to the farm and their children. Oh they yearned to be with one another, finding each other’s absence as excruciating as they found each other’s company blissful. But Abigail knew that she had to learn to share her husband with the country they were trying to build, and she never put herself before what needed to be done.
In Congress first, and then across the pond in Europe, John’s skill and determination were needed everywhere, and patriot to the core, the man could never not oblige. This meant separation for the two for years on end, at a time when, as Abigail was to write, their children needed a father’s example. The sacrifices they made were tremendous and never lost on either of them, but their undying love for each other weathered every storm and stood the test of time and distance with uncommon strength and patience. Wrote John in his early years,
“Ballast is what I want. I totter with every breeze.”
In the years since, Abigail was to become his “ballast”, and he her “dearest friend”, through thick and thin and for as long as they lived. She was his confidante, and although she had never received a proper education, she was so well-read and so in tune with her husband’s own ideals, that she was also his greatest advisor, as he would tell his son and sixth president of the United States, John Quincy.
“You should look to your wife for the guidance you seek, not me. Your mother was my most faithful advisor. And the wisest.”
But it would be remiss of me to mention Adams the loving husband, and to say nothing of Adams the farmer, thinker, lawyer, legislator, orator, author, negotiator, ambassador – could a list of his roles ever be exhaustive or comprehensive? Nor would it do to produce a resume of all that he did, for to do so would be to ignore his exceptional character. Yes, he was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, orchestrated the American Revolution, served as America’s minister to France, the Netherlands and Great Britain, secured loans and naval support for his infant nation, drafted a peace treaty with the British, wrote the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, served as the first vice president under Washington, served as the second president of the United States, avoided war with France despite pressure from Congress and his Cabinet – again, what does one leave out and where does one stop?
And yet, do any of these accomplishments speak to his integrity as a man, his sincerity and simplicity (he grew tired of French niceties very quickly), his straightforwardness in speech, his passion for work, and his love of books, family and country? He was deeply introspective, even if that meant that he was given to ruminating and bouts of depression when faced with disappointment. A list of his achievements could hardly do him justice. So short of writing a full-fledged biography (and what could best McCullough’s rendition?), how does one talk about the man?
To me, Adams was the single most important Founding Father of the American project and one of the most preeminent figures in the American Revolution. From a rather early age, he had started developing his own ideas of what natural and inalienable rights looked and felt like like and what the role of government should be. So when the time came when American grievances precipitated the need to contemplate the state of affairs, Adams was convinced that only an irrevocable divorce from the British Empire would suffice. And once convinced, no one could shake him, not Mr. Dickinson of Pennsylvania, nor Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, nor Mr. Duane of New York. He moved with the speed of a man who knew the urgency of his mission, nominating Washington to lead the Continental Army and Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration having been produced, he defended every word of it till the very end. It is then that he gave the most powerful and important speech heard in the Congress since its inception and the greatest of his life. Jefferson later remarked that Adams spoke “with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats,” – such was his skill. When two delegates joined the chamber an hour or so after Adams had begun and when they asked him to repeat what they had missed, he objected saying that he was no actor or performer. Yet, he relented and gave his speech a second time, and by the time he was done, he had been on his feet for two hours. He carried the American Revolution in the minds and hearts of Congress almost single-handedly. They say that if Jefferson was the pen of the Declaration, Adams was its voice.
For his country, he was willing to sacrifice everything. He never turned down an appointment, and lived through one frustration after another, never giving up. He suffered indignities at the hands of Franklin, the French Foreign Minister and even his own government back home. Even as Vice President, he swallowed hard and accepted his largely ceremonious role, bereft of the right to express his opinion to the Senate over which he presided, and left out of Washington’s inner circle. But he kept his head down and persisted.
But above all, he was a man of principle. When nobody in Boston would take the case of Captain Preston and his British troops, who had been charged with murder following what came to be known as the Boston Massacre, he stepped up, arguing that every individual must be afforded the right to legal counsel in a free country. He envisioned a country of laws, not men, and a courtroom led by reason and evidence and not passions. Then when his own son-in-law, Colonel Smith, wished for him to put in a word in government so that Smith could find employment, Adams declined saying that he found it unethical and little more than nepotism to use his name for said purpose. And finally, when Jefferson, on the cusp of becoming the third president of the United States, came to Adams to ask him to put in a word in Congress to break the deadlock between him and Aaron Burr for the presidency, Adams declined yet again, saying that it wasn’t his province to comment on the matter.
And he was a man of peace and reason, high above the “din of politics”. When all of Congress was clamoring for war with France with his own Cabinet bent on making it happen, he resisted. This was the same man who had wanted a divorce with Great Britain even if it meant war. Now he had to juggle Hamilton’s war-mongering and Jefferson’s blind denial of French intransigence. He knew full well that ignoring the calls of the nation would mean defeat at the next elections, as his own Cabinet reminded him. But he believed that peace was infinitely more important than who held the presidency. Party politics meant little to the man.
Of significant interest to me is the rich drama between Adams and Jefferson on the question of the proper arrangement of government. Jefferson, who believed in a weak central government found himself at odds with Adams, who believed in a strong central government, to the point that he was accused of being a monarchist. Whereas Jefferson held that the Union would stay quite intact even with a high level of state autonomy, going as far as to say that a central bank was unnecessary, Adams maintained that only a strong center could keep the Union from ripping asunder. Whatever their differences, the two men remained friends and correspondents till their death on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day of their Independence from Great Britain.
In the last year of his life, Adams said to Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“I would to God there were more ambition in the country. By that, I mean ambition of the laudable kind — to excel.”
And I can’t help but wonder about the kinds of things we could do if that kind of ambition, if that hunger for excellence, was common in the politics of today. Oh what an Adams in this day and age could do to rectify the problems we collectively face. Here was a man who saw “large things largely” and who never hesitated to state his opinion, even if his overt honesty and stubbornness were sometimes ill-suited to politics and diplomacy. There is so much one can learn by studying him, a man who never became as iconic as Franklin or Washington or Jefferson.
I was introduced to the subject by my dear friend Andrew Lantz, who got me hooked on the HBO mini-series. Two weeks ago, I picked up a copy of David McCullough’s book from a Half Price Books in Houston, Texas, on which the docudrama is based. A chapter in, I knew I had to watch the series again, and by this time, it’s price had halved on Amazon. It has been a real pleasure reading McCullough’s powerful and vivid account alongside the visual rendition of the story, which does the book more justice than the Harry Potter movies ever did to their own source texts. McCullough’s masterful book is a real tour de force that reads like a work of literature more than it does like a history book, every page building up suspense and begging to be turned. I highly recommend the book and the mini-series to anyone who wants to learn more about the birth of the United States. For if there was ever a man always in thick of it, and if there was ever a man who saw it all, it was John Adams.