- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 25, 2005


By James Grant

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30,

544 pages


It is frequently remarked that of all the American Founding Fathers, we have most often neglected the contributions of John Adams. But that cannot be true — for we remember him more fondly and frequently than Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, Patrick Henry, James Otis, James Wilson and other major figures of the Revolution. Only George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and at times James Madison have a higher status in our pantheon of early heroes. Adams was of course in the minds of his colleagues an “Atlas of Independence,” a true colossus before and during the war.

He embodied the revolutionary impulse that animated the contentious New Englanders, without the insane outbursts of Otis or the endless nasty intrigues of his cousin, Samuel Adams. John Adams was the figure who nominated the Virginian, George Washington, to lead the armies and thus made the Revolution a national effort. Adams was the delegate who insisted that Jefferson hold the pen that wrote the Declaration of Independence. And it was Adams whom the rebellious colonies sent to France and then to the Netherlands to help cement the French alliance and to borrow desperately-needed money from the Dutch.

The author of this volume calls him sarcastically a “junk bond dealer.” His colleagues were often put off by his candor, and Benjamin Franklin, who loved to be loved, said that Adams was an honest man, a wise man, but sometimes out of his senses. James Grant has given us a rather comprehensive account of Adams’ career; it is a fitting companion to David McCullough’s masterful biography of a few years ago. But this study reflects Mr. Grant’s own personal interests, as when he explores the financial history of the times in depth, and Adams’ remarkable efforts to keep the new American nation afloat during the long war. Mr. Grant is no stranger to money and its charms; he is the editor of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.”

More than most authors, he stresses Adams’ evolution from the grandson of a Puritan pastor to being a near Unitarian who believed in God, but not in the divinity of Jesus, who stressed the role of Providence in history, and who in the end reached an accommodation with the ideas of religious toleration. In his years in Europe, he often expressed his deep anti-Catholicism, a dislike for Roman Catholic institutions, and a contempt for its clergy and customs. In that disdain, he reflected the views of the Protestantism of his time and class.

His brusqueness did not often match the need to be diplomatic, and Franklin’s and Adams’ detractors at home were worried about his toughness in dealing with America’s only real ally, the royalist regime in France. They were successful in clipping his negotiating powers, and at times they seem rather obsequious to the king’s ministers. Adams though was above all an American patriot, and among his last words were “Independence Forever.”

His presidency was a one time affair, in which he spent one third of of his time back home in Massachusetts. Throughout his adult life, the outwardly cold Adams remained passionate, physically in love with his extraordinary wife, Abigail, who truly deserves to be called a Founding Mother of the new nation. Their personal sacrifices, the sense of loss and distance, the sometimes alienation of the couple were a common bond that united them to a republican cause. They grew older, but never richer in the service of their country.

As president, Adams stood up to the French and became for a while the darling of the United States — “Adams and Liberty,” the popular tune went. But he insisted on pursuing peace instead of war, and thus avoided the problems that Jefferson and Madison visited on the weak United States during their presidencies. Unfortunately for his reputation, he allied himself with the Alien and Sedition Acts, more because of matters of personal pique than public policy. His enemies accused him of being at heart a monarchist. But they and we forget that he was one of few presidents before Lincoln who did not live off the labor of slaves. Adams opposed luxury, believing that it tarnished republican virtue. His great love, besides Abigail, was books — he bought them, collected them, cherished them and even wrote a few.

Mr. Grant calls him “a party of one.” And indeed he was. For Adams lived in a time when a political leader could be truly authentic, intensely stubborn and willing to go against the public winds. Even his one time opponent, Thomas Jefferson, rightful assessed that Adams was as disinterested as the God who made him. Not uninterested, not obsessed with office, but disinterested — linking ambition and fame to patriotism despite the considerable costs.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two volume history of the American Presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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