Posted: December 15, 2005
t is extremely difficult to imagine anyone really liking John Adams. It is quite difficult to imagine not admiring the man. In bringing about America's independence, especially after the convening of the Continental Congress, no one was more instrumental than John Adams. It was he who nominated and saw to the election of George Washington as commander-in-chief. He also was instrumental in the creation of the United States Navy. Subsequently, Adams contributed vitally as a diplomat, serving on the commission that negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which recognized independence, and later serving as the first American minister to the Court of Saint James.
In addition to his public services, Adams was almost unparalleled as a student of history and political philosophy, and no one contributed more to establishing the principle that checks and balances are crucial to the preservation of liberty in a republican form of government. His voluminous writings on the subject, most notably his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (the first volume of which was available to the framers of the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787) and his later Discourses on Davila, were of significant influence. He also authored the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, which was the nearest thing the framers had to a model.
In most respects Adams's thinking about history and political theory was compatible with the thought of such contemporaries as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, albeit considerably deeper; but in one important particular Adams added a dimension that they lacked. The prevailing notion about the nature of man and society was that men were ruled by their passions, meaning drives for self-gratification. Eighteenth-century theory postulated that everyone tended to have a "ruling passion" that ultimately overrode the rest, and that for men in public life the most common ruling passions were ambition and avarice, the love of power and the love of money. From that assumption it followed that, in devising political arrangements, statesmen should, as Madison wrote in Federalist 51, see to it that "[a]mbition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place."
But Adams went beyond this conventional wisdom. Drawing upon Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments—but also echoing something he knew from the workings of his own psyche—Adams added that in addition to the passions, and perhaps even more powerfully, men were driven by a "universal striving for 'the attention, consideration, and congratulations of mankind.'" In other words, one did what seemed necessary to win the approval of those persons whom one regarded as one's peers. In its actual operations, that consideration proved crucial in guiding the unfolding of the American constitutional order.
But his signal contributions were insufficient to overcome the personal traits that made it virtually impossible to regard him as lovable. Adams was irascible, pigheaded, self-righteous, bigoted, envious, rigid, egotistical, and self-pitying. He was wont to bore people with complaints of various forms of physical malaise; modern scholars have diagnosed these as symptoms of hyperthyroidism, or Graves' disease; the symptoms include "heart palpitations, shortness of breath, eye inflammation, depression, irritability, paranoia, insomnia, muscle weakness, and extreme sensitivity to heat." Benjamin Franklin described Adams as being crazy some of the time; others, including Harrison Gray Otis, less generously thought him insane all the time. For these and other reasons, though I have known many students of history who admire Adams, I have never over the years encountered anyone who actually liked him.
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Until now: James Grant obviously does. Grant is the full-time editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer and author of four major books on American financial history, pursuits that leave him little time for studying so unrelated a subject as John Adams. That difficulty is compounded by the enormous volume of primary sources that Adams left behind. And if these were not formidable enough to deter a less driven student, there is the fact that David McCullough has already published an Adams biography that was a prize-winning blockbuster, selling a stupefying 1.6 million copies. If Grant's work is not a labor of love, I do not know what it would take to qualify as such.
The result is excellent. Grant paints Adams warts and all (the only wart he leaves out, as far as I can judge, is that Adams was a heavy tippler; two of his sons, Charles and Thomas Boylston, were hopeless alcoholics, and John Quincy was also fond of the sauce.) Even so, on each of the many occasions when Adams clashed with a major figure, Grant somehow concludes that Adams was in the right, as a biographer properly should. This story, as Grant tells it, is a fascinating one.
For instance, among Adams's accomplishments in Europe, one of the most important has been largely overlooked by historians. By the time he went abroad, the Congress had long since tottered on the brink of bankruptcy, for it had no power to tax. At first, Congress financed the war by issuing unsecured paper money, but after a year or two the paper began to depreciate. Ultimately it was devalued at a rate of forty to one, and then fell to nothing. Next, Congress sold bonds called loan office certificates, but they were soon valueless as well. For another year, the states picked up the tab before they too exhausted their resources. Loans from France, combined with some financial wizardry by Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris, saw the cause through to victory at Yorktown, but an additional source of funding was crucially necessary.
That is where Adams came in, for he saw that the only remaining hope lay in the possibility of floating new loans from financial men in Holland, who were then the bankers to the world. Personally, Adams hated debt, both private and public, but hat in hand he went to Holland to see what he could do. It grieved him, he said, "as it always brings home to my heart the reflection that I am burdening the industry and labor of my fellow-citizens and countrymen with a heavy load; and when demands are laid before me for millions of livres, for interest already due, I cannot help wishing that I might never have occasion to sign another obligation." Nonetheless, he did it: he negotiated a sizable Dutch loan early in 1782 and another in 1784, and those kept the infant republic afloat a while longer.
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Grant does have a bit of trouble handling Adams's higher-toned notions about government after his experiences in Europe. Grant insists, probably accurately, that Adams never became an advocate of hereditary aristocracy and hereditary monarchy, but Adams did say to Jefferson that if the British constitution, hereditary aristocracy and monarchy included, were purged of its corruption it would be the best form of government ever devised. Then, too, there is the matter of the debate in the Senate—which Adams participated in as well as presided over—wherein the vice president insisted that some exalted title should be bestowed upon the presidency lest it not be regarded as sufficiently dignified. The debate went on for days and grew positively silly. To Grant's credit, he admits that the debate cost Adams's prestige a good deal and made him appear rather a fool. Grant also quotes Senator Ralph Izard of South Carolina, who sneeringly described the obese vice president as "His Rotundity."
A few errors arise when Grant accepts Adams's understanding of events or circumstances even though they are not borne out by the facts. Consider the presidential election of 1796, for example. As the Constitution stood at the time, presidential electors voted for two candidates; whoever got the most votes (if a majority) became president, he who got the second most became vice president. The Federalists agreed to support Adams for the top position and Thomas Pinckney for the second. Adams, however, came to believe that Hamilton conspired to induce a few Federalist electors to vote for Pinckney but not Adams, thus making the South Carolinian president and keeping Adams in the vice presidency. Grant accepts Adams's understanding as the truth, though Hamilton engaged in no such plot. (He did so conspire in 1800, but that is another story.)
And at least one error stems from a misunderstanding that has been repeated by several historians but is not justified by the historical record. In the elections of 1800, the electors in New York (as in most states) were chosen by the state legislature. Aaron Burr persuaded a number of big-name political figures including former governor George Clinton and former general Horatio Gates to run for legislative seats—even though they had no intention of actually serving in the legislature—and as a result Republicans gained control of the body and thereby the state's electoral votes. Hamilton asked Governor John Jay to call a special session of the outgoing Federalist-dominated legislature to change the law, not to thwart the will of the people by allowing the lame ducks to choose the presidential electors themselves (as Grant's and conventional accounts tell us), but to make the choices result from direct democratic elections.
But these are minor quibbles. Grant has provided us with a valuable and highly readable biography. If I come away from it still not especially fond of John Adams, the fault lies not with Grant. He has done what a biographer should do: he has given us a richer understanding of the man.