Books Reviewed

A review of John Adams, by David McCullough

On July 4th, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died. From his deathbed, Adams whispered those famous last words: "Thomas Jefferson survives."

Literally speaking, he was mistaken. Jefferson had expired some hours before. In another sense, though, he was right: the Jefferson legacy continued to live and prosper, while Adams's reputation, figuratively speaking, died an ignominious death.

Unlike Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Jefferson, John Adams never had what he called "puffers," or what we today call PR men. During his lifetime, he had no James Carville to defend him from partisan political opponents, and after he was gone he had no Arthur Schlesinger to mythologize his life and character for posterity.

Until now. With the publication of David McCullough's wonderfully engaging John Adams, "Yankee John" has finally found the "puffer" that he has so long deserved. Zooming to the top of the bestseller list, McCullough has done for Adams what Adams was never able to do for himself—make him popular!

McCullough's thesis is as simple as it now seems undeniable: No one, not even George Washington, did so much for the cause of American independence as John Adams. To argue that Adams was America's greatest founding statesman, the true "Atlas of American Independence," is a bold claim. McCullough's brief for Adams's greatness is persuasive. Adams was at center stage in the American Revolution from beginning to end. He was a leading voice in Boston radical politics during the early years of the Imperial Crisis, and with his election to the first Continental Congress in 1774, Adams emerged as one of America's leading patriots. Over the course of the next two years, no man worked as hard or played as important a role in the movement for independence. Adams chaired the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence; he founded the American Navy; he drafted America's first Model Treaty; and, working 18-hour days, he served as a one-man Department of War and Ordnance. 

Shortly after the battles at Lexington and Concord, Adams began to argue that it was time for the colonies to declare independence and to constitutionalize the powers, rights, and responsibilities of self-government. In May 1776, following Adams's leadership, Congress advised the various colonial assemblies to draft constitutions and construct new governments. At the request of several colleagues, he wrote his own constitutional blueprint, Thoughts on Government, which was used as a working model by constitution-makers in several states. Later, in 1779, Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, which was the most sophisticated constitution produced during the Revolutionary era, and, as McCullough reminds us, is the "oldest functioning written constitution in the world."

Adams's greatest moment in Congress came in the summer of 1776. On July 1, Congress considered final arguments on the question of independence. John Dickinson argued forcefully against independence. When no one responded to Dickinson, Adams rose and delivered a rhetorical tour de force that moved the assembly to vote in favor of independence. It was, arguably, the most important speech in American history. Years later, Thomas Jefferson recalled that so powerful in "thought & expression" was Adams, that he "moved us from our seats." He was, Jefferson said, "our Colossus on the floor."

Adams spent much of the 1780s in Europe as a diplomat and propagandist for the American Revolution. Shunned by aristocratic old-world diplomats, Adams worked tirelessly, employing what he called "militia diplomacy"; he raced back and forth between Paris and The Hague, breaking all the rules of diplomatic etiquette, and pounding on doors until he was listened to. Eventually, he succeeded in convincing the Dutch Republic to recognize American independence in 1782—and he negotiated critical loans with Amsterdam bankers.

After twice serving as vice-president under George Washington, the American people elevated Adams to the presidency in 1796. His greatest accomplishment as president was to navigate the nation through the political storm known as the "Quasi-War." In what McCullough calls the "bravest" act of his political career, Adams (consulting no one) incurred the wrath of Republicans and his own Federalist party by sending a peace mission to France. The resulting Treaty of Marefontaine secured American neutrality and commercial freedom at the critical moment of its birth as a nation.

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McCullough has written an utterly compelling, even beautiful, account of Adams's life and character. The book is not without its faults, however. Despite his extraordinary accomplishments as a statesman, John Adams was first and foremost a thinking revolutionary. Oddly, McCullough has almost nothing to say about Adams's political thought.

The contours of Adams's thought are best seen through a distinction that Adams himself made between the "principles of liberty" and the "principles of government." The first are concerned with the nature of justice and political right, and the second with constitutional design and construction.

Adams most clearly enunciated what he meant by the "principles of liberty" in his 1765 essay, "A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law." The "Dissertation" is an essay in moral education; its purpose was to define and rekindle the American "spirit of liberty" in the shadow of the Stamp Act. But what did he mean by a "spirit of liberty"? Spiritedness for Adams united in body and soul certain "sensations of freedom" and certain "ideas of right." Adams sought to inspire the colonists "sensations of freedom" by imploring all patriots to recall the hardships endured by the first settlers in order to guarantee present freedoms. On a deeper level, however, the revolution for Adams was about certain "ideas of right," and so he appealed to the colonists' reason, imploring them to study the philosophical foundations of their rights and liberties in the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and Locke.

Liberty, for Adams, meant freedom from foreign domination, freedom from unjust government coercion, freedom from other individuals, and freedom from the tyranny of oneself. A free people ought to be jealous of their rights and liberties, and they must always stand on guard to protect them. Adams knew that genuine freedom is fragile, fleeting, and rare; few people have it and those that do must fight to keep it.

Adams's theory of political architecture is presented in his A Defence of the Constitutions of Government in the United States of America (1787-88). At the core of Adams's theory were three basic but essential principles of government: first, representation instead of direct democracy; second, a separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers; and third, a mixture and balance in the legislature between the monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic social elements that Adams thought natural to all societies.

These three principles were the foundation and framework on which he thought all constitutions must be constructed. The first two, representation and separation of powers, were distinctly modern inventions: both were logically derived from Lockean natural-rights theory and its corollary theory of consent. The last principle, however, what Adams called the "triple equipoise," was hardly a modern invention. With its roots in the theory and practice of classical antiquity, the so-called mixed regime rested on an entirely different theoretical foundation. Adams's great theoretical achievement was to reconcile those hitherto discordant doctrines.

From Adams's perspective there were two main problems that must be addressed by all republican constitution-makers. The first was to find some kind of constitutional device by which to neutralize the vices, but also to draw out and up the talents of the exceptional few. The second and related task was to constitutionalize the naturally occurring conflict between the wealthy few and the poor many. In other words, the great problem of constitutional construction was in reconciling aristocratic ambition with democratic envy.

Adams's solution to this intractable problems was to incorporate the triple equipoise—i.e., a mixing and balancing of the one (a president with a legislative veto), the few (a senate), and the many (a house of representatives)—into the legislative branch. Adams's tricameral legislature would harness, channel, and balance the naturally occurring conflict between the few and the many in politically useful ways. The legislative triple equipoise would force these competing social orders to moderate their passions, to look beyond their immediate self-interest, and to compromise with competing interests. In other words, each order with its incomplete view of justice would be forced to moderate and elevate its partial claims. Adams's theory of government is a true innovation in the history and practice of western constitutionalism.

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And what of Adams's relevance for today? It is probably true that there is not much in Adams's thought that can be appropriated for present use. Unlike Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, Adams did not leave behind a usable theory of political economy. In a deeper sense, however, Adams's contribution to the American experiment in self-government was more important. Adams is the man most responsible for the development in America of the idea of a written constitution as fundamental law.

We tend to forget that the American political tradition has never derailed from its original trajectory precisely because it runs on a constitutional track first laid by Adams. The constitutionalism that Adams placed at the heart of American civic life established a barrier to the neo-feudal aspirations of John C. Calhoun and to the socialist dreams of Eugene V. Debs. Adams's parchment barriers have proved to be an iron cage for non-liberal traditions.

We can also still profit from Adams's prescient analysis of the ways in which democracies democratize. He knew that unchecked democratization would eventually liberate the most wicked democratic passions. Genuine democratic equality for Adams meant constitutionalizing rights—rights held in common by all people. But equality before the law must also recognize the natural differences between human beings—i.e., inequalities of wisdom, virtue, merit, beauty, and wealth. Adams reminds us that democratic greatness must be able to recognize and appreciate the truly great.

Adams was not a pragmatist: he could not abide those who love the thrill of politics and the art of the deal more than principled thought and action. Adams held to that old-fashioned belief that men ought to "avow their opinions and defend them with boldness." He thought prudence rightly understood to be a commanding and not a retreating virtue. Prudence and rhetoric, he thought, must be connected to, and depend upon, a higher ethical end, otherwise they collapse into a hollow cleverness.

"Mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me," Adams once lamented. Thanks to David McCullough, we can now build our monuments of thanks.