John Adams : Constructive Statesmanship – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XI : American Founders by John Lord
Preliminary Chapter : The American Idea
Benjamin Franklin : Diplomacy
George Washington : The American Revolution
Alexander Hamilton : American Constitution
John Adams : Constructive Statesmanship
Thomas Jefferson : Popular Sovereignty
John Marshall : The United States Supreme Court
John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XI : American Founders
The Adams family
Youth and education of John Adams
New England in the eighteenth century
Adams as orator
The Stamp Act
The “Boston Massacre”
Effects of English taxation
Destruction of tea at Boston
Adams sent to Congress
His efforts to secure national independence
Criticisms of the Congress
Battles of Lexington and Concord
Adams moves Washington’s appointment as general-in-chief
Sent to France
Adams as diplomatist
His jealousy of Franklin
Adams in England
Formation of political parties
The Federalists; the Republicans
Adams compared with Jefferson
Discontent of Adams
Strained relations between France and the United States
The Alien and Sedition laws
Decline of the Federal party
Adams’s tenacity of office
His services to the State
Adams in retirement
John Adams : Constructive Statesmanship
The Adams family–on the whole the most illustrious in New England, if we take into view the ability, the patriotism, and the high offices which it has held from the Revolutionary period–cannot be called of patrician descent, neither can it viewed as peculiarly plebeian. The founder was a small farmer in the town of Braintree, of the Massachusetts Colony, as far back as 1636, whose whole property did not amount to £100. His immediate descendants were famous and sturdy Puritans, characterized by their thrift and force of character.
The father of John Adams, who died in 1761, had an estate amounting to nearly £1,500, and could afford to give a college education at Harvard to his eldest son, John, who was graduated in 1755, at the age of twenty, with the reputation of being a good scholar, but by no means distinguished in his class of twenty-four members. He cared more for rural sports than for books. Following the custom of farmers’ sons, on leaving college he kept a school at Worcester before he began his professional studies. His parents wished him to become a minister, but he had no taste for theology, and selected the profession of law.
At that period there were few eminent lawyers in New England, nor was there much need of them, their main business being the collection of debts. They were scarcely politicians, since few political questions were agitated outside of parish disputes. Nor had lawyers opportunities of making fortunes when there were no merchant-princes, no grinding monopolies or large corporations, and no great interest outside of agricultural life; when riches were about equally distributed among farmers, mechanics, sailors, and small traders. Young men contemplating a profession generally studied privately with those who were prominent in their respective callings for two or three years after leaving college, and were easily admitted to the bar, or obtained a license to preach, with little expectation of ever becoming rich except by parsimonious saving.
With our modern views, life in Colonial times naturally seems to have been dull and monotonous, with few amusements and almost no travel, no art, not many luxuries, and the utter absence of what are called “modern improvements.” But if life at that time is more closely scrutinized we find in it all the elements of ordinary pleasure,–the same family ties, the same “loves and wassellings,” the same convivial circles, the same aspirations for distinction, as in more favored civilizations. If luxuries were limited, people lived in comfortable houses, sat around their big wood-fires, kept up at small cost, and had all the necessities of life,–warm clothing, even if spun and woven and dyed at home, linen in abundance, fresh meat at most seasons of the year, with the unstinted products of the farm at all seasons, and even tea and coffee, wines and spirits, at moderate cost; so that the New Englanders of the eighteenth century could look back with complacency and gratitude on the days when the Pilgrim Fathers first landed and settled in the dreary wilderness, feeling that the “lines had fallen to them in pleasant places,” and yet be unmindful that even the original settlers, with all their discomforts and dangers and privations, enjoyed that inward peace and lofty spiritual life in comparison with which all material luxuries are transient and worthless. It is only the divine certitudes, which can exist under any external circumstances, that are of much account in our estimate of human happiness, and it is these which ordinarily escape the attention of historians when they paint the condition of society. Our admiration and our pity are alike wasted when we turn our eyes to the outward condition of our rural ancestors, so long as we have reason to believe that their souls were jubilant with the benedictions of Heaven; and this joy of theirs is especially noticeable when they are surrounded with perils and hardships.
Such was the state of society when John Adams appeared on the political stage. There were but few rich men in New England,–like John Hancock and John Langdon, both merchants,–and not many who were very poor. The population consisted generally of well-to-do farmers, shopkeepers, mechanics, and fishermen, with a sprinkling of lawyers and doctors and ministers, most of whom were compelled to practise the severest economy, and all of whom were tolerably educated and familiar with the principles on which their rights and liberties rested. Usually they were law-abiding, liberty-loving citizens, with a profound veneration for religious institutions, and contentment with their lot. There was no hankering for privileges or luxuries which were never enjoyed, and of which they never heard. As we read the histories of cities or states, in antiquity or in modern times, we are struck with their similarity, in all ages and countries, in everything which pertains to domestic pleasures, to religious life, to ordinary passions and interests, and the joys and sorrows of the soul. Homer and Horace, Chaucer and Shakespeare, dwell on the same things, and appeal to the same sentiments.
So John Adams the orator worked on the same material, substantially, that our orators and statesmen do at the present day, and that all future orators will work upon to the end of time,–on the passions, the interests, and the aspirations which are eternally the same, unless kept down by grinding despotism or besotted ignorance, as in Egypt or mediaeval Europe, and even then the voice of humanity finds entrance to the heart and soul. “All men,” said Rousseau, “are born equal;” and both Adams and Jefferson built up their system of government upon this equality of rights, if not of condition, and defended it by an appeal to human consciousness,–the same in all ages and countries. In regard to these elemental rights we are no more enlightened now than our fathers were a hundred years ago, except as they were involved in the question of negro slavery. When, therefore, Adams began his career as a political orator, it was of no consequence whether men were rich or poor, or whether the country was advanced or backward in material civilization. He spoke to the heart and the soul of man, as Garrison and Sumner and Lincoln spoke on other issues, but involving the same established principles.
Little could John Adams have divined his own future influence and fame when, as a boy on his father’s farm in Braintree, he toiled in rural and commonplace drudgeries, or when he was an undistinguished student at Harvard or a schoolmaster in a country village. It was not until political agitations aroused the public mind that a new field was open to him, congenial to his genius.
Still, even when he boarded with his father, a sturdy Puritan, at the time he began the practice of the law at the age of twenty-three, he had his aspirations. Writes he in his diary, “Chores, chat, tobacco, apples, tea, steal away my time, but I am resolved to translate Justinian;” and yet on his first legal writ he made a failure for lack of concentrated effort. “My thoughts,” he said, “are roving from girls to friends, from friends to court, and from court to Greece and Rome,”–showing that enthusiastic, versatile temperament which then and afterwards characterized him.
Not long after that, he had given up Justinian. “You may get more by studying town-meetings and training-days,” he writes. “Popularity is the way to gain and figure.” These extracts give no indication of legal ambition.
But in 1761 the political horizon was overcast. There were difficulties with Great Britain. James Otis had made a great speech, which Adams heard, on what were called “writs of assistance,” giving power to the English officers of customs in the Colony to enter houses and stores to search for smuggled goods. This remarkable speech made a deep impression on the young lawyer, and kindled fires which were never extinguished. He saw injustice, and a violation of the rights of English subjects, as all the Colonists acknowledged themselves to be, and he revolted from injustice and tyranny. This was the turning-point of his life; he became a patriot and politician. This, however, was without neglecting his law business, which soon grew upon his hands, for he could make a speech and address juries. Eloquence was his gift. He was a born orator, like Patrick Henry.
In 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which produced great agitation in New England, and Adams was fired with the prevailing indignation. His whole soul went forth in angry protest. He argued its injustice before Governor Bernard, who, however, was resolved to execute it as the law. Adams was equally resolved to prevent its execution, and appealed to the people in burning words of wrath. Chief-Justice Hutchinson sided with the Governor, and prevented the opening of the courts and all business transactions without stamps. This decision crippled business, and there was great distress on account of it; but Adams cared less for the injury to people’s pockets than for the violation of rights,–taxation without representation; and in his voice and that of other impassioned orators this phrase became the key-note of the Revolution.
English taxation of the Colonies was not oppressive, but was felt to be unjust and unconstitutional,–an entering-wedge to future exactions, to which the people were resolved not to submit. They had no idea of separation from England, but, like John Hampden, they would resist an unlawful tax, no matter what the consequences. Fortunately, these consequences were not then foreseen. The opposition of the Colonies to taxation without their own consent was a pure outburst of that spirit of liberty which was born in German forests, and in England grew into Magna Charta, and ripened into the English Revolution. It was a turbulent popular protest. That was all, at first, and John Adams fanned the discontent, with his cousin, Samuel Adams, a greater agitator even than he, resembling Wendell Phillips in his acrimony, boldness, and power of denunciation. The country was aroused from end to end. The “Sons of Liberty” societies of Massachusetts spread to Maryland; the Virginians boldly passed declarations of rights; the merchants of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston resolved to import no English goods; and nine of the Colonies sent delegates to a protesting Convention in New York. In 1766 the Stamp Act was repealed because it could not be enforced; but Parliament refused to concede its right of taxation, and there was a prospect of more trouble.
John Adams soon passed to the front rank of the patriotic party in Massachusetts. He was eloquent and he was honest. His popularity in Massachusetts Bay was nearly equal to that of Patrick Henry in Virginia, who was even more vehement. The Tories looked upon Adams pretty much as the descendants of the old Federalists looked upon William Lloyd Garrison when he began the anti-slavery agitation,–as a dangerous man, a fanatical reformer. The presence of such a leader was now needed in Boston, and in 1768 Adams removed to that excitable town, which was always ready to adopt progressive views. Soon after, two British regiments landed in the town, and occupied the public buildings with the view of overawing and restraining the citizens, especially in the enforcement of customs duties on certain imported articles. This was a new and worse outrage, but no collision took place between the troops and the people till the memorable “Boston Massacre” on the 5th of March, 1770, when several people were killed and wounded, which increased the popular indignation. It now looked as if the English government intended to treat the Bostonians as rebels, to coerce them by armed men, to frighten them into submission to all its unwise measures. What a fortunate thing was that infatuation on the part of English ministers! The independence of the Colonies might have been delayed for half-a-century but for the stupidity and obstinacy of George III and his advisers.
By this time John Adams began to see the logical issue of English persistency in taxation. He saw that it would lead to war, and he trembled in view of the tremendous consequences of a war with the mother-country, from which the Colonies had not yet sought a separation.
Adams was now not only in the front rank of the patriotic party, a leader of the people, but had reached eminence as a lawyer. He was at the head of the Massachusetts bar. In addition he had become a member of the legislature, second to no one in influence. But his arduous labors told upon his health, and he removed to Braintree, where he lived for some months, riding into Boston every day. With restored health from out-door exercise, he returned again to Boston in 1772, purchased a house in Queen Street, opposite the court-house, and renewed his law business, now grown so large that he resigned his seat in the legislature. Politics, however, absorbed his soul, and stirring times were at hand.
In every seaport–Charleston, Annapolis, Philadelphia, New York, Boston–the people were refusing to receive the newly-taxed tea. On the 17th of December, 1773, three shiploads of tea were destroyed in Boston harbor by a number of men dressed as Indians. Adams approved of this bold and defiant act, sure to complicate the relations with Great Britain. In his heart Adams now desired this, as tending to bring about the independence of the Colonies. He believed that the Americans, after ten years of agitation, were strong enough to fight; he wanted no further conciliation. But he did not as yet openly declare his views. In 1774 General Gage was placed at the head of the British military force in Boston, and the port was closed. The legislature, overawed by the troops, removed to Salem, and then chose five men as delegates to the General Congress about to assemble in Philadelphia. John Adams was one of these delegates, and associated with him were Samuel Adams, Thomas Cushing, James Bowdoin, and Robert Treat Paine.
All historians unite in their praises of this memorable assembly, as composed of the picked men of the country. At the meeting of this Congress began the career of John Adams as a statesman. Until then he had been a mere politician, but honest, bold, and talented, in abilities second to no one in the country, ranking alone with Jefferson in general influence,–certainly the foremost man in Massachusetts.
But it was the vehemence of his patriotism and his inspiring eloquence which brought Adams to the front, rather than his legal reputation. He was not universally admired or loved. He had no tact. His temper was irascible, jealous, and impatient; his manners were cold, like those of all his descendants, and his vanity was inordinate. Every biographer has admitted his egotism, and jealousy even of Franklin and Washington. Everybody had confidence in his honesty, his integrity, his private virtues, his abilities, and patriotism. These exalted traits were no more doubted than the same in Washington. But if he had more brain-power than Washington he had not that great leader’s prudence, nor good sense, nor patience, nor self-command, nor unerring instinct in judging men and power of guiding them.
One reason, perhaps, why Adams was not so conciliatory as Jefferson was inclined to be toward England was that he had gone too far to be pardoned. He was the most outspoken and violent of all the early leaders of rebellion except his cousin, Samuel Adams. He was detested by royal governors and the English government. But his ardent temperament and his profound convictions furnish a better reason for his course. All the popular leaders were of course alive to the probable personal consequences if their cause should not succeed; but fear of personal consequences was the feeblest of their motives in persistent efforts for independence. They were inspired by a loftier sentiment than that, even an exalted patriotism. It burned in every speech they made, and in every conversation in which they took part. If they had not the spirit of martyrdom, they had the spirit of self-devotion to a noble cause. They saw clearly enough the sacrifices they would be required to make, and the calamities which would overwhelm the land. But these were nothing to the triumph of their cause. Of this final triumph none of the great leaders of the Revolution doubted. They felt the impossibility of subduing a nation determined to be free, by such forces as England could send across the ocean. Battles might be lost, like those of William the Silent, but if the Dutch could overflow their dikes, the Americans, as a last resort, could seek shelter in their forests. The Americans were surely not behind the Dutch in the capacity of suffering, although to my mind their cause was not so precious as that of the Hollanders, who had not only to fight against overwhelming forces, but to preserve religious as well as civil liberties. The Dutch fought for religion and self-preservation; the Americans, to resist a tax which nearly all England thought it had a right to impose, and which was by no means burdensome,–a mooted question in the highest courts of law; at bottom, however, it was not so much to resist a tax as to gain national independence that the Americans fought. It was the Anglo-Saxon love of self-government.
And who could blame them for resisting foreign claims to the boundless territories and undeveloped resources of the great country in which they had settled forever? The real motive of the enlightened statesmen of the day was to make the Colonies free from English legislation, English armies, and English governors, that they might develop their civilization in their own way. The people whom they led may have justly feared the suppression of their rights and liberties; but far-sighted statesmen had also other ends in view, not to be talked about in town-meetings or even legislative halls. As Abraham of old cast his inspired vision down the vista of ages and saw his seed multiplying like the sands of the sea, and all the countries and nations of the world gradually blest by the fulfilment of the promise made to him, so the founders of our republic looked beyond the transient sufferings and miseries of a conflict with their mother-country, to the unbounded resources which were sure to be developed on every river and in every valley of the vast wilderness yet to be explored, and to the teeming populations which were to arise and to be blessed by the enjoyment of those precious privileges and rights for which they were about to take up the sword. They may not have anticipated so rapid a progress in agriculture, in wealth, in manufactures, in science, in literature and art, as has taken place within one hundred years, to the astonishment and admiration of all mankind; but they saw that American progress would be steady, incalculable, immeasurable, unchecked and ever advancing, until their infant country should number more favored people than any nation which history records, unconquerable by any foreign power, and never to pass away except through the prevalence of such vices as destroyed the old Roman world.
With this encouragement, statesmen like Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, were ready to risk everything and make any sacrifice to bring about the triumph of their cause,–a cause infinitely greater than that which was advocated by Pitt, or fought for by Wellington. Their eyes rested on the future of America, and the great men who were yet to be born. They well could say, in the language of an orator more eloquent than any of them, as he stood on Plymouth Rock in 1820:–
“Advance, then, ye future generations! We would hail you, as you rise in your long succession to fill the places which we now fill…. We bid you welcome to the healthy skies and the verdant fields of New England. We greet your accession to the great inheritance which we have enjoyed. We welcome you to the blessings of good government and religious liberty. We welcome you to the treasures of science, and the delights of learning. We welcome you to the transcendent sweets of domestic life, to the happiness of kindred, and parents, and children. We welcome you to the immeasurable blessings of rational existence, the immortal hope of Christianity, and the light of everlasting truth!”
John Adams, whose worth and services Daniel Webster, six years after uttering those words, pointed out in Fanueil Hall when the old statesman died, was probably the most influential member of the Continental Congress, after Washington, since he was its greatest orator and its most impassioned character. He led the Assembly, as Henry Clay afterwards led the Senate, and Canning led the House of Commons, by that inspired logic which few could resist. Jefferson spoke of him as “the colossus of debate.” It is the fashion in these prosaic times to undervalue congressional and parliamentary eloquence, as a vain oratorical display; but it is this which has given power to the greatest leaders of mankind in all free governments,–as illustrated by the career of such men as Demosthenes, Pericles, Cicero, Chatham, Fox, Mirabeau, Webster, and Clay; and it is rarely called out except in great national crises, amid the storms of passion and agitating ideas. Jefferson affected to sneer at it, as exhibited by Patrick Henry; but take away eloquence from his own writings and they would be commonplace. All productions of the human intellect are soon forgotten unless infused with sentiments which reach the heart, or excite attention by vividness of description, or the brilliancy which comes from art or imagination or passion. Who reads a prosaic novel, or a history of dry details, if ever so accurate? How few can listen with interest to a speech of statistical information, if ever so useful,–unless illuminated by the oratorical genius of a Gladstone! True eloquence is a gift, as rare as poetry; an inspiration allied with genius; an electrical power without which few people can be roused, either to reflection or action. This electrical power both the Adamses had, as remarkably as Whitefield or Beecher. No one can tell exactly what it is, whether it is physical, or spiritual, or intellectual; but certain it is that a speaker will not be listened to without it, either in a legislative hall, or in the pulpit, or on the platform. And hence eloquence, wherever displayed, is really a great power, and will remain so to the end of time.
At the first session of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, in 1774, although it was composed of the foremost men in the country, very little was done, except to recommend to the different provinces the non-importation of British goods, with a view of forcing England into conciliatory measures; at which British statesmen laughed. The only result of this self-denying ordinance was to compel people to wear homespun and forego tea and coffee and other luxuries, while little was gained, except to excite the apprehension of English merchants. Yet this was no small affair in America, for we infer from the letters of John Adams to his wife that the habits of the wealthy citizens of Philadelphia were even then luxurious, much more so than in Boston. We read of a dinner given to Adams and other delegates by a young Quaker lawyer, at which were served ducks, hams, chickens, beef, pig, tarts, cream, custards, jellies, trifles, floating islands, beer, porter, punch, wine, and a long list of other things. All such indulgences, and many others, the earnest men and women of that day undertook cheerfully to deny themselves.
Adams returned these civilities by dining a party on salt fish,–perhaps as a rebuke to the costly entertainments with which he was surfeited, and which seemed to him unseasonable in “times that tried men’s souls.” But when have Philadelphia Quakers disdained what is called good living?
Adams, at first delighted with the superior men he met, before long was impatient with the deliberations of the Congress, and severely criticised the delegates. “Every man,” wrote he, “upon every occasion must show his oratory, his criticism, and his political abilities. The consequence of this is that business is drawn and spun out to an immeasurable length. I believe, if it was moved and seconded that we should come to a resolution that three and two make five, we should be entertained with logic and rhetoric, law, history, politics, and mathematics; and then–we should pass the resolution unanimously in the affirmative. These great wits, these subtle critics, these refined geniuses, these learned lawyers, these wise statesmen, are so fond of showing their parts and powers as to make their consultations very tedious. Young Ned Rutledge is a perfect bob-o-lincoln,–a swallow, a sparrow, a peacock; excessively vain, excessively weak, and excessively variable and unsteady, jejune, inane, and puerile.” Sharp words these! This session of Congress resulted in little else than the interchange of opinions between Northern and Southern statesmen. It was a mere advisory body, useful, however, in preparing the way for a union of the Colonies in the coming contest. It evidently did not “mean business,” and “business” was what Adams wanted, rather than a vain display of abilities without any practical purpose.
The second session of the Congress was not much more satisfactory. It did, however, issue a Declaration of Rights, a protest against a standing army in the Colonies, a recommendation of commercial non-intercourse with Great Britain, and, as a conciliatory measure, a petition to the king, together with elaborate addresses to the people of Canada, of Great Britain, and of the Colonies. All this talk was of value as putting on record the reasonableness of the American position: but practically it accomplished nothing, for, even during the session, the political and military commotion in Massachusetts increased; the patriotic stir of defence was evident all over the country; and in April, 1775, before the second Continental Congress assembled (May 10) Concord and Lexington had fired the mine, and America rushed to arms. The other members were not as eager for war as Adams was. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania–wealthy, educated moderate, conservative–was for sending another petition to England, which utterly disgusted Adams, who now had faith only in ball-cartridges, and all friendly intercourse ended between the countries. But Dickinson’s views prevailed by a small majority, which chafed and hampered Adams, whose earnest preference was for the most vigorous measures. He would seize all the officers of the Crown; he would declare the Colonies free and independent at once; he would frankly tell Great Britain that they were determined to seek alliances with France and Spain if the war should be continued; he would organize an army and appoint its generals. The Massachusetts militia were already besieging the British in Boston; the war had actually begun. Hence he moved in Congress the appointment of Colonel George Washington, of Virginia, as commander-in-chief,–much to the mortification of John Hancock, president of the Congress, whose vanity led him to believe that he himself was the most fitting man for that important post.
In moving for this appointment, Adams ran some risk that it would not be agreeable to New England people, who knew very little of Washington aside from his having been a military man, and one generally esteemed; but Adams was willing to run the risk in order to precipitate the contest which he knew to be inevitable. He knew further that if Congress would but, as he phrased it, “adopt the army before Boston” and appoint Colonel Washington commander of it, the appointment would cement the union of the Colonies,–his supreme desire. New England and Virginia were thus leagued in one, and that by the action of all the Colonies in Congress assembled.
Although Mr. Adams had been elected chief-justice of Massachusetts, as its ablest lawyer, he could not be spared from the labors of Congress. He was placed on the most important committees, among others on one to prepare a resolution in favor of instructing the Colonies to favor State governments, and, later on, the one to draft the Declaration of Independence, with Jefferson, Franklin, Sherman, and Livingston. The special task was assigned to Jefferson, not only because he was able with his pen, but because Adams was too outspoken, too imprudent, and too violent to be trusted in framing such a document. Nothing could curb his tongue. He severely criticised most every member of Congress, if not openly, at least in his confidential letters; while in his public efforts with tongue and pen he showed more power than discretion.
At that time Thomas Paine appeared in America as a political writer, and his florid pamphlet on “Common Sense” was much applauded by the people. Adams’s opinion of this irreligious republican is not favorable: “That part of ‘Common Sense’ which relates to independence is clearly written, but I am bold enough to say there is not a fact nor a reason stated in it which has not been frequently urged in Congress,” while “his arguments from the Old Testament to prove the unlawfulness of monarchy are ridiculous.”
The most noteworthy thing connected with Adams’s career of four years in Congress was his industry. During that time he served on at least one hundred committees, and was always at the front in debating measures of consequence. Perhaps his most memorable service was the share he had in drawing the Articles of Confederation, although he left Philadelphia before his signature could be attached. This instrument had great effect in Europe, since the States proclaimed union as well as independence. It was thenceforward easier for the States to borrow money, although the Confederation was loose-jointed and essentially temporary; nationality was not established until the Constitution was adopted. Adams not only guided the earliest attempts at union at home, but was charged with great labors in connection with foreign relations, while as head of the War Board he had enough both of work and of worry to have broken down a stronger man. Always and everywhere he was doing valuable work.
On the mismanagement of Silas Deane, as an American envoy in Paris, it became necessary to send an abler man in his place, and John Adams was selected, though he was not distinguished for diplomatic tact. Nor could his mission be called in all respects a success. He was too imprudent in speech, and was not, like Franklin, conciliatory with the French minister of Foreign Affairs, who took a cordial dislike to him, and even snubbed him. But then it was Adams who penetrated the secret motives of the Count de Vergennes in rendering aid to America, which Franklin would not believe, or could not see. Nor were the relations of Adams very pleasant with the veteran Franklin himself, whose merits he conceived to be exaggerated, and of whom it is generally believed he was envious. He was as fussy in business details as Franklin was easy and careless. He thought that Franklin lived too luxuriously and was too fond of the praises of women.
In 1780 Adams transferred his residence to Amsterdam in order to secure the recognition of independence, and to get loans from Dutch merchants; but he did not meet with much success until the surrender of Lord Cornwallis virtually closed the war. He then returned to Paris, in 1782, to assist Franklin and Jay to arrange the treaty of peace with Great Britain, and the acknowledgment of the independence of the States; and here his steady persistency, united with the clear discernment of Jay, obtained important concessions in reference to the fisheries, the navigation of the Mississippi, and American commerce.
Adams never liked France, as Franklin and Jefferson did. The French seemed to him shallow, insincere, egotistical, and swayed by fanciful theories. Ardent as was his love of liberty, he distrusted the French Revolution, and had no faith in its leaders. Nor was he a zealous republican. He saw more in the English Constitution to admire than Americans generally did; although, while he respected English institutions, he had small liking for Englishmen, as they had for him. In truth, he was a born grumbler, and a censorious critic. He did not like anybody very much, except his wife, and, beyond his domestic circle, saw more faults than virtues in those with whom he was associated. Even with his ardent temperament he had not those warm friendships which marked Franklin and Jefferson.
John Adams found his residence abroad rather irksome and unpleasant, and he longed to return to his happy home. But his services as a diplomatist were needed in England. No more suitable representative of the young republic, it was thought, could be found, in spite of his impatience, restlessness, pugnacity, imprudence, and want of self-control; for he was intelligent, shrewd, high-spirited, and quick-sighted. The diplomatists could not stand before his blunt directness, and he generally carried his point by eloquence and audacity. His presence was commanding, and he impressed everybody by his magnetism and brainpower. So Congress, in 1785, appointed him minister to Great Britain. The King forced himself to receive Adams graciously in his closet, but afterwards he treated him even with rudeness; and of course the social circles of London did the same. The minister soon found his position more uncomfortable even than it had been in Paris. His salary, also, was too small to support his rank like other ambassadors, and he was obliged to economize. He represented a league rather than a nation,–a league too poor and feeble to pay its debts, and he had to endure many insults on that account. Nor could he understand the unfriendly spirit with which he was received. He had hoped that England would have forgotten her humiliation, but discovered his error when he learned that the States were to be indirectly crushed and hampered by commercial restrictions and open violations of the law of nations. England being still in a state of irritation toward her former colonies, he was not treated with becoming courtesy, and of course had no social triumphs such as Franklin had enjoyed at Paris. Finding that he could not accomplish what he had desired and hoped for, he became disgusted, possibly embittered, and sent in his resignation, after a three years’ residence in London, and returned home. Altogether, his career as a diplomatist was not a great success; his comparative failure, however, was caused rather by the difficulties he had to surmount than by want of diplomatic skill. If he was not as successful as had been hoped, he returned with unsullied reputation. He had made no great mistakes, and had proved himself honest, incorruptible, laborious, and patriotic. The country appreciated his services, when, under the new Constitution, the consolidated Union chose its rulers, and elevated him to the second office in the republic.
The only great flaw in Adams as Vice-President was his strange jealousy of Washington,–a jealousy hardly to be credited were it not for the uniform testimony of historians. But then in public estimation he stood second only to the “Father of his Country.” He stood even higher than Hamilton, between whom and himself there were unpleasant relations. Indeed, Adams’s dislike of both Hamilton and Jefferson was to some extent justified by unmistakable evidences of enmity on their part. The rivalries and jealousies among the great leaders of the revolutionary period are a blot on our history. But patriots and heroes as those men were, they were all human; and Adams was peculiarly so. By universal consent he is conceded to have been a prime factor in the success of the Revolution. He held back Congress when reconciliation was in the air; he committed the whole country to the support of New England, and gave to the war its indispensable condition of success,–the leadership of Washington; he was called by Jefferson “the Colossus of debate in carrying the Declaration of Independence” and cutting loose from England; he was wise and strong and indefatigable in governmental construction, as well as in maintaining the armies in the field; he accomplished vast labors affecting both the domestic and foreign relations of the country, and, despite his unpleasant personal qualities of conceit and irritability, his praise was in every mouth. He could well afford to recognize the full worth of every one of his co-laborers. But he did not. Magnanimity was certainly not his most prominent trait.
The duties of a vice-president hardly allow scope for great abilities. The office is only a stepping-stone. There was little opportunity to engage in the debates which agitated the country. The duties of judicially presiding over the Senate are not congenial to a man of the hot temper and ambition of Adams; and when party lines were drawn between the Federalists and Republicans he earnestly espoused the principles of the former. He was in no sense a democrat except in his recognition of popular political rights. He believed in the rule of character, as indicated by intellect and property. He had no great sympathy with the people in their aspirations, although springing from the people himself,–the son of a moderate farmer, no more distinguished than ordinary farmers. He was the first one of his family to reach eminence or wealth. The accusation against him of wishing to introduce a king, lords, and commons was most unjust; but he was at heart an aristocrat, as much as were Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris. And the more his character was scrutinized after he had won distinction, the less popular he was. His brightest days were when he was inspiring his countrymen by his eloquence to achieve their independence.
In office Adams did not pre-eminently shine, notwithstanding his executive ability and business habits. It is true, the equal division of the Senate on some very important measures, such as the power of the President to remove from office without the consent of the Senate, the monetary policy proposed by Hamilton, and some others, gave him the opportunity by his casting vote to sustain the administration, and thus decide great principles with advantage to the country. And his eight years of comparative quiet in that position were happy and restful ones. But Adams loved praise, flattery, and social position. He was easily piqued, and quickly showed it. He did not pass for what he was worth, since he was apt to show his worst side first, without tact and without policy. But no one ever doubted his devotion to the country any more than his abilities. Moreover, he was too fond of titles, and the trappings of office and the insignia of rank, to be a favorite with plain people,–not from personal vanity, great as that was in him, but from his notions of the dignities of high office, such as he had seen abroad. Hence he recommended to Washington the etiquette of a court, and kept it up himself when he became president. Against this must be placed his fondness for leaving the capital and running off to make little visits to his farm at Quincy, Massachusetts, where he was always happiest.
I dwell briefly on his career as Vice-President because he had in it so little to do. Nor was his presidency marked by great events, when, upon the completion of Washington’s second term, and the refusal of that great man to enter upon a third, Adams was elevated in 1797 to the highest position. The country had settled down to its normal pursuits. There were few movements to arrest the attention of historians.
The most important event of the time was, doubtless, the formation of the two great political parties which divided the nation, one led by Hamilton and the other by Jefferson. They were the natural development of the discussion on adopting the Federal Constitution. The Federalists, composed chiefly of the professional classes, the men of wealth and of social position, and the old officers of the army, wanted a strong central government, protection to infant manufactures, banks and tariffs,–in short, whatever would contribute to the ascendency of intellect and property; the Republicans, largely made up of small farmers, mechanics, and laboring people, desired the extension of the right of suffrage, the prosperity of agriculturists, and State ascendency, and were fearful of the encroachments of the general government upon the reserved rights of the States and the people at large.
But the leaders of this “people’s party,” men like the Clintons of the State of New York, were sometimes as aristocratic in their social life as the leaders of the Federalists. During the Revolutionary War the only parties were those who aimed at national independence, and the Royalists, or Tories, who did not wish to sever their connection with the mother-country; but these Tories had no political influence when the government was established under Washington. During his first term of office there was ostensibly but one party. It was not until his second term that there were marked divisions. Then public opinion was divided between those who followed Hamilton, Jay, and Adams, and those who looked up to Jefferson, and perhaps Madison, as leaders in the lines to be pursued by the general government in reference to banks, internal improvements, commercial tariffs, the extension of the suffrage, the army and navy, and other subjects.
The quarrels and animosities between these two parties in that early day have never been exceeded in bitterness. Ministers preached political sermons; the newspapers indulged in unrestricted abuse of public men. The air was full of political slanders, lies, and misrepresentations. Family ties were sundered, and old friendships were broken. The Federalists were distrustful of the French Revolution, and, finally, hostile to it, while the Republican-Democrats were its violent advocates. In New York nearly every Episcopalian was a Federalist, and in Massachusetts and Connecticut nearly every Congregational minister. Freethinkers in religion were generally Democrats, as the party gradually came to be called. Farmers were pretty evenly divided; but their “hired hands” were Democrats, and so were most immigrants.
Whatever the difference of opinion among the contending parties, however, they were sincere and earnest, and equally patriotic. The people selected for office those whom they deemed most capable, or those who would be most useful to the parties representing their political views. It never occurred to the people of either party to vote with the view of advancing their own selfish and private interests. If it was proposed to erect a public building, or dig a canal, or construct an aqueduct, they would vote for or against it according to their notions of public utility. They never dreamed of the spoils of jobbery. In other words, the contractors and “bosses” did not say to the people, “If you will vote for me as the superintendent of this public improvement, I will employ you on the works, whether you are industrious and capable, or idle and worthless.” There were then no Tammany Hall politicians or Philadelphia Republican ringsters. The spoils system was unknown. That is an invention of later times. Politicians did not seek office with a view of getting rich. Both Federalists and Democrats sought office to secure either the ascendency of their party or what they deemed the welfare of the country.
As the Democratic leaders made appeals to a larger constituency, consisting of the laboring classes, than the Federalists did, they gradually gained the ascendency. Moreover, they were more united. The Federal leaders quarrelled among themselves. Adams and Hamilton were accused of breaking up their party. Jefferson adhered to his early principles, and looked upon the advance of democratic power as the logical result of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. He had unlimited faith in the instincts and aspirations of the people, and in their ability to rule themselves, while Adams thought that the masses were not able to select their wisest and greatest men for rulers. The latter would therefore restrict the suffrage to men of property and education, while Jefferson would give it to every citizen, whether poor or rich, learned or ignorant.
With such conflicting views between these great undoubted patriots and statesmen, there were increasing alienations, ripening into bitter hostilities. If Adams was the more profound statesman, according to old-fashioned ideas, basing government on the lessons of experience and history, Jefferson was the more astute and far-reaching politician, foreseeing the increasing ascendency of democratic principles. One would suppose that Adams, born on a New England farm, and surrounded with Puritan influences, would have had more sympathy with the people than Jefferson, who was born on a Virginia plantation, and accustomed to those social inequalities which slavery produces. But it seems that as he advanced in years, in experience, and in honors, Adams became more and more imbued with aristocratic ideas,–like Burke, whose early career was marked for liberal and progressive views, but who became finally the most conservative of English statesmen, and recoiled from the logical sequence of the principles he originally advocated with such transcendent eloquence and ability. And Adams, when he became president, after rendering services to his country second only to those of Washington, became saddened and embittered; and even as Burke raved over the French Revolution, so did Adams grow morose in view of the triumphs of the Democracy and the hopeless defeat of his party, which was destined never again to rally except under another name, and then only for a brief period. There was little of historic interest connected with the administration of John Adams as President of the United States. He held his exalted office only for one term, while his rivals were re-elected during the twenty-four succeeding years of our national history,–all disciples and friends of Jefferson, who followed out the policy he had inaugurated. In general, Adams pursued the foreign policy of Washington, which was that of peace and non-interference. In domestic administration he made only ten removals from office, and kept up the ceremonies which were then deemed essential to the dignity of president.
The interest in his administration centred in the foreign relations of the government. It need not be added that he sympathized with Burke’s “Reflections on the French Revolution,”–that immortal document which for rhetoric and passion has never been surpassed, and also for the brilliancy with which reverence for established institutions is upheld, and the disgust, hatred, and scorn uttered for the excesses which marked the godless revolutionists of the age. It is singular that so fair-minded a biographer as Parton could see nothing but rant and nonsense in the most philosophical political essay ever penned by man. It only shows that a partisan cannot be an historian any more than can a laborious collector of details, like Freeman, accurate as he may be. Adams, like Burke, abhorred the violence of those political demagogues who massacred their king and turned their country into a vile shambles of blood and crime; he equally detested the military despotism which succeeded under Napoleon Bonaparte; and the Federalists generally agreed with him,–even the farmers of New England, whose religious instincts and love of rational liberty were equally shocked.
Affairs between France and the United States became then matters of paramount importance. Adams, as minister to Paris, had perceived the selfish designs of the Count de Vergennes, and saw that his object in rendering aid to the new republic had been but to cripple England. And the hollowness of French generosity was further seen when the government of Napoleon looked with utter contempt on the United States, whose poverty and feebleness provoked to spoliations as hard to bear as those restrictions which England imposed on American commerce. It was the object of Adams, in whose hands, as the highest executive officer, the work of negotiation was placed, to remove the sources of national grievances, and at the same time to maintain friendly relations with the offending parties. And here he showed a degree of vigor and wisdom which cannot be too highly commended.
The President was patient, reasonable, and patriotic. He curbed his hot temper, and moderated his just wrath. He averted a war, and gained all the diplomatic advantages that were possible. He selected for envoys both Federalists and Democrats,–the ablest men of the nation. When Hamilton and Jefferson declined diplomatic missions in order to further their ambitious ends at home, who of the statesmen remaining were superior to Marshall, Pinckney, and Gerry? How noble their disdain and lofty their independence when Talleyrand sought from them a bribe of millions to secure his influence with the First Consul! “Millions for defence, not a cent for tribute,” are immortal words. And when negotiations failed, and there seemed to be no alternative but war,–and that with the incarnate genius of war, Napoleon,–Adams, pacific as was his policy, set about most promptly to meet the exigency, and recommended the construction of a navy, and the mustering of an army of sixteen thousand men, and even induced Washington to take the chief command once more in defence of American institutions. Although at first demurring to Washington’s request, he finally appointed Hamilton, his greatest political rival, to be the second general in command,–a man who was eager for war, and who hoped, through war, to become the leader of the nation, as well as leader of his party. When, seeing that the Americans would fight rather than submit to insult and injustice, the French government made overtures for peace, the army was disbanded. But Adams never ceased his efforts to induce Congress to take measures for national defence in the way of construction of forts on the coast, and the building of ships-of-war to protect commerce and the fisheries.
In regard to the domestic matters which marked his administration the most important was the enactment of the alien and sedition laws, now generally regarded as Federal blunders. The historical importance of the passage of these laws is that they contributed more than all other things together to break up the Federal party, and throw political power into the hands of the Republicans, as the Democrats were still called. At that time there were over thirty thousand French exiles in the country, generally discontented with the government. With them, liberty meant license to do and say whatever they pleased. As they were not naturalized, they were not citizens; and as they were not citizens, the Federalists maintained that they could not claim the privileges which citizens enjoyed to the full extent,–that they were in the country on sufferance, and if they made mischief, if they fanned discontents, if they abused the President or the members of Congress, they were liable to punishment. It must be remembered that the government was not settled on so firm foundations as at the present day; even Jefferson wrought himself to believe that John Adams was aiming to make himself king, and establish aristocratic institutions like those in England. This assumption was indeed preposterous and ill-founded; nevertheless it was credited by many Republicans. Moreover, the difficulties with France seemed fraught with danger; there might be war, and these aliens might prove public enemies. It was probably deemed by the Federalists, governing under such dangers, to be a matter of public safety to put these foreigners under the eyes of the Executive, as a body to be watched, a body that might prove dangerous in the unsettled state of the country.
The Federalists doubtless strained the Constitution, and put interpretations upon it which would not bear the strictest scrutiny. They were bitterly accused of acting against the Constitution. It was averred that everybody who settled in the country was entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” according to the doctrine taught in the Declaration of Independence. And this was not denied by the Federalists so long as the foreigners behaved themselves; but when they gave vent to extreme liberal sentiments, like the French revolutionists, and became a nuisance, it was deemed right, and a wise precaution, to authorize the President to send them back to their own countries.
Now it is probable that these aliens were not as dangerous as they seemed; they were ready to become citizens when the suffrage should be enlarged; their discontent was magnified; they were mostly excitable but harmless people, unreasonably feared. Jefferson looked upon them as future citizens, trusted them with his unbounded faith in democratic institutions, and thought that the treatment of them in the Alien Laws was unjust, impolitic, and unkind.
The Sedition Laws were even more offensive, since under them citizens could be fined and imprisoned if they wrote what were called “libels” on men in power; and violent language against men in power was deemed a libel. But all parties used violent language in that fermenting period. It was an era of the bitterest party strife. Everybody was misrepresented who even aimed at office. The newspapers were full of slanders of the most eminent men, and neither Adams, nor Jefferson, nor Hamilton, escaped unjust criminations and the malice of envenomed tongues. All this embittered the Federalists, then in the height of their power. In both houses of Congress the Federalists were in a majority. The Executive, the judges, and educated men generally, were Federalists. Men in power are apt to abuse it.
It is easy now to see that the Alien and Sedition Laws must have been exceedingly unpopular; but the government was not then wise enough to see the logical issue. Jefferson and his party saw it, and made the most of it. In their appeals to the people they inflamed their prejudices and excited their fears. They made a most successful handle of what they called the violation of the Constitution and the rights of man; and the current turned. From the day that the obnoxious and probably unnecessary laws were passed, the Federal party was doomed. It lost its hold on the people. The dissensions and rivalries of the Federal leaders added to their discomfiture. What they lost they never could regain. Only war would have put them on their feet again; and Adams, with true patriotism, while ready for necessary combat, was opposed to a foreign war for purposes of domestic policy.
Yet the ambitious statesman did not wish to be dethroned. He loved office dearly, and hence he did not yield gracefully to the triumph of the ascendent party, which grew stronger every day. And when their victory was assured and his term of office was about to expire, he sat up till twelve o’clock the last night of his term, signing appointments that ought to have been left to his successors. Among these appointments was that of John Marshall, his Secretary of State, to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,–one that reflected great credit upon his discernment, in spite of its impropriety, for Marshall’s name is one of the greatest in the annals of our judiciary. On the following morning, before the sun had risen, the ex-president was on his way to Braintree, not waiting even for the inauguration ceremonies that installed Jefferson in the chair which he had left so unwillingly, and giving vent to the bitterest feelings, alike unmanly and unreasonable.
I have not dwelt on the minor events of his presidency, such as his appointments to foreign missions, since these did not seriously affect the welfare of the country. I cannot go into unimportant events and quarrels, as in the case of his dismissal of Pickering and other members of his Cabinet. Such matters belong to the historians, especially those who think it necessary to say everything they can,–to give minute details of all events. These small details, appropriate enough in works written for specialists, are commonly dry and uninteresting; they are wearisome to the general reader, and are properly soon forgotten, as mere lumber which confuses rather than instructs. No historian can go successfully into minute details unless he has the genius of Macaulay. On this rock Freeman, with all his accuracy, was wrecked; as an historian he can claim only a secondary place, since he had no eye to proportion,–in short, was no artist, like Froude. He was as heavy as most German professors, to whom one thing is as important as another. Accuracy on minute points is desirable and necessary, but this is not the greatest element of success in an historian.
Some excellent writers of history think that the glory of Adams was brightest in the period before he became president, when he was a diplomatist,–that as president he made great mistakes, and had no marked executive ability. I think otherwise. It seems to me that his special claims to the gratitude of his country must include the wisdom of his administration in averting an entangling war, and guiding the ship of state creditably in perplexing dangers; that in most of his acts, while filling the highest office in the gift of the people, he was patient, patriotic, and wise. We forget the exceeding difficulties with which he had to contend, and the virulence of his enemies. What if he was personally vain, pompous, irritable, jealous, stubborn, and fond of power? These traits did not swerve him from the path of duty and honor, nor dim the lustre of his patriotism, nor make him blind to the great interests of the country as he understood them,–the country whose independence and organized national life he did so much to secure. All cavils are wasted, and worse than wasted, on such a man. His fame will shine forevermore, in undimmed lustre, to bless mankind. Small is that critic who sees the defects, but has no eye for the splendors, of a great career!
There is but little more to be said of Adams after the completion of his term of office. He retired to his farm in Quincy, a part of Braintree, for which he had the same love that Washington had for Mount Vernon, and Jefferson for Monticello. In the placid rest of agricultural life, and with a comfortable independence, his later days were spent. The kindly sentiments of his heart grew warmer with leisure, study, and friendly intercourse with his town’s-people. He even renewed a pleasant correspondence with Jefferson. He took the most interest, naturally, in the political career of his son, John Quincy Adams, whom he persuaded to avoid extremes, so that it is difficult to say with which political party he sympathized the most. In mediis tutissimus ibis.
In tranquil serenity the ex-president pondered the past, and looked forward to the future. His correspondence in the dignified retirement of his later years is most instructive, showing great interest in education and philanthropy. He was remarkably blessed in his family and in all his domestic matters,–the founder of an illustrious house, eminent for four successive generations. His wife, who died in 1818, was one of the most remarkable women of the age,–his companion, his friend, and his counsellor,–to whose influence the greatness of his son, John Quincy, is in no small degree to be traced.
Adams lived twenty-five years after his final retirement from public life, in 1801, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, dividing his time between his farm, his garden, and his library. He lived to see his son president of the United States. He lived to see the complete triumph of the institutions he had helped to establish. He enjoyed the possession of all his faculties to the last, and his love of reading continued unabated to the age of ninety-one, when he quietly passed away, July 4, 1826. His last prayer was for his country, and his last words were,–“Independence forever!”
Life of John Adams, by J.T. Morse, Jr.; Life of Alexander Hamilton, by Lodge; Parton’s Life of Jefferson; Bancroft, United States; Daniel Webster, Oration on the Death of Adams and Jefferson; Life of John Jay, by Jay, Flanders, and Whitelocke; Fiske’s Critical Period of American History; Sparks’ Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution; Rives’ Life of Madison; Curtis’s History of the Constitution; Schouler’s History of the United States; McMaster’s History of the People of the United States; Von Holst’s Constitutional History; Pitkin’s History of the United States; Horner’s Life of Samuel Adams, Magruder’s Marshall.