When an author writes something about John Adams, the second president of the United States, it usually begins with a justification for writing about a man with the personality faults that Adams had and the adventures he didn’t have. He was a pencil pusher, but a very effective pencil pusher.
It is true that Adams was jealous of others’ success to an inordinate degree. He disparaged the accomplishments of others in order to magnify his own. Some contemporaries believed the intensity of his jealousy was near to insanity. He was bitter, vituperative and given to sudden rages. He suffered periodically from deep depressions and attacks of anxiety. He worried constantly about how history would treat him, fearing that it would give all the praise to Washington and Jefferson and marginalize his accomplishments. He was not far wrong on this count.
But there was a puritan morality about Adams that would not allow him to compromise his core principles even to further his ambitions. Many people disliked him and said terrible things about him, but not even his worst enemies would call him dishonest or corrupt.
Slavery was permitted in Adam’s home state of Massachusetts. Many neighbors and acquaintances owned a few slaves. Since Adams was away from his family and farm for years at a time on the new nations business, having a slave or two for the heavy work would have saved his wife from the heaviest work of farming. However, Adams and his wife Abigail both detested the institution of slavery and would have no slaves despite the fact that a politician of that period who had any hint of abolition about him would have a difficult time on the national stage.
It is interesting to compare Adam’s conduct in this regard to the conduct of other founding fathers who have been celebrated far more than Adams. Washington and Jefferson were both wealthy Virginia planters who each owned hundreds of slaves. Both recognized the institution of slavery to be terribly wrong, but made no effort to change the status quo or even to say much about it.
Washington at least offered freedom to his slaves upon his death. Jefferson, who had fathered several children on a slave woman, not only did not free his children, but actually ordered them sold after his death to satisfy his creditors.
Besides a strong ethical framework, what Adams also had was a vast capacity for hard work in the service of his nation. Most of all, he had a better understanding of constitutional government than any of the founding fathers except perhaps Alexander Hamilton. The bicameral structure and separation of powers written into the Constitution of the United States is largely the doing of John Adams. Many people knew of and appreciated his many services to the establishment of the nation, but his careful legal work was not the stuff of heroes and to be a hero on a plane with Washington is what he desperately wanted. But no one gives a parade or erects a statue for a pencil pusher.
Perhaps the greatest effect he had as president on the course of America history was his successful effort to avoid a war with France in the 1790’s. He felt, probably correctly, that the young nation was not in a position to win that war. He also believed (almost certainly correctly) that such a divisive war at that time would rend the union apart. (This was the first time in American history that the word ‘secession’ started appearing in political pamphlets and speeches.)
It was a courageous act on his part. In this effort, he was opposed by factions in his own party and to some extent supported by the opposing party. His success in suppressing the war fever that had gripped the nation was rewarded by the sudden destruction of his political career. His own cabinet betrayed him and conspired to keep him from being re-elected.
Afterwards he slipped into a long and bitter retirement sweetened somewhat by the well-known correspondence between he and his long-time antagonist, Thomas Jefferson. That correspondence gave the impression that the two old political enemies had forged out a friendship in their later years. That may be true, but it is also true that they were writing for posterity and to assure their rightful place in the history of the American Revolution.
To strengthen their hold on history, both of them died on the fourth of July 1826 about two hours apart, Adams in Massachusetts and Jefferson at Monticello in Virginia.