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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Adams (1735–1826)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
JOHN ADAMS, second President of the United States, was born at Braintree, Massachusetts, October 19th, 1735, and died there July 4th, 1826, the year after his son too was inaugurated President. He was the first conspicuous member of an enduringly powerful and individual family. The Adams race have mostly been vehement, proud, pugnacious, and independent, with hot tempers and strong wills; but with high ideals, dramatic devotion to duty, and the intense democratic sentiment so often found united with personal aristocracy of feeling. They have been men of affairs first, with large practical ability, but with a deep strain of the man of letters which in this generation has outshone the other faculties; strong-headed and hard-working students, with powerful memories and fluent gifts of expression.  1
  All these characteristics went to make up John Adams; but their enumeration does not furnish a complete picture of him, or reveal the virile, choleric, masterful man. And he was far more lovable and far more popular than his equally great son, also a typical Adams, from the same cause which produced some of his worst blunders and misfortunes,—a generous impulsiveness of feeling which made it impossible for him to hold his tongue at the wrong time and place for talking. But so fervid, combative, and opinionated a man was sure to gain much more hate than love; because love results from comprehension, which only the few close to him could have, while hate—toward an honest man—is the outcome of ignorance, which most of the world cannot avoid. Admiration and respect, however, he had from the majority of his party at the worst of times; and the best encomium on him is that the closer his public acts are examined, the more credit they reflect not only on his abilities but on his unselfishness.  2
  Born of a line of Massachusetts farmers, he graduated from Harvard in 1755. After teaching a grammar school and beginning to read theology, he studied law and began practice in 1758, soon becoming a leader at the bar and in public life. In 1764 he married the noble and delightful woman whose letters furnish unconscious testimony to his lovable qualities. All through the germinal years of the Revolution he was one of the foremost patriots, steadily opposing any abandonment or compromise of essential rights. In 1765 he was counsel for Boston with Otis and Gridley to support the town’s memorial against the Stamp Act. In 1766 he was selectman. In 1768 the royal government offered him the post of advocate-general in the Court of Admiralty,—a lucrative bribe to desert the opposition; but he refused it. Yet in 1770, as a matter of high professional duty, he became counsel (successfully) for the British soldiers on trial for the “Boston Massacre.” Though there was a present uproar of abuse, Mr. Adams was shortly after elected Representative to the General Court by more than three to one. In March, 1774, he contemplated writing the “History of the Contest between Britain and America!” On June 17th he presided over the meeting at Faneuil Hall to consider the Boston Port Bill, and at the same hour was elected Representative to the first Congress at Philadelphia (September 1) by the Provincial Assembly held in defiance of the government. Returning thence, he engaged in newspaper debate on the political issues till the battle of Lexington.  3
  Shortly after, he again journeyed to Philadelphia to the Congress of May 5th, 1775; where he did on his own motion, to the disgust of his Northern associates and the reluctance even of the Southerners, one of the most important and decisive acts of the Revolution,—induced Congress to adopt the forces in New England as a national army and put George Washington of Virginia at its head, thus engaging the Southern colonies irrevocably in the war and securing the one man who could make it a success. In 1776 he was a chief agent in carrying a declaration of independence. He remained in Congress till November, 1777, as head of the War Department, very useful and laborious though making one dreadful mistake: he was largely responsible for the disastrous policy of ignoring the just claims and decent dignity of the military commanders, which lost the country some of its best officers and led directly to Arnold’s treason. His reasons, exactly contrary to his wont, were good abstract logic but thorough practical nonsense.  4
  In December, 1777, he was appointed commissioner to France to succeed Silas Deane, and after being chased by an English man-of-war (which he wanted to fight) arrived at Paris in safety. There he reformed a very bad state of affairs; but thinking it absurd to keep three envoys at one court (Dr. Franklin and Arthur Lee were there before him), he induced Congress to abolish his office, and returned in 1779. Chosen a delegate to the Massachusetts constitutional convention, he was called away from it to be sent again to France. There he remained as Franklin’s colleague, detesting and distrusting him and the French foreign minister, Vergennes, embroiling himself with both and earning a cordial return of his warmest dislike from both, till July, 1780. He then went to Holland as volunteer minister, and in 1782 was formally recognized as from an independent nation. Meantime Vergennes intrigued with all his might to have Adams recalled, and actually succeeded in so tying his hands that half the advantages of independence would have been lost but for his contumacious persistence. In the final negotiations for peace, he persisted against his instructions in making the New England fisheries an ultimatum, and saved them. In 1783 he was commissioned to negotiate a commercial treaty with Great Britain, and in 1785 was made minister to that power. The wretched state of American affairs under the Confederation made it impossible to obtain any advantages for his country, and the vindictive feeling of the English made his life a purgatory, so that he was glad to come home in 1788.  5
  In the first Presidential election of that year he was elected Vice-President on the ticket with Washington; and began a feud with Alexander Hamilton, the mighty leader of the Federalist party and chief organizer of our governmental machine, which ended in the overthrow of the party years before its time, and had momentous personal and literary results as well. He was as good a Federalist as Hamilton, and felt as much right to be leader if he could; Hamilton would not surrender his leadership, and the rivalry never ended till Hamilton’s murder. In 1796 he was elected President against Jefferson. His Presidency is recognized as one of the ablest and most useful on the roll; but its personal memoirs are most painful and scandalous. The cabinet were nearly all Hamiltonians, regularly laid all the official secrets before Hamilton, and took advice from him to thwart the President. They disliked Mr. Adams’s overbearing ways and obtrusive vanity, considered his policy destructive to the party and injurious to the country, and felt that loyalty to these involved and justified disloyalty to him. Finally his best act brought on an explosion. The French Directory had provoked a war with this country, which the Hamiltonian section of the leaders and much of the party hailed with delight; but showing signs of a better spirit, Mr. Adams, without consulting his Cabinet, who he knew would oppose it almost or quite unanimously, nominated a commission to frame a treaty with France. The storm of fury that broke on him from his party has rarely been surpassed, even in the case of traitors outright, and he was charged with being little better. He was renominated for President in 1800, but beaten by Jefferson, owing to the defections in his own party, largely of Hamilton’s producing. The Federalist party never won another election; the Hamilton section laid its death to Mr. Adams, and American history is hot with the fires of this battle even yet.  6
  Mr. Adams’s later years were spent at home, where he was always interested in public affairs and sometimes much too free in comments on them; where he read immensely and wrote somewhat. He heartily approved his son’s break with the Federalists on the Embargo. He died on the same day as Jefferson, both on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  7
  As a writer, Mr. Adams’s powers show best in the work which can hardly be classed as literature,—his forcible and bitter political letters, diatribes, and polemics. As in his life, his merits and defects not only lie side by side, but spring from the same source,—his vehemence, self-confidence, and impatience of obstruction. He writes impetuously because he feels impetuously. With little literary grace, he possesses the charm that belongs to clear and energetic thought and sense transfused with hot emotion. John Fiske goes so far as to say that “as a writer of English, John Adams in many respects surpassed all his American contemporaries.” He was by no means without humor,—a characteristic which shows in some of his portraits,—and sometimes realized the humorous aspects of his own intense and exaggerative temperament. His remark about Timothy Pickering, that “under the simple appearance of a bald head and straight hair, he conceals the most ambitious designs,” is perfectly self-conscious in its quaint naïveté.  8
  His ‘Life and Works,’ edited by his grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Sr., in ten volumes, is the great storehouse of his writings. The best popular account of his life is by John T. Morse, Jr., in the ‘American Statesmen’ series.  9
 
 
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