Our second president, John Adams, who was born this week (Oct. 30) in 1735, would serve his country with a dedication that only one other Founding Father surpassed — the one who preceded him to the presidency, George Washington. When Adams wasn’t being asked to leave his home and family in Braintree, Massachusetts, to serve his country in Congress, he was asked to leave home, family and country to represent the latter in Europe — and he always went despite the toll it took on his family, his finances and his health.
In his day his importance to the nation was considered second only to Washington, and it was Adams himself, as leader of the Continental Congress, who convinced Congress to make Washington commander of the Revolutionary Army — thus making possible Washington’s heroic destiny.
Adams also later convinced that Congress to assign another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, the task of writing a document declaring America’s independence from England. As historian David McCullough has noted, if Adams had done nothing other than those two deeds, his imprint on American history would be indelible.
But Adams did much more. His Thoughts on Government, written in 1775, was an early blueprint on how to arrange government institutions to ensure liberty among the people, and during the American Revolution it was Adams who secured a vital loan from the Netherlands that helped the Americans keep on fighting. Once that war was won, Adams also helped negotiate the peace treaty with England.
As America’s first vice president (a job the loquacious Adams loathed as much because it rendered him mute as it did powerless), he was the model of loyalty to Washington, while his own presidency, although controversial thanks to the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, was a qualified success marked by terrible timing. Among other things, Adams sensibly kept an unprepared America out of a potentially disastrous war with France, even though the rest of the nation clamored for it. But news of the peace treaty eliminating all causes for that war arrived just after the election of 1800, which he lost to Jefferson.
He also lost to Jefferson — or so he believed — his rightful place among the pantheon of American heroes. Adams was both jealous and astonished that Jefferson, whose only major contribution to the revolution was a document that Adams had assigned him to write, became the symbol of the revolutionary spirit. And even though the two men ended their lives as friends — forever linked by dying on the same historic day, July 4, 1826 — Adams was convinced he would never get his proper due.
He was almost right. It would take 175 years and David McCullough’s wonderful book, John Adams, to give him that due at last.