How can so many Americans think Bill Clinton was a bad president when in fact he was such a good president. Which was he? ‘History will decide,’ goes the standard line.

But will it? I was fascinated to read David McCullough’s best-selling John Adams, which shows what an underappreciated hero Adams was . . . but then to read Richard Rosenfeld’s take.

Rosenfeld is the author of the widely acclaimed American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns: The Suppressed History of Our Nation’s Beginnings and The Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It. In granting permission to share the essay that follows, Richard writes, ‘No Democrat or democrat should be supporting a Washington memorial for John Adams, especially in the absence of any for the nation’s two actual colossi of independence and our greatest democratic founders, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.’

[For those short on time, I have taken the liberty of highlighting a few lines, so you at least get the gist.]

This essay was written at the invitation of
The Thomas Paine National Historical Association
and appeared in the
September 2001 Education Issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Lost Lessons from the Early Republic
By Richard N. Rosenfeld

If we knew nothing more of John Adams than that his alternative life plan was to preach from the pulpit of Massachusetts’ established puritan church, that two of his three sons, Thomas and Charles, were alcoholics (one died of it), that the third, John Quincy, who dogged his father’s footsteps to the presidency, was, by all accounts, ‘a cold, austere, and foreboding character’ (J.Q.’s words), and that leading politicians of his day saw John Adams as emotionally, shall we say, unbalanced (Benjamin Franklin: ‘in some things absolutely out of his senses;’ Thomas Jefferson: ‘sometimes absolutely mad;’ Madison: ‘sometimes wholly out of his senses;’ Hamilton: ‘liable to paroxysms of anger, which deprive him of self command’), we might speculate that John Adams was an overbearing and hypercritical pedant, distant from friends and enemies alike. But the truth is far worse.

From the time Adams served, during the Revolution, as an ambassador to America’s only ally, France (French Foreign Minister Vergennes asked Congress to remove Adams ‘on account of a stubbornness, a pedantry, a self-sufficiency, and a self-conceit which render him incapable of handling political questions’) to his waning days as a one-term president (many party leaders then found that such character defects, as Hamilton charged, ‘unfit him for the office of Chief Magistrate’), John Adams’ pathological narcissism repeatedly put his country’s interests at risk and ultimately doomed his Federalist party to extinction. In his own mind, he was never at fault.

For his abortive diplomacy in France and thereafter in the Netherlands, where he failed to obtain Dutch help or recognition until America’s independence had been won, Adams blamed his fellow ambassador Benjamin Franklin and French Foreign Minister Vergennes: ‘I was pursued into Holland by the intrigues of Vergennes and Franklin at least as much as I ever had been in France, and was embarrassed and thwarted, both in my negotiations for a loan and in those of a political nature, by their friends, Agents, and Spies.’ For his problems as President, he blamed Hamilton (‘a bastard Bratt of a Scotch Pedlar’ is how Adams described him) and disloyal cabinet members. To himself, John Adams was always a hero. The historian David McCullough, in his most recent book, John Adams, has taken a similar view.

From the first sentence of McCullough’s beautifully written biography (‘In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north.’), we are off on a dramatic and heroic ride with the founding father he aims to glorify, most effectively through the worshipful phrase ‘the colossus of independence,’ which he employs as a chapter title and then falsely attributes to Thomas Jefferson. (This nonexistent quotation has been perpetuated in reviews and even appeared as the cover line on an issue of The New York Times Book Review.) To McCullough, Adams’ pursuit of French aid was ‘one of his own proudest efforts,’ his final receipt of a Dutch loan ‘simply extraordinary,’ his unsuccessful tenure as ambassador to Britain (where he failed to negotiate a single commercial agreement) understandable: ‘Nor could it be imagined that another of his countryman … could have done better.” Etc.

McCullough is hardly alone in this approach. In the last half century, as the Massachusetts Historical Society has published mile after mile of microfilm containing thousands upon thousands of Adams’ writings in justification and exposition of his life, the sheer volume of this material has shifted the scale of historical judgment ponderously in his favor. This cornucopia, so rich in the particulars of what Adams saw, thought, and felt, has allowed David McCullough and other historians to detail Adams’ trips across the sea, his relationships with family members, and his arguments with friends and enemies alike. As a result, McCullough’s biography of Adams partakes of the aura of autobiography and, in doing so,  raises important questions of identity and verity.

Who was John Adams? “John Adams, it was said, was a ‘good husband, a good father, a good citizen, and a good man,’“ McCullough reports. This is generally how Adams saw himself, but one wonders whether his alcoholic sons Charles (“I renounce him,” declared Adams on learning of his son’s condition) or Thomas (“a brute in manners and a bully in his family,” is how a nephew described him) would characterize Adams this way. Or whether Congressman Matthew Lyons, whom Adams jailed for calling his presidency “a continual grasp for power,” would affirm Adams’ good citizenship. Or whether any of the other democratic newspaper editors whom Adams imprisoned for criticizing his presidency (a “reign of witches” is how Jefferson described the period) would find him admirable. Or whether the fifteen boatloads of would-be Americans, who fled the country in fear of Adams’ arbitrary powers, would agree that he was a good man.

“Who was John Adams?” becomes, therefore, a matter of whom one asks and what one values, and it is here that David McCullough’s John Adams fails in a most regrettable way. For McCullough evidently accepts John Adams’ perspective that Americans define themselves more by their separation from England (which Adams certainly advocated) than they do by their devotion to popular democracy and the Bill of Rights (which Adams tried to suppress). Only by accepting this inverted system of American priorities could McCullough justify, for example, devoting more than twenty pages to Adams’ ocean voyages (“brave”) during the Revolution and fewer than six pages (most of them exculpatory) to his Alien and Sedition Acts. Only by so doing could McCullough completely disregard the violence and intimidation which Adams’s federal army and private militias dealt his political enemies, driving some into shelters for their self-protection. Had McCullough chosen, unlike Adams, to attach a higher value to popular democracy and to the Bill of Rights than to the nation’s separation from England, he might have described John Adams the way many of the nation’s democrats, including Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin’s grandson and protégé, Benjamin Franklin Bache, judged him, that is, as an admirer of monarchy who, in fact, opposed popular democracy and trampled on the Bill of Rights.

In the spring of 1776, shortly before the colonies declared independence, Paine visited John Adams, reporting that Adams “was for independence, because he expected to be made great by it; but,” Paine added, “his head was as full of kings, queens, and knaves as a pack of cards.” Paine met with Adams to discuss Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense,” which had electrified the country into support for independence by arguing, inter alia, that monarchy was unholy and that power should lie with the democratic majority, expressing itself through simple representative assemblies whose members would be elected without regard to wealth or property. Adams saw Paine’s pamphlet as flowing from “a mere desire to please the democratic party” (and later wrote, “What a poor ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass, is Tom Paine’s Common Sense”). To counter the pamphlet’s democratic tendencies, Adams published his own pamphlet, “Thoughts on Government,” which argued that society’s various “interests,” rather than its people, should be equally represented in government and that legislative power should depend on three concurring entities: a house, a senate, and a chief executive.

Adams put his “interests” concept into practice three years later, when he drafted Massachusetts’ first state constitution, dividing legislative power among a house of representatives (members were required to possess at least 100 pounds in property), a senate (senators at least 300 pounds in property), and a governor (at least 1,000 pounds in property), each with the right to veto the other and each to be elected by voters meeting specified qualifications for wealth or property. (In striking contrast, America’s two leading democrats, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, had superintended the writing of the nation’s most democratic state constitution – that of Pennsylvania in 1776 – adopting Paine’s model of a simple legislative assembly without wealth or property qualifications for voters or representatives.)

The upshot of John Adams’ Massachusetts constitution of 1780 was the Shays Rebellion of 1786, in which poor farmers from western Massachusetts took up arms to demand, among other things, the elimination of the wealthy Massachusetts senate (through which their wealthy creditors had blocked badly needed debt relief) and the adoption of a more democratic state government, with liberalized representation. Hearing of this, and knowing that the United States would shortly be designing a federal constitution for the entire country, Adams worked feverishly in England (where he was then ambassador) to complete the first of three volumes of his “Defence of The [State] Constitutions of Government of The United States,” arguing that the best form of government was that of England, where legislative power was shared and balanced among the one (the king or chief executive), the few (a property-based aristocracy represented in a House of Lords or Senate), and the many (the people, represented in a House of Commons of House of Representatives). As Thomas Jefferson was to ask, “Can any one read Mr. Adams’ defence of the American constitutions without seeing he was a monarchist?”

Certainly, many Americans saw Adams this way, including his old and intimate friend Mercy Otis Warren, who opined, “He became so enamoured with the British constitution, and the government, manners, and laws of the nation, that a partiality for monarchy appeared.” Evidence of that partiality appeared again at the start of the federal government in the spring of 1789, when Adams shocked his senate colleagues with a proposal for George Washington to be called “His Highness, The President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” Shortly thereafter, Adams’ friend Benjamin Rush cautioned Adams that monarchical pageantry was unseemly for a republic, to which Adams caustically replied on June 19th, “You seen determined not to allow a limited monarchy to be a republican system, which it certainly is, and the best that has ever been tried.”

It is beyond the scope of this review to recite the numerous individuals who, from 1776 on, testified to Adams’ belief in monarchy. Suffice it to say that, at least to this reviewer’s knowledge, not a single person who knew John Adams defended him against the many charges of monarchism. As Congressman Gabriel Duvall observed when he informed James Madison of Adams’ loss of Maryland in the election of 1800, “A good deal of the opposition which has been made to the re-election of Mr. Adams has proceeded from a belief in many that he is a Monarchist.” Yet for David McCullough, that belief was mistaken.

What allows McCullough and many other historians to reject the judgment of so many of Adams’ own generation is, in large part, a body of exculpatory pleadings that Adams prepared when he was in his seventies and eighties – this in conjunction with the absence of any personal diary entries, and a paucity of personal correspondence for the time Adams was president. In all events, when Adams’ most important detractors – Paine, Hamilton, Franklin, and Benjamin Franklin Bache – had departed this realm, when Adams’ old adversary, the now elderly and retired Thomas Jefferson, nostalgically agreed to indulge his fellow former president in an exchange of self-serving correspondence for the sake of posterity, and when Adams had fully digested the revulsion so many Americans felt for his anti-democratic theory and practice of government, Adams denied he had ever believed in monarchyand claimed he had saved the country from war. “I desire no other inscription over my gravestone,” wrote Adams, “than: ‘Here lies John Adams who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France in the year 1800.’“ David McCullough adds this to the chorus: “To his everlasting credit, at the risk of his career, reputation and his hold on the presidency, he chose not to go to war when that would have been highly popular and politically advantageous in the short run.” But here, once again, the picture is less flattering than Adams and McCullough would have us believe.

The president who delivered those messages was not, as Adams later sought to color himself, a moderate and pacific man resisting the bellicosity of Hamilton and the so-called “High Federalists.” Adams was then, as always, a “High Federalist.” Indeed, it was Adams’ cabinet and Hamilton who urged moderation on a bellicose Adams, whose first three drafts of the March 19th message called for a Declaration of War against France (though his final message was simply a call to arms). It was Adams who inflamed the country, declaring days of prayer and fasting, signing measure after measure of war preparations, exhorting communities throughout the country to assume a “warlike character,” jailing newspaper editors who criticized his war measures, ordering his navy to attack French ships wherever they might be found, encouraging private volunteer militias (which formed in his name and terrorized his critics), and even donning a military uniform to receive and address those militias in the president’s house.

So why, then, did Adams make peace with France in 1800? The reasons are far less heroic than McCullough (and Adams) would have us believe. When Adams proposed, on February 18th of 1799, to send a final peace mission to France, there was reason to regard his proposal as an insincere and empty gesture, at odds with his consistently bellicose personal, professional, and ideological attitude toward France (and the French Revolution), and as merely a conciliatory response to the many diplomats and other important citizens who testified to pacific French intentions, to the private exhortations of even his own children, and to petitions against his war preparations from 90 percent of Pennsylvanians who had voted in the prior presidential election. Soon after the announcement, Adams restructured the mission so that it was less likely to depart in the foreseeable future and thus would, as Jefferson wrote Madison, “leave more time for new projects of provocation.” For the next eight months, Adams did absolutely nothing to see that a peace mission departed.

But then, in October, Adams ordered the peace mission to depart, against the wishes of Hamilton and some in his cabinet. By this action, Adams earned the admiration of McCullough and many other historians of the Early Republic who have concluded that Adams was a moderate who defied High-Federalists in his party. There is, however, much more to the story than that

A few weeks after the February announcement and only three days before Adams left Philadelphia for a seven-month retreat to his home state of Massachusetts (Adams still holds the worst record for absenteeism of any American president), Adams ordered his brand new federal army into Pennsylvania’s rural Northampton, Bucks, and Montgomery counties to suppress “misrepresentations” and other “subversive” anti-war activities of Pennsylvania farmers, who were then protesting Adams’ war taxes and his Alien and Sedition Acts. To lead this mission, Adams chose William Macpherson, commander of the private and infamous Macpherson Blues militia legions, which had, for more than a year, been terrorizing Adams’ political opponents in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Once in the country, troops of the federal army invaded the private homes of Pennsylvania farm families, terrorized men, women, and children alike, tore down symbols of political opposition to Adams (such as “liberty poles”), and publicly whipped newspaper editors who reported their misconduct.

When the army returned to Philadelphia in the middle of May, a group of thirty army officers paid a visit to the city’s leading Jeffersonian newspaper, the Philadelphia Aurora, whose editor, William Duane, had published charges that certain troops had lived “at free quarters” (i.e., in people’s homes, without their permission, in contravention of the Third Amendment). These army officers dragged Duane into the middle of Philadelphia’s Market Street and beat him and his sixteen-year-old son mercilessly until both lay unconscious on the ground. For the next two weeks, according to the press, “the streets of Philadelphia were filled with crowds of people who wanted nothing but the firing of the first musket to precipitate Pennsylvania, and perhaps the continent, into the horrors of civil war.”

Pennsylvanians were outraged. As Adams conceded, “That army was as unpopular, as if it had been a ferocious wild beast let loose upon the nation to devour it.”

So, in October, just as Adams was arriving back at the seat of government (which had been temporarily moved upriver from Philadelphia to Trenton, New Jersey), bonfires were burning across the Delaware in celebration of the first major state-wide victory for Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party in the critical Middle Atlantic states (i.e., Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey), whose electoral votes would – in everyone’s calculation – decide the upcoming presidential election.  It was a sign of things to come. As the administration’s quasi-official Gazette of the United States had forewarned – and, more importantly, as John Adams’ favorite publisher, William Cobbett of Porcupine’s Gazette, explained to the world, as he abruptly closed the nation’s foremost High-Federalist newspaper on October 19th: “The election of my Democratick Judge Thomas McKean as Governor of Pennsylvania, undeniably the most influential state in the union, has in my opinion, decided the fate of what has been called Federalism…” The day before Adams arrived in Trenton, a Philadelphia paper editorialized that if Adams’ party hoped to retain the presidency, it would have to abandon John Adams and turn again to George Washington.

When Adams returned to the government in October of 1799, he may have been ready to cancel his proposed peace mission to France (as his army’s Inspector General, Alexander Hamilton, and some cabinet members were urging). But Pennsylvania showed him, on his arrival, what his war measures and bellicosity were costing his re-election prospects. Should he cancel the mission, his Attorney General, Charles Lee, warned, “Such a measure would exceedingly disappoint the general expectations of America, and . . . afford your enemies the opportunity of indulging their evil dispositions . . .”

So Adams let the peace mission sail in November, and a peace treaty was signed in France the following year. Adams had not, as McCullough would have us believe, chosen peace “at the risk of his career, reputation and his hold on the presidency.” To the contrary, he chose peace to save his career, his reputation, and his hold on the presidency, all of which his nation repudiated when it replaced him with the democrat Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800.

When Adams left the presidency, he did so in disgrace. He was the founding father who had opposed popular democracy, subverted the Bill of Rights, and brought his nation to the brink of civil war. He had visited on his political opponents an American reign of terror, which, even in old age, Jefferson could never let Adams forget. “Whether the character of the times is justly portrayed or not,” Jefferson wrote Adams in 1813, “posterity will decide. But on one feature of them they can never decide, the sensations excited in free yet firm minds by the terrorism of the day. None can conceive who did not witness them, and they were felt by one party only.”

When news of Adams’ defeat reached Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Aurora (whose founding editor, none other than Benjamin Franklin Bache, died awaiting trial for sedition) pronounced the nation “rescued from the Talons of Monarchists. In spite of intrigue. In spite of terror. In spite of unconstitutional laws. In spite of British influence. In spite of the Standing Army. In spite of the Sedition Law.” Jefferson’s victory, the paper forecast, “will become as celebrated in history as the 4th of July 1776 for the emancipation of the American states from British influence and tyranny.” A monarch, it seemed, had been dethroned.

It would take a mighty hagiographer to place John Adams on a pedestal, and for two hundred years, no one has been equal to the task. But now, in the eloquent David McCullough, Adams may finally have found his man. McCullough’s finely crafted and eminently readable John Adams would doubtless please the founder whom democrats dubbed “His Rotundity.” But in pandering to the highly remunerative national yearning for heroes, David McCullough denies Americans the critical lessons in liberty and democracy that every history of the Early Republic should teach.


☞ So there you have it.  An important counterpoint to the McCullough book, as best I can make out – although the only thing I’m reasonably sure of is that Benjamin Franklin does deserve a monument.  To save money, maybe just rename the airport after him?


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