by Gleaves Whitney
John Adams has finally gotten the fame he craved, but it was a long time coming over a rough road. Already as a young man he tortured himself thinking about a future without fame. Historians don’t need to speculate on this point because he and his wife Abigail seemed to write down everything. Because of the thousands of letters they left us, we know John Adams’s inner life better than the inner life of any other founding father. We know, apropos of this talk, that he thought he should be famous, once declaring that the “Times alone have destined me to Fame” [Ferling 170].
Yet the quest for fame was a thorn in his side. As David McCullough put it, as a young man “John Adams was not a man of the world. He enjoyed no social standing. He was an awkward dancer and poor at cards. He never learned to flatter…. There was no money in his background” . Everything he earned — from respect in the courtroom, to readership in the newspapers, to leadership in Philadelphia — he had to work hard at. He knew that fame can be fickle and fleeting. For that reason, he feared posterity would not pay him sufficient homage.
Moreover, he was eaten up with envy when he thought of the more illustrious founders of his own day. Given his Puritan New England heritage, Adams knew envy was one of the seven deadlies, but he seemed helpless before the green-eyed monster. Even when Adams was the runner-up to George Washington in our first national election, he still felt green with envy. One year after that election, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, Adams railed: “The history of our revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod — and henceforward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war.”
Adams’s hunger for fame stands in stark contrast to the easy-going attitude of a later president, Ronald Reagan, who quipped: “There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Lacking Reagan’s insouciance, Adams yearned for the credit. But here’s the good news. If Adams didn’t get enough of it in his own time, he perhaps is finally satisfied with the credit he receives today. Looking down on us (for he believed in eternal life), this stubborn man would likely be happy to concede how wrong he was about posterity. Americans have been lionizing him since the Second World War.
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His Rotundity — His Own Worst Enemy
Like any public figure who lives into his nineties, Adams experienced his share of setbacks — more than a few of his own making. Isn’t one of the most difficult things any of us learns is how to deal with our own personality and its liabilities? Adams fessed up that he had a difficult personality. He could be his own worst enemy – ironic given that he once wrote Abigail a letter cataloging all her faults!
Examining the numerous liabilities of his personality, biographer John Ferling observes, “Adams struck many people as vain, irritable, irascible, supercilious, and tactless. He maintained a stiffly formal and aloof demeanor, what one acquaintance called a habitually ‘ceremonious’ manner…. Abigail once scolded him for his tendency to indulge in ‘intolerable forbidding expecting Silence’ while in the midst of a conversation; ’tis impossible for a Stranger to be tranquil in your presence’” [Ferling 170].
Moreover, he nursed a tendency toward brooding pessimism. As he revealed to his diary on the eve of the Second Continental Congress — the Congress that would declare independence — “I wander alone, and ponder. I muse, I mope, I ruminate. We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, fortune — in everything. I feel unutterable anxiety” [McCullough 23].
Adams also had a hot temper. He managed to keep his outbursts confined to private conversations, but there was widespread conjecture that he might be emotionally unstable. One of the most egregious outbursts occurred the only known time Adams demeaned a subordinate to his face. In the presidential mansion one day he dressed down an aide, James McHenry, unjustly accusing him of scheming with Hamilton to bring Adams down. Then came the volley of insults. He frothed that that “foreigner,” Hamilton, was ”the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not the world.” ”The bastard brat of a Scotch peddler” had a “superabundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off.” Finally Adams decried “the profligacy of his life; his fornications, adulteries and his incests.” Such a surprising outburst, this, that McHenry later wrote down what happened in letters to friends and family. He ventured that the second president of the United States was “actually insane” [McCullough 538-39].
Besides a penchant for being his own worst enemy, there were situations that arose which Adams thought might do harm to his reputation.
- At great risk to his young law career, Adams defended the Redcoats who were involved in the Boston Massacre because he believed that the law rather than popular passions should rule Massachusetts.
- Adams’s two terms as Vice President were frustrating for a man of his restlessness, vigor, brilliance, and vanity. Complaining to Abigail, he opined, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” After eight years of biding his time, a lesser man might have given up and gone home.
- The four Alien and Sedition Acts as well as the so-called Midnight appointments to the judiciary — on the eve of Jefferson taking office — made Adams look thin-skinned, unprincipled, and unpresidential.
- Perhaps his most bitter setback was losing the White House to Jefferson in the Election of 1800. Adams despaired that his reputation could ever recover from such an ugly campaign. We think politicking is a dirty business today, but we forget that it was even dirtier in the early republic. In 1800, Jefferson and his allies roused an unprincipled journalist, James Callender, to attack Adams’s character in the Richmond Examiner. The sitting president was accused of being a monarchist, a warmonger, and even a hermaphrodite who had ”neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Callender especially wanted to drive home the impression that Adams was insane with rage. He spread the unfounded rumor that Adams once became so enraged he ripped off his wig, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it [McCullough 536-37].
It gets worse. Callender, with Jefferson’s blessings, accused Adams of importing two mistresses shortly after being elected president in 1796. Ridiculous rumor, of course, but in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, this was a serious allegation. One of the mistresses supposedly was from France, the other from Germany. As Alf Mapp humorously puts it, “While retaining the French charmer … Adams supposedly had returned her rival to her native Germany. The Pennsylvania Germans were incensed, not so much by reports of sexual immorality as by the thought that the president would reject a fräulein while holding fast to a mademoiselle [Mapp 55]. Because Adams couldn’t carry Pennsylvania, he wasn’t reelected, and to Adams, this further robbed him of respect.
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This essay is the second in a series on John Adams. The Thorn of Fame (Part 1 is available here.) The Adams series served as the basis for my talk accompanying the exhibition, John Adams Unbound, organized by the Boston Public Library and the American Library Association. The talk was given at the Loutit District Library, Grand Haven, Michigan, on June 30, 2011. This Adams series was posted on July 2 because he thought that was the day our country’s independence should be pondered and celebrated. For more on presidents and leadership, see AllPresidents.org.
Gleaves Whitney is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and the director of Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, and has authored or edited 14 books.