Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams
© 1993 Joseph Ellis
G.K. Chesteron once wrote that the Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age. I don’t know that the Church has a monopoly on timelessness, but some historic personalities have a sense of integrity that bids me think they would remain who they were if they were plucked up bodily and thrown into another age. Robert Ingersoll is one such man; John Adams is another. This sense of integrity isn’t magically imbued; it requires a certain force of mind, and the decision to root one’s self in deeper principles. Passionate Sage is a rare treatment of John Adams which focuses on him not as an architect of the revolution, or as an executive officer, but as a retired statesman coming to terms with what he and others had wrought — satisfied with what he’d done, even if he was regarded as an anachronism. He had followed his own convictions, and that was enough.
Ellis’ treatment of Adams make me suspect that Adams would be his own man in any time because while classical allusions were rife in the founding era, Adams’ very soul was grounded in the classical tradition. Some revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson believed that the Revolution had made all things new again, that institutions like monarchy which prevented people from fulfilling an innately good nature had been escaped from. Adams held to an older view, however, that man was flawed and would constantly struggle with his inner demons — that virtue and vice hold us in a perpetual tug of war. Our greatest flaw, Adams believed, was pride and vanity; these would drive men to compete ferociously with one another even if they were economic equals. For Adams, the great problem of politics was how to build a productive government that took human frailty in mind. He was a grim realist in an age of idealism. This led him to promoting unpopular ideas — for instance, that the presidency should be invested with a certain sense of awe, not to honor the person but for the office and for the law’s sake. If people do not believe in the law, have a certain respect for it, it loses its persuasive power. If awe does not work, people resort to brute force — and things go to pieces. His pragmatism also led him taking a high and lonely road during his administration, when he doggedly pursued a course of non-interference during the Franco-English spats of the time. Federalists looked to trade and defense deals with England, and Republicans looked to France. Adams defied them both, following his studies of philosophy that indicated one must do the right thing even if it was unpopular. Adams hoped that history would vindicate him, and on that matter it has. (Ellis notes that Adams often chose the course of action that would alienate the most people, being suspicious of popularity even as he desired it.)
Although Ellis focuses on Adams’ thinking and writing, even still we get glimpses of Adams the man — reading ferociously, for instance. Adams not only challenged Jefferson in terms of the piles of books they both read, but filled his books with notes arguing and debating the authors. Adams loved a good intellectual bout, though his approach was more a pugnacious boxer’s than an exercise in rapier wit. In his exchange of letters to Thomas Jefferson, for instance, he fired off as twice as many letters as he received. Although often bombastic in his criticisms (especially where the “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”, Alexander Hamilton, was concerned), Adams’ delight in conversation meant that he’d mend bridges with people like Jefferson or Mary Otis Warren just so he could lock horns with them again. Although by the time he died Adams was regarded as highly as Jefferson, throughout the 19th century his reputation was steadily surpassed by his old friend, who sometimes seemed to be shadowing Washington. Ellis attributes this to the triumph of Jacksonian democracy, which had and less use for Adams’ caution, and still less for his philosophic intransigence.
For my own part, I have found Adams endearing and redoubtable ever since discovering him via 1776 and David McCullough. Although self-conscious about his frailties, particularly his vanity and temper, that never stopped him from charging ahead in a roar, with a mouth firing off fusillades. He had a rare energy that left him only when the grave took him.