I just finished John Adams by David McCullough. What a fine rendering of a great, courageous, intelligent man! To begin with, the book is very well written and readable; McCullough does a great job of making a compelling story out of facts, quotes and dates.
But the treasure he uncovers for the readers is incredible. A little-known, one-term president squished between Washington and Jefferson comes to life as a giant of his time, at least equal to his presidential bookends.
He always did what he felt was right for his country, no matter the consequences to his career or reputation. He was grounded enough to see his own faults clearly, but wise enough to bridle them. He was taught in the classical tradition, meaning he had read and absorbed the words of the greatest thinkers of history.
His contribution to the birth of the United States is as great as any of the other Founders. He aided in writing and then signed the Declaration of Independence and served as the liaison between General Washington and the Continental Congress before he was sent to France to obtain loans and to work toward a peace with the British. He ventured, without permission from Congress, to The Netherlands and secured invaluable loans. He was part of the trio who negotiated the treaty with Britain, and then was sent to London as the first official American diplomat to Great Britain. Shortly after his return he was elected twice as Washington’s Vice President (which in that time meant he took second place in the presidential election) before being elected President himself.
Seven years before the Constitutional Convention, during a brief return home between assignments to Europe, he was asked to write the constitution for Massachusetts. With a lot of study and research, he came up with a bicameral legislature; a popularly elected governor; and an independent, appointed-for-life judiciary—sound familiar?
McCullough also brings to life the beautiful relationship—often long distance—between John and Abigail, a presidential woman in her own right. It was a tender, passionate, and intelligent marriage in which they endured trials and accepted what they felt were their responsibilities as capable people in a time when capable people were needed.
The wisdom of John Adams (and Abigail) is best expressed in many of the quotes cited in the book. Below are my favorites.
From Abigail Adams:
“I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power, whether vested in many or few, is ever grasping. . . . The great fish swallow up the small and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.”
On slaveholders advocating independence: “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow creatures of theirs.”
From John Adams:
“Soldiers quartered in a populous town will always occasion two mobs where they prevent one. They are wretched conservators of the peace.”
“Men will be too economical of their blood and property to have recourse to them very frequently.”
“Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.”
“Genius in a general is oftener an instrument of divine vengeance than a guardian angel.”
“War necessarily brings with it some virtues, and great and heroic virtues, too. What horrid creatures we men are, that we cannot be virtuous without murdering one another?”
On the Revolution
Before the war: “We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, fortune—in everything.” We can be thankful he was wrong about this, and that he is one of the principal examples of his erroneous statement.
“We cannot insure success, but we can deserve it” (paraphrased from the play Cato).
“If we finally fail in this great and glorious contest, it will be by bewildering ourselves in groping for the middle way.”
“May Heaven grant us victory if we deserve it; if not, patience, humility, and persistence under defeat.”
Asked if he thought America would succeed in its pursuit of independence: “Yes, if we fear God and repent our sins.”
“There is a danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”
“My fundamental maxim of government is never to trust the lamb to the wolf.”
“[I]n every assembly, members will obtain an influence by noise not sense.”
“Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or other. If wise men decline it, others will do it; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”
“How few aim at the good of the whole, without aiming too much at the prosperity of the parts!”
“Still, they shall find, as long as I am in office, candor, integrity, and, as far as there can be any confidence and safety, a pacific and friendly disposition. If the spirit of exterminating vengeance ever arises, it shall be conjured up by them, not me. In this spirit I shall pursue the negotiation.”
Upon moving into the new President’s House (a.k.a. the White House): “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall herein inhabit. May none but honest and wise me ever rule under this roof.”
At the new Capitol Building: “Here may the youth of this extensive country forever look up without disappointment, not only to the monuments and memorials of the dead, but to the examples of the living.”
“If worthless men are sometimes at the head of affairs, it is, I believe, because worthless men are at the tail and the middle.”
“The true source of our suffering has been our timidity. We have been afraid to think . . . . Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”
“The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved. . . .”
“Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be though extravagant.”
“[Y]ou will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.”
“[I]t’s of more importance to community that innocence should be protected than it is that guilt should be punished.”
“Daughter! Get you an honest man for a husband, and keep him honest. No matter whether his is rich, provided he be independent. Regard the honor and moral character of the man more than all other circumstances. Think of no other greatness but that of the soul, no other riches but those of the heart. An honest, sensible, humane man, above all the littleness of vanity and extravagances of imagination, laboring to do good rather than be rich, to be useful rather than make a show, living in modest simplicity clearly within his means and free from debts and obligations, is really the most respectable man in society, makes himself and all about him most happy.”
“[L]et no person say what they would or would not do, since we are not judges for ourselves until circumstances call us to act.”
“To be good, and do good, is the whole duty of man compromised in a few words.”
“[A]mbition [is] the subtlest beast of the intellectual and moral field . . . [and] wonderfully adroit in concealing itself from its owner.”
When he wrote in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights that “all men are by nature free and equal,” he meant “not a physical but a moral equality. . . . Common sense was sufficient to determine that it could not mean that all men were equal in fact, but in right; not all equally tall, strong, wise, handsome, active, but equally men . . the work of the same Artist, children in the same cases entitled to the same justice.”
“[I] work hard, [my] conscience is neat and easy. Content to live and willing to die. . . . Hoping to do a little good.”
“Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill, and increase good, but never assume to comprehend.”
“Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.”