Poor John Adams. He will almost always stand in the shadows of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He will always be remembered first and foremost as a dumpy bulldog, a failed president, and the husband of Abigail Adams. And yet…and yet…there was a true and uncommon genius about the man.
David McCulloch did much to look at the personal side of John Adams, but he failed to show how the man’s life flowed—inexorably and with a grace so sadly rare in the post-medieval world—from his ideas and convictions.
Still, it must be remembered that no one wrote more during or about the American Revolution and the American character than did Adams. Truly, he was the Boswell of the movement.
In an 1818 letter to the publisher, Hezekial Niles, Adams perceptively noted the role of ideas in the formation of the American revolutionary determination:
But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American War? The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. While the king, and all in authority under him, were believed to govern in justice and mercy according to the laws and constitution derived to them from the God of nature, and transmitted to them by their ancestors, they thought themselves bound to pray for the king and queen and all the royal family, and all in authority under them, as ministers ordained of God for their good. But when they saw those powers renouncing all the principles of authority, and bent upon the destruction of all the securities of their lives, liberties, and properties, they thought it their duty to pray for the Continental Congress and all the thirteen state congresses, etc.
Perhaps few shaped that very thought and gave as much voice to the movement of revolution as had Adams. Jefferson had brilliance and flash when it came to ideas. But, Adams had perseverance.
One of his most interesting arguments can be found in his oft-neglected and nearly forgotten Novanglus letters, a spirited defense of the movement toward revolution from 1754 to 1775. He wrote twelve of them, and they represent one of the finest summations of what is called by its allies, Anglo-Saxon history, and its detractors, Whig history. In sum, Adams argued that American sentiment, soul, and passions represent yet one stage of the time-ful struggle of power and liberty. Seeing the rising tyranny and corruption in the mother land, the colonists had the choice: to succumb or to resist.
In resisting, they proved not only their English-ness but also their western-ness. As such, their resistance amounted to rebellion and reformation more than what we post-1789 types would consider “revolution.”
As early as 1765, John Adams had called for rebellion independence in his Braintree Resolutions. Watching James Otis’s spontaneous oration on the evils of general writs of assistance only a half decade earlier had awoken Adams to the dangers of the British empire and its quick decay into the abyss of tyranny. After all, Adams asked, whatever evils revolution might bring, an “established tyranny” would always trump them.
What principles animated him and America? A lineage of great thinkers and thoughts from Aristotle to the present.
These are what are called revolution-principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sydney, Harrington and Lock.—The principles of nature and eternal reason.—The principles on which the whole government over us, now stands. It is therefore astonishing, if any thing can be so, that writers, who call themselves friends of government, should in this age and country, be so inconsistent with themselves, so indiscreet, so immodest, as to insinuate a doubt concerning them.
The history of liberty, Adams continued, is the history of resistance. All successes for liberty have come from immense sacrifices and exertions of integrity. Above all, he told his readers, the true Englishman knows that there are only two forms of manhood: free or slave. No matter the cost, freedom always morally prevails over slavery.
This writer is equally mistaken, when he says, the people are sure to be loosers [sic] in the end. They can hardly be loosers [sic], if unsuccessful: because if they live, they can but be slaves, after an unfortunate effort, and slaves they would have been, if they had not resisted. So that nothing is lost. If they die, they cannot be said to lose, for death is better than slavery. If they succeed, their gains are immense. They preserve their liberties.
Once corrupted, Adams warned, a people will become so habituated to evil that they can not see the evil itself, it having become a normal part of existence. Therefore, he warned, the person must ever remain vigilant and remain any form of license, as evil can use freedom as well as good can.
By 1775, no Tory at home or abroad could understand the goodness of humanity, having exchanged independent thought for sycophancy. Only the Whigs had a real view of humanity, past, present, and future. Whereas the Tory divides for his own gain, the Whig unifies all for the common good.
Perhaps we should give Adams a bit more credit.
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