On this 4th of July as Americans celebrate the birth of their nation, much attention will go to the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson. The words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence will be spoken about in reverential tones. Over the years, Jefferson has become one of the most celebrated of our Founding Fathers. He is certainly not my favorite.
John Adams is far more my cup of tea. Adamant about his own moral beliefs and unafraid to be unpopular, Adams lacked Jefferson’s charm and has long dwelt in his shadow. Both men famously died on the same day, July 4th, 1826, within five hours of each other. Frenemies til the end, Adam’s mistaken last words were
Jefferson still survives.
Simple and Undervalued
David McCullough’s popular 2001 biography of Adams finally brought our second President some of the attention he deserves as a political philosopher. He is finally given credit for the foundation of much of the thought behind Jefferson’s famous words. Yet he is still little known to many Americans.
Unlike Jefferson’s decadent lifestyle, Adams lived a very simple New England life. A descendant of Puritans and the son of a farmer, Adams had none of the flash, nor extreme wealth, of Jefferson. There would be no Monticello for Adams. Instead, after his political achievements and one term as president, Adams lived out his life quietly on his farm in Quincy with his wife Abigail.
Known for his irascible temper, Adams was also a moral and honest man. He never owned a slave and believed the institution of slavery to be immoral. Unlike Jefferson, who had affairs with married women, and children with at least one of his slaves, Adams was loyal to his beloved wife. Their relationship is remarkable for its time in that he truly saw Abigail as his partner and often sought her opinion on complex political challenges.
Our Heroes Are Flawed
It is a difficult thing to admit the fallibility of our heroes. Coming to terms with the fact that Adams, the Founding Father I respect so much, also made incredible mistakes is not something that came easily.
It meant making peace with the fact that, although Adams knew that slavery was immoral, he was not pro-abolition and instead advocated for a more gradual, less explosive winding down of the institution. Of course, this was political expediency put before eradicating an institution he knew to be morally corrupt. I’ve often wondered how much heartache for millions of slaves and our country as a whole would have avoided if Adams had been more forceful and put his moral beliefs ahead of politics as our Founding Fathers navigated the structure of the new country.
In 1798 Adams signed into law one of the nastiest pieces of legislation of our early years as a country, the Alien and Sedition Acts. They authorized the president to imprison or deport “aliens” considered dangerous and restricted free speech critical of the US government. Adams was squarely targeting newspapers and broadsides critical of his administration. This sort of behavior would be his downfall, and allow Jefferson to defeat him after serving only one term in the next election.
The concept of the fallible leader isn’t new; if we look deep enough into the life of anyone we respect we will find mistakes and flaws. But in the current culture of celebrity worship and blind adherence to “our side,” especially in this election year, it is wise to stop and think about the flaws of our heroes. Do Adams’ failings make me admire him less? Possibly, until I stop and consider my own life and the many mistakes I’ve made. There isn’t a single life that has been lived without blemish.
So I choose to continue to respect the good in John Adams, the wise, moral man who, like me, made a few profound mistakes.
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This post originally ran on July 4th, 2016.