Friday, January 16, 2009

John Adams: The Man I Never Knew About

"There is an urbanity without ostentation or extravagance which will succeed everywhere and at all times."
-John Adams

I was reading the John Adams biography by David McCullough and was struck with this quote from a letter Adams wrote to Elkanah Watson, a young New England merchant who had wrote to Adams to inquire what sort of manners he should cultivate in anticipation of going to Europe. Adams replied, with the above quote.

The more I read about Adams the more I am fascinated with him. Before beginning McCullough's biography, I knew very little about the man except that he was the second president of the United States of America and that his correspondence with his wife was very detailed. The more I learn, the more I realize what a fundamental impact Adams had on the shaping of the revolution and the young nation.

It was Adams that spoke out again and again in the Second Continental Congress in favor of freedom, even when it hurt his reputation. He was a great orator, but his most important speech, the hour long speech he gave to Congress in favor of the Declaration of Independence, was never recorded.

It was Adams that served on all the various subcommittees of Congress; who headed up the War Office. This man probably knew more about the War for Independence than anyone else, yet it is George Washington, the general, that we hear more about.

It was Adams who gave up his life at home time and time again in pursuit of the betterment of his country, travelling to Paris many times as the Ambassador from America. It was Adams who put everything in order in the embassy when Benjamin Franklin was lazy and Arthur Lee was fighting with Benjamin Franklin. And it was Adams who was dismissed from his post without so much as a by-your-leave, only to be unanimously re-voted into the position after a mere three months at home.

It was Adams who wrote one of the greatest enduring documents of the American Revolution: the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The constitution of Massachusetts is the oldest functioning written Constitution in the world, but people forget about it in favor of other documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights (both written by Thomas Jefferson).

It was Adams, who, in his Thoughts on Government, first articulated many of the concepts so familiar to us today: concepts such as the establishment of a Supreme Court with appointed Judges who served for life, the separation of powers, and "laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people". Thoughts on Government was to become one of the most influential pieces Adams would ever write and affected all the writing that came after it. So why hadn't I, who have long been a scholar of history, ever heard about it before?

To the reader of my blog, I pray you excuse my ramblings; I am simply trying to articulate my shock at discovery of a man I never knew: John Adams. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are the people that the average American tends to remember. But John Adams is equally important. If any of what I have imparted to you today has surprised you as it did me, I beg you to go read John Adams by David McCullough.

It is the best book I have read all year.

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