Will John Adams Ever Be Able to Live With Himself? (Part 1)

Will John Adams Ever Be Able to Live With Himself? (Part 1)

Recently I developed a harebrained idea: why not read a biography of every U.S. president, in chronological order?

It hasn't been long since I read Chernow's Washington, so I permitted myself to start with John Adams.

I picked John Ferling's John Adams: A Life. It is written in a deft historical hand that balances established scholarship with original analysis. What follows isn't a review so much as a personal reflection on what I learned.


If you wanted to physically test yourself as a North American colonist in the late 18th century, you had a lot of choices. Many of the founders fought with the British Empire before they fought against it. The elements could kill you, too. Cold drafts found their way inside roughly made, dark homes. You would have watched more than a few of your relatives and friends killed by an infection.

Despite all the exterior trials available – be it combat in endemic wars or the wrath of nature on the frontier – John Adams chose to fight himself.

He filled up pages of his diaries with self-flagellation. If you were to compare George Washington's diary you'd see a few notes recording the temperature and what he had for lunch. Read Adams and you'll find paragraphs reflecting on what an asshole Adams was.

He told himself constantly that he wanted to be great. As happens to many young people, those dreams didn't materialize. After Harvard, he allowed himself to languish as a schoolteacher in a Massachusetts backwater. He tortured himself over the decision to train in the law. He never stopped goading himself over his laziness, even while he studied dense legal textbooks.

Indecision was a constant problem for the young Adams. He lost the great love of his life, Hannah Quincy, because he could not quite work up the courage to ask her to marry him. Afterwards he told himself, and others, that he never really loved her at all.

For all his fixation on external greatness, it seems that what he wanted was to get over himself.

He started to rise not because he succeeded in transcending this internal tension. On the contrary. His failure to do so, and his resulting obstinacy, became politically useful.

Boston in those days was a messy, bubbling over pot of rage. Arguably rougher and more bellicose than some of the other colonies, Boston was a hardscrabble city, comprised of crazy streets and an irritable, ungovernable merchant class.

Slow to start, hesitant to commit, Adams became a useful pawn to his politically brilliant but troubled older cousin. If you could get a mule like Adams to take up a cause, it must be a good one and not just another Bostonian fever dream.

The plot to corrupt John Adams with revolutionary zeal was arguably nothing short of genius. Infecting a miserable, self-obsessed man with a greater dream has its advantages. The man who'll tell you he never loved someone – that man can't let himself be wrong, and he'll go down fighting.

Like a lot of geniuses, this cousin had tried his hand at a few careers and none stuck. He was getting poorer, his children and wife increasingly reliant on charity. Nothing worked until he discovered radicalism: a dream that Boston could become a Christian Sparta on the sea. The cousin was overtaken with an austere vision that his new Sparta could turn its back on corrupting conveniences. They would stare down modernity and ultimately deny it.

Perhaps then his poverty would show its true face – ennobling, not emasculating. He didn't fall to a humble life; he chose it. He might tell you something like: I'm not a loser, it is society that is lost. The system itself would be wrong and dignity could be reclaimed. It only required that the world be turned upside down.

Economist Albert Hirschman tried to tell us that there are really only two choices in politics: speak up, or leave. In Hirschman's theory, the options are "voice" or "exit."

This nutty cousin decided he could see where the world was going next and he bitterly wanted to "exit." And, by the way, take as much of the continent as he could with him.

The cousin's name was Samuel Adams.

The problem was that the parent state, the British Empire, would never let them leave. The empire had come close to financially ruining itself in fending off the French in a woefully mismanaged war. There were bills to pay; costs to recover.

When the temperature started to rise due to new taxes, Samuel Adams was there to raise it a few degrees higher for his own purposes. The Bostonian ancestors of Bill Burr, spiritual or actual, weren't hard to rile up.

The first major combustion came March 5, 1770. A thirteen year old wigmaker's apprentice told off the commander of a group of British soldiers about a bill. One of the privates didn't like seeing his commander taking guff from the mouthy teen. The kid, being Bostonian, decided to poke the senior officer in the chest and tell him off some more. The private lost his cool and smashed the child in the head with his rifle.

It went over as public abuse of a child usually does. A crowd gathered. Someone started to ring church bells – usually an indication of a fire, this time to attract an even larger crowd. The social and moral immune system of the city reacted. At first sensibly, then wildly.

One thing led to another. The frightened soldiers eventually formed a semi-circle, rifles drawn. It isn't hard to imagine the sweat running down their faces, as they nervously glance to their left and to their right, reading each other's body language. How to escape the mob? How to get out of this hell?

Someone in the angry crowd started taunting the soldiers. He dared them to fire. The crowd took up the chant, spitting for good measure.

"Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!"

Something was thrown, knocking one of the soldiers down and making him drop his musket. He scrambled to recover it, cursed, and then fired without orders.

No one really agrees even now how long the pause was, but there was one. The other soldiers processed the situation for a moment and then started shooting. Five people died.

John Adams lived down the street at the time, trying to make his way as a lawyer, still fighting himself every night.

In the aftermath of the massacre it was clear there would be a battle for justice. The colonial administration would try the men involved in an attempt to calm matters. Meanwhile, the revolutionary Sons of Liberty were reanimated by the massacre and eager to reap political benefit. The chessboard of Bostonian revolutionary politics was to be set in the courts.

John Adams was to be a pawn. The brother of Hannah Quincy, the one that got away, was also a lawyer and was swiftly recruited to represent the soldiers. Strangely, this was at the urging of the Sons of Liberty – led by Samuel Adams.

Having politically benefited from the tension, Samuel Adams now needed to demonstrate that Boston was not in fact a barbaric, ungovernable city – rather an unjustly occupied one. What better way to demonstrate the civility of Boston than to give the perpetrators of a massacre a fair trial?

So Samuel Adams played a little chess with his cousin John. Knowing that John already had a reputation for being a brilliant lawyer, though indecisive and uncommitted politically, Samuel likely convinced him to take up the case. Samuel calculated that no jury would acquit the soldiers, no matter how brilliant the representation. What better way to convert whispers of John's passivity into a show of his nobility – that in fact, John was so high-minded that he would represent such hated figures?

That way, when John Adams argued for revolution, it would be coming from the voice of reason. If even John Adams was fed up, and he even he could commit, so could the colonies. The world could be turned upside down.

John Adams probably did his job a little too well from Samuel's perspective. Ultimately, six of the soldiers were acquitted. Two were charged with manslaughter and given relatively light punishment. It was a legal coup, a career making performance for Adams. And if Samuel had miscalculated, it was only slightly. He had forged a useful figure in his cousin – one who before long would become known as the Atlas of Independence.

In the next part, we'll track Adams rise to power within the Continental Congress, the start of a long separation from his wife and family. It will take him on a strange journey to France – and to a direct collision course with Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Adams will spend fateful years as a diplomat, saturated in the monarchical, fragile societies of Europe.

As eventual President, Adams will take to wearing military outfits and brandishing a sword. He'll oversee draconian laws, and lose his friend Thomas Jefferson in the first wave of American partisan politics.

That friendship will ultimately be renewed on his death bed. Both men died on the same day: July 4, 1826. Exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams last words will be "Thomas Jefferson Survives." The young country will be stunned by the strangeness of their dying at the same time, on such a fateful day. Stranger yet, John Adams son, John Quincy Adams, was inaugurated just a year before.

However, before his death John Adams will face the ordeal of his life: the American presidency. Will he still be the same indecisive man, at war with himself? Will he choose the greatness of his country, or the greatness of himself? As the world unravels around him, will the United States fall to a coup? At the end of it all, will John Adams ever truly be able to live with himself?