My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with John Adams, the second President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I settled on John Adams: A Life by John Ferling.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the inaugural DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!
John Adams: A Life by John Ferling
John Adams. Ferling’s biography is exquisitely detailed, minutely argued, and… dry. But I can’t decide if that’s because Ferling’s style is dry, or because Adams’ life was rather dull, for all that was going on. Okay, maybe not dull… but, after Washington, it feels kind of ‘ho hum.’ Let’s take a look.
One of the most interesting things about Adams’ life I learned here is that not only was he a lawyer–and a good one, it seems–but he also was the lawyer picked by his cousin, Samuel Adams, to defend the British commander and soldiers who carried out the “Boston Massacre” (a misnomer, to be honest). Indeed, John Adams was such a good lawyer he got those men acquitted, much to the surprise/chagrin of his revolutionary compatriots. But he survived this potential political firestorm because it was clear he was dedicated to the cause. Of course, that dedication was bolstered by a constant series of intentional appearances at rallies and the like, often orchestrated by his cousin Samuel Adams.
That brief glimpse really helps provide a kind of overview on John Adams. He was obsessed with his image. He never wanted to be seen in a negative light. Hours were spent in contemplation about what it meant to be “manly” and despairing he would not be seen as manly enough. He leveraged relations and friends to help show his dedication to the revolutionary cause. Worry was his constant companion as he contemplated all the things that could go wrong in his political career. Tireless work was his commitment, and perhaps the true sign of dedication to the cause. He went wherever the need was greatest, whenever his number was called.
These points also raise another: Adams was a complex man whose constant effort was both his greatest attribute and his most damning flaw. That tireless work for the Revolutionary cause contributed at least in part to his absenteeism in his domestic sphere. He left his wife almost every time he returned to her. She despaired after him, but he showed little genuine concern for that, as he would come to comfort her only to leave the next time his services were called upon. The same is true for his children, to whom he was probably known as much through letters as in person.
Adams’ primary accomplishments may be his preventing war between France and the United States and making sure that no other nation managed to get the U.S. into an alliance that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. He did this through constant use of a diplomatic sword, which he seemed to be a mixture of brilliant and inept in wielding. Nevertheless, the fact that he did preserve the Union through this difficult, formative time speaks well of him. Another inheritance from Adams were his views on how state governments ought to function, and many states’ constitutions were directly influenced by Adams’ political treatises. He was wise on legal terms and used that wisdom shrewdly.
Ferling’s biography does an excellent job providing this objective look at the life of Adams. Unlike Chernow’s biography on Washington, where the author constantly downplayed some of the major flaws of the President’s character, here Ferling bluntly states that it seems Adams didn’t truly want his wife around, and that his absences from his family were most cruel.
On final analysis Adams was a President whose primary accomplishment was holding the line. That’s what the United States needed at the time, so it’s hard to fault him for that. His actions probably preserved the union from either falling apart on its own or capitulating to some outside power. Moreover, he helped define how states ought to be run. But his preoccupation with his own image, unwillingness to budge on multiple points where it may have benefited him greatly, absenteeism in his domestic life, and weird obsession with ‘manliness’–an obsession all too many pursue today–all count against him.
Ferling’s John Adams: A Life is an excellent biography, if somewhat dry. It provides an intriguing picture into an individual whose achievements have, perhaps, been understated.
THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*
My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!
1. George Washington: Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.
2. John Adams: There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.
*Rankings not definitive
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