Adams' legacy lost to history

March 26, 1998|By Martin F. Nolan

FOR TWO centuries, American presidents have been in search of their legacies, trolling an evanescent future for the elusive ''judgment of history.'' Winning a big war is good for historical points. Avoiding one, which John Adams did, is not. The intellectual rigor and eloquence of the nation's second president, along with his candor and pomposity, have often been lost to history, just as Adams was squeezed off Mount Rushmore by his predecessor, George Washington, and his successor, Thomas Jefferson.

Revivals of respect have been tried, and success may greet the latest, which began when a teen-ager visited Monticello.

''My interest in history began at 14, on a visit to Jefferson's home in Virginia,'' David McCullough recalled. ''I was a kid from Pittsburgh, and afterward I tried to keep a weather diary.''

A Jeffersonian

Years later, he visited the less elegant farmhouse in Quincy where John Adams lived, worked and died. ''It hit me like a steamroller. I thought, 'This is real greatness,''' Mr. McCullough said in 1995, when he began his book on the Adams-Jefferson friendship of more than 50 years. Mr. McCullough, like most Americans, is still a Jeffersonian, but Adams is proving more compelling.

At the Massachusetts Historical Society, where both men's lives are richly documented, Mr. McCullough discovered that ''the New Englander is emotional and the Southerner is cool and reserved. Jefferson really never lets you know him, but Adams holds nothing back!''

Adams wrote to his wife Abigail in 1774, ''I will not see Blockheads, whom I have a Right to despise, elevated above me.'' This attitude did not win friends in the Continental Congress. Even at age 20, he confessed to his diary that ''Vanity, I am sensible, is my cardinal Vice and cardinal folly,'' unleashing his emotions. ''Untamed, they are lawless Bulls,'' he wrote. ''They roar and bluster, defy all Controul and sometimes murder their proper owner.''

Adams and Jefferson disagreed about the French, not the American, Revolution. The Jacobin impulse, which has long dominated the academy, has spared Jefferson's faults and confused the Adams trait of stubbornness with anti-democratic attitudes. But Adams has had defenders: Catherine Drinker Bowen in 1950, Page Smith in 1962, and in 1993, Joseph J. Ellis of Mount Holyoke College, who wrote ''Passionate Sage,'' an aptly titled salute.

Mr. McCullough's work will be published in 2000, the bicentennial of the first negative ad in American politics, a letter Alexander Hamilton distributed in 1800 ''Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States.'' Hamilton conceded to Adams ''patriotism and integrity, and even talents of a certain kind,'' but said Adams lacked ''regular display of sound judgment,'' adding an ad hominem painfully close to the truth: ''To this defect are added the unfortunate foibles of a vanity without bounds, and a jealousy capable of discoloring every subject.''

Adams called Hamilton a ''Creole Bolingbroke. . . as ambitious as Bonaparte, though less courageous, and, save for me, would have involved us in a foreign war with France & a civil war with ourselves.''

In 1809, Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush, ''Mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me. I wish them not.'' Mr. McCullough is astounded that Boston, where Adams practiced law, has granted this wish. Cousin Sam, the brewer, guards Faneuil Hall, and even Hamilton adorns the Commonwealth Avenue mall, but, his latest biographer notes, ''there's no statue to him.''

When Adams left the presidency, he wrote: ''The remainder of my days will probably be spent in the labors of agriculture and the amusements of literature . . . on both of which I have always taken more delight than in any public office of whatever rank.''

Martin F. Nolan is a Boston Globe columnist.

Pub Date: 3/26/98


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