John Adams (American Presidents Series)

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A revealing look at the true beginning of American politics

Until recently rescued by David McCullough, John Adams has always been overshadowed by Washington and Jefferson. Volatile, impulsive, irritable, and self-pitying, Adams seemed temperamentally unsuited for the presidency. Yet in many ways he was the perfect successor to Washington in terms of ability, experience, and popularity.

Possessed of a far-ranging intelligence, Adams took office...

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John Adams (American Presidents Series)

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A revealing look at the true beginning of American politics

Until recently rescued by David McCullough, John Adams has always been overshadowed by Washington and Jefferson. Volatile, impulsive, irritable, and self-pitying, Adams seemed temperamentally unsuited for the presidency. Yet in many ways he was the perfect successor to Washington in terms of ability, experience, and popularity.

Possessed of a far-ranging intelligence, Adams took office amid the birth of the government and multiple crises. Besides maintaining neutrality and regaining peace, his administration created the Department of the Navy, put the army on a surer footing, and left a solvent treasury. One of his shrewdest acts was surely the appointment of moderate Federalist John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Though he was a Federalist, he sought to work outside the still-forming party system. In the end, this would be Adams’s greatest failing and most useful lesson to later leaders.

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Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
John Patrick Diggins, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has produced a little work that is more contemporary polemic than considered meditation upon the complexities of his subject, one of the most interesting, admirable and maddeningly difficult men in American history. — Anthony Day
Publishers Weekly
Diggins pays tribute to David McCullough's reestablishment of John Adams's reputation, but he has his own take in this entry in the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He seeks to rebut the conventional wisdom that the country's second president was a "loser," a view based on the fact after losing the election of 1800, Adams's party, the Federalists, disappeared from the scene. The 1800 election was, in fact, a triumph for Adams and the ideas the Federalists espoused, says CUNY historian Diggins (On Hallowed Ground), as an opposition party came to power "without America shedding a single drop of blood." Furthermore, Diggins asserts, "American political history begins with the rift between Adams and Jefferson," and though Adams has been disparaged by historians, he played a central role in the development of American democracy. More than just a miniature of our second president, Diggins's slim volume offers a reconsideration of Adams, a thoughtful study of American politics of the period and Adams's legacy for today. (June 11) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A brief life of the post-revolutionary president who liked nothing better than to be left alone. And isolation, comments Diggins (History/CUNY), "while healthy for poetry or philosophy, is fatal in the sphere of politics." Laboring in the daunting shadow of David McCullough’s massive, literate biography (John Adams, 2001), Diggins (On Hallowed Ground, 2000, etc.) acquits himself well in the shorter format of the American President series. Like McCullough, he spends time considering Adams in the light of political alter ego Thomas Jefferson, who lived as an aristocrat while speaking as a radical yet unfairly accused his sober-minded, eminently democratic opponent of being a Caesar in the making. Indeed, writes Diggins, when he defeated Adams in the 1800 presidential race, Jefferson even claimed that "he saved America from aristocracy and monarchy"--little realizing, the author adds, "that his utter dependence on party politics represented a defeat of his own ideals." Not that Adams’s own ideals were left intact in the hubbub of sectarian fighting and character assassination that marked the earliest days of the republic. As Diggins notes, Adams’s questionable record in office helps us "understand American history for what it really is: a study . . . of emerging interest-driven, factional blocs struggling for dominance within a political culture of consensus." In this struggle, the author claims Adams as the prototypical American liberal, whose championing of a strong executive branch, judiciary, and federal military force allowed the central state to take root and grow. Without that state, Diggins argues, no progressive cause since could have been realized. "Ironically," he observes on,"the egalitarian ideals Jefferson espoused would be realized in the very institutions he opposed." Readers of McCullough will find little new factual information here, but the solid interpretation of events will interest students of the presidency and the early republic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805069372
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/11/2003
  • Series: American Presidents Series
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 330,966
  • Product dimensions: 5.77 (w) x 8.57 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

John Patrick Diggins is distinguished professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of numerous books, including On Hallowed Ground, The Proud Decades, The Lost Soul of American Politics, The Rise and Fall of the American Left, and Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

John Adams

By John Patrick Diggins

Times Books

Copyright © 2003 John Patrick Diggins
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-805-06937-2

Chapter One

From "Senseless Turpitude" to Stately Duty


John Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, on October 19, 1735, the fourth-generation descendant of Henry Adams, who arrived in America with his wife, Edith, about 1636. Of yeoman stock, pious, frugal, and hardworking, Henry died a decade after settling in Braintree, leaving eight sons and a daughter, a house with two rooms, a farm of forty acres on which ranged a cow, heffer, and swine, and a modest library of treasured books. One son, Joseph, followed in his father's footsteps and, married to Abigail Baxter, had no less than twelve children. Their son Joseph Adams Jr. married Hannah Bass, great-granddaughter of John and Priscilla Alden of the Plymouth landing and Mayflower epic. Their son, the first John Adams, married Susanna Boylston, the daughter of a family in Massachusetts medical history. Into the Adams-Boylston marriage was born John Adams, the eldest of the three sons.

The dwelling in which young Adams grew up was plain, simple, severe. On the farm of hay fields sat a two-story clapboard house with a single chimney that served to heat four dimly lit rooms. The sloping roof made the two upstairs bedrooms into a low cubbyhole under which the boys had to stoop to turn in to bed. As withmuch of the rest of Puritan New England, the Adams family experienced life as a challenge to moral character, an austere, demanding existence without the luxury of servants or slaves.

Although lacking material comfort and often enduring dreary weather, the Adams household enjoyed a wealth of books, ideas, and stimulating conversation. A theological atmosphere weighed down upon New England, with citizens worrying about the fate of their souls while debating the inscrutability of God's purposes and the meaning of evil. Adams senior took his son to a barnlike meetinghouse to hear sermons asking the congregation to turn to faith, and then to the town meeting to hear public issues discussed that asked citizens to rely upon reason. The father hoped his eldest son would enter college and study for the ministry. But young Adams was not the bookworm that one might assume in view of his later life as a learned intellectual. He relished the outdoors; knew every trail, pond, and woods in the neighborhood; and took pride in his physical prowess despite his small size. Well into adulthood he would retain a passion for tracking and hunting. His father, however, a farmer and outdoorsman himself, wanted his son to study Latin to prepare for Harvard College. When he protested that he hated the subject, his father replied: "Well, John, if Latin-grammar does not suit you, you may try ditching, perhaps that will; my meadow yonder needs a ditch, and you may put by Latin and try that." Young John looked forward to the "delightful change," only to discover after a day and a half of hard, backbreaking work that he preferred Latin to labor. But he felt too humiliated to admit it to his father. Finally at nightfall "toil conquered pride, and I told my father, one of the severest trials of my life, that, if he chose, I would go back to Latin-grammar. He was glad of it; and if I have since gained any distinction, it has been owing to the two days' labor in that abominable ditch."

Adams entered Harvard at fifteen. To the Puritan founders of New England, the life of the mind was everything; few could forget that the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation were first promulgated in the universities of Europe. Under Harvard's tutorial system, Adams studied Greek and Latin, logic, rhetoric, physics, and, in his senior year, moral philosophy and metaphysics. Not all his classmates buckled down. Some of Harvard's brightest students would be reprimanded for drinking, gambling, rioting, whoring, and, even worse, lapses into infidelity and blasphemy. Adams was reticent about his college experience. Perhaps his lack of enthusiasm reflected the rote nature of the learning that had students simply copying the contents of books rather than critically analyzing them. In his later years, Adams would do both when subjecting Western political philosophy to his penetrating analysis, quoting long passages from Machiavelli to show where the Florentine political philosopher contradicts himself

Adams was graduated from Harvard in 1755, and returned to Braintree uncertain of a vocation. The ministry that his father favored Adams found stifling. He had his fill of the doctrinal disputes surrounding "frigid John Calvin," and he could not help remembering the attacks on the liberal theologian Jonathan Mayhew and others who deviated from orthodoxy. He decided to accept an earlier offer of a teaching position at a grammar school in Worcester, and with a horse sent by the town for him to ride, he made the sixty-nine trip from Braintree (later called Quincy) in a single day.

The opportunity to teach young people led Adams to reflect upon what it is that motivates the mind. Who in the class will turn out to be a "hero" or a "rake" or a "philosopher" or a "parasite"? The boredom and daydreaming of the students rubbed off on the schoolmaster, who found his own mind wandering out the window. Schoolteachers were poorly paid, and Adams could only afford to board with families. It was in his first few years as a Worcester instructor that Adams started to keep a diary. The opening pages are full of doubt, self-scrutiny, and intellectual curiosity about God and the nature of the universe and the adequacy of his own character. "Constantly forming but never executing good resolutions," he lamented. "Oh! That I could wear out my mind any mean and base affectation; conquer my natural pride and self-conceit; expect no more deference from my fellows than I deserve; ... subdue every unworthy passion, and treat all men as I wish to be treated by all." What troubled Adams was that his mind flitted with thoughts that seemed to have no object, leaving his mental life all motion and no direction. And his inability to concentrate resulted in many students' dilemma:

What is the Cause of Procrastination? To day my Stomack is Disordered, and my Thoughts of Consequences, unsteady and Confused. I cant study to day but will begin tomorrow. Tomorrow comes. Well, I feel pretty well, my head is pretty clear, but Company comes in. I cant yet study tomorrow, but will begin in Earnest next day. Next day comes. We are out of Wood, I cant study: because I cant keep a fire. Thus, something is always wanting that is necessary.

Adams's experience in the classroom led him to believe that young minds are more Rely to be motivated positively than negatively, by expectations of praise instead of fear of punishment. At this point in his life, having turned twenty-one and finding himself still uncertain of his chosen vocation, Adams became preoccupied with motivation. In view of his later social philosophy, which would emphasize the human need for external recognition, his earlier thoughts valued even more the force of inner conviction. In 1756, he wrote to a friend, "Upon common theatres, indeed, the applause of the audience is of more importance to the actor than their own approbation. But upon the stage of life, while conscience claps, let the world hiss." But Adams's conscience was hardly clapping as he sank into idleness, the worst sin for a Puritan. "I am dull and inactive, and all my resolutions, all the spirits I can muster are insufficient to rouse me from this senseless turpitude." He knew he had to leave behind grammar-school teaching, and he thought about the three options available to college graduates: divinity, medicine, or law. Against the advice of family and friends, he chose to study law, then a profession of mixed repute.

The original settlers of New England had no lawyers. But when the visions of commonwealth and love quickly receded, and conflict and distrust took hold, the profession of law emerged to handle suits and litigations. Public as well as personal disputations shaped the life of law, and indeed the controversies between the colonies and mother country that led to the Revolution were legal in nature. Adams would argue the American cause as a lawyer, defending a country whose rights had been violated. Adams carried into his new chosen calling the religious idealism that sprang from his Puritan environment. A century later Adams's great-grandson Henry Adams would look upon the legal profession as the hireling of big business. But "honest John Adams" saw law as an instrument of morality, and he dedicated himself to the profession as a cause that fulfilled his need to do right by his conscience.

Adams was cut out perfectly for the profession. He delighted in courtroom drama; enjoyed riding the circuit; had a clear, sonorous manner of speaking, a mind that could cut quickly to the heart of an issue and present effective summations, and a character so open in its convictions that few could suspect him of concealing evidence or manipulating opinion. He valued law as rooted in history, in experience, and in precedent. Admitted to the bar by the Massachusetts Superior Court in 1761, Adams returned to Braintree and out of a small office handled matters dealing with property, taxes, deeds, and wills; while on the circuit he took cases involving theft, libel, rape, and bastardy. In his hometown he also led a crusade against taverns, whose customers took to drinking and brawling. Adams succeeded in getting an ordinance to limit the licensing of these dens of iniquity, appearing in court in his distinguished black robe and white wig.

Adams was particularly impressed by the stirring role of another lawyer. James Otis took to court the case of Boston merchants protesting the breaking into of their ships and warehouses by British customs officials whose actions had been authorized by writs of assistance issued by the English Crown. Otis's speech against the writs deeply moved Adams. The trial itself involved only a petty matter of protecting smugglers, but it would have, Adams reflected, implications for the limitations of British authority in America. From the courtroom resonated the theory of the social compact stipulating the natural rights of citizens and the right of revolution itself


Excerpted from John Adams by John Patrick Diggins Copyright © 2003 by John Patrick Diggins. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2003

    Well written, not always well researched

    Adams didn't invent the toaster or push the Nazis out of France, but you wouldn't know that from reading this book. Diggins attributes practically every important idea in modernist political philosophy to Adams, as well as other bon mots that were actually said by others. The exaggeration undermines the attempt at a rehabilitation, which is a pity, since Adams does not fit the dichotomies often used to interpret revolutionary politics--which was Diggins's point.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2009

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