Before John Adams became the first Vice President of the United States under George Washington, second President of the United States, the first resident of the White House, and writer of the Massachusetts State Constitution he had a role during the Revolutionary War period as one of the creators of the Declaration of Independence.
Committee of Five
He was on the Committee of Five and was at the age of 40 more senior than the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, but realized that Jefferson was the more eloquent writer.
Jefferson asked Adams to write it. However, Adams insisted that Jefferson do so, arguing:
”Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.”
Later Adams wrote:
“Was there ever a Coup de Theatre that had so great an effect as Jefferson’s penmanship of the Declaration of Independence?”
Adams saw to its completion. The most senior member of the Committee, Benjamin Franklin was aroused from his bed to finalize it. The 70-year-old gentlemen had been bedridden with gout. Then the remaining two of the Committee reviewed it –Robert R. Livingston of New York and Roger Sherman of Connecticut — likely without further change.
Adams and Jefferson had first met at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775 and developed a strong mutual respect and formed a close friendship. In 1784 Jefferson joined Adams in France on diplomatic service for the new Nation. Adams did most of his work in England (and Holland) while Jefferson stayed in Paris, but they met up in London after Jefferson had finished some diplomatic business. Afterward, they toured together visiting English gardens and Shakespeare’s home.
They were friends for 51 years, with one significant exception. They parted ways around the time of the contentious Presidential election of 1800. Adams served only one term, and the acrimonious election saw Jefferson’s narrow political defeat of Adams. But were reunited after a dozen years. They differed on many subjects: American federal political theory, the French Revolution, and slave ownership.
Nevertheless, in the last years of their lives, they exchanged 158 letters between them. Adams wrote to Jefferson:
“You and I, ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other.”
Thomas Jefferson once wrote of Adams:
“He is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him.”
Ben Franklin’ appraisal of John Adams was:
“Always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”
But David McCullough, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “John Adams” describes Adams this way:
“The common, superficial understanding of him is as vain, irritable, obstinate, difficult and opinionated, that little fat fellow between two Virginians, Washington and Jefferson. The fact is, he was full of life, high-spirited, affectionate, loyal to friends, a kind and a dedicated father and husband, who traveled further in the service of his country than anyone before him, and at greater risk.”
Religion and Government
Adams was a direct descendant of American Puritans and grew up in a New England Congregationalist church where his father was a deacon. When many Congregational churches turned toward Unitarianism, he turned with them. He was also fully exposed to the European Enlightenment while he was in France, assuring that he would become a free thinker. He was suspicious of priests “papistical (Roman Catholic) or Presbyterian” and declared fervently that it was not the case that only Calvinists would go to heaven.
On the other hand, despite his animosity toward Calvinism, John Adams extolled the sovereignty of God in a language of the deepest feeling. Whenever he spent any time thinking of the enormity and grandeur of the universe, the Milky Way, and the “stupendous orbits of the suns,” he said,
”I feel an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees in adoration of the Power that moves, the Wisdom that directs, and the Benevolence that sanctifies this wonderful whole.”
In acclaiming God’s greatness, Adams also recognized his — and humankind’s — finiteness.
”Worm! Confine thyself to thy dust. Do thy duty in thy own sphere.”
He was a man of deep spiritual conviction and personal morality. As a lawyer, he had defended the British soldiers who shot into a crowd which became known as the Boston Massacre. When the shop of a printer who had often written against him was on fire, he joined the bucket brigade.
In spite of eschewing religious orthodoxy, he later said
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Neither John Adams nor Thomas Jefferson signed the Constitution — Adams was serving as minister to Great Britain, Jefferson was serving as minister to France — but they both supported it from abroad.
In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1813, Adams wrote:
“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.”
He exchanged over a thousand letters with his wife Abigail, who was his sounding board. He wrote to her on July 2, 1776, that:
“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever.”
So as a prophet he was visionary, and only off by two days.
Like other Founding Fathers, he preferred a representative Republic to a democracy. He was skeptical of the rule of the masses:
“Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian