July 4, 2012
I recall finishing David McCulloughs excellent John Adams onJuly 4, 2001. A great thunderstorm broke overAnnapolis that afternoon. The violent wind and rain, thunder and lightning were the perfect accompaniment to the storm that attended the greatAdamss departure, July 4, 1826.
In a powerful coda to his life, he died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. No one did more to bring about American Independence that this blunt-spoken man fromMassachusetts. Lawyer, patriot, Member of Congress, and diplomat, John Adams was born to lead and men naturally turned to him, even when they didnt especially like him. Men generally respect hard work and no one worked harder than John Adams. In the Continental Congress, he served on scores of committees, including the essential committee that dealt with the Army and the Navy. (Today, those who say the repeal of the misnamed Dont ask/Dont tell policy overturned the law Bill Clinton signed in 1993 are wrong. The ban actually dates from John Adamss rules for the Army and Navy, written in 1775. Adamss ban was older than the country.)
John Adams was such a selfless fighter for Independencethat he nominated Col. George Washington to be Commander-in-Chief of the Army, thereby putting off a key Massachusetts ally, John Hancock. As President of Congress, Hancock coveted the command for himself. But Hancock joined the other delegates in electing Washington unanimously. Adams also selected the tall, lanky young Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to draft the Declaration of Independence. His reasoning, as he later recorded it, was typical of bluff, honest John Adams:
- That [Jefferson] was a Virginian and I a Massachusettensian. 2. That he was a southern Man and I a northern one. 3. That I had become so obnoxious for my early and constant Zeal in promoting [Independence] that any [draft] of mine would undergo more severe Scrutiny and Criticism in Congress than one of his composition. 4thly and lastly that would be reason enough if there were no other, I had a great Opinion of the Elegance of his pen and none at all of my own….
How can we not love this man? There, he shows us his candid heart. He proves to us that he has no elegance in his pen. Massachusettensian? Good grief! Thank you, John, for tapping Mr. Jefferson for this historic task.
John Adams a diplomat? He was a disaster in Paris. The French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, couldnt stand the man. Adams worked through the nights as Benjamin Franklin partied. The aged sage engaged in witty repartee with Frances leading philosophes (and in naughty badinage with some of Paris leading ladies). It reflects badly on blunt John that he became resentful of the great Dr. Franklin. Franklin, in turn, parried John Adamss complaints to Congress. He deemed his younger New England compatriot a good man, a wise man, in all an honest man. He generously conceded Adamss patriotism. But in some things in some ways, absolutely out of his mind.
Fortunately for us, Adams was driven from France to Holland. There, he negotiated a wonderful treaty with the Dutch that provided what we would today call a bridge loan, a vitally needed one. It was doubtless a great achievement. But when Adams wrote to Congress claiming to be the Washington of diplomacy, the delegates all laughed heartily at his expense.
When David McCullough gave a presentation on his book here at the National Press Club, I pressed him on Adams and the Titles Crisis. As the first Vice President of the United States, John Adams took up a full six weeks of the time of the first Senate meeting in New York with long and wearisome lectures on the importance of giving highfalutin titles to our elected officials. Adams wanted Washington to have the title His High Mightiness, President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties. George Washington wanted no such thing. And for advocating it, Adams made himself look ridiculous. Jefferson was appalled. His old revolutionary colleague must have become deranged during his years as our minister to Great Britain. Behind his back, Adams got a title he didnt want: His Rotundity.
McCullough smoothly and wittily waved me away. Well, you know, Adams was a flinty New Englander. He knew everyone wants to be noticed. And he figured titles were a cheap way of giving politicians distinction. The urbane McCullough brushed off my question and got a good laugh doing so.
But it points out the problem with Honest John. Today, everyone quotes the Founders. And we should. The Federalist Papers are cited daily (most recently in the dissents from John Roberts egregious decision in NFIB v. Sebelius). Nobody cites John Adamss Discourses on Davila. In those long, turgid commentaries, Adams gives vent to his suspicions of the people.
While we hail John Adamss 1780 Massachusetts Constitutionand we shouldwe must note that it has a radical defect: the people of the Bay State cannot amend that splendid document without getting permission from state legislators. And that is the reason weve never had a referendum on true marriage in Massachusetts!
Having said all this, why still honor Adams? Because he was the Colossus of Independence. He worked without ceasing for the freedom of our country. He and his cousin Samuel were shrewd enough to maneuver around the anti-Independence Pennsylvania delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Their Massachusetts machine even reached out to German-speaking Pennsylvania farmers with Der Alarm, a newsletter pushing for election of a pro-Independence slate of delegates. Without their constant labors within Congress and without, its doubtful all of Jeffersons fine words and Washingtons noble sacrifices would have achieved the political result of Independence.
When a delegation approached the 90-year old Adamsfor a blessing and a quote on the eve of that 50th Anniversary Independence Day, the great patriot could only croak: Independence Forever!
Its all he had to say. On that Glorious Fourth, the last day of his life, Adams said: Thomas Jefferson still survives. Four hundred miles away, Thomas Jefferson at 83 also lay dying. He had asked his family Is it the Fourth? When told it was, he gave up the ghost.
When these two great Founders died on the same day, there was of course no Breaking News to flash the word instantly. It took some weeks before the whole nation knew. Modern historians are inclined to say that some Americans at that time saw the hand of Providence in the deaths of the two great Founders on the Nations Fiftieth Birthday. Yes, and some of us still do.