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Authors: Joseph J. Ellis

Passionate Sage

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The Character and Legacy of John Adams





John Adams as he appeared upon his retirement from the presidency in 1801. Replica of the portrait by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of the Adams National Historic Site

Copyright © 2001, 1993 by Joseph J. Ellis.
All rights reserved

First published as a Norton paperback 1994; reissued with a new preface 2001

The text of this book is composed in Galliard with the display set in Craw Modern Bold and Caslon 471. Book design by Marjorie J. Flock.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ellis, Joseph J.

Passionate sage: the character and legacy of John Adams/Joseph J. Ellis.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references.

1. Adams, John, 1743–1826. 2. United States—Politics and government—Constitutional period, 1789-1809. I. Title.

E321.E45 1993

973.4´4´092—dc20     92-39866

ISBN: 978-0-393-31133-4

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street. London WIT 3QT

To Ellen and the boys—
Peter, Scott, and Alexander

Preface to the Second Edition

in earnest on John Adams over a decade ago, I recall feeling the kind of deep satisfaction one usually associates with a skin diver discovering gold coins in a remote lagoon. The Adams correspondence is a true treasure chest, and though I was hardly the first historian to discover its rich contents, very few ordinary American citizens knew much about Adams. And so when the first edition of
Passionate Sage
appeared in 1993, I felt the irresistible urge to spread the word hither and yon that Adams was perhaps the most misunderstood and unappreciated great man in American history.

As I tried to explain in the last chapter, Adams was already making a comeback within the scholarly world, primarily because the ongoing publication of the modern edition of his papers had won him the respect and admiration of several scholarly specialists in the field. But I wanted to carry the Adams message beyond the specialist and toward a larger audience of readers. While in some quarters of the historical profession it might be considered unbecoming and even slightly embarrassing, I wanted to introduce Adams to the public at large. In my most exuberant moments, I actually envisioned a groundswell of popular support for the construction of an Adams Memorial on the Mall or Tidal Basin in the nation's capital.

Well, that has yet to happen. Adams's latter-day lamentation—that he did not expect mausoleums or monuments erected in his honor—remains an accurate prophecy. Nevertheless, the Adams comeback continues. And thanks in some small way to the critical and commercial success of
Passionate Sage
, the gap between the scholarly and public appreciation of Adams and his legacy has been bridged, if not completely closed. Even as I write, David McCullough is composing the final chapters of a major new book on Adams that is surely destined to bring the Sage of Quincy to life for a huge readership, further closing the gap.

This new edition of
Passionate Sage
affords me the opportunity to suggest, from this more retrospective perch, three reasons why Adams's reputation is enjoying a modern-day revival. First, in an era of apparently never-ending political scandals and ever-spreading cynicism toward elected officials at the national level, Adams stands out as a statesman of unquestioned character who truly did prefer being right to being president. Second, at a time when the proper role of government in managing our domestic policy has become the salient issue in American politics, Adams's insistence that government does have an essential role to play, that government is “us” rather than “them,” permits modern-day liberals to recognize a kindred spirit in the founding era. To put it more sharply, the Adams version of America's original intentions translates more sensibly and smoothly into our contemporary political debates than does the antigovernment ethos of Thomas Jefferson. Third, and finally, unlike all the other vanguard members of the revolutionary generation, Adams left a record of his most intimate thoughts and feelings. He was incapable of posing for posterity, or like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, or George Washington, constructing a mythical, statuelike image designed to suggest sacred or divine inspiration. He was the most self-revealed, instinctively candid, gloriously fallible, wholly honest member of that remarkable “band of brothers” whom we are otherwise disposed to capitalize as Founding Fathers. In that sense, he is the clearest and fullest window through which to view the ambitions that drove them all. In effect, though he belongs on Mount Rushmore, we would need to devise a way to replace the granite with flesh and blood.

Amherst, Massachusetts
August 2000


John Adams in 1801 frontispiece

Abigail Adams (1801), at the time of John Adams's retirement 35

Peacefield, or Montezillo, the Adams family homestead at Quincy 56

Mercy Otis Warren (1763) 71

Marginalia of John Adams in his copy of Mary Wollstonecraft's
Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution
(1794) 94

Bronze casting of John Adams, based on plaster “life mask” of 1825, depicting Adams as the American Cicero 177

Thomas Jefferson's “last letter,” June 24, 1826, declining the invitation to attend the Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C. 207


as an American diplomat to France in 1778, one of the first questions he encountered proved awkward and a good test of his personal diplomatic skills. Everyone asked him if he was “the famous Adams, Le fameux Adams?—Ah, le fameux Adams?” It seems he was the victim of a double dose of mistaken identity. On the one hand, he was being confused with his cousin Samuel Adams, the fiery propagandist of the American Revolution and organizer of the Boston Tea Party, who currently headed the British lists of American traitors most wanted for hanging. On the other hand, the French mistakenly believed that a “Monsieur Adams” was also the author of Tom Paine's celebrated pamphlet
Common Sense
, which had electrified readers in Europe as well as America with its seductive argument that formenting a revolution was a natural and sensible act.

Despite his best efforts to persuade the French that he was neither Sam Adams nor the author of
Common Sense
, John Adams discovered that no one believed him. “All that I could say or do,” he reported to his diary, “would not convince any Body, but that I was the fameux Adams.” For weeks the French attributed his denials to excessive modesty, thereby demonstrating conclusively that they were completely misinformed. When they eventually came to believe his protestations, however, and acknowledged that he was not “the famous Adams,” the question then became: who was he? Adams himself observed rather grudgingly that no one knew. He was quickly transformed from an American celebrity to an American obscurity. He had suddenly become, as he put it, “a Man of whom Nobody had ever heard before, a perfect Cypher, a Man who did not understand a Word of French—awkward in his Figure—awkward in his Dress—no Abilities—a perfect Bigot—and fanatic.” At dinner parties he came to be known simply as “the other Adams.” Who

The pages that follow could be construed as an explanation to his French hosts. If so, it is a somewhat ill-timed explanation, not only because it is more than two centuries too late to do them much good, but also because it focuses on Adams as an older man, long after he had suffered their slights, even after his active political career was over. But while concentrating on Adams in retirement, my intention has been broader and more ambitious than a chronicle of his twilight years at Quincy. It is true that previous studies of Adams have paid less attention to the last quarter century of his life, so that there is more fresh material available here that has never before found its way into the books. But my motives for focusing on old man Adams reach beyond the desire to bring previously unpublished letters into print. For reasons that I try to explore, John Adams remains the most misconstrued and unappreciated “great man” in American history. Not only does he deserve better; we will be better for knowing him. Adams used his retirement to engage in a long and often bittersweet retrospective on his public career and personal life. That is also my purpose—to use his latter years as a perch from which to meditate on his thought and character, to assess his proper place within the revolutionary generation, to appraise his legacy for us, to offer an answer to the question his French hosts posed long ago.


historians and biographers have been wholly negligent in seeking an answer to that question, especially during the past forty years. During that time there has been a veritable Adams industry dedicated to the goal of recovering his reputation.

I acknowledge my debt to the staff of
The Adams Papers
and the Massachusetts Historical Society, where the papers of the Adams family have been housed since 1902. The real breakthrough for Adams scholars came in the 1950s, however, when the enormous collection was put on microfilm. (Stretched in a straight line, the 608 reels would extend about five miles.) All students of Adams also owe an incalculable debt to Lyman Butterfield, who supervised the modern letterpress edition of
The Adams Papers
with a combination of wit and wisdom that remains unmatched in modern editorial scholarship. Butterfield effectively rescued the passionate and pungent parts of the Adams character from the massive probity of Charles Francis Adams, who had published the initial edition of the papers in the 1850s according to standards that were exemplary for their day, but which also served as a singular example of those cloistered qualities that have given the Victorian era a bad name ever since. (Humorless, self-restraining to the point of parody, Charles Francis earned a reputation within the family and without as “the greatest Iceberg in the Western Hemisphere.”) Thanks to Butterfield, John Adams was allowed to “come out,” to become a man of endearing eccentricities, the most lovable and fully human member of his remarkable generation of American statesmen.

Additional thanks are also owed to that generation of Adams biographers who first exploited the uncensored papers that Butterfield and his staff made available: Catherine Drinker Bowen, who recovered Adams's prominent role in the American Revolution in her best-selling novel; Zoltán Haraszti, whose perky and persuasive study of the Adams library enhanced Adams's status as a thinker; Manning Dauer and Stephen Kurtz, whose respective books on the Adams presidency refurbished his image as the principled political leader of the Federalists; Lester J. Cappon, whose unabridged edition of the correspondence with Thomas Jefferson returned Adams to his old position as Jefferson's intellectual alter ego; Page Smith, whose authoritative two-volume biography captured the passionate friendship with Abigail; Peter Shaw, who probed the complex character of the Adams personality more deftly and deeply than had ever been done before; the writers and actors who created
The Adams Chronicles
for public television, who brought Adams to life before a huge national audience as the founding father of America's most prominent and intellectually distinguished family. They have all been my predecessors, guides, and teachers as I tried to conjure up my own picture of “the famous Adams.”

At Mount Holyoke my fellow conjurers, who read parts of different chapters of my work-in-progress, included Christopher Benfey, Daniel Czitrom, Rebecca Faery, John Faragher, Amy Kaplan, Anthony Lake, Carole Straw and Donald Weber. Two old friends, William Henry and David Maytnier, read early drafts and offered encouraging responses from outside the scholarly circle. Students who helped with the ordering of microfilm, checking of notes, and clarity of the prose included Catherine Allgor, Julie Seibert, and Caroline Wood.

The staffs of the University of Massachusetts Library at Amherst and the Williston Memorial Library at Mount Holyoke, especially Marilyn Dunn, always came through when it counted. A generous grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation freed me from my deanly duties for the year 1988–89, when the bulk of the research was done. I am also grateful to the Trustees of Mount Holyoke College, especially William Smethurst, who awarded me the Ford Foundation Chair in American History, which carried an annual allowance that subsidized research trips. The faculty at Mount Holyoke presented me with a hefty sum of money for use on my scholarship when I stepped down from my position as Dean of Faculty in 1990. I hope they will conclude that I have made appropriate use of their remarkable largesse.

I was especially fortunate in the calibre of criticism I received on the manuscript as a whole. John Patrick Diggins and Gordon Wood, each of whom has made seminal contributions of his own to the intellectual and historical issues at stake here, gave the penultimate draft a careful and close reading. So did Mary Jo Salter, who asked the kind of innocent questions every scholar needs to hear and every writer cherishes. Eric McKitrick, whose upcoming book on the Federalist era (done with Stanley Elkins) will almost certainly establish itself as the authoritative account of the political history of the 1790s, read all the chapters as the drafts poured—or rather seeped—out. He also arranged for me to present my work before the faculty seminar in American history at Columbia University and scheduled a series of now-legendary lunches where the main course was always Adams. Finally, Edmund Morgan also read the entire thing as it emerged in chaptersize pieces. He has been my mentor and my friend for longer than either of us cares to remember and has shaped my sense of the craft more than anyone else.

All the customary caveats apply, which is to say that I have often resisted excellent advice with the kind of contrarian's instinct that I attribute here to Adams. My insistence that Adams's political vision speaks directly to us and our troubled times, for example, will strike some readers as ahistorical. All I can say in my defense is that I have tried to remain true to the historical sources, while also listening for wisdom that speaks across the ages. The errors of fact and interpretation that result from these tendencies must, then, be my own burden.

My typists, Helen Canney and Ellen Ortyl, rescued me from many minor errors. The entire manuscript was handwritten, though not (as some of my colleagues claimed) with a quill pen. Given the slant of my scrawl, typists actually became translators whose competence transcended mere transcription. They never failed me.

My agent, Gerald McCauley, kept the faith from beginning to end. My editor, James Mairs, still owes me a lunch, but I owe him much more.

My family has borne the burden of living with a preoccupied author for several years. My wife has listened to readings of the day's work with patience and a good editorial ear. My sons learned to leave me alone when the writing was not going well and developed the habit of asking, “How's the book, dad?” when they thought the answer was good news. They deserve more than the dedication offered at the start.

BOOK: Passionate Sage
11.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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