Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Passionate Sage

Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams – Joseph J. Ellis

After reading a biography of obscure Albert Gallatin, I turned to whom I thought would be the less obscure John Adams. Imagine my surprise upon encountering Ellis’ persuasive argument that in fact Adams has been overlooked by both political thinkers and historians much less the general public. This book centers on Adams’ retirement years – after he left the Presidency in 1801 he lived, to my surprise, another 25 years in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Adams loved to read, but he also loved to write. Ellis examines Adams’ huge correspondence not only with Jefferson (a topic he returned to in Founding Brothers and American Sphinx) but with Benjamin Rush (who sounds a wonderful eccentric ) and political thinker and slave owner John Taylor (to whom Adams told home truths about slavery and slave-owners that he didn’t inflict on Jefferson). Ellis takes a few backward glances to Adams’ youth and political activism.

Adams believed in popular sovereignty and equality before the law but he thought that equality of talent and drive was a myth, that there would always be powerful people who sought riches and fame on the backs and sweat of other people. In contrast to Jeffersonian “individualism” and “freedom” Adams emphasized “balance” and “public duties.” To Adams, the main role of government was to restrain the natural ambition and wealth-seeking of unfettered individualism among society's elite.

This is an engaging book about a moderate Federalist that could not steer the country between Hamiltonianism and Jeffersonianism. On June 7, 1826, less than a month before his death, Adams wrote that American independence would be "a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race; destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall in time to come be shaped by the human mind."

Such realism is why, Ellis argues, Adams’ character and legacy faded from American memory while Jefferson’s “Everyday a new morning in America” goopy buncombe is relished right down to this day. "The glass was always half-full at Monticello and half-empty at Quincy," Ellis concludes. And we know how we Americans feel about realists and skeptics and pessimists.

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