John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams; drawing by David Levine

The Inventors of the United States decided that there would be no hereditary titles in God’s country. Although the Inventors were hostile to the idea of democracy and believed profoundly in the sacredness of property and the necessary dignity of those who owned it, they did not like the idea of king, duke, marquess, earl. Such a system of hereditary nobility was liable to produce aristocrats who tended to mix in politics (like the egregious Lord North) instead of good politically responsible burghers.

But the Inventors were practical men and the federal constitution that they assembled in 1787 was an exquisite machine that, with a repair here and a twist there, has gone on protecting the property of the worthy for two hundred years while protecting in the Bill of Rights (that sublime afterthought) certain freedoms of speech and assembly which are still unknown even now to that irritable fount of America’s political and actual being, old Europe. The Inventors understood human greed and self-interest. Combining brutal cynicism with a Puritan sense of virtue, they used those essential drives to power the machinery of the state.

Certainly none wanted to change the way people were. “As to political reformation in Europe or elsewhere,” wrote conservative Inventor John Jay in 1796, “I confess that…I do not amuse myself with dreams about an age of reason. I am content that little men should be as free as big ones and have and enjoy the same rights, but nothing strikes me as more absurd than projects to stretch little men into big ones, or shrink big men into little ones…. We must take men and measures as they are, and act accordingly.” That is the very voice of the American Inventors: conservative, commonsensical, and just—within (as opposed to the age of) reason.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia a few romantics fought a losing battle to make Washington king and to create a peerage using the odd title “margrave.” The matter was then settled, the Inventors thought, once and for all. Government would be by the best people in order to forward the best interests of the country’s owners. They might have invented the word “meritocracy” had they not had the same prejudice against neologisms that they had against new men.

But although America’s “best” people were not to have titles, they did have names; they also acquired fortunes which they passed on to sons and to grandsons and to great-grandsons. As a result, the history of the American republic is the history of certain families, of names that are now every bit as awesome as titles.

First among the country’s political families are the Adamses. In four successive generations the Adams family produced not only two presidents but a number of startlingly brilliant man and women, culminating in the country’s only major historian Henry Adams, the bright light of the fourth and the last splendid generation that ended with the death of Henry’s brother Brooks Adams in 1927.

As the imperial republic staggers into its third century, new books celebrate the Adamses. A jaunty introduction to the family is Jack Shepherd’s The Adams Chronicles. Mr. Shepherd’s work is marred, however, by occasional mistakes: he moves William Pitt to the House of Lords and Richmond Hill to Staten Island. James Bishop Peabody has edited John Adams, a Biography in His Own Words, a nice bit of book-making, while Peter Shaw has written a valuable study, The Character of John Adams, and Francis Russell is about to publish Adams: An American Dynasty. Finally, public television has gone whole hog, as it were, and bestowed upon the family the highest accolade of the consumer society: a multi-part soap opera.

To try to understand the Adamses one must begin by placing them. The first Adams to come to America was a copyhold farmer in Somerset, on land belonging to the Lord of the Manor of Barton St. David. For reasons unknown, this Henry Adams, with wife and nine children, emigrated to Boston in 1636. Possible sign of character? Of proto-Puritanism? Most English emigrants of that period preferred the balmy West Indies to the cold arduousness of New England.

Ten years later, Adams died, leaving a comfortable property. The next two generations produced dim but increasingly prosperous farmers. In the third generation, church deacon John Adams performed that obligatory act of all families destined to distinguish themselves. He committed hypergamy by marrying Susanna Boylston of Brookline, Massachusetts. The Boylstons were distinguished physicians and for an Adams to consort with a Boylston was very much a step up in that little world. Their first child was John Adams (born October 30, 1735); and with him the family entered history, remaining at the center of national and sometimes world affairs for nearly two centuries.


John Adams was a small plump man, fierce of face and brusque of manner, and very much unlike everyone else. Although he was a true child of the bleak New England countryside and mind, he was a good deal more complicated than any of the other Inventors, saving Jefferson. Adams kept, intermittently, a diary; he composed some chaotic fragments of auto-biography; and he copied out most of his letters. Adams thought a very great deal about himself and of himself, and much of his worrying is now available in the many yards of microfilm that record his papers.

At the age of forty-four, John Adams scrutinized his own character: “There is a Feebleness and a Languor in my Nature. My Mind and Body both partake of this Weakness.” Like so many valetudinarians, John Adams suffered good health until the age of ninety-one. “By my Physical Constitution I am but an ordinary Man. The Times alone have destined me to Fame—and even these have not been able to give me much.” Note the irritability; the sense that fate—or something—does not properly value him. This will be one of the family’s important recurring motifs. “Yet some great Events, some cutting Expressions, some mean Hypocrisies, have at Times, thrown this Assemblage of Sloth, Sleep, and littleness into Rage a little like a Lion.”

John Adams could not be better described. He was indeed born at the right time and in the right place, and at great moments he was more than a little like a lion. But he was also a Puritan. He worried about his vanity. When his legal career started to flourish, he wrote, “What is the end and purpose of my studies, journeys, labours…? Am I grasping at money or scheming for power? Am I planning the illustration of my family or the welfare of my country? These are great questions…. Which of these lies nearest my heart?”

The answer of course is that all these things can dwell in reasonable harmony within the same great bosom. But only a New England Puritan would fret so. Certainly one does not find in Franklin, Jefferson, or Washington any of the cold-eyed self-scrutiny that the first and all the subsequent Adamses turned upon themselves. Happily, the Adamses were not uncritical of others. In fact, a certain censoriousness is very much the family style. John Adams managed to quarrel hugely with Franklin, Jefferson, and, disastrously, with the coleader of his own party Alexander Hamilton. He was also wary of the cold, self-loving, and self-satisfied grandeur of his predecessor in the office of first magistrate, George Washington.

In the New England slang of the day, Adams was “saucy.” He was also prone to nervous breakdowns (“my Fidgets”). Mr. Shaw writes that “Adams suffered from a constantly rising temper at anticipated enmity. But when attacked directly he rarely took offense.” Despising popularity, Adams required universal applause for his good works. Yet laurel wreaths tended to give him headaches, for “Good Treatment makes me think I am admired, beloved and my own Vanity will be indulged in me. So I dismiss my Gard and grow weak, silly, vain, conceited, ostentatious. But a Check, a frown, a sneer, a Sarcasm…makes me more careful and considerate.” Or, as Mr. Shaw puts it, “The truth was that from the beginning he courted not popularity but unpopularity as a mark of distinction.”

The facts of John Adams’s early career are unremarkable. He attended Harvard; studied law; was admitted to the bar in 1758 at Boston. Had the English Ministry not managed entirely to outrage its American colonies, John Adams would be known today, if at all, as a sharp New England lawyer who kept a diary not so good as Pepys’s. As it was, by the age of thirty-six, he had the largest law practice in the colony. He owned a house at Braintree near Boston, and he commuted between the private practice of law and public life. “Farewell Politicks,” he writes time and again. But with the American Revolution it was farewell to private life for thirty years.

“The year 1765 has been the most remarkable Year of my Life. That enormous Engine, fabricated by the British Parliament, for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America, I mean the Stamp Act, has raised and spread, thro the whole Continent, a Spirit that will be recorded to our Honour, with all future Generations.”

Adams was one of those chosen to present the objections of the people of Massachusetts to the taxes levied on them by the faraway Ministry at London. When selected by his fellow citizens, Adams wondered how it was that someone “unknown as I am” should have been thrust into history. Obviously some “secret invisible Laws of Nature” were at work. This is to be one of the family’s principal themes, ultimately expressed in Henry Adams’s theory of history.


Adams enjoyed describing the pathetic departure for Philadelphia of the Massachusetts delegates, “all destitute of Fortune, four poor Pilgrims, proceeded in one coach.” Actually they were splendidly accompanied by two armed white servants and four blacks in livery.

But no matter how or why John Adams was chosen by the Zeitgeist to lead, he more than any other Inventor prepared the way intellectually and rhetorically for Revolution, as we like to call the slow separation of the colonies from England. “I grounded my Argument on the Invalidity of the Stamp Act, it not being in any sense our Act, having never consented to it.” Or, “No taxation without representation.” With that mighty line, the United States were born as a political entity and in the two hundred years since that noble genesis the government of our states has blithely taxed other peoples from the far-off Filipinos to the near-by residents of the District of Columbia without for a moment allowing them representation.

Adams was a member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1778. By seconding the nomination of the Virginian George Washington as commander-in-chief, he ensured Washington’s selection. Alas. From that moment on Adams tended to regard Washington rather the way Baron Frankenstein was to regard his handiwork. At forty, Adams toyed with the idea of winning glory as a soldier; but decided that he was “too old, and too much worn with fatigues of study in my youth.” Yet he was three years younger than Washington; but then Washington had never fatigued himself with books.

In November 1777 Adams was bored with the Congress. But Congress was not bored with Adams. He was sent in February 1778 to France, to join the other American representatives there, chief among them Benjamin Franklin. Adams admitted that Franklin was “a great genius, a great wit, a great humorist, a great satirist, and a great politician.” After all, Adams happened to be none of those things and did not value them. But he did doubt if Franklin was “a great philosopher, a great moralist, and a great statesman…” like John Adams.

He also deeply envied Franklin’s charm and universal popularity (“I expect soon to see a proposition to name the 18th Century, the Franklinian Age”). He also found Franklin dissipated, lazy, and Frenchified. Not to be outdone, Franklin observed that Adams was “in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”

Adams took with him to Europe his ten-year-old son John Quincy, a future diplomat and president. The education of John Quincy Adams was to be the most superb of any of the American presidents, and consequently absolutely crippling. He was too brilliant and too addicted to toil; he knew too many languages, books, nations, political and philosophical systems to be able to preside with any grace or tolerance over the dingy republic of his day. But in late eighteenth-century Europe the boy was wide-eyed and impressionable. The world was his.

In due course, John Adams was chosen to negotiate the peace with England. After seven dreadful years Washington had finally blundered not into a clear-cut American victory over the English but into a situation where a nervous and weary Ministry at London wanted to cut its losses in America. Summarily, the English abandoned their former colonies and went home.

For three successive generations each head of the Adams family was, in a sense, made by England, for each was American minister at London during a crisis and each did his job satisfactorily, if sometimes tactlessly. Or as Sir John Temple noted of John Adams, “He is the most ungracious man I ever saw.”

Negotiations with the English themselves were not as difficult for Adams as getting on with his two American conegotiators Franklin and Jay: “the one malicious, the other, I think honest…. Franklin’s cunning will be to divide us; to this end he will provoke, he will insinuate, he will intrigue, he will maneuver.” As it turned out, Franklin was not all that bad and Jay was brilliant. Meanwhile, the fourteen-year-old John Quincy Adams left the school he was attending at The Hague and went off to be secretary to the American minister at St. Petersburg. The education was proceeding uniquely well. John Quincy now spoke French, Dutch, German; knew Latin and Greek.

In 1785 John Adams was appointed first American minister to England. By then Adams had been joined by his wife Abigail. In marrying the daughter of the noted Reverend William Smith and the very grand Elizabeth Quincy, Adams had, like his father, committed the obligatory act of hypergamy and his children were now related to everyone in Massachusetts.

The sharp-tongued Abigail was a devoted wife and a fine letter writer. Exactly a century ago, Charles Francis Adams edited some three hundred of the letters his grandparents wrote to each other. Now The Book of Abigail and John has just been published. This selection of letters between husband and wife is a good deal more lively than the demure 1876 arrangement. While Adams fretted about politics and history, Abigail was the efficient manager of the household and the farm. She had a first-rate mind and resented her own lack of education. In 1776, she wrote wistfully, “I always had a fancy for a closet with a window which I could more peculiarly call my own.” But she was, like it or not, farm-manager, wife, mother. Although the eldest son John Quincy Adams was, from the beginning, a paragon, the second son Charles took to drink and died at thirty, while a daughter married not too well. But Abigail’s principal interest was her prickly husband and their marriage was happy.

Abigail’s political judgment was often shrewd. Rightly suspicious of Jefferson and the Virginians, she wondered whether or not they could truly possess a “passion for Liberty” when they “have been accustomed to deprive their fellow creatures of theirs.” Yet she did her best to keep smooth relations between John Adams and Jefferson.

In 1788 Adams returned home where he was much admired for his labors in England. Everyone quoted his prescription for the new republic, “a government of laws and not of men.” But like his descendants, Adams could never not express himself. In a lengthy treatise on the various American state constitutions, he made it plain that the country ought to be governed by “the rich, the well-born and the able.” But the poor, the ill-born, and the incompetent, that is to say the majority, disliked this bold elitism, and Adams was to suffer to the end of his career gibes accusing him of being in favor of monarchy and aristocracy.

Democracy, Adams believed, was “the most ignoble, unjust and detestable form of government.” The other Inventors agreed. But then, early on, they had a great fright. Before the separation from England only men of property could vote in Massachusetts. After independence, only men of property could vote in Massachusetts; but the property qualifications were doubled. A number of former soldiers led by one Daniel Shays revolted. Shays’s Rebellion was quickly put down. In the process, the Inventors came to the conclusion that a relatively strong federal constitution was needed to make thirteen loosely allied states into a single nation with the sort of powers that would discourage rebellion and protect property. Carefully, they limited the franchise to some 700,000 propertied adult males. Out of a total population of 3,250,000, slaves, indentured servants, and convicts comprised nearly a third of the total. The Inventors also devised an Electoral College to choose president and vice president. As expected, George Washington was unanimously elected president while the man who got the second most votes in the College became vice president. On April 21, 1789, John Adams began the first of two terms as vice president.

Adams was much misunderstood during this period. Although he had never been a lover of Demos, he was not in favor of aristocracy. Yet, according to Mr. Shaw, “he forged an enduring reputation as a champion of aristocracy by the manner in which he opposed himself to it: namely by warning that aristocrats were dangerous because superior.” Also, he did himself harm when “Apparently unaware of the new prestige of equality, he defended the people while emphasizing their inferiority.” Thus was laid the curse upon the house of Adams.

Nicknamed “His Rotundity,” Adams presided over the Senate, and waited his turn to replace Washington. That turn almost never came, thanks to Alexander Hamilton. In many ways the most brilliant as well as the most unstable of the Inventors, Hamilton was magically beguiling when he chose to be, particularly with doting older men like George Washington. During the eight years of Washington’s presidency, Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton was, in effect, the actual ruler of the United States. Hamilton’s preeminence did not please his senior in every sense, the vice president. Because of an untidy private life, foreign birth, and a personality calculated to make the ill-born froth with Jacobin sentiments, Hamilton was never himself a candidate for president. But he did his best to make Adams’s elevation not the natural thing it ought to have been but a complicated near-miss with a dim Southerner added to the ballot. Adams defeated Jefferson by only three votes.

In 1875, that glorious crook, contender for the presidency, and nobody’s fool James G. Blaine was firmly opposed to the idea of nominating for president John Adams’s grandson Charles Francis Adams. Blaine was firm: both President John Adams and his son President John Quincy Adams had each managed to kill his party. The Republican party of 1875 might be defeated and still survive, said Blaine, “but if it should win with Adams it would never live again.” In one sense, this was very much a bum rap for the Adamses since their parties were, in any case, deteriorating. Yet it is true that their overwhelming amour propre was such that they were hopeless when it came to the greasy art of survival in American politics. Although they were sly enough to rise to the top, they were never sufficiently adhesive to stay there.

John Adams began his presidency in a sour mood. He had nearly been robbed of the office by Hamilton. At the inaugural, Washington got all the attention: “He seemed to enjoy a triumph over me.” The man he trusted least, the head of the Republican party, Thomas Jefferson, was vice president. Nevertheless, Adams decided to do his best to transcend faction, and so made the fatal mistake of retaining George Washington’s cabinet. This group of second-raters was for the most part loyal to Alexander Hamilton, now practicing law at New York and dreaming of one day leading a great army into Mexico and South America in order to make himself another Bonaparte.

But for Hamilton to raise a great army he needed a war. After much intrigue, Hamilton nearly maneuvered the United States into a war with France (one issue: Talleyrand had suggested that to keep the peace a bribe might be in order. Virtuous United Statesmen were outraged). The Republican party under Jefferson was not only pro-French but opposed to standing armies, taxes, and all the accouterments of that nation-state which Hamilton saw as inevitable and desirable. Although Adams did his best to maintain the peace, Hamilton orchestrated the war-scare so skillfully that Adams was obliged to call Washington out of retirement to take charge of a mobilization.

Ever obedient to the beloved Hamilton, Washington insisted that Adams make Hamilton the ranking major-general of the army. Overwhelmed by force majeure from Mount Vernon, Adams gave way. Hamilton could now attend cabinet meetings; organize the coming war with France; and plan the eventual conquest of Latin America. But Adams was not without cunning. He continued to play up to the jingoes while quietly preparing an accommodation with France. Shortly before the election of 1800, the president’s own minister to France made peace.

Finished as a party leader, Hamilton felt obliged to damage if not destroy Adams. With that creative madness for which he was noted, Hamilton wrote a “secret” attack on the president while, quixotically, proposing that of course he be re-elected. Aaron Burr got a copy of Hamilton’s pamphlet and published it, fatally splitting the Federalist party. Even so, had Burr not carried New York State for Jefferson and himself, Adams would have been re-elected. As it was, he spent his last days in office at the new and dreadful “city” of Washington, creating Federalist judges. The most significant act of John Adams’s presidency was the appointment of John Marshall to be chief justice. More than any other Inventor, the conservative Marshall defined the United States and shaped its Constitution.

During the war-scare, the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by a panicky Congress, and Adams had the bad sense to sign them. In effect, they suspended freedom of speech “in the national interest,” as the neo-Nixonians would say. Historians have tended to be overwhelmed by this blot on the Adams administration; yet hardly any historian, retrospectively, much minds the fact that the sainted Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Actually, it was not the highhanded attitude toward civil rights that harmed the Federalists but, as John Quincy Adams wrote, “The [creation of] the army was the first decisive symptom of a schism in the Federal Party itself, which accomplished its final overthrow and that of the administration.”

Nevertheless, Adams continued to feel guilty about having signed into law measures designed to curtail free speech and assembly. A decade later he blamed the Alien and Sedition Acts on Hamilton. “Congress, however, adopted both these measures.” Then he trims. After all, they were “War measures” and “I knew there was need enough of both, and therefore I consented to them.” Abigail was a good deal firmer. Referring to an offensive editor, “In any other Country [he] and all his papers would have been seazd and ought to be here, but congress are dilly dallying about passing a Bill enabling the President to seize suspisious Persons and their papers.”

Refusing to remain in Washington for the inauguration of his successor Thomas Jefferson, Adams went home to Massachusetts where he lived for another twenty-six years, eating too much, reading Cicero, following with delighted apprehension his son’s rise in the world. Although he wanted his son to succeed, the Puritan in John Adams insisted that noble failure was the only grace to be longed for. In 1808, he wrote, “Happy will you be if you can be turned out as your Father has been….” But in 1825, John Quincy Adams became the president. His father wrote Jefferson, with whom he had become reconciled, “He appeared to be almost as much your boy as mine.”

Summing up his own career, Adams wrote, “I cannot repent of anything I ever did conscientiously and from a sense of duty. I never engaged in public affairs for my own interest, pleasure, envy, jealousy, avarice, or ambition, or even the desire of fame.” Excepting “pleasure” and perhaps “avarice,” Adams listed his own peculiar faults. Nevertheless, despite ambition, envy, etc., Adams acted well and his rationalization for his failure as president rings true: “If any of these [faults] had been my motive, my conduct would have been very different.” Certainly he was no mere opportunist; and he believed that his best act was the one that cost him re-election: “I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than: ‘Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of the peace with France in the year 1800.’ “

In the mantelpiece of the dining room at the White House is carved a line from one of Adams’s letters to his wife, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” Well….

(This is the first part of a two-part article on the Adams family.)

This Issue

March 18, 1976