Americans’ affection for both printed books and the Founding Fathers’ ideas of individual sovereignty seems to be rapidly waning, to put it mildly.
Is there any reason for readers to go through the 1,330 pages of the Library of America’s two-volume set devoted to John Adams: “Revolutionary Writings 1755-1775” and “Revolutionary Writings 1775-1783”?
Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor emeritus of history at Brown University who edited the volumes and is working on two more, has no doubt that it’s well worth it.
“I just find him fascinating,” Wood told me in an interview.
Adams, our second president, played a key role in securing the blessings we enjoy today — by powerfully urging independence, which meant a bloody and bankrupting war against what might then have been the world’s most impressive military power; doing the crucial legislative (and de-facto executive) work to keep our armies in the field; securing vital foreign loans; advancing ideas about the need to balance and control government power; and, as president, keeping America at peace when renewed war surely would have destroyed the fragile nation.
But what makes the Massachusetts man my favorite Founder (though George Washington is, of course, the one I most admire) is Adams’ personality. It leaps from the page like that of none of his peers’. He constantly discloses his heart — his wounded feelings and anger at his petty critics, his fervent hopes, his dour New England skepticism, his qualms about his easily duped fellow citizens. Thin-skinned, pugnacious and brilliantly insightful, Adams is an interesting companion, even in book form.
“He starts as an enthusiastic young idealist, but then he turns dark,” Wood told me, noting that Adams grew to have serious doubts about whether Americans had the virtue to sustain a republic far into the future. “He’s always a little bit anxious about that.”
Though he was a powerful advocate for self-government, Adams had no faith that voters would always make the right decisions, noting that many of them considered only political party in weighing a candidate.
In some jurisdictions, Adams observed scornfully, a “cap on a broomstick” would win office if it was run against a Federalist.
“He’s utterly realistic about human nature,” Wood noted.
Adams found the utopianism of his era’s left to represent ludicrous and dangerous fantasies. He fought for equality of opportunity, though in an imperfect world, that is impossible to achieve in all cases. The idea of state-enforced equality of outcomes seemed monstrous to a man who recognized the horrors of the French Revolution and anticipated those of communist Russia. He believed that people have inherent differences in talent and interests that inevitably create social and economic disparities. This led some to accuse him of supporting an aristocracy of elites, which hurt him badly politically.
“We’re not willing to admit we’re unequal,” Wood said. “He’s cold-eyed about that, and he paid a price.”
One of Adams’ great concerns centered on the loss of civility in everyday life — he was mortified by people who hardly knew each other calling each other by first names — and the vicious personal attacks that marked the party politics of his era.
But it’s not all political philosophy here. We read love letters and marvelous descriptions of the people and places around him.
“He’s incredibly sensuous,” Wood observed, recalling Adams’ visit to a Catholic church in Philadelphia and his description of the beautiful and sumptuous ceremony. “How did Luther ever break the spell?” Adams muses.
It becomes clear studying the Founders’ era that the participants simply cannot stand far back enough to understand what is happening to them.
“As you get older — and I’ve done history for over 50 years — you realize: We don’t know what’s happening to us. We’re living in a fog. It’s only later generations and historians who can sort it out,” Wood said.
Many of the Founders, for example, died thinking that their country was headed down the road to ruin.
“If they could come back, I think they’d be impressed by what’s happened,” Wood said.
Maybe that offers all of us hope today.
Contact Edward Achorn at email@example.com.