, Salem, MA


November 27, 2012

Column: Adams' personality leaps from the page

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.”

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