How could America forget a Founding Father—one of that small band of remarkable men who set a new course for all nations by establishing the rules for a democratic republic that still guide our own?

America's second President, John Adams

America’s second President, John Adams

Good question. To answer it, we must first see who, in 1776, was crazy and idealistic enough to sacrifice his own comfort and safety for a seemingly hopeless cause.

First, of course, was George Washington, our successful commander-in-chief and first President, whose fame as a liberator is worldwide. A close second was Thomas Jefferson, touted in every classroom as the silver-tongued author of our colonies’ Declaration of Independence from British rule. James Madison was and is honored as the ‘Father of the Constitution.’ And Benjamin Franklin—that original original—holds the distinction of being America’s foremost inventor, scientist, diplomat, writer, publisher, editor, and general embodiment of good sense.

While this shortlist of early American luminaries is hardly complete, its most striking omission is John Adams—the man whose eloquence, learning, and sheer passion dragged many an American colonial legislator to sign the dangerous and inflammatory Declaration that would make war inevitable. Without Adams, current residents of the territory between Mexico and Canada would very likely be pledging allegiance to the Queen.

Yet in our nation’s capital, this pre-Revolutionary hero, who as a legislator helped make our revolution and then, as our second President, helped save us from further wars, has no monument. Amid the many statues and buildings dedicated to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin in Washington, DC, John Adams has only one building (an annex of the Library of Congress) named after him and appears on only one monument—in the hard-to-see pediment relief above the entrance to Thomas Jefferson’s memorial—as one of five writers of the Declaration of Independence.

So what did John Adams actually do for his home state of Massachusetts and these new United States of America?

First, like Washington, Adams was a man of principle. In 1770, the 35-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer did not hesitate to risk his newly established legal reputation by defending British soldiers charged with mowing down innocent colonists in what was being called ‘the Boston Massacre.’ Why would he take on this highly unpopular and seemingly hopeless case? Only one reason comes to mind—to do right by quelling public emotions and stemming any potentially unjust rush to judgment. With his exceptional eloquence, learning, and courtroom skills, John Adams convinced a Boston jury of colonists to acquit—just as, years later, his famous son John Quincy Adams would do when defending the African slaves who rebelled against the cruelty of the slave ship Amistad crew. These two remarkable trials speak resoundingly to the Adams family’s enduring moral mettle. Clearly, in the Adams justice meant full due process and the rule of law.

Yet just six years after John Adams’s famous defense of British soldiers, he almost single-handedly, as a Massachusetts representative to the Continental Congress, convinced his fellow delegates to rebel. The time for negotiation, he argued, was at an end. It was now their duty to cut ties with mother Britain. Adams (who discussed the matter with his wife Abigail in letters) well knew that for such a break to be meaningful, a wholly different form of government was required. In casting aside their hereditary king, the American colonists were throwing in their lot with the radical new notion that government is answerable to—and derives its authority from—the people it governs.

 Adams (far right) helps draft the colonies' revolutionary 'Declaration of Independence' from Britain

Adams (far right) helps draft the colonies’ revolutionary ‘Declaration of Independence’ from Britain

Clever as he was, Adams was not an easy man. His Jon Stewart wit skewered all and sundry—even the mighty Washington, whom, he once remarked, was inevitably chosen to lead because he was always ‘the tallest man in the room.’ During the Revolution and even after, his fellow-delegates dealt with this problem by sidelining their spikey colleague to Europe on one diplomatic assignment after another, important tasks he felt he could not refuse.

But however eloquent and persuasive at home, in Europe Adams was eclipsed by the wealthy and worldly Thomas Jefferson and the even more famous and admired scientist-diplomat Benjamin Franklin. Compared with these luminaries, Adams was judged straight-laced and parochial—and did I mention that he did not speak French? Even in the Netherlands, his efforts to secure a line of credit for the new nation came to naught until a brilliant sleight of hand by Alexander Hamilton miraculously straightened out our post-Revolutionary money problems—but thereby hangs another tale. After the war, Adams was still not allowed to come home. Posted to the British court at the time of the Constitutional Convention, his ideas yet managed to dominate the proceedings even in his absence.

 Although Madison gets the credit, in fact, much of our current national Constitution derives from Adams’s model, written ‘as a subcommittee of one,’ for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It should also be noted that this state constitution remains largely in force today. Though Madison was certainly key in getting the discussion started and the final agreement signed, careful comparison shows that it was Adams’s plan (for a bicameral legislature and three branches of government that would act to check and balance each other), and not Madison’s, that was in fact adopted.

As the new country’s first Vice President, John Adams fulfilled the hardest task of his life: keeping his mouth shut. As the second U.S. President, he fought to strengthen the central government and, at the cost of his own second term, to keep us out of war. Even the embarrassing Alien and Sedition Act, championed to silence the opposition, was a ploy (much favored by Abigail, who hated to see her husband criticized in the press) to avoid what Washington called “messy foreign entanglements.” Young America, Adams well knew, was far too weak to survive another war.

Last but certainly not least, of all that grand company of great thinkers and moral giants, only the small and balding New Englander, who supported himself all his life by his wits alone, NEVER OWNED A SLAVE.

John Adams was in on the conception of the United States of America, gave up home and family and crossed dangerous oceans to guide its labors throughout the Revolution, midwifed its Constitution, and protected its first baby steps. It seems pretty clear that without John Adams, there would be no USA.

So where is his fine statue in our country’s capital, Washington, DC? Where his noble memorial, his pastoral garden where we can enjoy his many memorable sayings, engraved in stone? In life, John Adams sacrificed everything to ensure that we would inherit a rational people-centered government that works. To honor that life and that man, we really need to do better.


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