Sunday, February 15, 2015

John Adams

Happy Presidents' Day weekend! I will be continuing my coverage of every United States chief executive that I began last year with George Washington and will end in 2059 with the eternal-presidency of Taylor Swift. God help us.

Fig.1: Who is this guy again?
It's tough being a second fiddle, especially when one fiddle is annoying enough. In American history, the quintessential second banana also happened to be the second President: John Adams (fig.1). While he was undoubtedly one of the most influential figures during the American Revolution and in the early political development of the United States, Adams has been overshadowed, both then and now, by his more recognizable contemporaries. This certainly did not help his normally sour mood, as Adams was a master at quick wit and insults even before the days of "Yo Mama" jokes. It will now be my goal to lift John Adams out of his constant role as an understudy and make him the leading man on the marquee. At least until next year when I get to write about Thomas Jefferson (oh good, somebody important).

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735 in the lovely-sounding town of Braintree, outside of Bofton, Maffachufetts (that's how they spelled it). Pretty much the only thing he didn't come in second place for was coming out of the womb, as he was the first-born child and thus took his father's name. He was smart enough to go to Harvard twice, once to become a teacher and, when he decided that wasn't corruptible enough, a second time to become a lawyer. In 1764 he married Abigail Smith, who became such a considerable force in his life that she really deserves her own history (I'm getting there, ladies!). Adams earned a reputation for fairness and equality before the law; this shone through in 1770 when he was the only lawyer willing to defend the British soldiers charged with killing five civilians in what came to be known as the Bofton Maffacre. While he protested against the taxes levied by the British Parliament against the colonies with eloquent speeches and pamphlets, he wasn't nearly as popular as his cousin, Samuel Adams, who impressed people with his violent protests, tea-throwing demonstrations, and the hoppy-quality of his beer. Indeed, when introduced as Mr. Adams, people first assumed John was the famed Samuel, and promptly asked when the Harvest Pumpkin Ale will be back on the shelves.

Nevertheless, he was recognized enough for his commitment to protecting the sovereignty of the American colonies that he was chosen (with his cousin) to go to Philadelphia and attend the Continental Congress. While many of his colleagues blathered on about being loyal to the king and God saving the king and making butterscotch crumpets for the king, Adams recognized early on that breaking away from the British Empire was the only way to solve their issues. His beliefs only hardened once shots heard 'round the world were fired at the Battle of Lexington and Concord not too far from his home and family. He became the leading advocate for independence in the Congress, and asked his friend and ally, a Virginian named Thomas Jefferson, to compose a draft for a declaration on the matter. Of course, this Declaration of Independence is the central artifact documenting the creation of the United States, and Jefferson's authorship has caused him to overshadow Adams as the leader of the independence movement (giving him the sour, hand-on-his-hip demeanor in Trumbull's painting, fig.2). In addition, Adams was the one who nominated another Virginian, George Washington, to be the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, who would become more revered than his patron despite getting his butt kicked over and over again.

Fig.2: In John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, it appears as though Jefferson is stepping 
on Adams' foot; however, they are merely situated next to each other, and Adams always had that 
painfully grumpy look on his face.
In 1778, Congress sent Adams across the Atlantic in order to establish an alliance with their enemy's greatest enemy: the French. After the Battle of Saratoga proved that the Americans weren't just fooling around with the whole independence thing, France agreed to provide naval support in order to peeve off the Brits and hear them curse in their adorable accents. But once again, Adams wasn't nearly as effective of an ambassador as his fellow American, Benjamin Franklin, who responded better the the French language, customs, and crusty old women than he did. Nevertheless, Adams was again sent to Europe in 1779 to begin negotiations for peace, culminating in the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that ended the war and forced Great Britain to acknowledge the United States when they sat at their lunch table. Adams stayed on to become the U.S.'s first ambassador to the British, and had audiences with King George III who mostly just stared him down with his crazy eyes. He did not return to his country until 1788, missing out on the Constitutional Convention; indeed, most Americans even forgot he was even over there until they realized there was a dangerously low level of grumpiness in the new nation.

Fig.3: By this time, Adams began to 
put on a little weight, and some 
senators began to refer to the VP as 
"His Rotundity." Not even making a 
dumb joke for once. Look it up.
Adams came back in time to put his name in the ring for the first Presidential election in 1789, in which, like everything else in his life, he finished in second (at least he was the first ever person to finish in second!). Back in those days, getting the second-most votes made you the Vice President, which would make things awkward if this system continued into the present (Obama and Romney wouldn't be able to share like that). Like every other Vice President, Adams quickly figured out how stupid and useless the job really is. President Washington rarely asked him for advice, he was specifically excluded from cabinet meetings, the Senate regularly ignored him during debates (even though the Vice President is the president of that legislative body), and even his dog barked at him like a stranger when he came home. Adams, in his usual sourness, stated that the Vice Presidency is "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived," thinking that he would be even more useful as the backup quarterback for the New England Patriots.

In the 1790s, Adams began to identify more with the Federalist party, led by Alexander Hamilton. He favored a strong central government and an economy based on commerce, which was the opposing viewpoint of his old friend Thomas Jefferson and his long-winded Democratic-Republican party. Adams scraped by in the Presidential election of 1796 by three measly electoral votes to become the second President of the United States. His biggest challenge was staying out of the mess going on in Europe; the American Revolution truly inspired the French to have one of their own, though their seminal moment was less throwing tea overboard and more sticking disembodied heads on pikes. The Federalists wished to help Great Britain fight France, while the Democratic-Republicans wanted to join France against Great Britain. Adams decided to be the weird one and do neither, and tried to steer in-between these two courses. Even when French officials demanded a bribe in order to keep the U.S. out of the fighting (which was known as the XYZ affair, since that week's episode of Sesame Street was brought to you by those letters), Adams responded by building up the Navy in order to continue to keep the peace. Because of this, even the Federalists began to dislike Adams, soon making him a man without a party (he was awkward at parties anyway, preferring to sit along and add to his Rotundity at the hors d'oeuvres table).

Fig.4: While John had his faults, you sure 
can't say anything bad in the papers about 
lovely Abagail! Hubba hubba!
The most controversial moment in Adams' presidency came in 1798, when Federalists in Congress passed what's known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Believing that the Democratic-Republicans' support of the French endangered the security of the U.S., it imprisoned anyone who published "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government and its policies, including high-handed comics like Doonsbury that nobody truly understands anyway. President Adams didn't agree with the purpose of the acts, and hesitated to sign them into law. But he was actually convinced to do so by Abigail (fig.4), who was sick of reading insults in the newspaper about her husband being bald, fat, and stupid (she didn't need reminding). This law was openly protested by the Democratic-Republicans, especially by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the focus of histories for the next who Presidents Days), as a violation of the 1st amendment (you know, the crap about freedom of the press and speech and religion and fashion choices). With the protests against the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the never-ending tiptoe around the war in Europe, people lost faith in Adams. So in the 1800 Presidential election, he once again finished second, this time to his former-friend TJ.

Adams returned to Maffachufetts to enjoy the rest of his days in peaceful tranquility with his dearest Abigail, who thankfully didn't seem to rank him as second-best. He had the pleasure of seeing his oldest son, John Quincy Adams, become President as well, though you'll have a few years to wait to hear about him. It took some time, but he was eventually able to rekindle his friendship with Jefferson, beginning a letter-writing correspondence in 1812 that reached 158 letters. Coincidentally, both Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other on the same day (TJ at 12:50pm, JA at 6:20pm), and even more coincidentally, they both died on July 4, 1826, the fifty-year anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence (sounds like a conspiracy to me). Reportedly, Adams' last words were, "Jefferson survives," though if he checked his friend's Facebook status just a little earlier, he would have seen how wrong he was (he was always the last to know anything).

Even in death, people relegated John Adams to the kiddie table of the Founding Fathers Annual Banquet. The allure of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and even Hamilton with his penchant for getting shot in the chest, overshadow the accomplishments of Adams. Fortunately, it appears that our second President is getting a second wind of popularity over the past decade, from David McCullough's acclaimed book, the HBO miniseries based on David McCullough's acclaimed book, and the creepy fan fiction based on the HBO miniseries based on David McCullough's acclaimed book (for your protection, I won't link that last thing). With a little luck (and this history by yours truly), more and more will begin to appreciate John Adams, and realize how he provided both a staring and supporting role in the founding of the United States. Maybe then he will be given more than a second thought, and be elevated from merely the second-tier of great Presidents. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get started on Jefferson's history; I can't just throw his together (unlike some people's).

If you're interested in reading more about John Adams, check out that acclaimed book mentioned above, which is also a Canned Historian approved book that was used to conduct more research on this topic: 

John Adams, by David McCullough
Published: 2001; Paperback: 751 pages
Canned Rating: 5 out of 5 Abigail Heads

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