The Magazine

The Education of John Adams

Jul 5, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 40 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
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No single man is more responsible for the Fourth of July than John Adams. He knew full well the glory that would attach to the author of the Declaration of Independence, and there is a sense in which he spent his entire life preparing for and coveting that glory. But in the summer of 1776, Boston was still battle-scarred. And Adams recognized both that the colonies must be united behind the Declaration and that someone from Massachusetts might be accused of self-interest. So, in one of the greatest acts of abnegation in American history, he stood aside and let Thomas Jefferson, his rival from Virginia, claim the glory of declaring our independence.

No one in the colonies had worked harder to master the law and the ideas of statesmanship than John Adams. On a rigorous schedule, the young Adams roused himself at 6 A.M. to study Latin and Greek. Shy and without social graces, Adams felt both that he had been born to greatness and that he would have to work harder for it than others. Others recognized it as well: While a new lawyer, he was tapped by British agents as the most promising man in the younger set, the perfect choice to supervise the king's affairs in Massachusetts.

Yet Adams was aware of the real condition of America. In the century since 1688, Parliament had gained considerable sway in the British political system, and, faced with the heavy expenses of empire, it had begun to squeeze the colonies for revenue and to exercise enormous power over them. The price of dependency upon England was obsequiousness, servility, and the fawning pursuit of Parliamentary favors. Adams did not interpret America's anger at the Stamp Act of 1765 as a "tax revolt" but as a demand for the dignity denied by the act's underlying usurpation of consent and rights.

At the same time, Adams loved justice and, at enormous risk to his reputation among the growing band of partisans of independence, undertook in early 1770 the legal defense of the young British soldiers who had opened fire on an angry Boston mob. His brilliant and beautiful wife Abigail feared for his safety, but he argued that the integrity of the law demanded his services: "Where there is no law, there is no liberty." He won acquittal for the frightened young men and secured his reputation for both moral courage and respect for law.

From the moment of his arrival at the opening of the Continental Congress in September 1774, he worked to persuade his fellow congressmen of the necessity and wisdom of independence -- often at private discussions and small dinners. Complete union was his goal: full support from Georgia to New Hampshire. Adams bore the brunt of the deeply contested congressional argument.

Towards the end, while Jefferson was away in Virginia, Adams singlehandedly brought the issue to a vote and gave -- in response to the objections by the Pennsylvania delegation -- an extemporaneous summation that many recalled years later as the most brilliant argument they had ever heard. Congress passed the resolution for independence on July 2, and the next day Adams wrote to Abigail his famous letter on the Declaration:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever.

You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is worth more than all the means; that prosperity will triumph in that day's transaction, even though we [may regret] it, which I trust in God we shall not.

The role of Adams in producing the Constitution was also pervasive. He was the first to suggest, as early as 1776, the method of convention and ratification by which a people might establish their own founding document. He was the moving force behind the 1780 state constitution of Massachusetts, which became the model for nearly all the other states, and the honor of being a constitutional lawgiver, a "Solon or Lycurgus," he perceived as the greatest glory of his life.