The Magazine

Founder Reader

Perusing the books of John Adams, bibliophile.

Mar 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 27 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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John Adams Unbound

Boston Public Library

Through April 29, 2007

John Adams was nuts for books. Though he wasn't nearly as well off as Jefferson or Washington, Adams spent extravagantly on leather-bound volumes of literature, history, law, and political philosophy, and plunged into them with ravenous interest. Terrified that he might "live and die an ignorant, obscure fellow," he used books as his tools in constructing a vast tower of knowledge about man and politics, from which he could peer down at the common herd.

At 21, he designed a reading program: to rise at dawn and read the Scriptures on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings; and to study ancient authors in Latin on the other three mornings. He would devote his remaining free time around noon and at night to English authors. He was soon kicking himself in his diary for slipping at his reading regimen: "Let no trifling Diversion or amuzement or Company decoy you from your Books, i.e., let no Girl, no Gun, no cards, no flutes, no Violins, no Dress, no Tobacco, no Laziness, decoy you from your Books."

Perpetually disappointed in something or other, often including himself, Adams inevitably failed to eliminate all diversions. But his restless ambition did produce results, eventually turning him into one of the most consequential figures in history--a man whose deep knowledge of human nature and experience helped shape a brilliantly conceived nation, with its stolid federal and state constitutions constraining and balancing government power.

Adams was the go-to man in the Continental Congress for advice about making state constitutions; and he himself devised the Massachusetts constitution, which greatly influenced the federal plan. His fellow revolutionary and friend Benjamin Rush said the Founding generation believed Adams possessed "more learning probably, both ancient and modern, than any man who subscribed the Declaration of Independence." C. Bradley Thompson, in John Adams & The Spirit of Liberty (1998), reinforced that view: "No one, not even Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, read as much or thought as long and hard about questions of human nature, natural right, political organization, and constitutional construction."

It is fair to say that, without Adams and his well-thumbed library, we--and countless others who have benefited from America's existence--would not be enjoying the freedom we have today. Remarkably, thousands of his books have survived, and you can explore this seed of our liberty at the Boston Public Library.

Step inside the door, and you see on your left a massive bookcase--12-feet high by 40-feet long--holding more than 3,000 volumes from Adams's personal collection, from Aristotle to Machiavelli, from Cervantes to Swift to Locke. That totemic case, so emblematic of Adams's mighty intellect and love of learning, may seem daunting. But to the right of the entrance, under glass, is a slender volume, spread open to a page on which he's scrawled a note: "Blenheim, which I saw in Ap. 1786 with Mr. Jefferson." It's a gardening book, a copy of which Thomas Jefferson held when he and Adams toured some of the great gardens of Britain in April 1786, years before Jefferson's political backstabbing ended their friendship (for a time). At some point, Adams bought his own copy and annotated it.

And if that doesn't make you smile--the thought of Adams and Jefferson in their prime, chatting away and enjoying a spring day together--you may be dead to the joys of history.

One of the great delights of Adams's library is that he wrote with a quill pen in hand, making observations in the margins, some of them wry, some of them arguments with the author, as if to set the historical record straight, on the odd chance that someone, someday, might care what he wrote in his books. The Adams here is, engagingly, the Adams we well know: too testy, too cranky, too sarcastic, too open with his wounded feelings and failings to fit the marble-statue treatment accorded other Founders.

Thus, in his personal copy of his own notorious Discourses on Davila, from which his political enemies (Jefferson included) drew passages out of context to attack him, he complains: "This dull, heavy Volume Still excites the Wonder of its Author. . . . The Work, however, powerfully operated to destroy his Popularity. It was urged as full Proof that he was an Advocate for Monarchy."

In another note, he bemoans the "glory" heaped on Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence at the expense of "little Adams"--who actually drove Congress to make the declaration.