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.
In the politics of the new nation he had helped found, Adams proved less successful. As George Washington's vice president, he was no match for the political guile of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson baldly denied to Washington that he had libeled Adams, though the evidence was obvious, and Adams succeeded Washington as president for only one term before falling to Jefferson in a bitter reelection contest. But Adams nonetheless renewed his friendship with Jefferson in later years and, as an old man, carried on with the Virginian what is without rival the most extraordinary correspondence in American history. Their deaths occurred, a few hours apart, on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after their greatest mutual glory.
For gaining a picture of the life and character of John Adams, the most satisfying books remain Catherine Drinker Bowen's John Adams and the American Revolution and Joseph J. Ellis's The Passionate Sage. Rather than compete with these biographies, C. Bradley Thompson has used his new volume, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, to analyze Adams's writings on the nature of constitutions, the republican form of government, and the requirements of liberty.
In focusing on these writings, Thompson performs a useful task, for Adams's key works are unknown to the general reader. Adams had a love for historical research -- it would continue in his family for a hundred years -- and mastered Anglo-Saxon and canon law, the legal customs of the Germanic tribes, and classical Greek and Latin authors. Many esteemed him the most learned man in America, and his "Novanglus" essays and A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America shaped nearly all constitutional debates both here and abroad.
In the years since, however, the memory of the Bostonian Adams has faded, while the Virginians Jefferson and Madison have claimed the allegiance of modern historians. The reason, I think, is that the Virginians seem to confirm the predilection of academics for the secular Enlightenment, while Adams is far more religious in his convictions -- not an orthodox Christian, but utterly convinced of the importance of religion for American government.Even Thompson in his otherwise admirable John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty neglects the religious dimension of Adams's thought. In the debate over the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, for instance, Adams argued strenuously for religious schools, financed by the state treasury if necessary. Such schools, Adams pointed out, compelled no one's belief -- and since a republic needs virtue, and virtue needs religion, a religious education is the indispensable foundation of free society. And all who benefit by the good habits such schools produce in the citizenry ought by right to help pay for them.
On this question, Adams is far more typical of the Founders' generation than were Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson was a sunny rationalist; hostile and even bigoted toward religion, especially Judaism; expected unbroken Progress; announced himself (unseriously) a materialist; and entertained a serene and uncomplicated view of the human spirit. Adams had a far more complicated sense of religion's centrality and understood matters that bigotry prevented Jefferson from grasping. "In spite of Bolingbroke and Voltaire," Adams wrote,
I will insist the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believed or pretended to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and to propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of civilization.
It is in passages such as this that Adams reveals his biblical understanding of the relation of truth to liberty, liberty to virtue, and virtue to the public good. Adams had a republican, as opposed to a liberal, view of reality and political order. He emphasized the fragility of liberty, its costs, its difficulties, its moral requirements.
But despite paying insufficient heed to Adams's religious thought, Thompson has prepared an intellectually exhilarating volume. The first chapter of his John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, on "the American Enlightenment," is the weakest, a conventional and naively Lockean account with little sense of the religious and philosophical originality of Adams's appropriation of the Enlightenment.
With the third and fourth chapters, however, Thompson gives an excellent account of Adams's early thought. These chapters display, above all, Adams's conviction that liberty works through institutions and by law. No one laid out more fully than Adams the legal arguments that undergird the Declaration of Independence -- and, for Adams, the case for independence was a legal one, through and through. The status of the colonies rested on personal grants by the monarch; when Parliament wrested power from the king, it strayed beyond these grants -- particularly since no member of Parliament represented the votes of anyone in the colonies. Not only abuses by the monarch, therefore, but also those by a usurping Parliament were proper grounds for dissolving ties to England.
In the second half of John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, Thompson takes up the central contribution of Adams to the principles of political architecture. Adams ranged widely in his thoughts on the science of politics, the science of history, and the science of human nature. He considered exactly what it meant to be not just a lawmaker but a lawgiver, founding a new republic. He dwelt on the principles of republican government, the fundamentals of sound government, and the "art" of political architecture -- interpreting literally the idea that the American system is an experiment, to be tested as any other experiment and amended in the light of proven failures.
Adams was a bold and original thinker, a type ill-favored in democracies. He feared, for instance, the control of wealthy elites, generating a new aristocratic order. As a remedy he proposed allowing states to elect senators for life, as a way of institutionalizing a kind of natural aristocracy in one house, in order simultaneously to give it a voice and to confine it. It was this proposal that Jefferson (and later historians) leapt upon as anti-democratic. But Adams had in mind the ability of the wealthy few to win and stay in office. To keep the nation democratic would require more than pretending that a natural aristocracy will not exist.
There is ample reason to believe that we are on the edge of an Adams revival. Recent years have seen an acknowledgment of Adams's notion of religious and moral education as necessary for the survival of the republic. The extreme position of Jefferson and Madison on church and state has increasingly proved intellectually and legally bankrupt. But the deepest reason for the return of Adams is that no other Founder -- not Washington, not Jefferson, not Madison -- sheds as broad an intellectual light on the kind of governance we need today. After a century of ignoring our second president, we have reached the shoals his lighthouse meant to warn us of.
Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett chair at the American Enterprise Institute.