“He saw the whole of a subject at a single glance, and by a happy union of the powers of reasoning and persuasion often succeeded in carrying measures which were at first sight of an unpopular nature.”–Benjamin Rush
I imagine writing a book about John Adams in the 2010’s would be a daunting task.
At first glance, it appears that there is significant difficulty in writing about a member of a revered, almost mythical, group that died nearly two centuries ago.
There are countless books about his life (trust me, I’ve read a lot of them), from the earliest, including Adams’s own unfinished autobiography and Page Smith’s 1962 two-volume work, to those that crossed over into popular culture, like David McCullough’s 2001 biography, which won the Pulitzer and was the basis for a wonderful HBO miniseries of the man.
At the same time, he’s been gone 193 years so it’s not like he could have done anything to change the narrative after those books were released.
Despite the number of works dedicated to him and the time since he took his last breath on July 4, 1826 – the same day his frenemy Thomas Jefferson died, on the fiftieth anniversary of the result of their historic partnership, the Declaration of Independence – there are still places largely unexplored by scholars.
In fact, before the efforts of David McCullough and Paul Giamatti brought him back into the public consciousness, Adams had been referred to as the “forgotten patriot,” so his work was not as minutely analyzed as some others such as Jefferson or James Madison, which is puzzling considering how much written material he left behind.
Fortunately, we have Richard Alan Ryerson. The editor-in-chief of the Adams Papers from 1983 to 2001, Ryerson is uniquely qualified to study and write about one of the most important figures in American history.
John Adams’s Republic: The One, the Few, and the Many (Johns Hopkins University Press, 576 pages) is not a biography, but rather a deep dive into the second president’s mind by studying decades of his writing to understand his thoughts on governing and how those opinions developed over the years (not unlike Luke Mayville’s John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy).
First things first: this is a gorgeous tome. It is the most aesthetically pleasing book on John Adams I’ve ever seen. It is book as art. The cover is elegant and its heft and size makes it feel important, a challenge Ryerson is eager to meet.
The other thing that immediately jumps out is the research. The depth that Ryerson goes to is simply astounding – the notes section comprises nearly ninety pages – and it offers the deepest and most nuanced portrayal of Adams’s mindset that I’ve ever encountered.
A majority of John Adams’s thinking and writing was obviously dedicated to government but, more specifically, it was concerned with how the citizens could support and be protected by their government. The best way to do this, he reasoned, was through executive authority.
Adams had his share of critics that insisted thinking this made him a monarchist – even referring to him as “His Rotundity” in response – and his suggestion that George Washington’s title be “His Majesty the President” or “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same” does not help dispute that notion. Prior scribes on Adams have pointed to his journey to Europe, when he served as America’s first ambassador to Great Britain, as the time when his thinking dramatically changed.
Yet, Ryerson explains that this theory is not only simplistic, but also incorrect. Adams’s thinking on the subject of executive power evolved, but it happened over the course of his life and, even then, happened gradually, not as the result of a diplomatic mission.
Part of the reason so many of his brethren mocked his beliefs is because he thought so differently than virtually all of them. “Adams again saw matters in a different light from that of many of his countrymen,” is how Ryerson describes it. He thought others were being naive in insisting that the new nation had no elite class and felt it vital to admit that America did not have an aristocracy based on titles or bloodline, it did have one based on finances and land holding.
Adams, petrified of the notion of a ruling aristocracy, was unlike most other Founding Fathers in that he believed that a strong executive (the one) was the best way to prevent the aristocratic elite (the few) from trying to wrest power away from the people (the many).
“The central objective of government for Adams was always the security and happiness of the whole society, including its weakest members. The only solution to living with aristocracy, therefore, was to control it. He would devote much of the next decade to exploring how this could be done in a republican culture.”Richard Alan Ryerson
Of course, not all of his ideas were great or even practical, especially as time as passed. His notion, influenced by Jean De Lolme, that the Senate serve as a sort of holding pen for the wealthy few, which would allow for them to be closely watched while also keeping them out of the House of Representatives, which theoretically served the general populace, is itself naive, not only because a body of one-hundred individuals would certainly not hold all of the members of the influential wealthy, but that they could exert their will in a myriad of ways.
While it’s clear that Ryerson greatly admires Adams, he goes to great lengths to ensure that he presents the man’s views on how to govern without too much editorializing.
From a reader’s perspective, the ease of the material will depend on one’s level of experience and familiarity with Adams and the time period. The book is so thorough that it is dense – it is not easily accessible like most pop history books that wind up on bestseller lists – but it’s certainly not impenetrable like so many works of academia, particularly because Ryerson writes with clarity and is able to synthesize and package Adams’s ideas without subverting or diluting them.
Ryerson ends the book with a quote that displays Adams’s wit. In a letter, Adams, after acknowledging that the American Revolution produced the French Revolution, which then produced “all the calamities and desolations to the human race and whole globe ever since,” explains his worldview and his career succinctly: “I meant well, however.”
This is not a book for the many, but for the few that will invest the time and effort, it’s an incredibly rich, detailed analysis of a man that was one of a kind.
I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
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