John Adams Put Principles Above Politics

John Adams, as portrayed in the David McCullough biography and seven-part HBO miniseries, was often a blunt-spoken man who placed principle above political expediency. His loyalty was to “a government of laws and not of men,” to facts not the wishful thinking of a partisan mob.

“Facts are stubborn things,” Adams said in 1774 after witnessing a mob of rebels in Boston brutally tar and feather an innocent British tradesman. Appalled, he told his compatriots they were condoning “barbarous behavior.”

This dramatic scene, the most memorable in the TV series, is not recounted in the book and may not have occurred. It is used to illustrate Adams’ contrarian character. If mobs were for something, he would say, “now calm down and make the case rationally.”

While Patrick Henry and Samual Adams argued passionately for revolution, he sided with reason over passion, even if it did not win him friends. “And whatever be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts or evidence,” he wrote. He ultimately made the case that revolution and independence were reasonable.

He feared that citizens would not uphold their responsibilities to stay informed in order to engage in self-government. “Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people,” he wrote. He feared that democracy would not long survive if too much faith was placed in the passions of average people.

He was also skeptical of humans’ ability to distinguish principle and the rule of law from the lure of political power and personal advancement.

Adams was not a natural diplomat nor politician. He insulted delegates at the Continental Congress and endangered the necessary unanimity of the vote on the Declaration of Independence from Britain.

As the Continental Congress’s minister to France to seek financial and military support for the revolution, he could not disguise his disapproval of decadent French culture. At the recommendation of fellow diplomat Benjamin Franklin, he was recalled.

And yet he was a man of contradictions. He served just one term as president and is remembered mostly for an unreasonable and even ignominious act, signing the Alien and Sedition Acts which criminalized criticism of the federal government and put an unconstitutional clamp on freedom of speech. Adams felt that passing such legislation was the only way to avoid stirring up public fever for a war with France, during a time of great tension or quasi-war between the two nations.

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He was at least successful in avoiding war with France. He lived long enough to acknowledge, in characteristic bluntness, that the sedition acts were a permanent stain on his presidency.

Drill Deeper:

  • Adams Family Value: America’s First Dynasty (NYT): “Abhorring the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics, they held fast to an ideal of national leadership that was already, at the time of John Adams’s election, an anachronism: the executive far above faction, unsullied and unimpeded in pursuit of the public interest.”
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