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An acute examination of a paradoxical U.S. president.
John Adams was an undiplomatic diplomat and an impolitic politician--a fierce revolutionary yet a detached and reluctant leader of the nation he helped to found. Few American public figures have ever been more devoted to doing the right thing, or more contemptuous of doing the merely popular thing. Yet his Yankee-bred fixation with ethical propriety and fiscal conservatism never stood in the way of his doing what was necessary. Adams hated debt, but as minister to the Netherlands during the Revolution, he was America's premier junk-bond salesman. And though raised a traditional Massachusetts Congregationalist, Adams was instrumental in bringing about the consecration of the first American Episcopal bishops. He was a warm and magnanimous friend and, on occasion, a man who fully vindicated the famous judgment of a rival he detested. Adams, said Benjamin Franklin, "means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but, sometimes, and in some things, is absolutely out of his senses."
James Grant examines this complex and often contradictory founding father in the most well-rounded and multi-faceted portrait of Adams to date. Going from his beginnings on a hardscrabble Massachusetts farm to the Continental Congress to the Court of St. James and the White House, Grant traces the words and deeds of one of our most learned but politically star-crossed leaders.
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James Grant is the editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer and the author of four books on finance and financial history, including Money of the Mind (FSG, 1992) and Minding Mr. Market (FSG, 1993). He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Patricia Kavanagh, and their four children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
SON OF PURITANS
John Adams was an American long before there was a United States of America. He was a fourth-generation New Englander, a spiritual, intellectual, and political heir to the Puritans. Shortly before he left France on assignment to London, a member of the local diplomatic corps asked him if he had often been in England. Only once, late in 1783, he replied.
"You have Relations in England no doubt," Adams recollected the man as continuing.
"None at all," he said, to which the diplomat expressed surprise.
"Neither my Father or Mother, Grandfather or Grandmother, Great Grandfather or Great Grandmother nor any other Relation that I know of or care a farthing for have been in England these past 150 Years," said John Yankee. "So that you see, I have not one drop of Blood in my Veins, but what is American."
"Ay," replied the diplomat, "We have seen proofs enough of that." "This flattered me no doubt," Adams recorded, "and I was vain enough to be pleased with it."1
The progenitor of the American line of Adamses, Henry Adams (c. 1583–1646), arrived in the Bay Colony late in the 1630s, toward the end of the first wave of Puritan emigration. He and his wife, eight sons, and one daughter made their farm on forty acres near Mount Wollaston, in Braintree, ten miles outside Boston.2
Little is known of this first American Adams except that, like most early Braintree settlers, he traveled light and accumulated little. His estate was valued at £75, 13s, and, besides the forty acres, featured a house with two rooms, a certain number of books, livestock—a cow, a heifer, and swine—and a silver spoon.3 If Henry was like others who fled to Massachusetts Bay in those years, he was driven from England by the established church. Religious tolerance was not an outstanding feature of sixteenth-or seventeenth-century England, but the nonconformists were besieged in the 1630s. It was the decade in which Charles I ruled without a Parliament and William Laud, the king’s handpicked archbishop of Canterbury, directed British congregations in things great and small, not forgetting to stipulate the siting of the communion table at the east end of the chancel and no other place.
This is not to say that the dissenters braved the perils of the North Atlantic to found a society based on the ideals of tolerance and freedom of conscience. On the contrary, the Puritans were absolutists. Believing that they knew the truth, they saw no reason to countenance untruth, and they made short work of the blasphemers, witches, Quakers, Anabaptists, Antinomians, and other subversives who wandered into their midst.
What they sought in religion was freedom to worship in the simplicity of the Gospel, without the superstructure of bishops, the festival of Christmas, the convention of kneeling to receive communion, and other such Romanist trappings of the Church of England. As for the material realm, they were prepared to accept whatever God meted out. The American Dream, for the Puritan founders, had nothing to do with moneymaking. Addressing his fellow passengers aboard the Arabella en route to Massachusetts in 1630, John Winthrop reaffirmed the purpose of the undertaking: "The end is to improue our liues to doe more seruice to the Lord the comforte and encrease of the body of christe whereof wee are members that our selues and posterity may be the better preserued from the Common corrupcions of this euill world to serue the Lord and worke out our Salvacion vnder the power and purity of his holy Ordinances."4
If the founding Henry Adams was a Puritan, either he was a visible saint or he wasn’t. Though everyone was expected to contribute to the upkeep of the churches and, of course, to visit them—twice—on Sunday, only the saints were admitted to church membership. Only they were contractual parties in the covenant between New England and God. Under its terms, the Puritans promised to live by the holy law. Falling short of it, as they inevitably did, they were prepared to suffer chastisement. "The government of Massachusetts and of Connecticut as well," wrote historians Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson several centuries after the fact, "was a dictatorship, and never pretended to be anything else; it was a dictatorship, not of a single tyrant, or of an economic class, or of a political faction, but of the holy and regenerate."5 The Puritans’ God was wrathful, omnipresent, and to even the most perceptive human being, incomprehensible. He was "the incomprehensible sum of all perfections, not to be understood in His essence, not to be prefigured by man-made images." Hence the Puritans’ opposition to religious art and to anything else that might introduce the distraction of aesthetic pleasure into the worship service. Seeking to purify the house of God, the dissenters stripped the premises of every amenity, creature comfort, and consolation they could find:
[Puritanism] demanded that the individual confront existence directly on all sides at once, that he test all things by the touchstone of absolute truth, that no allowance be made for circumstances or for human frailty. It showed no mercy to the spiritually lame and the intellectually halt; everybody had to advance at the double-quick under full pack. It demanded unblinking perception of the facts, though they should slay us. It was without any feeling for the twilight zones of the mind, it could do nothing with nuances or with half-grasped, fragmentary insights and oracular intuitions. It could permit no distinctions between venial and mortal sins; the slightest of them was "against the Great God, can that be a little Evil?" It was all or nothing, white or black, God or the Devil.6
The Puritan fathers reserved their special scorn for the uncommitted and cold-hearted. Worse than an outright sinner was a mere spiritual bystander. "Lukewarmnesse is loathsome to the stomacke," adjured Thomas Hooker, the most powerful preacher in Connecticut, "therefore appeare in your colours what you are, that you may be known either a Saint or Divell; lukewarme water goes against the stomacke, and the Lord abhorres such lukewarme tame fooles."7
The Puritans set out to build a city on a hill, a new Zion along the Charles River, by the salt flats of Braintree, or in the wilds of Hartford. Naturally this would entail hard work, but what was that to them? God called men to work, to serve society and themselves through productive labor, intellectual no less than manual.8 The premium the Puritans placed on education shines through in the founding of Harvard College—in 1636, long before the bare necessities of life in the colony had been made secure—as well as in the creation of a system of universal public education. The latter project was passed into law in 1647, the General Court of the colony explaining itself in a preamble: "It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the Scriptures, . . . and that Learning may not be buried in the graves of our fore-fathers in Church and Commonwealth." Hence it was ordered that every community of at least fifty households maintain a master to teach reading and writing and that every community of at least a hundred households establish a grammar school, "the Masters thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the Universitie."9
Daring, intelligence, piety, and work tended naturally to promote material success, and this fact the Puritans sometimes had cause to regret. Wealth, the tangible fruit of success, brought with it luxury, which yielded to pride and ostentation. An ordinance to check "the greate, superfluous, and unnecessary expenses occasioned by reason of some newe and immodest fashions" was passed as early as 1634.10
There being no compromise with the word of God, Puritans subjected themselves to ceaseless self-examination. Finding that, by and large, they failed to measure up to the Christian ideal, they prepared for the inevitable divinely ordered afflictions. For the early New En-glanders, cause and effect were self-evident. Crop failures, Indian massacres, and "excessive raigns from the botles of Heaven" were not random events but the wages of Sabbath-breaking, sleeping during sermons, drunkenness, lying, covetousness, licentiousness, price gouging, and other such crying sins.11
The youngest of Henry’s sons, Joseph, born in 1626, was a father of twelve, selectman, farmer, and brewer. There is no record of his outlook look on life or of the intensity of his religious faith. If, however, his piety burned no brighter than that of the average New Englander at the close of the seventeenth century, it would have grieved the Puritan clergy. Already the tide of secularization was rolling in. "Our Ancestors were men of God," wrote Joshua Scottow in 1694; "made partakers of the Divine Nature, Christ was Form’d, and visibly legible in them, they served God in Houses of the first Edition, without large Chambers, or Windows, Cieled with Cedar, or painted with Vermillion; a company of plain, humble and open hearted Christians, call’d Puritans."12
Though the Puritans had nothing against innocent pleasures, Increase Mather had found it necessary by 1684 to speak out against "Profane and Promiscuous Dancing." By 1716 dancing was being openly taught in Boston by an Episcopalian organist.13 In 1681 Mather had written an approving preface to a tract against religious toleration; yet about 1721 Increase and his son Cotton participated in the ordination of a Baptist minister.14 The Puritans opposed gambling on the ground that it trivialized providence, the hand of God being present even in the roll of the dice; yet the eighteenth century brought legalized lotteries, sanctioned by the clergy, for the benefit of Harvard College.15
It was unlikely, however, that any of this secularizing drift, palpable though it was, altered the rhythm of a farmer’s life in Brain-tree. Among Joseph Adams’s brood was a son named Joseph, Jr. (1654–1737), who himself had ele...
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