Wednesday, February 27, 2013

John Adams

Quincy, MA    Visited February 2013

Adams 1798 portrait by John Singleton
During President’s Month I providentially found myself in Boston, which gave me the opportunity to visit the grave of one of my favorite presidents – Founding Father and second chief executive of the United States, John Adams. In looking over the totality of his varied life it might be said that John Adams more than any other single figure epitomized the founding and establishing of the United States. After offering a brief bio sketch I’ll make that case.

John Adams was born October 30, 1735 outside of Boston in Quincy, MA. Adams was a descendent of the Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Adams clan was socially prominent but middle class and John grew up with a deep appreciation for his family. He attended Harvard College, and eventually settled on a career in law. In 1764 just short of his 29th birthday he married Abigail Smith; their close and storied marriage lasted 54 years till Abigail’s death in 1818. The Adams union produced six children, four of whom lived to adulthood.

His career highlights include a prominent role in the Continental Congress, co-writing the Declaration of Independence, serving as representative of the Congress to France and other European countries during the Revolutionary War. He was first ambassador of the United States to England. Adams was two-time vice president under George Washington and held office as the second President of the United States from 1796-1800, when he became the first official resident of the newly constructed White House. Following his defeat to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams retired to his home and family in Quincy. Through the next quarter century he wrote both formally and informally on the nature of government and the meaning of the American Revolution. As is well known, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams was nearly ninety-one when he died. He was buried alongside his wife in Hancock Cemetery in Quincy but was later moved to a specially built crypt across the street in the newly constructed United First Parish Church.

Farmers and Evans in the Adams Pew -
all ready for the preachin'

I said above the case can be made that John Adams may be the most influential Founding Father. What puts him at the head of the class? Here’s my argument?
  • John Adams is the quintessential colonist – descendent of the Puritans who founded Massachusetts. Though he later adopted more of a Unitarian religious philosophy, his Puritan roots made him advocate the role of the Bible and the honor of God in moral and public affairs.
  • He was an integral figure in two of the key events leading up to the American Revolution. Adams stood at the forefront of the opposition of the Stamp Act in 1765, and in doing so developed the argument that framed the ‘no taxation without representation’ stand giving political basis to the American Revolution. In 1770 he stood against public outcry and successfully defended the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre, thereby demonstrating that the rule of law in a democratic society was possible.
  • Drafting the Declaration of Independence with
    Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson
  • During the Continental Congress John Adams was perhaps the key political whip for the writing and ratification of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson later said that Adams was "the pillar of [the Declaration's] support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered." Additionally, John Adams' writing and thinking on the role of government were very influential in the framing of the United States Constitution. No other person played such prominent roles in the development of both founding documents.
  • John Adams is the only Founding Father to hold the top two executive offices – he was at the center of the formation of the presidency as it came into being. He also had a hand in the shaping of the Supreme Court by nominating John Marshall as chief justice. Marshall is generally considered to be the architect of the role of the judiciary in the balance of powers.
  • Unlike many of the Founding Fathers (including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) Adams never owned a slave and maintained a principled conviction against slavery throughout his life.  His opposition to slavery was passed down to his son John Quincy who, until his death in 1848 was the leading abolition voice in Congress.
  • Adams' roles as minister and ambassador in Europe both during and after the war helped establish the sovereignty of the United States as an independent country.
  • John Adams' quarter century of influence into the 1800’s allowed him and his family to continue to play a role in the formation of the new republic. His son, John Quincy Adams was sixth president of the United States and had a 52 year career as a major political force before, during and after his presidency.  His grandson Charles Francis Adams was ambassador to England during the Civil War under Abraham Lincoln, and helped keep Great Britain neutral during the war.

Copley portrait in 1824, two
years before Adam's death
Not as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, but more politically effective. Not as brilliant as Thomas Jefferson, but more consistent with his political and moral actions. Not the leader like George Washington, but involved earlier in the cause and more intellectually influential. His impact on key events leading up to, during and following the American Revolution, his espoused political philosophy which profoundly shaped the first century of our nation’s history, and the three generations of prominent leaders in the Adams clan make a compelling case for John Adams at the head of the class of Founding Fathers.

I do have a favorite John Adams moment. In his magisterial biography, David McCullough tells a great story about John Adams and Ben Franklin traveling to meet with British General Howe and stopping overnight at an inn. To save money they shared a room and a bed, but debated over whether it was healthier to keep the windows open or closed due to their differing germ theories. As McCullough writes,

‘So the two eminent bedfellows lay side by side in the dark, the window open, Franklin expounding, as Adams remembered, ‘upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration, with which I was so amused that I soon fell asleep.’ (John Adams, 153)

McCullough's work is outstanding history and was made into outstanding historic drama with Paul Giamatti in the title role.  Here's one of my favorite scenes - John Adams' speech in favor of the Declaration of Independence.

Adams statue across the street from United
First Parish Church

I had the chance to visit John Adam’s grave just a few days before writing this post. I was up in Boston speaking at Crossway Church. My wife Jill went with me because the pastor of the church, Bauer Evans and his wife Linda are dear friends. On Saturday after finishing a seminar we were eating lunch and planning to head into Boston for the afternoon. I knew that Adams was buried in the Quincy area so I did a little Google search and realized that he was buried with Abigail and John Quincy and his wife Louisa in the basement crypt of the United First Parish Church in the center of town. We arrived there and wandered around the church trying to find a way in. I finally found a doorbell and it was answered by a member of the church who had just stopped in to get something. After some begging on my part she agreed to let us down to look at the crypt. It's in the basement, a low ceiling stone room with four stone vaults side by side. Though it is in the church basement the crypt is not owned by the church, but by a separate trust set up by the Adams family.

Your blogger with JA

Looking across the crypt from the John
Quincy side

Memorial plaque outside the crypt

One odd thing is that across a hall from the crypt is a door that leads to church classrooms. I’m trying to picture little kids going down to their class for Sunday School passing by the crypt with their teachers reminding them to ‘wave to the presidents’ as they walk by. It is definitely worth a trip to see.

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