Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book Review: John Adams

With all the recent talk about the "Founding Fathers" - I thought I'd read the book "John Adams" by David McCullough.

I learned that there are great men and women in the world, but they will only become known if given the opportunity. Greatness requires hard times, struggle, amazing potential, and defying overwhelming opposition.

Brief thoughts on the founding fathers as gleaned from this book.

When required - they were amazingly clever, witty, daring, and resilient. But when left to their own, they were men, they had their follies, their faults, and their petty arguments.

George Washington - Perhaps the greatest of all. The man who lost battles, learned from them, and commanded the army that defeated innumerable British with their formidable Navy. He was the unanimous choice for President. After 4 years he did not want a second term, but the electoral college knew that electing anyone else would split the newly formed country apart. He was the only one above party, and seen as the only choice of ALL Americans.

John Adams - Stubborn. He knew what was right, and he was going to do it. He was the driving force of the Senate. John Adams was the voice of Independence. He spoke for hours at a time and did not use notes. He was a voracious reader and knew the law, history, poetry, and could draw from a vast array of mental resources when he spoke. He was often too out spoken. His manner nearly destroyed an alliance with France, and plagued the senate when he was Vice President.
He never campaigned for any position. He never solicited a single vote. When he was nominated for President, he gave no speeches, visited to cities, had no town-hall meetings, and kissed no babies but his own. After being elected he worked with a Vice President and Cabinet from the opposition party, considering it too hard on the country to change the cabinet simply because he didn't agree with them. He was a farmer. When he was President of the United States, it was a position like congress, when not in session - he went home. He farmed every year, at one point while president he went home for 7 months (to the ridicule of his enemies).
He was bashed in the newspapers more than any President in our day. He was commonly referred to as "His Rotundity," as he was short and stout. He shared a love with his wife that surpassed most understanding. From the small glimpse we see from their hundreds of letters, they were intellectual equals, and completely inseparable. When one was without the other - it made them both weaker, more prone to illness, and to letting their bad habits come to the surface (ie - John Adams' temper)
In the end, he was almost sad that he had gone into politics. For now he was nationally known, and ridiculed. He said he should have been a shoemaker, for the local shoemaker was still happy, loved by his family, and respected by all who knew him. (John Adams could never have done this in my opinion. He figured that someone was going to be in positions of political power, and if an upright, honest man didn't do it, then a dishonest man would.

Thomas Jefferson - The soft spoken genius. He was as well versed in politics, history, science, and poetry as John Adams. But he said very little. In his year in the Senate before the writing of the declaration, he contributed little, and rarely made oral arguments. He knew he was smart, but he also knew there were many smart men who came before him, and he saw no reason not to use their writings when appropriate. He did not plagiarize their works, for he never claimed his writing as his own creation. He freely admitted that he combined the works of the giants of the past, and used them in the present. He often said he did not believe in political parties yet he led the first opposition party. While he was Vice President to John Adams, he saw no reason to sit and "babysit" the senate, and instead spent time doing things the way he thought they should be done (mostly undermining everything being done by the President) He did not write or say anything publicly to oppose or insult John Adams, but he did plenty in private. Some of the letters he had written that became public were so scathing that it rent the friendship between himself and John Adams.
He wanted to be an aristocrat. He was in debt his entire life. Though he preached against slavery, he kept slaves to run his estate till the day he died. He had to have the best, every place he lived he would instantly remodel it to be much more grand and ostentatious. He had a HUGE library. When the original Library of Congress was burned by the British, he donated his personal collection of over 7000 books to replace it.
He was quiet yet ambitious. He did what he needed to become president, though it ruined his friendship with John Adams. Not until more than a decade later at the urging of Benjamin Rush did the two begin to speak again. Then their friendship flourished again. Though Adams tried to engage him in debate about many political subjects, he ignored the proddings and replied with comments about his favorite authors: Cicero, Socrates, and Plato.

Benjamin Franklin - infinite wisdom and ingenuity. He was one of the greatest thinkers of his time, and perhaps ever. He was an amazing inventor and an accomplished writer, as well as a diplomat, soldier, scientist, and politician. He wrote great truths under the pseudonym "Poor Richard."
While in France as part of the American delegation, he drove John Adams nearly insane because he lived none of the things he professed. Franklin awoke late, ate too much, stayed up late, and did very little negotiating, but mostly partied and entertained. Frankling taught regularly about the need for virtue in America. if America ever failed, it would be because it's citizens lost their virtue.

Alexander Hamilton - The only good I have to write about him is that George Washington liked him and trusted him. From everything I have read he was a war-monger, a sleazy politician, and he wrote more "yellow journalism" than anyone of his time. While John Adams was president, Hamilton was the one really controlling the Cabinet. He was the Major General of the army, and wanted war so that he could have his glory, as Washington had done.
He died in an honor duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr.

Benjamin Rush - Ok, this book didn't talk much about him other than mentioning that he was the catalyst that reformed the friendship between Adams and Jefferson.
He also happens to be the Father of American Psychiatry.
(oh - and I'm writing a book about him too)

After reading the book and learning about these times through the eyes of John Adams, I am inclined to think as he did. Political Parties are the undoing of America. Mostly because they destroy virtue, and relegate everyone to one extreme or the other. If you are a conservative, you must be a republican, and you must not agree with anything proposed by a democrat. It's preposterous and juvenile. But enough of how much political parties irritate me.

Below are some of my favorite quotes cited in the book.

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Quotations from John Adams:
“There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures in opposition to each other.”

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

“Mankind will in time discover that unbridled majorities are as tyrannical and cruel as unlimited despots.”

“There must be however more employment of the press in favor of government than there has been or the sour, angry, peevish, fretful, lying paragraphs which assail it on every side will make an impression on many weak and ignorant people."

“No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.”

“I think instead of opposing systematically any administration, running down their character and opposing all their measures, right or wrong, we ought to support every administration as far as we can in justice.”

(Some background info) He was talking about Thomas Jefferson, who had spent the last 4 years as John Adams' Vice President, and spent much of the time slandering and undermining the President. Then Jefferson had beaten him in the election, reversed most of his policies, and “fired” John Adams' son from his appointment as Commissioner of Bankruptcy. Needless to say he did not like Thomas Jefferson at this time, and despite constant letter writing in the past and future; they didn’t write each other for the next 11 years.
“I do not believe that Mr. Jefferson ever hated me. On the contrary, I believe he always liked me: but he detested Hamilton and my whole administration. Then he wished to be President of the United States, and I stood in his way. So he did everything that he could to pull me down. But if I should quarrel with him for that, I might quarrel with every man I have had anything to do with in my entire life. This is human nature…I forgive all my enemies and hope they may find mercy in Heaven. Mr. Jefferson and I have grown old and retired from public life. So we are upon our ancient terms of good will.”

To his grandson John – Son of Nabby
“Have you considered the meaning of that word ‘worthy’? Weigh it well...I had rather you should be worthy possessors of one thousand pounds honestly acquired by your own labor and industry, than of ten millions by banks and tricks. I should rather you be worthy shoemakers than secretaries of states or treasury acquired by libels in newspapers. I had rather you should be worthy makers of brooms and baskets than unworthy presidents of the United States procured by intrigue, factious slander and corruption.”

To his Grandson Charles Francis
“Arouse your courage, be determined to be something in the world”

“You have a fine capacity, my dear boy, if you will exert it. You are responsible to God and man for a fine genius, a talent which is not to be buried in the earth”

Speaking of his son - President John Quincy Adam - trying to deal with an uncivil congress
“Our American chivalry is the worst in all the world. It has no laws, no bounds, no definitions; it seems to be a caprice.”

To his Granddaughter Caroline
"The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know...Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough."

"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. 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 Us 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 more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not."

Quotations from Thomas Jefferson:
I am convinced that our own happiness requires that we should continue to mix with the world, and to keep pace with it as it goes.

Senate Manual Rule 17.9 under Order in Debate – “No one is to speak impertinently or beside the question, superfluously or tediously.” 

In a letter to John Adams; having run on for several pages about Cicero, Socrates, and the contradictions in Plato he asked: “But why am I dosing you with these antediluvian topics? Because I am glad to have someone to whom they are familiar, and who will not receive them as if dropped from the moon.”

Quotations from Benjamin Franklin
He wrote his own epitaph
The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author

Quotation from Richard Rumbold – cited by Thomas Jefferson:
“I never could believe that providence had sent a few men into the world ready booted and spurred to ride, and millions ready saddled and bridled to be ridden.”