The First Republican

Forgive me if I did not rush to read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. The story of this country’s second president was not one that appealed to me. Adams lacked the physical and military stature of Washington and the intellectual height of Jefferson.

Amongst the founding fathers whose celebrity status in history is noted by the use of only last names, Adams always had need of his first name. This not quite famous patriot, however, became the prototype Republican executive.

Wait. I can hear Trivia Pursuit champions punching the idiot alarm. I realize Adams was a Federalist and Jefferson lead what was called the Republican Party, but Jefferson’s flock morphed into what we call the Democratic Party and the band that supported Adams would feel most a home in the Republican Party.


* Adams favored a strong national defense utilizing “walls of wood” (an effective navy).

* Preached preparing for war while negotiating for peace.

* Felt the media was out to get him.

* Distrusted the bulk of the citizens.

* As a student of Adam Smith, he believed the nation’s economy was dependent on the acquisition of capital and Devine Providence.

Although I can’t forget that Adams had newspaper editors jailed for criticizing his administration, McCollough showed me there was much to admire in this Harvard educated lawyer.

Adams was true to his Puritan ancestors. He believed in living plainly and simply. As vice-president, he moved to a smaller house because he did not think he could afford the old one on his $5,000 salary.

The love affair of John and Abigail is one for the ages. Their letters make you wish all marriages could be this way. Their frequent and prolonged separations pained both. On her death bed, Adams told his wife that he did not think they would be apart quite so long this time.

Adams was a farmer who plowed his land and harvested his hay during the summer before he became president. Unlike Washington and Jefferson, it was Adams’ own hand on the plow and he did it all without slaves.

McCollough puts heavy emphasis on Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemings and paints a picture of Jefferson as something of a dilettante. He notes that at the time of their deaths (both died on July 4, 1826), Adams had a net worth of $100,000, while Jefferson owed about $100,000.

Although the author shields the reader from a full view of Adams’ well-documented temper, he gives you a scenic panorama of the late 18th Century as Adams and his family move around this country and most of the courts of Europe.

A chilling episode unfolds when a lump is discovered in the breast of Adams’ daughter, Nabby. Doctors perform a radical mastectomy without anesthesia on the woman in one of the Adams’ bedrooms.

John Adams meant much more to this country than I had thought. While he might not have gotten my vote, he has my respect and certainly a topic worthy of a President’s Day contemplation.
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