They just don’t make statesmen the way they used to. Every week a new revelation comes to light about some senator or congressman’s ethical transgressions. Much time was spent during the last presidential election campaign speculating about which candidate was the more mediocre student in college. And, Nevada’s favorite son, Harry Reid, whom Reason Magazine contributing editor and lawyer Michael McMenamin recently described as “functionally illiterate,” heads the Democratic Party.
But brains and ethics were not in short supply amongst the founders, including the subject of James Grant’s new book John Adams: Party of One. The man from Braintree, Mass., was by all accounts brilliant (IQ 155), and his biographer is equally so. Grant, the editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, is best known for his books about financial markets; Money of the Mind, Minding Mr. Market and The Trouble with Prosperity.
Grant deftly paints a complete portrait of a reluctant homegrown patriot, who would have rather been reading his books and tending to his farm than leading a revolution.
Adams was a fourth generation American who grew up the son of puritan parents. As a teenager he studied for a year and half to take the Harvard University entrance exam and was accepted.
After graduation, Adams took the first job he could, as a Latin master for the Worcester grammar school, but was immediately bored. Considering other professions, Adams quickly dismissed law, but: “The Latin master was resisting destiny,” Grant writes. “Bookish, smart, well-spoken and contentious, Adams was grade-A legal material.”
Adams became the most successful trial lawyer in Massachusetts. The story of Adams’s defense of Captain Thomas Preston, an officer in the British army, is one of the book’s most interesting chapters, illustrating Adam’s character and reverence for the law. Witnesses said Preston ordered his troops to fire on innocent Bostonians, an incident that left two townspeople dead and three more mortally wounded. The year was 1770, and the presumed guilty Preston needed representation. Though already steeped in the cause for American liberty, Adams took the case, an “act of high-minded professionalism [that] did not endear Adams to every Boston patriot,” Grant points out.
Preston had not issued the order and the verdict was not guilty. Ironically, one of Adam’s defense witnesses was a man he and the other Whigs loathed, Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor.
The book’s subject had a series of rivals during his life, with the evil Hutchinson being the first. Later when the undiplomatic Adams took the post of diplomat in France, his rival was a man revered by the French — Benjamin Franklin. Adams wrote that 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.”
In his later years, Thomas Jefferson was thought to be Adams’ enemy. But, as Grant explains; “According to Adams, Jefferson and he had never had a falling-out and could therefore not have a reconciliation.”
Adams wore many hats serving the nation he helped found. He was a member of the Massachusetts delegation, a group he described as, “one third Whigs, one third Tory and the rest mongrel.” As minister to the Netherlands during the Revolution, he secured funding for the cause by selling bonds that can only be described, given the tenuous financial condition of the states, as junk. Ultimately, Adams served as Vice President and won the Presidency for one term, by a mere three votes. As President, Adams was “Christian enough, and Whig enough,” according to Grant, “to choose peace over war when the opportunity presented itself.”
Never straying from his puritan roots, Adams wrote, “without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell.” And for a free government to exist, Adams believed virtue was more basic than sound laws.
Adams displayed a healthy skepticism of democracy. “To a true-blue son of the Age of Reason,” writes Grant, “Adams’ greatest apostasy may have been his oft-repeated assertion that the people, unchecked and unbalanced, were as tyrannical as any tyrant.”
Indeed, Adams wrote; “The happiness of society is the end of government.”
Appropriately, Adams met his maker on July 4th, 1826, the same day as Jefferson, whispering to those at his bedside, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” and later “I pray for you myself, pray for you all.” As Grant concludes, Adams was “a meeting-going animal to the end.”
Today, men of Adams’ caliber don’t pursue politics, leaving the White House to dunces controlled by conniving handlers.
Doug French [send him mail] is executive vice president of a Nevada bank and associate editor for Liberty Watch Magazine. He is the 2005 recipient of the Murray N. Rothbard Award from the Center for Libertarian Studies.