I love John Adams. He and his son are my favorite presidents*. I love that he’s a little cranky and a little naive and won’t play the politics game because he thinks his virtue and his vision are above that. And that is (one of the many) reasons why he was a 1-term president. John Quincy Adams was basically the same.
But that is not what this book – Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams by Joseph J Ellis – is about.
Know before reading:
This book was written in 1993. BEFORE David McCullough’s giant, thorough biography John Adams. If you’re only going to read 1 John Adams book, it should probably be McCullough’s.
It is also one of Ellis’s early books, so doesn’t have nearly the narrative style and voice that (my new favorite) Revolutionary Summer has.
Also, note that this book is primarily about Adams’s retirement years. There are a couple chapters at the beginning that talk about his political career, how he got to where he is and background. But for the most part this book looks at the final 25 years of Adams’s life.
John Adams’s character:
John Adams was brilliant. Period. He predicted the break with England; he predicted the disastrous end to the French Revolution; he predicted the futility of the war of 1812. He lectured Jefferson on the value and usefulness of grief. He was just so intelligent. I believe that his personality (and unwillingness to temper it for political advantage) was the biggest part of what kept him from being a popular figure in his own time as in ours.
Some favorite quotes about Adams’s character from the book:
“…for Adams, virtue demanded a level of disinterestedness and a purity of public spiritedness that derived its compulsion from psychological imperative which seemed to require isolation and unpopularity as evidence of its authenticity” (45).
re: Treaty of Ghent : “It surely required ‘a singular Being’ to take an entire peace treaty personally. But the, Adams was accustomed to uttering irreverencies out loud, just as he was accustomed to defying established opinions and presenting his strong and often passionate views in a defiant and argumentative format. That was the way he thought and felt and behaved” (112).
I don’t know what it says about me that a man with this kind of personality is far more interesting and likable than Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or any number of other founders, but there you have it.
John Adams’s legacy:
As mentioned, Passionate Sage looks primarily at John Adams in retirement. As such, it is a book that discusses in great detail the works that Adams read and analyzed, and the thousands and thousands (and thousands) of words he wrote during those 25 years. Essays and letters and notes in the margins of other books.
I am definitely interested in reading the Adams-Jefferson correspondence, after reading this book. The friendship, animosity, and then friendship again is one of the great stories of this period in history that really makes these “Founding Fathers” feel human and relatable.
But what I found most interesting, really, was Ellis’s look at Adams’s reputation AFTER his death – WHY Jefferson rose in prominence and Adams got relegated to an afterthought founding father. Admittedly, when I was growing up I knew next to nothing about John Adams. He was Washington’s Vice President, and then he was a 1-term president. That’s IT. But, now I understand that legacy a lot more clearly. Related: Excited for there to be an Adams Memorial one day.
A favorite quote about Adams’s legacy from the book:
“What might a thoughtful editor have selected as the central features of the Adams political legacy? Well, the core impulse of his political thought was adversarial, contrarian, and dialectical, an exact intellectual expression of his personal temperment” (173).
*as of the writing of this post.
I have read about all the presidents through Andrew Jackson at the moment.