Wednesday, August 15, 2007

One on Adams

Anytime I think of the second President of the United States, an embittered elderly gent lingering over his desk with ink and paper comes to mind - a taciturn New Englander who felt that his place in history was robbed, and he aimed to set the record straight according to his take on it...

John Adams is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Founders. Him being one of the 'old men' of the Spirit of 1776, he shared with Jefferson the notion that said spirit's carpet was pulled from underneath them by popinjays and parvenus and lesser men, and some Manichean conspiracy lurked beneath it. Adams was there at the Continental Congress and he was the one who stood up and endorsed George Washington to lead the Revolutionary Army; he tidied up the work in France for their recognition of America and later had to deal with insults and ostracism being the 1st American Ambassador to Great Britain. It was Adams who prodded the shy and semi-reclusive Thomas Jefferson to pen The Declaration of Independence. The thanks that he got for this was minimal, he believed, so forever walked about with a chip on his Yankee shoulder and nursed both his public and private grudges to his dying day.

John Adams took another one for the team by following George Washington into the office of the Presidency in 1797;anyone in succession of Washington would be under the gun to meet a certain criteria that no one at the time could surmount. The contrasts of the Adams Inagural were striking: here was outgoing Washington, hirsute, tall, regal looking, standing next to the short and rotund John Adams, who was bug-eyed and chrome-dome bald. Washington was a true Alpha Male who could command respect of his peers by merely entering the room - whilst Adams had to shout and argue to gain respect, but no cigar. John Adams was a legal scholar with all the classical education to go with it while Washington's schooling was minimal(like many of the Presidents of the Early and Middle Republic, George was primarily self-taught); Adams was a stickler for academia and felt that Washington's mind was not a good one because he never attended the Big Three Unis of America - he had a case of educational snobbery and thought he was being dwarfed by cerebral dilletantes.

Adams was the first middle-class President and had all the stereotypical frugal Yankee virtues in tow. He did not gel with the patrician plantation class, and couldn't abide their land speculative ways based on the institution of slavery. He also did not like or understand the nouveau riches of the big cities like Phili and ,and had a deep case of xenophobia. This is partially what binded him to Jefferson: though Adams was nominally a Federalist and often accussed of being a monarchist, he had much more in common with the Republicans of his day, for irony. He didn't understand the Hamiltonian financial system and generally loathed the idea of having a standing peacetime Army(though Adams was always a big booster for the Navy). Adams loathed the Jacobin tendency of the 1790s Republicans and their "womanish attachment to France" but he possessed no love for the British Empire or the Hanoverian Dynasty ( Ambassador Adams never forgot the insult of George III's turning his back on him at their initial meeting) that ruled it. Adams was objective enough to admit that there was benevolence in the British constitution, but he had always a profound hatred of titled nobility and was bigger than Ben Franklin on meritocracy. 'Adams the monarchist' is quite laughable - though he would at times direct a 'monocrat' hue in his Administration.

For all of Adams' crucial hard work directing the Revolutionary cause, when he reached the plateau of Chief Executive, immediately President Adams displayed lack of leadership. His hatred of Alexander Hamilton began full-flower in 1797, yet he kept AH's allies in his Cabinet and always complained about it when he could had just as easily dismissed them. Adams's conduct in Cabinet meetings was part court-room melodrama and partially a circus: John Adams loved to argue often for the sake alone and would occasionally play the role of gadfly just to hone his debating skills. Yet, said skills were not that fine-tuned because he would often get angry and throw temper-tantrums( some reports have Adams kicking his wig across the floor, and even throwing it at one of his ministers). The provincial Adams hated the big city of Philadelpia(then the US capital) and would spend long furloughs away - sometimes at seven months at a time - in his native Braintree, Massachusetts. Then Adams would play the martyr and complain that his government was out of control and that they would not listen to him! Of course, he blamed 'Hamilton's junto' for this, when John Adams was the one man with the duty to direct hands-on administration.

Many historians point to Adams's animosity toward AH from the election of 1796 when Hamilton behind the scenes tried to get Pinckney into the top spot, but there is a longer history to this: John Adams was devoted to his wife, Abigal, and to put it in modern day jargon, John Adams was quite 'pussy-whipped' - Abigal wore the pants. Abigal's personal and political opinions counted most with hubby John, and Abigal was usually prime influence on who John liked, and who John hated. Mrs. Adams took an instant dislike to AH, but she was always gaga on Jefferson. Out of all the public percieved 'meddlesome' First Ladies in US Presidential history - Eleanor Roosevelt, Edith Wilson, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton - they could not hold a candle to Abigal Adams. This, compounded with Adams at the thankless and worthless job of Vice-President in the Washington Administration - where Hamilton had the most influence - Adams had a long- seated grudge and jealousy of AH before '96 who he regarded as a "foreigner...a bastard son of a Scotch peddlar".

President Adams's one shining moment could had been his handling of the 'XYZ Affair' (where France demanded a heavy ransom and other humilating tributes to conclude a new peace treaty with the United States). When the pro-French Republicans in Congress demanded to see the communique of the said 'XYZ' documents, them thinking that Adams was holding back on the "generous and friendly French', he called their bluff and did just that. The revelations shocked the nation and thus ended America's love-affair with France until 1917, and the US prepared for war against their one-time ally, and rallied around their President...

President Adams let his new popularity go to his head and began strutting around Philadelphia in a military uniform( something that was probably quite humorous to behold since Adams had the most un-military like physique and bearing)making patriotic speeches. For national unity purposes, he requested that George Washington form and lead the Army against what seemed an inevitable French invasion. Washington accepted, yet he tossed a big wrench in Generalissimo John's plan: George would only be the de facto head of the Army only from the capital or Mount Vernon in administrative capacity, and only if John Adams appointed Alexander Hamilton to Major General to do all the tasks that was needed to form, organize, and lead the Army on the battlefield. After contending with 'Hamilton's Junto' in his Cabinet, one could quite imagine Adams throwing his wig when he read Washington's condition. Now, Alex himself was back in public life, and head of the Army to boot, and once again overshadowing Adams.

John Adams grudgingly complied with Washington's demand, undoubtedly feeling helpless in the situation, yet began complaining that Hamilton was "another Bonaparte" set to usurp power for himself. President Adams as CIC was in the legal capacity to say 'no' if he truly believed the Caesarian ambitions of Hamilton, and he displayed his weakness paramountly here. Now, the War Hawk Adams began his transition to Dove and throughout '98 and '99 did his best to slow down the forming of the Army through delaying funds, denying Major General Hamilton's requests, and being purposely standoffish. Washington's death in late 1799 undoubtedly had Adams sighing in relief. Hamilton without his chief patron was now open season and Adams immediately sent another peace mission to Paris to conclude the matter without resorting to war, and subsequently disbanded the Army - something that Adams and many historians think that was his finest hour. Some have written that Adams "saved the Republic" from Hamilton's martial ambitions. But it was pure partisanism and related to his own animosity and jealousy of AH, and not for the sake of 'peace' that Adams took this dovish route and prevented war.
Adams's legacy of a peacenik is quite undeserved given that he was all John Wayne before the hated AH came into the picture of 'XYZ'. If someone else more to the taste of John Adams would had been Major General - or if Washington wouldn't had conveniently died - we would be reading of the *French War 1800- ?* in American history books today. War Presidents are more apt to be re-elected as John Adams to his chagrin discovered......

(to be continued)

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