An ideal of Ignatius Loyola, one that Jesuit schools still cultivate in their students, is the “contemplative in action,” someone who combines deep reflection with effective deeds. John Adams, second president of the United States, did not admire Ignatius. However, David McCullough’s biography of Adams shows us a political leader who did strive to bring contemplation into action. In the frenetic vortex of modern politics, when Americans often seek greater depth in officeholders, his legacy tests how well Ignatius’ two traits can mix in public life.
Adams’s contemplative side was an acquisition of self-discipline. Effusive, impulsive, temperamental and vain, he struggled constantly to develop greater detachment and generosity, relying on his wife, Abigail, and the Greek and Roman classics for guidance. Eventually, his contemplation deeply influenced American political thought. Adams worked effectively toward a consensus in favor of independence, the consequence of an early awareness that his revolution must be national to succeed. He also supported leaders whose popularity he deeply resented, such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, convinced that they were indispensable to the cause. Adams indeed could transcend himself often.
Unfortunately, McCullough does not situate Adams within American religious history. Reflecting on the art of lawmaking long before the Second Great Awakening of the 1820’s cultivated optimism about perfectibility in Protestant thought, Adams emphasized the flawed character of human nature. Therefore, he wrote checks and balances and separation of powers into law as early as the Massachusetts Constitution of 1779-80. Adams’s political estrangement from Thomas Jefferson in the 1790’s showed that Adams feared the French Revolution as lawless. McCullough does not consider enough the Puritan roots of these convictions. Adams was the son of a Congregational minister and a Harvard graduate himself. He considered ministry as a youth and remained essentially Calvinistic in his anthropology. We do not hear enough about these influences, because McCullough spends too little time on Adams’s youth and discusses his Harvard experience superficially.
Jefferson was a better politician than Adams. When Jefferson’s presidency was juxtaposed with Adams’s, it became clear that a successful American president must first be the effective leader of a political party. The comparison of their dual careers leads us to wonder that a temperament as skeptical as Adams’s did not take command of the Federalist Party in his own political defense. A presidency of substantial accomplishments—including the development of the United States Navy, the thwarting of Alexander Hamilton’s ambitions to politicize the Army and the achievement of peace with revolutionary France—was diminished by Adams’s blindness to the disloyalty of his cabinet and his docility at Congress’s passage of the draconian Alien and Sedition Acts.
Adams’s contemplation could undermine his action. He extended his great personal imperative, the mastery of selfishness, to the country, interpreting partisanship as a national pursuit of everything he sought to overcome in himself. Adams hoped to perpetuate Washington’s paradigm of the presidency as the supreme symbol of national unity and respect for the law. The model was not transferable, but both Adams and his son, John Quincy, were presidents who refused to embrace partisanship as a virtue. John Adams’s insistence that the word “commonwealth” be incorporated into the official title of Massachusetts summarizes why they rejected parties. Often dismissed as hopelessly disdainful of popular opinion, both Adams presidents anticipated the modern American impatience with partisanship. They also became warnings to us that such distaste can limit political achievements.
His acquired self-restraint made Adams a poor politician, but it also produced a memorable personal character. Most admirable was his capacity to take a second look at objects of his prejudice. After attending Mass in Philadelphia in 1774, his dislike of the Latin ritual and the congregation’s passivity did not prevent him from writing of a solid sermon, beautiful music and vivid artwork. Another valuable trait was forgiveness; Adams’s low expectations for human nature made him a forgiving man. This capacity aided his conduct of peace negotiations with Great Britain in 1783 and with France during his presidency. It was also the trait that added to his old age the graceful touch of reconciliation with Jefferson, even though Jefferson had dashed his hopes for re-election.
Reconciliation demanded Jefferson’s magnanimity too, but McCullough’s portrayal of Jefferson is heavily influenced by contemporary anger at Jefferson’s inconsistencies concerning slavery. His political skill is dismissed as intrigue. However, Jefferson’s solidification of party government permanently altered American politics. It now turned on two features, a solid written constitution and an unwritten tradition of appropriate partisanship. That Adams leaned toward one and Jefferson the other made their reconciliation more than personal.
McCullough is a superb popular synthesizer, able to convey important academic insights to a general readership. He does not push beyond these boundaries, but he does stimulate us to do so. He ends with an imaginative comparison of two epitaphs composed by Jefferson and Adams. Jefferson’s was entirely personal and emphasized his creative accomplishments. Adams’s was a filial tribute to his Puritan ancestors and omitted himself. This combination of innovation and heritage embodies the American paradox of invention amid tradition. Adams has often been ignored by a posterity more excited by creativity, but McCullough’s portrayal of this conservative revolutionary reminds us that the reforms we seek through our political parties are enriched by immersion in the heritage of rule by law.