We traveled into Boston last weekend and visited the homes of John Adams.
While Jefferson wrote the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence, a declaration without believers would quickly have been forgotten. As eloquent a writer as he was, Jefferson was a poor public speaker. According to Jefferson, it was John Adams “who was the pillar of its [the Declaration’s] support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against multifarious assaults it encountered.” Adams, Jefferson wrote, “came out, occasionally, with the power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.”
The results of Adam’s presidency were mixed—he steered clear of the conflict with England and France, yet he enforced the Alien and Sedition acts. Adams was a dedicated public servant in a way that makes a mockery of the claims of contemporary politicians who claim they are only interested in service. Politics in Adams’s era was not a means to achieve wealth. While in France and separated from his family for many years, John wrote to Abigail:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
The outstanding HBO movie epic John Adams was based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by David McCullough. At the end of his presidency, as Adams leaves the White House in a public stagecoach, he asks his fellow passengers to “stop gawking” and tells them he is just “plain John Adams, citizen, same as yourselves.” A great leader made his way home to be an ordinary Massachusetts farmer on a stagecoach; it was the 19th Century equivalent of flying coach on an airline.
Once the person who held the office of president of the United States was a servant of his country; now he is an imperial lord. Adams lived on his farm, Peacefield, from 1801 until his death in 1826; there was no secret service protection and no entourage. His front door was just feet away from the country lane that passed by.
During our visit to Peacefield I was struck by how modest the house was; in places it felt claustrophobic. I have seen New England houses of prominent merchants of Adams’ time that were far grander. When he and Abigail moved into this modest home in 1788, it was a big step up from the family home where they had started their married life. In time, Peacefield became the home of their son John Quincy—the sixth president of the United States.
A library built of local stones stands just a few feet from the family house at Peacefield. This was the first presidential library in the United States; it houses the 14,000 volumes that John and John Quincy Adams owned. These were books that they bought and read, books of ideas that engaged their minds. Today a presidential library means a place in which documents are stored—papers that document actions, many of which have eroded our liberties, and papers that explains why the man should be considered great for those actions nevertheless.
History has not been kind to the presidency of John Quincy Adams. Yet, like his father, he was a man of principle and intellect who held allegiance to President Washington’s sage advice that America should not enter into entangling foreign alliances. John Quincy Adams’s eloquent advice of 1821 has long been forgotten and with our forgetting, our freedom erodes:
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [Americas] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
It seems to us that the choices that John Adams and John Quincy Adams faced happened long ago, but we face the same fundamental choices today: freedom or despotism; peace or war; love or fear.