Commentary Magazine

The Character of John Adams, by Peter Shaw; The Adams Chronicles, by Jack Shepherd

The Character of John Adams.
by Peter Shaw.
University of North Carolina Press. 318 pp. $12.95.

The Adams Chronicles: Four Generations of Greatness.
by Jack Shepherd.
Little, Brown. 448 pp. $17.50.

Progressive American historiography down to the 1950’s regarded not John Adams but Alexander Hamilton as the preeminent American conservative: though he defended the wealthy few, Hamilton at least looked ahead to dynamic economic growth and fashioned instruments of national power that were later useful for liberal reform. Adams, on the other hand, as Charles Beard and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., observed half a century apart, adopted a static view of society that did not comprehend new modes of accumulating wealth but aimed at maintaining an unchanging social order. Not Jefferson versus Adams, as Gilbert Chinard had argued in 1933 in the first modern study of John Adams, but rather Jefferson versus Hamilton defined the main lines of development in the American political tradition.

Nowadays John Adams fares better than Hamilton. In a proximate sense his stature has risen because the Adams family decided in 1950 to open the family papers to the public, thus making possible a far more complete and satisfying knowledge of a complex personality. In a broader sense the new appreciation of Adams can be traced to the shift to consensus historiography after World War II, when, guided by the insights of Daniel J. Boorstin and Louis Hartz into the essential unity of the American political tradition, historians began to emphasize the fundamental agreement in early American politics on a body of beliefs-such as popular self-government, a capitalist economy, national unity, and constitutionalism—which in contrast to Europe formed a primordial American liberalism. In this intellectual climate John Adams emerged as a constructive statesman of the center who, critical of Hamilton’s pro-British commercial and diplomatic schemes, kept the U.S. out of war with France in 1799. Furthermore, while it could not be denied that Adams was less sanguine than Jefferson in his view of the people, he was credited with a genuine commitment to republican self-government’. At a time when a stable system of elitist politics seemed the summum bonum of democratic political culture, Adams’s attempt to define the proper relationship between elite groups and the people seemed prohetic and pertinent.

In The Character of John Adams Peter Shaw integrates the two principal lines of inquiry in Adams scholarship by attempting, in his own words, to personalize Adams’s ideas and to intellectualize his behavior. After describing Adams’s revolutionary activities, Shaw observes his growing distrust of the people, criticism of the idea of equality, and fear that the spirit of commercialism was undermining republican morality. Shaw rejects the notion, however, that Adams became a European-style conservative in any systematic or consistent sense. Throughout his life Adams was alternately optimistic and pessimistic about American self-government, trusting and distrusting of the electorate. Above all, though—and this is the significant interpretative point—Adams did not abandon the vision, central to American liberalism, of a land meant to illuminate the old world with the true principles of republicanism. In important respects Shaw’s Adams is similar to Clinton L. Rossiter’s portrait of Adams as an un-Burkean moderate conservative who, though more skeptical than others of America’s uniqueness, nevertheless adhered to the aboriginal American belief in the providential mission of the new republic.



Unlike earlier works, however, Shaw’s study has the effect of calling into question the seriousness of Adams’s ideas. This effect results from the author’s assumption that those ideas grew entirely out of the psychological tensions produced by personal experience. Adams’s thought, Shaw writes, discontinuous, disordered, and sporadic as it was, reflected his incomplete and uncomposed personality. Adams was formed by events, “and on events he continued to depend.” While no one would deny the shaping influence of events on intellectual development, the approach employed in this book seems to reduce intellect and thought to a series of psychological reflexes. Shaw succeeds so well in personalizing Adams’s ideas that in the end one sees them as merely idiosyncratic and epiphenomenal.

If Shaw’s book does not adequately appreciate the role of ideas, it is nonetheless an illuminating psychological study. Adams, like most of his founding-father colleagues, was ambitious in the pursuit of fame. Unlike most of them, however, he pursued this goal with emotional and moral sensibilities heavily influenced by Puritanism. The result, as Shaw convincingly describes it, was that Adams sought the recognition of posterity by way of a painful method of self-improvement through self-denial. Guarding against feelings of pride, Adams rose to the crises in public affairs through which he would make his reputation by withdrawing into himself and, in his diary, scrutinizing himself in a mortifying way to gain the feeling of justification he needed in order to act. Inheriting a tradition of public service from his Puritan ancestors, Adams developed an extraordinary sense of personal integrity that led him to behave often in unpopular ways.

John Adams pursued his conception of personal duty in an erratic and peculiar manner that has led recent writers to regard him affectionately as a “character.” Yet it was his sense of independence, integrity, and devotion to public service that came to define the essence of the Adams family. Three generations of Adamses in the 19th century affirmed and refined John Adams’s ideal of disinterested duty, creating ironically an aristocratic tradition out of the republican principle of civic virtue.



The Adams Chronicles by Jack Shepherd tells the story of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, Civil War diplomat Charles Francis Adams, and, in the fourth generation, literary intellectuals Henry and Brooks, businessman Charles Francis, Jr., and gentle-man-reformer John Quincy Adams II. In a work that is meant to complement the public-television series, The Adams Chronicles, Shepherd combines political and personal narrative in a pleasantly informative way. He is especially interested in the personal side of things, and if the book has a point it is to show that these great men were after all human beings who experienced many of the same problems that beset ordinary people. To his credit, Shepherd points to difficulties that arose from a family system that singled out certain members for special attention. The early deaths of three sons in two generations due to alcoholism and overwork illustrate the problem. Shepherd also touches on the difficulties faced by the women in the family. The Adamses’ darker side is thus revealed, more so than in the work with which Shepherd’s book may be compared, The Adams Family by James Truslow Adams (1930) . It should be noted, however, that in literary and historical imagination the older work is infinitely superior.

To give The Adams Chronicles some intellectual ballast, Daniel J. Boorstin has written an introductory essay examining the problem, raised by the Adamses, of the response of American society to the European institution of the family. The family in Europe, Boorstin observes, was an effective institution for accumulating distinction and providing a source of leadership. American society, however, insisted on judging each generation, as each man, on its own merits. Strictly within their own system the Adamses caused anxiety enough for themselves by trying to uphold the family tradition of public service and intellectual achievement. This pressure was compounded, Boorstin argues, by the fact that their highly self-conscious involvement in their own past contradicted the value that democratic society placed on the self-made man. John Adams’s republican ideal of civic virtue became an aristocratic conception of a family in the nation’s service that in the increasingly democratic 19th century became incompatible with American values. The conflict and its denouement were most apparent in the career of Henry Adams, who, as an aristocratic intellectual, in later life became a virtual émigré from America, living most of the time in Europe.



What finally is still living in the ideas of John Adams and the Adams family? John Adams’s warning against the power both of numbers and elites and his insistence on the need for balanced government are surely pertinent, though one doubts that they can win wide adherence. Similarly, the belief in America’s republican mission receives but tenuous backing in the contemporary neo-isolationist climate. What does attract greater popular attention, however, is the Adams tradition of disinterested public service. Viewed against the debasement and demoralization of public life in the past decade, the Adamses offer a model of moral courage and elite leadership, bordering on the apolitical, that many believe is timely and necessary. Thus the television producer of The Adams Chronicles has observed that during the Watergate hearings John Adams was frequently quoted on the question of standards for public officials, while Gore Vidal has urged us to praise the Adamses for their moral and intellectual standards and their noble failure in a society devoted to easy crass success.

It is not clear whether the Adams appeal extends to working-class and ethnic groups, but the bestseller status of Shepherd’s book and the enthusiastic response given the television series suggest that the upper-middle class finds attractive the Adams tradition of elite public service. This self-made aristocratic family which scorned marketplace values and mass opinion may even provide an example of the kind of self-confident elite, the need for which has recently been enunciated by a few voices on the Left. At long last, then, in the improbable context of democratic discontent, the republican Adamses are receiving some of the recognition they so diligently pursued.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.