John Adams is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Founding Fathers; he gets no respect. That is an exaggeration, but not by much.
He was, at the same time, one the most intellectual of the Founding Fathers and no doubt the most ill-tempered.
It seems he just couldn’t help being irascible, given to moodiness and bouts of brooding. Because of his superior intelligence, he could think easily at the conceptual level so why couldn’t everyone else? He was determined to prove his point and win the debate, regardless of whom he irritated in the process. One would expect to see his picture next to the dictionary’s definition of pedantic.
Yet he made substantive contributions to our independence and the establishment of a model republic. It was Adams, the Massachusetts man, who nominated Virginian George Washington as the commander in chief of the patriot army. No Washington, no independence…and I’m not alone in that opinion.
It was Adams who convinced Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence with its eternal claim to natural rights in its introductory paragraphs. At least that’s what I learned from the musical “1776,” which my wife made me attend.
Although he was not physically present at the Constitutional Convention, it was Adams’ concept of a multi-branch government with a balance of powers that framed the final document. Several of the states leaned on Adams’ text from the Massachusetts’ constitution when writing their own. I hold that his thinking was exceptionally influential as the new nation determined how to govern itself.
However, his most valuable and lasting contribution to our American polity may have been his defense of the British soldiers tried for murder in the wake of the Boston Massacre.
We all learned, or at least should have, the hagiographic version of this event — British troops fired their muskets into a group of unarmed protestors resulting in five deaths. The truth, as always, is more nuanced than that. Were projectiles hurled at the soldiers? Was the mob threatening the soldiers’ lives? Were they given the command to fire or did it occur spontaneously? Was it willful murder or self-defense?
Bostonians knew what it was, or at least believed what they wanted it to be. Many would have liked to dispense summary judgment right then. Today we call this lynching but its ugly nature never restrains a mob’s collective mind at the time. In the following weeks the public seemed to be united in a conviction of guilt. Even clergymen contributed to the foment in their sermons by demanding guilty verdicts regardless of evidence.
Colonial officials reacted by arresting the eight soldiers and their captain, all of whom surrendered peacefully to civil authority. But could they receive a fair trial in this torrid Boston climate? Maybe, but only if someone would be willing to defend them at risk to his reputation if not his livelihood as an attorney.
John Adams stepped up. Why? Because he believed what he learned about English jurisprudence and the rights of Englishmen to a fair trial. Never one to take the popular way out of a dilemma, Adams faced down the mobocracy that was the Boston streets and mounted a masterful defense.
Fortunately, the trial transcript exists in reasonably good form as well as personal notes taken by Adams and his prosecutorial opponent. Dan Abrams and his writing colleague David Fisher have published a short yet masterful account of the events of that night, the mood of the town and the actual trials. (See “John Adams under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Murder Trial” published this year.) Abrams is a lawyer and legal affairs reporter for ABC news so he can blend legal analysis with a journalist’s training in telling a story. It is well worth the read.
Adams’ legacy is not that he won the case but that he faced hostile public opinion to defend a principle that is fundamental to our Anglo-Saxon endowment as a free people — the right to a fair trial. We are to be tried according to the rule of law, not the current passions of the mob. This is why George Will says America is a creedal nation. These principles we hold, precariously these days it seems, as universals.
In addition to the rule of law, the American creed includes natural rights (“unalienable” rights according to the Declaration), freedom of conscience in speech and religion, freedom to hold and dispose of property, freedom from arbitrary governmental actions, freedom to elect our own representatives and the right to a “pursuit of happiness.” Don’t look for these beliefs to be on placards in our burning downtowns.
What if John Adams were around today to see what is happening? Suffice it to say, he would not be a darling of the circus that is our national media. He was much too blunt with a coolly logical way of thinking and speaking. Imagine how our woke media would deal with Adams’ absolute devotion to classical liberalism in this night of neo-totalitarianism. Do we no longer care about liberty, he would ask. And they would just switch to a commercial.
But his most unforgivable sin? It would be the same today as it was during his life. He was nearly always right. But that is the fate of a prophet in his own country.