Saturday, July 2, 2011

American Founding -- John Adams 3

The Thorn of Fame

John Adams has finally gotten the fame he craved, but it was a long time coming over a rough road. Already as a young man he tortured himself thinking about a future without fame. Historians don't need to speculate on this point because he and his wife Abigail seemed to write down everything. Because of the thousands of letters they left us, we know John Adams's inner life better than the inner life of any other founding father. We know, apropos of this talk, that he thought he should be famous, once declaring that the "Times alone have destined me to Fame" [Ferling 170].

Yet the quest for fame was a thorn in his side. As David McCullough put it, as a young man "John Adams was not a man of the world. He enjoyed no social standing. He was an awkward dancer and poor at cards. He never learned to flatter.... There was no money in his background" [19]. Everything he earned -- from respect in the courtroom, to readership in the newspapers, to leadership in Philadelphia -- he had to work hard at. He knew that fame can be fickle and fleeting. For that reason, he feared posterity would not pay him sufficient homage.

Moreover, he was eaten up with envy when he thought of the more illustrious founders of his own day. Given his Puritan New England heritage, Adams knew envy was one of the seven deadlies, but he seemed helpless before the green-eyed monster. Even when Adams was the runner-up to George Washington in our first national election, he still felt green with envy. One year after that election, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, Adams railed: "The history of our revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod -- and henceforward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war."

Adams gold coin
Adams's hunger for fame stands in stark contrast to the easy-going attitude of a later president, Ronald Reagan, who quipped: "There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit." Lacking Reagan's insouciance, Adams yearned for the credit. But here's the good news. If Adams didn't get enough of it in his own time, he perhaps is finally satisfied with the credit he receives today. Looking down on us (for he believed in eternal life), this stubborn man would likely be happy to concede how wrong he was about posterity. Americans have been lionizing him since the Second World War.

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This essay is the third in a series on John Adams. The Adams series served as the basis for my talk accompanying the exhibition, John Adams Unbound, organized by the Boston Public Library and the American Library Association. The talk was given at the Loutit District Library, Grand Haven, Michigan, on June 30, 2011.

This Adams series is posted on July 2 because he thought that was the day our country's independence should be pondered and celebrated.

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