John Adams: the forgotten Founder

If the name of any Founding Father crosses our minds on the Fourth of July, it's probably not John Adams'. The second U.S. president rarely gets mentioned alongside Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, the founders we associate with Independence Day. Adams? He was the surly, vainglorious brains behind the scenes who was (as the White House's website suggests) "more remarkable as a political philosopher" than as a leader. Amid the Olympian fireworks of the Founding Fathers, Adams was more of a sparkler.

Or so we may think: The farmer-lawyer from Massachusetts who modeled himself on the Ciceronian statesman ideal was every bit the Roman candle. It was Adams who, despite countless setbacks and even betrayal from the government he represented, bore the American cause on his shoulders like virtually no other. As Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning historian Joseph Ellis has said of Adams, "He is the greatest of [the Founders]. He's a hero for our time, at last."

Even if Adams had accomplished little else in his lifetime or presidency, then this alone should seal his Olympian standing: He rescued the Declaration of Independence from its impending demise. For three days, Adams, the nation's first secretary of defense, stood on his feet, arguing on behalf of the Declaration's passage before a sharply divided, embattled Second Continental Congress. The "Atlas of American Independence" was how one by-standing signer described Adams many years later. "He, more than any other individual, roused and prepared the minds of his fellow citizens to decide positively that greatest revolutionary question." Historian Pauline Maier puts it more bluntly. In the New York Times Ms. Maier wrote that if "Adams had not delivered the votes, Jefferson's draft would have been at best a historical curiosity."

Perhaps what best guided Adams' uncompromising passion for independence was an extraordinary inner compass. It steered him — and, in turn, the country — through the darkest, murkiest waters of early American diplomacy. When Congress fired him without explanation from his diplomatic post in France in 1779, Adams headed alone to Holland. (Just before this trip he penned Massachusetts' state constitution — the oldest existing, functioning constitution in the world; it was a model for the U.S. Constitution.) There he weathered a life-threatening illness and a resistant Dutch government; a year later he secured a $2 million loan, the nascent nation's first line of credit. This loan salvaged the bankrupt American Experiment. During peace negotiations with Britain in 1782, for which he was recruited, Adams brazenly defied Congress' will and insisted that Britain (and France) cede their land holdings north and west to the Mississippi River. This paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase decades later, the historic land grab for which Jefferson typically draws applause. No other Founder, Mr. Ellis said, saw "things that have huge strategic implications and consequences" as clearly as did Adams. "He has a feeling of the future in his bones."

For all of his Olympian feats and character traits that still color the way we perceive government, liberty and ourselves as Americans, few tangible reminders exist that honor Adams. The most disturbing of all: No memorial stands to Adams on or near that hallowed ground, the National Mall. In 2001 House Bill 1668 was passed, finally granting the creation of a monument in Washington D.C. that honors Adams and his illustrious descendants. Twelve years later, despite efforts from the Adams Memorial Foundation, no site has yet to be found. Apparently, the Mall is off limits.

Mr. Ellis once said of Adams, "he is the ultimate example of what we need to learn" from the Founders. If the staggering lack of will to formally honor Adams is any indication, then we still have much to learn. We can start by honoring Adams for his singular achievements in the struggle for American independence. Then we can lobby for a D.C. memorial. From the Mall we can finally give Adams the monumental Oooos and Ahhhhs that he has long deserved.

Andrew Reiner teaches writing and contemplative studies at Towson University's Honors College. His email is

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