Who indeed is there who has not heard of the Rothschilds? But how few there are who know much of them save that they are the richest bankers in the whole world. The subject of this sketch was the richest and most noted of five brothers. The father, Mayer Anselm Rothschild, sprung from a poor Jewish family, and was a clerk in Hanover before establishing himself at Frankfort. At Hanover it is claimed that his integrity and ability became so marked in every position to which he was called that the attention of the Government was called thereto.
After the great French victory of Jena, Napoleon decreed that the Governor of Hesse-Cassel should have his lands and property confiscated. The order was no sooner given than a French army was on its way to carry the edict into effect. The Elector William, before his flight from Hesse-Cassel, deposited with the father of the subject of this sketch $5,000,000, without interest, for safe keeping. There was no luck about this; it was a most difficult undertaking at that time. Any one who had been found with this money would have lost his life. For Rothschild to invest it so that he could make money from its use was his object; to do so safely and secretly required a good business tact. The Elector, it is said, studied sometime before he decided to whom he could intrust this vast sum during his absence. Thus it is seen that as Rothschild came of poor parents, and was simply a clerk. It was not so much luck in his case as strict integrity and the determination he manifested to master everything he undertook. This Rothschild had five sons, and by the aid of these, through different bankers, he succeeded by good management to lay a foundation upon which has been built that colossal fortune which the sons have accumulated. This money, belonging to the Elector, they had the benefit of until 1828, when the whole was paid over to the heirs of the original owner with two per cent. interest for a portion of the time. Of the five brothers, Anselm was situated at Frankfort, Solomon at Vienna, Charles at Naples, James at Paris, and Nathan at London. The two ablest financiers were James and Nathan, and of these two Nathan was the superior. His son was the first Jew that ever sat in the English Parliament. It has been said that the fundamental rule of this great banking-house was “To sell when people desired to buy, and buy when people wished to sell.” It is related of Nathan Mayer Rothschild that, all day long, at the battle of Waterloo, he hung about the skirts of the two armies, waiting to see how the battle turned. Toward night of that memorable day, the clouds of smoke lifting, revealed the French army in full and disastrous retreat. Rothschild took in the situation at once. True to his instincts, he saw in that awful carnage only the shimmer of his gold. Chance had overcome the most heroic valor, the most stubborn resistance, the best laid plans, and once more declared in the Hebrew’s favor. He dashed into Brussels, whence a carriage in waiting whirled him into Ostend. At dawn he stood on the Belgian coast, against which the sea was madly breaking. He offered five, six, eight, ten hundred francs to be carried over to England. The mariners feared the storm; but a bolder fisherman, upon promise of twenty-five hundred francs, undertook the hazardous voyage. Before sunset Rothschild landed at Dover; and engaging the swiftest horses, rode with the wind to London. What a superb special correspondent he would have made! The merchants and bankers were dejected; the funds were depressed; a dense fog hung over the city; English spirits had sunk to their lowest ebb. On the morning of the 20th, the cunning and grasping Nathan appeared at the Stock Exchange, an embodiment of gloom. He mentioned, confidentially, of course, to his familiar that Blucher, at the head of his vast army of veterans, had been defeated by Napoleon, at Ligny, on the 16th and 17th, and there could be no hope for Wellington, with his comparatively small and undisciplined force. This was half true, and like all half-truths, was particularly calculated to deceive. Rothschild was a leader among trading reynards. His doleful whisper spread as the plague—poisoning faith everywhere. The funds tumbled like an aerolite. Public and private opinion wilted before the simoon of calamitous report. It was ‘Black Friday’ anticipated in Lombard Street. The crafty Israelite bought, through his secret agents, all the consols, bills, and notes, for which he could raise money.
Not before the afternoon of the 21st—nearly forty eight hours after the battle—did the news of Wellington’s victory reach London through the regular channels. Rothschild was at the Exchange half an hour before the glad tidings were made public, and imparted them to a crowd of greedy listeners. The Bourse was buoyant. Everything went up more rapidly than it had gone down. England was happy—as well she might be—for she had stumbled into the greatest triumph in her history. When bankers and merchants shook hands with the Hebrew speculator, they noticed—though they did not understand—an unusual warmth of pressure. It was not rejoicing with the nation; it was the imaginary clutch of six millions more of gold. Thus it is seen that the great wealth of the Rothschild was not always used to the best advantage of mankind as a Christian would argue; but a promise given by a Rothschild was as good as his note.
Their immense wealth has greatly aided, at different times, all and singular, the various European countries. A favorite investment with them has been loans to the different Governments throughout the world.
During twelve years of their business experience they loaned to different European Monarchies over $400,000,000. When it is considered that this was but one division of their business, something of an idea of its magnitude can be imagined. An amusing story is told of Nathan which will be of interest to some of our readers, and enable them to see how fertile was his mind in emergencies.
Anselm, the brother at Frankfort, drew on Nathan, of London, for a large amount, and the bill was presented to the Bank of England to be discounted. The bank officials refused, saying, “We do not discount bills drawn on private persons; we recognize only our own paper.” “Private persons!” exclaimed Nathan Rothschild when the interview was reported to him, “I will show them what kind of private persons we are.” Three weeks afterwards, Nathan Rothschild,—who had employed the interval in collecting all the five-pound notes he could buy on the continent, or in England—presented himself at the bank on the opening of the office. He drew from his pocket-book a five-pound note, and they counted him out in exchange five gold sovereigns, at the same time looking quite astonished that the Baron Rothschild should have personally troubled himself for such a trifle. The Baron examined the pieces one by one, and having put them in a little canvas bag, proceeded to draw out another five-pound note, then another, and another and so on. He never put the pieces of gold into the bag without scrupulously examining them, in some instances weighing in his balance, as, he said, “the law gave him the right to do.” The first pocket-book being emptied and the first bag full of coins, he passed them to his clerk, and received a second, and thus continued to the closing of the bank. The Baron had employed seven hours to exchange twenty-one thousand pounds. But as he also had nine employes of his house engaged in the same manner, it resulted that the house of Rothschild had drawn over $1,000,000 from the bank. He had drawn gold exclusively, and so occupied the bank employes that no one else could do any business.
The bankers the first day were very much amused at “This display of eccentricity.” They, however, laughed less the next day when they beheld Rothschild on hand early, flanked by his nine clerks.
They laughed no longer when they heard the irate banker say, “These gentlemen refused to pay my bills; I have sworn not to keep theirs. They can pay at their leisure; only I hereby notify them that I have enough to employ them two months!” Two months! Fifty-five million dollars in gold drawn from the Bank of England which was more gold than they had to pay! The bank was now thoroughly alarmed. Something must be done, and the next morning notice appeared in all the papers that henceforth the Bank of England would pay Rothschild’s bills as well as its own.
From anecdotes one can often learn much of the inner life and thoughts of people, and much can be seen of the real character of the subject of this sketch from the above story. This Napoleon of Finance died in 1836.
“The man who seeks one thing in life, and but one,
May hope to achieve it before life be done;
But he who seeks all things, wherever he goes,
Only reaps from the hopes which around him he sows
A harvest of barren regrets.”
The subject of this narrative was a great-grandson of Henry Adams, who emigrated from England about 1640, with a family of eight sons, being one of the earliest settlers in the town of Braintree, Massachusetts, where he had a grant of a small tract of forty acres of land. The father of John Adams, a deacon of the church, was a farmer by occupation, to which was added the business of shoemaking. He was a man of limited means, however, was enabled by hard pinching to give his son a fairly good education.
The old French and Indian war was then at its height; and in a remarkable letter to a friend, which contains some curious prognostications as to the relative population and commerce of England and her colonies a hundred years hence, young Adams describes himself as having turned politician. He succeeded in gaining charge of the grammar school in Worcester, Massachusetts, but, instead of finding this duty agreeable, he found it ‘a school of affliction,’ and turned his attention to the study of law. Determined to become a first-class lawyer, he placed himself under the especial tuition of the only lawyer of whom Worcester, though the county seat, could boast.
He had thought seriously of the clerical profession, but, according to his own expressions, “The frightful engines of ecclesiastical councils, of diabolical malice, and Calvinistic good nature,” the operation of which he had witnessed in some church controversies in his native town, terrified him out of it. Adams was a very ambitious man; already he had longings for distinction. Could he have obtained a troop of horse, or a company of infantry, he would undoubtedly have entered the army. Nothing but want of patronage prevented his becoming a soldier.
After a two years’ course of study, he returned to his native town, Braintree, and in 1758 commenced practice in Suffolk county, of which Boston was the shire town. By hard study and hard work he gradually introduced himself into practice, and in 1764 married a young lady far above his station in life. In our perusal and study of eminent men who have risen by their own exertions to a higher sphere in life, we are not at all surprised to find that they have invariably married noble women—ladies, who have always maintained a restraining influence when the desire for honor and public attention would appeal to their baser self, and whose guiding influence tended to strengthen their efforts when their energies seemed to slacken. So it was with John Adams; his wife was a lady of rare abilities and good sense, admirably adapted to make him happy. Boys, be careful whom you marry!
Shortly after his entrance into the practice of the law, the attempt at parliamentary taxation diverted his attention from his profession to politics. He was a most active oppositionist. He promoted the call of the town of Braintree to instruct the representatives of the town on the subject of the Stamp Act. The resolutions which he presented at this meeting were not only voted by the town, but attracted great attention throughout the province, and were adopted verbatim by more than forty different towns. Thus it is seen that Adams had not studied hard all these years for nothing; the price of success is honest, faithful WORK.
Of course his towns-people would reward him. Men who have ability, unless some bolt is loose, will invariably gain success. Soon after this Mr. Adams was appointed on the part of the town of Boston to be one of their counsel, along with the King’s attorney, and head of the bar, and James Otis, the celebrated orator, to support a memorial addressed to the Governor and Council, that the courts might proceed with business though no stamps were to be had. Although junior counsel, it fell to Adams to open the case for the petitioners, as his seniors could not join; the one owing to his position as King’s attorney, the other could not as he had recently published a book entitled the ‘Rights of the Colonies.’ This was a grand opportunity for Adams and he made the most of it,—boldly taking the ground that the stamp act was null and void, Parliament having no right to tax the colonies. Nothing, however, came of this application; the Governor and Council declining to act, on the ground that it belonged to the Judges, not to them, to decide.
But Adams had put himself on record, and this record established his reputation. “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” The time came to Adams to distinguish himself, and he was not found wanting. It was at this same period that Mr. Adams first appeared as a writer in the Boston Gazette. He never allowed his opportunities to pass unheeded; in fact, he made his opportunities. Among other papers which appeared at this time from his pen, was a series of four articles which were republished in a London newspaper, and subsequently published in a collection of documents relating to the taxation controversy, printed in a large volume. At first the papers had no title in the printed volume, being known as “Essays on the Canon and Feudal Law.” Well they might have been called so, but, it seems to us, that it would have been much more consistent to have entitled them “Essays on the Government and Rights of New England.” His style was formed from the first, as is evident from the articles.
His law business continued to increase and in 1768 he removed to Boston where he would have a larger field in which to develop his intellect. He served on various committees during the next two years, and in 1770 was chosen a Representative to the general Court, notwithstanding he had just before accepted a retainer to defend Captain Preston and his soldiers for their share in what had passed into history as the Boston massacre. His ability as a practitioner at the bar can be judged from the successful result of their case, as managed by him, against great public prejudice. Adams’ duties as a Representative interfered much with his business as a lawyer, on which he depended for support, and which had grown to be larger than that of any other practitioner at the provincial bar.
He entered upon the duties of his new office with his customary energy, becoming the chief legal advisor of the Patriot party, and now for the first time an active and conspicuous leader of the same. Mr. Adams’ keen foresight enabled him to wisely judge that it would be a good policy not to push too vigorously to the front as a politician until his private wealth would justify his necessarily great loss of time. Hence, he moved back to Braintree, resigning his seat in the Legislature, but still retaining his law office in Boston. A comparative lull in politics made his presence in that body less needed, but still he was consulted as to all the more difficult points in the controversy with Governor Hutchinson, and freely gave his aid. Indeed, it was not long before he moved back to Boston, but thoroughly resolved to avoid politics, and to devote his undivided attention to his professional work. Soon after his return to Boston he wrote a series of letters on the then mooted question of the independence of the judiciary, and the payment by the Crown of the salaries of the Judges. Soon after this he was elected by the general Court to the Provincial Council, but was rejected by Governor Hutchinson.
The destruction of tea, and the Boston port bill that followed, soon brought matters to a crisis. These events produced the congress of 1774. Mr. Adams was one of the five delegates sent from Massachusetts, and his visit to Philadelphia at this time was the first occasion of his going beyond the limits of New England. In the discussions in the committee on the declaration of colonialrights, he took an active part in resting those rights on the law of nature as well as the law of England; and when the substance of those resolutions had been agreed upon he was chosen to put the matter in shape. In his diary the most trustworthy and graphic descriptions are to be found of the members and doings of that famous but little known body. The session concluded, Mr. Adams left the city of brotherly love with little expectation, at that time, of ever again seeing it.
Immediately after his return home he was chosen by his native town a member of the provincial congress then in session. That congress had already appointed a committee of safety vested with general executive powers; had seized the provincial revenues; had appointed general officers, collected military stores, and had taken steps toward organizing a volunteer army of minute-men. The governor—Gage—had issued a proclamation denouncing these proceedings, but no attention was ever paid to it. Gage had no support except in the five or six regiments that guarded Boston, a few trembling officials and a small following from the people.
Shortly after the adjournment of this congress Adams occupied himself in answering through the press a champion of the mother-country’s claim. This party, under the head of ‘Massachusettensis,’ had commenced a series of able and effective arguments in behalf of the mother-country, which were being published in a Boston journal. To these Adams replied over the signature of ‘Novanglus.’ These were papers displaying unusual ability on either part. They were afterwards published as “A History of the Dispute with America,” and later yet in pamphlet form. Their value consists in the strong, contemporaneous views which they present of the origin of the struggle between the colonies and the mother-country, and the policy of Bernard and Hutchinson as governors of Massachusetts, which did so much to bring on the struggle. Like all the writings of Mr. Adams, they are distinguished by a bold tone of investigation, a resort to first principles, and a pointed style; but, like all his other writings, being produced by piecemeal, and on the spur of the moment, they lack order, system, polish and precision.
In the midst of the excitement produced by the battle of Lexington—which at once brought up the spirit of even the most hesitating patriots to the fighting pitch, and which was speedily followed by the seizure of Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and by other similar seizures in other colonies throughout the fast uniting provinces—John Adams once more set out for Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress of 1775, of which he had been appointed a member. This congress, though made up for the most part of the same men who constituted that of the previous year, was a wholly different body from its predecessor. The congress of 1774 was merely a suggestive convention. The present congress speedily assumed, or rather had thrust upon it by unanimous consent of the patriots, the exercise of a comprehensive authority in which supreme executive, legislative and, in some cases, judicial functions, were united. In this busy scene the active and untiring Adams, one of whose distinguishing characteristics was his capacity and fondness for business, found ample employment; while his bold and pugnacious spirit was not a little excited by the hazards and dignity of the great game in which he had come to hold so deep a stake. Unlike many of that body, Adams had made up his mind that any attempt tending toward reconciliation was hopeless.
Under the lead of Dickinson, though against the strenuous opposition of Adams and others, that body voted still another and final petition to the king. However, Adams succeeded in joining with this vote one to put the colonies into a state of defence, though with protestations that the war on their part was for defence only, and without revolutionary intent. Not long after this congress was brought up to the point of assuming the responsibility and control of the military operations which New England had commenced by laying siege to Boston, in which town General Gage and his troops were caged, and before which lay an impromptu New England army of 15,000 men which the battle of Lexington had immediately brought together. Urged by the New England delegates, congress agreed to assume the expense of maintaining this army. John Adams was the first to propose the name of George Washington for the chief commander; his desire being to secure the good-will and co-operation of the southern colonies. The southern colonies also urged General Lee for the second place, but Adams insisted on giving that to Artemas Ward, he, however, supported Lee for the third place. Having assumed the direction of this army, provided for its reorganization, and issued letters of credit for its maintenance, this congress took a recess. Adams returned home, but was not allowed any rest.
People who really have ability are never allowed to remain idle; the fault is not in others, but in us. No sooner had Mr. Adams arrived home than his Massachusetts friends sent him as a member to the State council. This council had, under a clause of the provincial charter intended to meet such cases, assumed the executive authority, declaring the gubernatorial chair vacant. On returning to Philadelphia in September, Adams found himself in hot water. Two confidential letters of his, written during the previous session, had been intercepted by the British in crossing the Hudson river, and had been published in the Boston papers. Not only did those letters evince a zeal for decisive measure which made the writer an object of suspicion to the more conservative of his fellow-members of Congress, but his reference in one of them to ‘the whims, the caprice, the vanity, the superstition, and the irritability of some of his colleagues,’ and particularly to John Dickinson as ‘a certain great fortune but trifling genius,’ made him personal enemies by whom he was never forgiven.
But, though for a moment an object of distrust to some of his colleagues, this did not save him from hard work. About this time he wrote: “I am engaged in constant work; from seven to ten in the morning in committee, from ten to four in Congress, and from six to ten again in committee. Our assembly is scarcely numerous enough for the business; everybody is engaged all day in Congress, and all the morning and evening in committee.” The committee, which chiefly engaged Mr. Adams’ attention at this time, was one on the fitting out of cruisers, and on naval affairs generally. This committee laid the foundation of our first navy; the basis of our naval code being drawn up by Adams.
Governor Wentworth having fled from New Hampshire, the people of that province applied to congress for advice as to how to manage their administrative affairs. Adams, always ahead of his brother legislators, seized the opportunity to urge the necessity of advising all of the provinces to proceed at once to institute governments of their own. The news, soon arriving of the haughty treatment of their petition by the king, added strength to his pleading, and the matter being referred to a committee on which Adams was placed, a report in partial conformity to his ideas was made and adopted. Adams was a worker; this was a recognized fact; and his State having offered him the post of Chief Justice of Massachusetts, Adams, toward the end of the year, returned home to consult on that and other important matters. He took his seat in the council, of which he had been chosen a member, immediately on his arrival. He was consulted by Washington, both as to sending General Lee to New York, and as to the expedition against Canada. It was finally arranged that while Adams should accept the appointment of Chief Justice, he should still remain a delegate in Congress, and till more quiet times should be excused as acting in the capacity of judge. Under this arrangement he returned to Philadelphia. However, he never took his seat as Chief Justice, resigning that office the next year.
Advice similar to that to New Hampshire on the subject of assuming government, as it was called, had shortly afterwards been given upon similar applications to Congress, to South Carolina and Virginia. Adams was much consulted by members of the southern delegation concerning the form of government which they should adopt. He was recognized as being better versed in the subject of Republicanism, both by study and experience, coming as he did from the most thoroughly Republican section of the country. Of several letters which he wrote on this subject, one more elaborate than the others, was printed under the title of “Thoughts on Governmentapplicable to the present state of the American Colonies.”
This paper being largely circulated in Virginia as a preliminary to the adoption of a form of government by that State, was to a certain extent a rejoinder to that part of Paine’s famous pamphlet of ‘Common Sense,’ which advocated government by a single assembly. It was also designed to controvert the aristocratic views, somewhat prevalent in Virginia, of those who advocated a governor and senate to be elected for life. Adams’ system of policy embraced the adoption of self-government by each of the colonies, a confederation, and treaties with foreign powers. The adoption of this system he continued to urge with zeal and increasing success, until finally, on May 13th, he carried a resolution through Congress by which so much of his plan was endorsed by that body as related to the assumption of self-government by the several colonies. A resolution that the United States ‘Are and ought to be free and independent,’ introduced by R. H. Lee under instructions from the Virginia convention, was very warmly supported by Adams and carried, seven States to six. Three committees, one on a Declaration of Independence; another on Confederation; and third on Foreign Relations, were shortly formed. Of the first and third of these committees, Adams was a member.
The Declaration of Independence was drawn up by Jefferson, but on Adams devolved the task of battling it through Congress in a three days’ debate, during which it underwent some curtailment. The plan of a treaty reported by the third committee, and adopted by Congress, was drawn up by Adams. His views did not extend beyond merely commercial treaties. He was opposed to seeking any political connection with France, or any military or even naval assistance from her or any foreign power. On June 12th Congress had established a board of war and ordinance, to consist of five members, with a secretary, clerk, etc.,—in fact, a war department. As originally constituted, the members of this board were taken from Congress, and the subject of this narrative was chosen its president or chairman. This position was one of great labor and responsibility, as the chief burden of the duties fell upon him, he continued to hold for the next eighteen months, with the exception of a necessary absence at the close of the year 1776, to recruit his health.
The business of preparing articles of war for the government of the army was deputed to a committee composed of Adams and Jefferson; but Jefferson, according to Adams’ account, threw upon him the whole burden, not only of drawing up the articles, which he borrowed mostly from Great Britain, but of arguing them through Congress, which was no small task. Adams strongly opposed Lord Howe’s invitation to a conference, sent to Congress, through his prisoner, General Sullivan, after the battle of Long Island. He was, however, appointed one of the committee for that purpose, together with Franklin and Rutledge, and his autobiography contains some curious anecdotes concerning the visit. Besides his presidency of the board of war, Adams was also chairman of the committee upon which devolved the decision of appeals in admiralty cases from the State courts. Having thus occupied for nearly two years a position which gained for him the reputation, among at least a few of his colleagues, of having “the clearest head and firmest heart of any man in Congress.”
He was appointed near the end of 1777 a commissioner to France, to supercede Deane, whom Congress had concluded to recall. He embarked at Boston, in the Frigate Boston, on February 12th, 1878, reaching Bordeaux after a stormy passage, and arrived on April 8th at Paris. As the alliance with France had been completed before his arrival, his stay was short. He found that a great antagonism of views and feelings had arisen between the three commissioners,—Franklin, Deane, and Arthur Lee, of whom the embassy to France had been originally composed. As the recall of Deane had not reconciled the other two, Adams devised, as the only means of giving unity and energy to the mission, that it should be intrusted to a single person. This suggestion was adopted, and in consequence of it, Franklin having been appointed sole embassador in France, Adams returned home.
He arrived at Boston just as a convention was about to meet to form a State constitution for Massachusetts, and, being at once chosen a member from Braintree, he was enabled to take a leading part in the formation of that important document. Before this convention had finished its business he was appointed by congress as minister to treat with Great Britain for peace, and commerce, under which appointment he again sailed for France in 1779, in the same French frigate in which he previously returned to the United States.
Contrary to his own inclinations, Mr. Adams was prevented by Vergennes, the French minister of foreign affairs, from making any communication of his powers to Great Britain. In fact, Vergennes and Adams already were, and continued to be, objects of distrust to one another, in both cases quite unfounded. Vergennes feared least advances toward treating with England might lead to some sort of reconciliation with her, short of the independence of the colonies, which was contrary to his ideas of the interest of France. The communications made to Vergennes by Gerard, the first French minister in America, and Adams’ connection with the Lee’s whom Vergennes suspected, though unjustly, of a secret communication through Arthur Lee with the British ministry, led him to regard Mr. Adams as the representative of a party in congress desirous of such a reconciliation; nor did he rest until he had obtained from congress, some two years after, the recall of Mr. Adams’ powers to negotiate a treaty of commerce; and, in conjunction with him, of several colleagues to treat for peace, of whom Franklin, who enjoyed his entire confidence, was one.
Adams, on the other hand, not entirely free from hereditary English prejudices against the French, vehemently suspected Vergennes of a design to sacrifice the interests of America, especially the fisheries and the western lands, to the advancement of the Spanish house of Bourbon. While lingering at Paris, with nothing to do except to nurse these suspicions, Adams busied himself in furnishing communications on American affairs to a semi-official gazette conducted by M. Genet, chief secretary in the foreign bureau, and father of the French minister in America, who subsequently rendered that name so notorious.
Finding his position at Paris uncomfortable, he proceeded to Holland in July, 1780, his object being to form an opinion as to the probability of borrowing money there. Just about the same time he was appointed by Congress to negotiate a French loan, the party who had been selected for that purpose previously, Laurens, not yet being ready to leave home. By way of enlightening the Dutch in regard to American affairs, Adams published in the Gazette, of Leyden, a number of papers and extracts, including several which, through a friend, he first had published in a London journal to give to them an English character. To these he added direct publication of his own, afterward many times reprinted, and now to be found in volume VII of his collected works under the title of ‘Twenty-six Letters upon Interesting Subjects Respecting the Revolution in America.’ He had commenced negotiations for a loan when his labors in that direction were interrupted by the sudden breach between England and Holland, consequent upon the capture of Laurens and the discovery of the secret negotiation carried on between him and Van Berkel, of Amsterdam, which, though it had been entered into without authority of the Dutch States, was made an excuse by the British for a speedy declaration of war.
Adams was soon after appointed minister to Holland in place of the captured Laurens, and at the same time was commissioned to sign the articles of armed neutrality which had just made their appearance on the political scene. Adams presented memorials to the Dutch government setting forth his powers in both respects; but before he could procure any recognition he was recalled in July, 1781, to Paris, by a notice that he was needed there, in his character of minister, to treat for peace.
Adams’ suspicion of Vergennes had, meanwhile, been not a little increased by the neglect of France to second his applications to Holland. With Vergennes the great object was peace. The finances of France were sadly embarrassed, and Vergennes wished no further complications to the war. Provided the English colonies should be definitely separated from the mother-country, which he considered indispensable to the interest of France, he was not disposed to insist on anything else. It was for this reason that he had urged upon, and just about this time had succeeded in obtaining from Congress, through the French Minister at Philadelphia—though the information had not yet reached Paris—not only the withdrawal of Adams’ commission to treat of commerce, and the enlargement to five of the number of commissioners to treat for peace, but an absolute discretion intrusted to the negotiators as to everything except independence and the additional direction that in the last resort they were to be governed by the advice of Vergennes. The cause for sending for Adams, who still occupied, so far as was known at Paris, the position of sole negotiator for peace; the offer of mediation on the part of Russia and the German empire; but this offer led to nothing.
Great Britain haughtily rejected it on the ground that she would not allow France to stand between her and her colonies. Returning to Holland Mr. Adams, though still unsupported by Vergennes, pushed with great energy his reception as embassador by the States general, which at length, April 19th, 1782, he succeeded in accomplishing. Following up this success with his customary perseverence, he succeeded before the end of the year in negotiating a Dutch loan of nearly two millions of dollars, the first of a series which proved a chief financial resource of the continental congress. He also succeeded in negotiating a treaty of amity and commerce. His success in these negotiations, considering the obstacles with which he had to contend, and the want of support from Vergennes, he was accustomed to regard as the greatest triumph of his life.
Before this business was completed, Mr. Adams received urgent calls to come to Paris where Jay and Franklin, two of the new commissioners, were already treating for peace, and where he arrived October 26th. Though Mr. Jay had been put into the diplomatic service by the procurement of the party in congress in the French interest, his diplomatic experience in Spain had led him also to entertain doubts as to the sincere good-will of Vergennes. A confidential dispatch from the French Secretary of Legation in America, intercepted by the British, and which Oswald, the British negotiator at Paris communicated to Franklin and Jay, with a view of making bad feeling between them and the French minister, had, along with other circumstances, induced Franklin and Jay to disregard their instructions, and to proceed to treat with Oswald without communicating that fact to Vergennes, or taking his advice as to terms of the treaty, a procedure in which Adams, after his arrival, fully concurred.
It was chiefly through his energy and persistence that the participation of America in the fisheries was secured by the treaty, not as a favor or a privilege, but as a right—a matter of much more importance then than now, the fisheries then being a much more important branch than now of American maritime industry.
Immediately upon the signature of the preliminary articles of peace, Adams asked leave to resign all his commissions and to return home, to which Congress responded by appointing him a commissioner jointly with Franklin and Jay, to negotiate a treaty of commerce with Great Britain. His first visit to England was, however, in a private character, to recruit his health, after a violent fever with which he had been attacked, shortly after signing the treaty of peace. He spent some time, first at London, and afterward at Bath; but while still an invalid he was recalled, in the dead of winter, to Holland, which he reached after a stormy and most uncomfortable voyage; there to negotiate a new loan as the means of meeting government bills drawn in America, which were in danger of protest from want of funds—a business in which he succeeded.
Adams was included along with Franklin and Jefferson, the latter sent out to take the place of Jay, in a new commission to form treaties with foreign powers; and his being joined by Mrs. Adams and their only daughter and youngest son, his other two sons being already with him, reconciled him to the idea of remaining abroad.
With his family about him he fixed his residence at Auteuil, near Paris, where he had an interval of comparative leisure.
The chief business of the new commission was the negotiation of a treaty with Prussia, advances toward which had first been made to Adams while at the Hague negotiating the Dutch loan, but before that treaty was ready for signature Adams was appointed by congress as Minister to the court of St. James, where he arrived in May, 1785. The English government, the feelings of which were well represented by those of the king, had neither the magnanimity nor policy to treat the new American States with respect, generosity, or justice. Adams was received with civility, but no commercial arrangements could be made. His chief employment was in complaining of the non-execution of the treaty of peace, especially in relation to the non-surrender of the western posts, and in attempting to meet similar complaints urged, not without strong grounds, by the British; more particularly with regard to the obstacles thrown in the way of the collection of British debts, which were made an excuse for the detention of the western posts. Made sensible in many ways of the aggravation of British feelings toward the new republic, whose condition immediately after the peace was somewhat embarrassing, and not so flattering as it might have been to the advocates and promoters of the revolution, the situation of Adams was rather mortifying than agreeable.
Meanwhile he was obliged to pay another visit to Holland to negotiate a new loan as a means of paying the interest on the Dutch debt. He was also engaged in a correspondence with his fellow-commissioner, Mr. Jefferson, then at Paris, on the subject of the Barbary powers and the return of the Americans held captive by them. But his most engrossing occupation at this time was the preparation of his “Defence of the American Constitution,” the object of which was the justification of balanced governments and a division of powers, especially the legislative, against the idea of a single assembly and a pure democracy, which had begun to find many advocates, especially on the continent. The greater part, however, of this book—the most voluminous of his publications—consists of summaries of the histories of the Italian republics, which, by the way, was not essential to the argument.
Although it afterward subjugated the author to charges of monarchical and anti-republican tendencies, this book was not without its influence on the adoption of the federal constitution; during the discussion of which the first volume appeared. Great Britain not having reciprocated the compliment by sending a minister to the United States, and there being no prospects of hisaccomplishing any of the objects of his mission, Adams had requested a recall, which was sent to him in February, 1788, accompanied by a resolution of Congress conveying the thanks of that body for ‘The patriotism, perseverance, integrity and diligence’ which he had displayed in his ten years’ experience abroad.
Immediately upon his arrival at home, Mr. Adams was re-appointed by Massachusetts as a delegate to the continental congress; but he never resumed his seat in that body, which was now just about to expire. When the new government came to be organized under the newly adopted constitution, as all were agreed to make Washington president, attention was turned to New England for a vice-president. This office was then held with much more regard than now. In fact, as the constitution originally stood, the candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency were voted for without any distinct specification as to rank, the second office falling to the person having the second highest vote. Out of sixty-nine electors, John Adams received the votes of thirty-four; and this being the second highest number, he was declared vice-president. The thirty-five votes were scattered upon some ten different other candidates.
By virtue of his new office he became president of the senate, a position not very agreeable to his active and leading temperament, being better fitted for debate; but one in which the close division in the senate, often resulting in a tie between the supporters and opponents of the new system, many times gave him a controlling voice. In the first congress, he gave no fewer than twenty deciding votes, always upon important organic laws, and always in support of Washington’s policy.
Down to this time Adams had sympathized with Jefferson politically, with whom he had served both in congress and abroad. On the subject of the French revolution, which now burst upon the world, a difference of opinion arose between them. From the very beginning Adams, then almost alone, had argued that no good could come from that movement,—as the revolution went on and began to break out in excesses, others began to be of this opinion.
Adams then gave public expression to some of his ideas by the publication of his ‘Discourses on Davila,’ furnished to a Philadelphia paper, and afterward collected and published in one volume,—taking the history of nations, particularly Davila’s account of the French civil wars, and the general aspects of human society as his texts.
Adams pointed out as the great springs of human activity,—at least in all that related to politics,—the love of superiority, the desire of distinction, admiration and applause; nor, in his opinion could any government be permanent or secure which did not provide as well for the reasonable gratification, as for the due restraint of this powerful passion. Repudiating that democracy, pure and simple, then coming into vogue, and of which Jefferson was the advocate; he insisted that a certain mixture of aristocracy and monarchy was necessary to that balance of interests and sentiments without which, as he believed, free governments should not exist. This work, which reproduced more at length and in a more obnoxious form the fundamental ideas of his ‘Defence of the American Constitution,’ made Adams a great bugbear to the ultra-democratic supporters of the principles and policy of the French revolutionists; and at the second presidential election in 1792, they set up as a candidate against him George Clinton, of New York, but Mr. Adams was re-elected by a decided vote.
The wise policy of neutrality adopted by Washington received the hearty concurrence of Adams. While Jefferson left the cabinet to become in nominal retirement the leader of the opposition. Adams continued, as vice-president, to give Washington’s administration the benefit of his deciding vote. It was only by this means that a neutrality act was carried through the senate, and that the progress was stopped of certain resolutions which had previously passed in the House of Representatives, embodying restrictive measures against Great Britain, intended, or at least calculated, to counterwork the mission to England on which Mr. Jay had already been sent.
Washington being firmly resolved to retire at the close of his second presidential term, the question of the successorship now presented itself. Jefferson was the leader of the opposition, who called themselves republicans, the name democrat being yet in bad odor, and though often imposed as a term of reproach, not yet assumed except by a few of the more ultra-partisans. Hamilton was the leader of the federal party, as the supporters of Washington’s administration had styled themselves.
Though Hamilton’s zeal and energy had made him, even while like Jefferson in nominal retirement, the leader of his party, he could hardly be said to hold the place with the Federalists that Jefferson did with the Republicans. Either Adams or Jay, from their age and long diplomatic service, were more justly entitled to public honor and were more conspicuously before the people. Hamilton, though he had always spoken of Adams as a man of unconquerable intrepidity and incorruptible integrity, and as such had already twice supported him for vice-president, would yet have much preferred Jay.
The position of Adams was, however, such as to render his election far more probable than that of Jay, and to determine on his selection as candidate of the Federalist party. Jay, by his negotiation of the famous treaty which bears his name, had for the moment called down upon himself the hostility of its numerous opponents. Adams stood, moreover, as vice-president, in the line of promotion, and was more sure of the New England vote, which was absolutely indispensible to the success of either.
As one of the candidates was taken from the North, it seemed best to select the other from the South, and the selection of Thomas Pickney, of South Carolina, was the result of this decision. Indeed, there were some, Hamilton among the number, who secretly wished that Pickney might receive the larger vote of the two, and so be chosen president over Adams’ head. This result was almost sure to happen,—from the likelihood of Pickney’s receiving more votes at the South than Adams, as he really did,—could the northern federal electors be persuaded to vote equally for Adams and Pickney, which Hamilton labored to effect.
The fear, however, that Pickney might be chosen over Adams led to the withholding from Pickney of eighteen New England votes, so that the result was not only to make Jefferson Vice-President, as having more votes than Pickney, but also to excite prejudices and suspicions in the mind of Adams against Hamilton, which, being reciprocated by him, led to the disruption and final overthrow of the Federal party.
It had almost happened, such was the equal division of parties, that Jefferson had this time been elected President. The election of Adams, who had 71 votes to Jefferson’s 68, only being secured by two stray votes cast for him, one in Virginia, and the other in North Carolina, tributes of revolutionary reminiscences and personal esteem. Chosen by this slender majority, Mr. Adams succeeded to office at a very dangerous and exciting crisis in affairs. The progress of the French revolution had superinduced upon previous party divisions a new and vehement crisis.
Jefferson’s supporters, who sympathized very warmly with the French Republic, gave their moral, if not their positive support, to the claim set up by its rulers, but which Washington had refused to admit, that under the provisions of the French treaty of alliance, the United States were bound to support France against Great Britain, at least in defense of her West India possessions. The other party, the supporters of Adams, upheld the policy of neutrality adopted by Washington.
At the same time that Washington had sent Jay to England, to arrange, if possible, the pending difficulties with that country; he had recalled Morris who, as Minister to France, had made himself obnoxious to the now predominent party there, and had appointed Monroe in his place. This gentleman, instead of conforming to his instructions, and attempting to reconcile France to Jay’s mission, had given them assurance on the subject quite in contradiction of the treaty as made, both the formation and ratification of which he had done his best to defeat. He, in consequence, had been recalled by Washington shortly before the close of his term of office, and C. C. Pickney, a brother of Thomas Pickney, had been appointed in his place. The Frenchauthorities, offended at this change, and the ratification of Jay’s treaty in spite of their remonstrances, while they dismissed Monroe with great ovations, refused to receive the new embassador sent in his place, at the same time issuing decrees and orders highly injurious to American interests.
Almost the first act of Mr. Adams, as President, was to call an extra session of Congress. Not only was a war with France greatly to be dreaded and deprecated on account of her great military and naval power, but still more on account of the very formidable party which, among the ultra-Republicans, she could muster within the States themselves. Under these circumstances, the measure resolved upon by Adams and his cabinet was the appointment of a new and more solemn commission to France, composed of Pickney and two colleagues, for which purpose the President appointed John Marshall of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.
Instead of receiving and openly treating with those commissioners, Talleyrand, lately an exile in America, but now Secretary of Foreign Affairs to the French Government, entered into intrigue with them, through several unaccredited and unofficial agents, of which the object was to induce them to promise a round bribe to the directors and a large sum of money to fill the exhausted French treasury, by way of purchasing forbearance. As Pickney and Marshall appeared less pliable than Gerry, Talleyrand finally obliged them to leave, after which he attempted, though still without success, to extract money, or at least the promise of it, from Gerry.
The publication of the dispatches in which these discreditible intrigues were disclosed, an event on which Talleyrand had not calculated, produced a great excitement in both America and Europe. Talleyrand attempted to escape by disavowing his agents, and pretending that the American ministers had been imposed upon by adventurers. Gerry left France, and the violation of American commercial and maritime rights was pushed to new extremes. In America the effect of all of this was to greatly strengthen the Federal party for the time being.
The grand jury of the federal circuit court for Pennsylvania set the example of an address to the president, applauding his manly stand for the rights and dignity of the nation. Philadelphia, which under the lead of Mifflin and McKean, had gone over to the Republicans, was once more suddenly converted as during Washington’s first term to the support of the federal government. That city was then the seat of the national newspaper press. All the newspapers, hitherto neutral, published there, as well as several others which had leaned decidedly toward the opposition, now came out in behalf of Adams.
Besides an address from five thousand citizens, the young men got up an address of their own. This example was speedily imitated all over the country, and the spirited replies of the president, who was now in his element, served in their turn to blow up and keep ablaze the patriotic enthusiasm of his countrymen. These addresses, circulated everywhere in the newspapers, were collected at the time in a volume, and they appeared in Adams’ works, of which they form a characteristic portion. A navy was set on foot, the old continental navy having become extinct. An army was voted and partly levied, of which Washington accepted the chief command, and merchant ships were authorized to protect themselves.
The treaty with France was declared at an end, and a quasi war with France ensued. It was not, however, the policy of France to drive the United States into the arms of Great Britain. Even before Gerry’s departure, Talleyrand had made advances tending toward reconciliation, which were afterward renewed by communications opened with Van Murray, the American minister to Holland. The effect of the French outrages, and the progress of the French revolution had been to create in a part of the federal party, at least, a desire for an absolute breach with France—a desire felt by Hamilton, and by at least three out of the four cabinet officers whom Adams had chosen and kept in office.
In his message to congress, announcing the expulsion of Pickney and Marshall, Adams had declared that he would never send another minister to France without assurance that he would be received. This was on the 21st of July, 1798. Therefore, when on the 18th of February following, without consulting his cabinet or giving them any intimation of his intentions, he sent into the senate the nomination of Van Murray as minister to France, the act took the country by surprise, and thus hastened the defeat of the federal party, his actions being so contrary to his avowed intentions. Some previous acts of Adams, such as the appointment of Gerry, which his cabinet officers had striven to prevent, and his disinclination to make Hamilton second in command, until vehemently urged into it by Washington, had strengthened the distrust entertained of Adams by Hamilton.
Adams, in his attempt to reopen diplomatic intercourse with France, was accused of seeking to reconcile his political opponents of the Republican party, and thus secure by unworthy and impolitic concessions, his own re-election as president. The opposition to Van Murray’s nomination prevailed so far that he received two colleagues, Ellsworth of Connecticut and Davies of North Carolina; but the president would not authorize the departure of Ellsworth or Davies until he had received explicit assurances from Talleyrand that they would be duly received as ministers. On arriving in France they found the Directory superseded by Napoleon Bonaparte who was first counsel, with whom they managed to arrange the difficulty.
But, however beneficial to the country, this mission proved very disastrous to Adams personally, and to the political party to which he belonged. He justified its appointment on the ground of assurances conveyed to him through a variety of channels that France desired peace, and he excused himself for his not having consulted his cabinet by the fact that he knew their mind without asking it—to be decidedly hostile, that is, to any such attempt as he had decided to make.
The masses of the federalists, fully confident of Adams’ patriotism, were well enough disposed to acquiesce in his judgment; but many of the leaders were implacable. The quarrel was further aggravated by Adams’ dismissal of his cabinet officers and the construction of a new cabinet.
The pardon of Fries, who had been convicted of treason for armed resistance to the levy of certain direct taxes in Pennsylvania, was regarded by many at that time as a piece of misplaced lenity on the part of Adams, dictated, it was said, by a mean desire of popularity in a case where the severest example was needed. But Adams can hardly suffer with posterity from his unwillingness to be the first president to sign a death warrant for treason, especially as there was room for grave doubts whether the doings of this person amounted to treason as defined by the constitution of the United States.
In this divided condition of the Federal party the presidential election came on. Adams was still too popular with the mass of the party to think of dropping him altogether, and the malcontents reduced to the old expedient of attempting, by secret understanding and arrangements, to reduce his vote in the electoral college below that of C. C. Pickney, the other candidate on the federal ticket.
The Republicans, on the other hand, under the prospect of an arrangement with France, rapidly recovered from the blow inflicted upon them by the violence and mercenary rapacity lately charged upon their French friends, but which they now insisted, was a charge without foundation. Taking advantage of the dissatisfaction at the heavy taxes necessarily imposed to meet the expenses of warlike preparations, and especially of the unpopularity of the alien and sedition laws—two acts of congress to which the prospect of war had led—they pushed the canvass with great energy; while in Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr they had two leaders unsurpassed for skill in party tactics, and in Burr at least, one little scrupulous as to the means to be used.
Not only was the whole blame of the alien and sedition acts, to which he had merely assented without even recommending, laid on Adams’ shoulders, but he was the object of vehement and most bitter attacks for having surrendered, under one of the provisions of Jay’s treaty, one Thomas Nash, an English sailor, charged with mutiny and murder. Nor was it against his public acts alone, nor even to his political opponents, that these assaults on Mr. Adams were confined. With strong feeling and busy imagination, loving both to talk and write, Adams had been betrayed into many confidences and into free expressions of feeling, opinions, and even conjectures and suspicions—a weakness very unsuited to the character of a statesman, and one which Adams had during his life many times the occasion to rue.
During Washington’s first term of office, Adams had thus been led into a confidential correspondence with Tench Coxe, who at that time held the position of assistant secretary of the treasury and had afterward been appointed supervisor of the internal revenue. Since Adam’s accession he had been dismissed from his place on the charge of being a spy upon the treasury department in the service of the Aurora, the principal newspaper organ of the opposition,—with which party Coxe sympathized, and, since his recent dismissal from office, acted.
In this state of mind Coxe betrayed a confidential letter to him from Adams; which, after being handed around in manuscript for some time, to the great damage of Adams with his own party, was finally printed in the Aurora, of which Coxe had become one of the principal contributors.
The purport of this letter, written as long ago as May, 1792, was to give countenance to the charge of the opposition that Washington’s cabinet, and of course Adams’ which followed the same policy, was under British influence; and that the Pickney brothers, candidates with Adams on the presidential ticket, were especially liable to this suspicion. The publication of this letter was followed by a still more deadly blow in the shape of a pamphlet, written, printed and signed by Hamilton,—probably intended by him for private distribution among his friends, but which was made public by Aaron Burr, who had succeed in obtaining some of the proof sheets.
This pamphlet had its origin in the same charge against Hamilton of being under the influence of British gold, thrown out by Adams in private conversation. To this he had refused to give any explanation when written to by Hamilton, though when a similar request was made by C. C. Pickney in consequence of the publication of the letter to Coxe, Adams fully exonerated, in a published letter, both Pickney and his brother from any suspicion which his letter to Coxe might seem calculated to convey.
Hamilton declared in the conclusion of his pamphlet that, as things then stood, he did not recommend the withholding of a single vote from Adams. Yet, it was the leading object of his pamphlet to show, without denying Adams’ patriotism or integrity, or even his talents, that he had great defects of character which disqualified him for the position of chief magistrate, and the effect which he desired it to have must have been to give C. C. Pickney the presidency, by causing a certain number of votes to be withheld from Adams.
The result of the election, however, was to throw out both the federal candidates, while Adams receiving forty-five votes and Pickney fifty-four; Jefferson and Burr each received seventy-three. In the ensuing struggle between Jefferson and Burr, Adams took no part whatever. Immediately on the expiration of his term of office he left Washington, where shortly before the seat of government had been moved, without even stopping to be present at the inauguration of Jefferson, against whom he felt a sense of personal wrong, probably thinking he had been deluded by false professions as to Jefferson’s views on the presidential chair.
Though both were much given to letter-writing, and had to within a short time before been on terms of friendly intercourse, this state of feelings, on the part of Adams, led to strict non-intercourse for the next thirteen years. The only acknowledgment which Adams carried with him, in this unwelcome and mortifying retirement for his twenty-five years’ services was the privilege, which had been granted to Washington on his withdrawal from the presidency, and after his death to his widow, and bestowed likewise upon all subsequent ex-presidents and their widows, of receiving his letters free of postage for the remainder of his life.
Fortunately for Adams, his thrifty habits and love of independence, sustained during his absence from home by the economical and managing talents of his wife, had enabled him to add to what he had saved from his profession before entering public life, savings from his salaries, enough to make up a sufficient property to support him for the remainder of his life, in conformity with his ideas of a decent style of propriety and solid comfort. Almost all his savings he had invested in the farming lands about him. In his vocabulary, property meant land. With all the rapid wealth then being made through trade and navigation, he had no confidence in the permanency of any property but land, views in which he was confirmed by the commercial revulsions of which he lived to be a witness.
Adams was the possessor, partly by inheritance and partly by purchase, of his father’s farm, including the house in which he himself was born. He had, however, transferred his own residence to a larger and handsomer dwelling near by, which had been forfeited by one of the refugee tories of the revolution and purchased by him, where he spent the next quarter of a century.
In this comfortable home, acquired by himself, he sought consolation for his troubled spirit in the cultivation of his lands, in books and in the bosom of his family. Mrs. Adams, to her capacities as a house-keeper, steward and farm manager, added a brightness and activity of mind and a range of reading, such as fully qualified her to sympathize with her husband in his public as well as his private career. She shared his tastes for books, and as his letters to her are unsurpassed by any American letters ever yet published, so hers to him, as well as to others, from which a selection has also been published, show her, though exhibiting less of nature and more of formality than he, yet worthy of admiration and respect as well as of the tenderness with which he always regarded her.
To affections strong enough to respond to his, a sympathy equal to his highest aspirations, a proud feeling and an enjoyment of it equal to his own, she added what is not always found in such company, a flexibility sufficient to yield to his stronger will without disturbance to her serenity or his, and without the least compromise of her own dignity or her husband’s respect and deference for her. While she was not ignorant of the foibles of his character, and knew how to avail herself of them when a good purpose was to be served by it, yet her admiration of his abilities, her reliance upon his judgment, her confidence in his goodness, and her pride in his achievements, made her always ready to yield and to conform. His happiness and honor were always her leading object. This union was blessed with children well calculated to add to this happiness.
Just at the moment of his retirement from office private grief was added to political disappointment by the death of his second son Charles, who had grown to manhood, had been married and had settled in New York with flattering prospects, but had died under painful circumstances, which his father speaks of in a contemporary letter as the deepest affliction of his life, leaving a wife and two infant children dependent on him. Colonel Smith, an officer of the revolution, who had been Adams’ secretary of legation at London and who had married his only daughter, did not prove in all respects such a son-in-law as he would have wished. Smith’s pecuniary affairs becoming embarrassed, his father-in-law had provided for him by several public appointments, the last of which was that of the surveyor of New York, which position he was allowed to hold until 1807, when he was removed from it in consequence of his implication in Miranda’s expedition. Nor did Thomas, the third son, though a person of accomplishments and talents, fully answer the hopes of his parents.
But all these disappointments were more than made good by the eldest son, John Quincy, who subsequently to his recall from the diplomatic service abroad, into which Washington had introduced him and in which his father, urged by Washington, had promoted him, was chosen one of the senators in congress from Massachusetts.
All consolations, domestic or otherwise, at Mr. Adam’s command, were fully needed. Never did a statesman sink more suddenly,—at a time too when his powers of action and inclinations for it seemed unimpaired—from a leading position to more absolute political insignificance. His grandson tells us that while the letters addressed to him in the year prior to March 1st, 1801, may be counted by the thousands, those of the next year scarcely numbered a hundred, while he wrote even less than he received. Nor was mere neglect the worst of it. He sank, loaded with the jibes, the sneers, the execrations even, of both political parties into which the nation was divided. In his correspondence, which appears to have gradually increased and extended itself, Mr. Adams loved to re-explain his theoretical ideas of government, on some points of which he pushed Jefferson hard, and which the result of the French revolution so far as then developed seemed to confirm.
Another subject in which he continued to feel a great interest was theology. He had begun as an Arminian, and the more he had read and thought, and the older he grew to be, the freer views he took. Though clinging with tenacity to the religious institutions of New England, it would seem from his correspondence that he finally curtailed his theology to the ten commandments and the sermon on the mount. Of his views on this point, he gave evidence in his last public act, to which we now approach.
Mrs. Adams had died in 1818, but even that shock, severe as it was, did not loosen the firm grasp of the husband on life, its enjoyments and its duties. When, in consequence of the erection of the district of Maine into a State, a convention was to meet in 1820 to revise the constitution of Massachusetts, in the framing of which Mr. Adams had taken so leading a part, though in his eighty-sixth year, he was chosen a delegate by his townsmen. Upon his first appearance, with a form yet erect, though tremulous with age, in this Convention, which was composed of the very cream of the great minds with which the State abounded, Mr. Adams was received by members standing, and with every demonstration of affection and esteem; and a series of resolutions were forthwith passed, containing an enumeration and warm acknowledgement of some of his principal public services, and calling on him to preside. But this, while duly acknowledging the compliment, he declined, on the score of his age and infirmities. The same cause also prevented his taking any active part in the proceedings. Yet he labored to secure a modification of the third article of the bill of rights, on the subject of public worship and its support, an article which, when originally drafting the rest of that instrument, he had passed over to other hands.
But the time had not yet come for such changes as he wished. The old puritan feeling was still too great to acknowledge the equal rights, political and religious, of other than Christians. Yet, however it might be with his colleagues and fellow-citizens, Mr. Adams, in this movement, expressed his own ideas. One of his latest letters, written in 1825, and addressed to Jefferson, is a remarkable protest against the blasphemy laws, so-called, of Massachusetts, and the rest of the Union, as being utterly inconsistent with the right of free inquiry and private judgment. It is in the letters of Mr. Adams, of which but few have ever been published, that his genius as a writer and a thinker, and no less distinctly his character as a man, is displayed. Down even to the last year of his protracted life, his letters exhibit a wonderful degree of vitality, energy, playfulness, and command of language.
As a writer of English—and we may add as a speculative philosopher—little as he ever troubled himself with revision and correction, he must be placed first among Americans of all the several generations to which he belonged, excepting only Franklin; and if Franklin excelled him in humor and geniality, he far surpassed Franklin in compass and vivacity. Indeed, it is only by the recent publication of his letters that his gifts in these respects are becoming well known. The first installment of his private letters published during his lifetime, though not deficient in these characteristics, yet having been written under feelings of great aggravation, and in a spirit of extreme bitterness against his political opponents, was rather damaging to him than otherwise. In the interval from 1804 to 1812, Mr. Cunningham, a maternal relative, had drawn him into a private correspondence in which, still smarting under a sense of injury, he had expressed himself with perfect unreserve and entire freedom as to the chief events of his presidential administration and the character and motives of the parties concerned in them.
By a gross breach of confidence, of which Mr. Adams, like other impulsive and confiding persons, often had been the victim, those letters were sold by Cunningham’s heir in 1824, while the writer and many of the parties referred to were still alive. They were published as a part of the electioneering machinery against John Quincy Adams. They called out a violent retort from Colonel Pickering, who had been secretary of State to Washington and Adams, till dismissed from office by the latter; but though Mr. Jefferson was also severely handled in them, they occasioned no interruption to the friendly relation which had been re-established between him and Mr. Adams.
Those two leading actors in American politics, at first so co-operative and afterward so hostile, again reunited in friendly intercourse, having outlived almost all of their fellow-actors, continued to descend hand in hand to the grave. Adams lived to see his son president, and to receive Jefferson’s congratulations on the same. By a remarkable coincidence, they both expired on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, in which they both had taken so active a part, Adams, however, being the survivor by a few hours.
Of Adams’ personal appearance and domestic character in his old age, his grandson gives the following account: “In figure, John Adams was not tall, scarcely exceeding middle height, but of a stout, well-knit frame, denoting vigor and long life, yet as he grew old inclining more and more to corpulence. His head was large and round, with a wide forehead and expanded brows. His eye was mild and benignant, perhaps even humorous when he was free from emotion, but when excited it fully expressed the vehemence of the spirit that stirred within.”
“His presence was grave and imposing on serious occasions, but not unbending. He delighted in social conversation, in which he was sometimes tempted to what he called rodomontade. But he seldom fatigued those who heard him; for he mixed so much of natural vigor of fancy and illustration with the store of his acquired knowledge, as to keep alive their interest for a long time.”
“His affections were warm, though not habitually demonstrated toward his relatives. His anger, when thoroughly aroused, was for a time extremely violent, but when it subsided it left no trace of malevolence behind. Nobody could see him intimately without admiring the simplicity and truth which shone in his actions, and standing in some awe of the power and energy of his will. It was in these moments that he impressed those around him with a sense of his greatness. Even the men employed on his farm were in the habit of citing instances, some of which have been remembered down to the present day.”
“At times his vehemence became so great as to make him overbearing and unjust. This was apt to happen in cases of pretension and any kind of wrong-doing. Mr. Adams was very impatient of cant, or of opposition to any of his deeply established convictions. Neither was his indignation at all graduated to the character of the individuals who might happen to excite it. He had little respect of persons, and would hold an illiterate man or raw boy to as heavy a responsibility for uttering a crude heresy, as the strongest thinker or the most profound scholar.”
The same writer makes the following remarks on his general character: “His nature was too susceptible to emotions of sympathy and kindness, for it tempted him to trust more than was prudent in the professions of some who proved unworthy of his confidence. Ambitious in one sense he certainly was, but it was not the mere aspiration for place or power. It was a desire to excel in the minds of men by the development of high qualities, the love, in short, of an honorable fame, that stirred him to exult in the rewards of popular favor. Yet this passion never tempted him to change a course of action or to suppress a serious conviction, to bend to a prevailing error or to disavow one odious truth.”
In these last assertions we do not fully concur. They involve some controverted points of history; however, they may be made with far more plausibility of Mr. Adams than of the greater portion of political men.
There is much in the life of John Adams worthy of careful consideration. He rose from poverty to distinction; he was a capable man, capable of filling the highest place in the estimation of his posterity, yet his serious faults led to his political ruin. The careful perusal of his life will enable one to understand the principles of the two great parties of to-day, modified though they be, the fundamental principles remaining the same.