Monday, October 22, 2012

John and Abigail, the Original Adams Family

Few couples in human history have enjoyed a love as enduring and devoted as that of John and Abigail Adams.  Both were extraordinary human beings.

Abigail ran the family farm, was a business woman who managed family finances, a mother of 4 children and a devoted wife to a husband who was frequently gone.  There are many fascinating stories about Abigail, her profound intellect, her sound judgment and her opposition to slavery.

James Prince was a young free black boy that Abigail came across in Philadelphia and took him back to Braintree, MA as an employee. But Abigail did more than employ him and and pay him for his labor, she personally taught him how to read and write. She then enrolled him in a school in Braintree at his own request to further his education. But even in abolitionist anti-slavery Massachusetts, the neighbors balked at having a black in their school and requested that Abigail withdraw him from the school. The story is well told by Adams biographer David McCullough.
Abigail...was soon asked by a neighbor to withdraw James. If she did not, she was told, the other boys would refuse to attend and the school would close. Had James misbehaved, Abigail asked. No, she was informed, it was because he was black. Did these other boys object when he attended church? No, they did not.

"The boy is a freeman as much as any of the young men, and merely because his face is black is he to be denied instruction?" she asked. "How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? Is this the Christian principle of doing unto others as we would have others to do to us?"

She requested that the boys be sent to her. "Tell them...that I hope we shall all go to Heaven together." And this, she was pleased to report to Adams, ended the crisis. She heard no more on the subject; James continued in school.
Abigail Adams was a fiercely independent and courageous woman and a woman who literally lived her Christian values in all aspect of her life, a trait that John highly valued as well as her compelling and expansive intellect. John Adams was the first president to live in the White House.  When Abigail arrived in Washington for the first time, the White House wasn't even finished and was still under construction.  Both John and Abigail were revolted by the sight of Negro slaves working on the house, as well as building the rest of DC, and Abigail noted that they were emaciated and in rags.  Abigail despised the South and the institution of human slavery, as did her husband.

John Adams was a Federalist, along with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.  The Federalist were in direct opposition to the Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson.  The Federalists wanted a strong central government, a strong standing army, more Federal taxes and a central bank.  The Republicans were the opposite of everything the Federalists stood for and wanted peace, weak federal powers, no standing army, no wars, low taxes and no central bank.  John Adams may have been a member of the Federalist Party but he was anything but a staunch Federalist in the mold of Hamilton.  Based on his issue positions, Adams was definitely a free thinker who shunned party loyalty and at heart he highly valued Republican principles.

John Adams narrowly won America's 2nd presidential election with 71 votes to Jefferson's 68 (followed by 59 for Pinchney, 30 for Aaron Burr and 11 for Samuel Adams). While the legacy of John Adams is tarnished by the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams never requested those bills but he did sign them.  They were considered war measures and the Federalist neocons were beating the war drums for war with France, a nation that behaved very badly following its gruesomely bloody Revolution.  France had attacked and robbed hundreds of US merchant ships.

War fever gripped the nation and George Washington was resurrected from his retirement to become Commander in Chief of a newly constituted army.  Adams opposed war with France and had sent a commission to France to negotiate a peace.  Nevertheless, Adams was forced to go along with plans for a new military because, well, George Washington was a national hero.  Much to the chagrin of Adams, Washington selected Alexander Hamilton as his #2 guy because everybody knew that Washington wouldn't be fighting anymore wars at his age.

The Federalists continued to be furious with Adams for not demanding from Congress a declaration of war.  Meanwhile, Washington and Hamilton were locked up planning their new military.  Washington wasn't necessarily a hawk and he did in fact pursue neutrality policies as president but he did leave some foreign policy messes for his replacement.  But now that Washington wasn't making the tough decisions, he was happy to go along with the Federalist hawks.  Still, Adams stalled them and even shocked them when he sent a letter to the Senate advising that he would pursue peace with France.  Adams never reneged on his commitment to peace, whatever the political cost.

Everybody turned against John Adams.  The Republicans turned against him because they didn't trust him and were furious that Adams had snatched their peace platform.  The Federalists considered Adams a traitor.  The newspapers whipped up populist contempt for Adams.  Through it all, John Adams remained resolute in his pursuit of peace.

Then the unthinkable happened.  George Washington unexpectedly died in 1799 at Mt. Vernon from a cold at the age of 67.  He had been in great health until a few days before his death, the cause of which is believed to be a streptoccoccus infection.  Without Washington, Hamilton lost his opportunity to become the reincarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Hamilton was a guy obsessed with military glory and his overt lust for war was one of his defining characteristics.

However, other factors also came into play in the game of geo-politics.  The British commander, Lord Nelson, decisively defeated Napoleon in Egypt and wiped out the French Navy.   France no longer even had a navy.  Still, that didn't deter the Federalist hawks.

As the press, the Republicans, the Federalists and the people whipped themselves into a frenzy to hate, demonize and guarantee that John Adams would never be re-elected, John Adams himself had prepared for the defeat.  John Adams  cared more about doing the right thing for America, the prosperity of the American people and maintaining peace than he cared about being re-elected.

Adams had done something else that infuriated many.  There had been an armed uprising by German Pennsylvania Dutch farmers over a federal land tax and the draconian methods utilized by federal tax collectors to collect the tax.  The leader of the rebellion, John Fries, and two others were found guilty in a federal court and sentenced to hang.  Adams consulted with his entire Cabinet and all advised him to carry out the hangings.

But Adams refused to hang them.  Adams believed that they were guilty of a leading a riot but definitely not guilty causing an insurrection against the government which is treason.  Accordingly, Adams rejected the advise of his Cabinet and did his own presidential version of jury nullification - Adams pardoned them and rejected the jury verdict.  Not unexpectedly, Adams was castigated as a man of weakness and his political enemies proclaimed that his pardon and refusal to hang the 3 men constituted a grave threat to the nation because it would only encourage more treason and insurrections.

Hamilton, an astute politician who was well seasoned in the arts of finagling, slander, treachery, coups and plotting, was obsessed with making sure that John Adams was defeated.  The election of 1800 is deemed the nastiest and dirtiest election in US history and Adams did better than expected, here.  He only lost New York City by 250 votes and would have easily won the general election with NYC.  Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied with 73 votes, Adams got 65 votes and Pinckney (Hamilton's man) got 63.  The election would be decided by the House of Representatives.  Although Hamilton detested Jefferson with a passion, he hated Burr even more and used his immense political clout to swing the election to Jefferson who he considered a more honorable man than Burr (Burr killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804).

Adams biographer David McCullough astutely summarizes the bitter election of 1800 "In the last analysis, however, it was not Jefferson or the "dextrous' Burr who defeated Adams so much as the Federal war faction and the rampaging Hamilton.  And none of this would have happened but for Adams's decision to send the second peace mission to France.  It was his determination to find peace and check Hamilton that cost him the full support of the party and thus the election.......To his everlasting credit, at the risk of his career, reputation, and his hold on the presidency, he chose not to go to war when that would have been highly popular and politically advantageous in the short run.  As a result, the country was spared what would almost certainly have been a disastrous mistake.".

Adams did secure a peace treaty with France although it arrived too late to make a general election difference.  The Treaty of Mortefontaine, signed by Napoleon, released the US from a permanent alliance with France that had been negotiated in a previous treaty, here.  The US was actually caught in the pinchers between  Britain and France, always mortal enemies with each other while possessing the potential to become very dangerous and threatening, and Adams sought to achieve neutrality between these competing giants, something that required a most delicate balancing act because the US wanted to trade with and have peace with both nations during an era when Britain and France demanded that the US choose one side or the other.  John Adams avoided war and he lost an election primarily because he was condemned by the hawks in his own Federalist Party.

Napoleon continued on with his bankrupting wars until France was so broke that Jefferson was able to double the size of the US by buying from France 828,000 square miles of what is now the central portion of the US at a cost of $15 million or less than 3 cents per acre, here.

It's highly doubtful that the Louisiana Purchase would ever had been possible had America plunged into a costly war with France.  Moreover, Adams biographer David McCullough agrees "Were it not for John Adams making peace with France, there might never have been a Louisiana Purchase."

David McCullough also made a fascinating observation between the differences between Adams and Jefferson.
There were, as well, striking ironies. Jefferson, the Virginia aristocrat and slave master who lived in a style fit for a prince, as removed from his fellow citizens and their lives as it was possible to be, was hailed as the apostle of liberty, the "Man of the People". Adams, the farmer's son who despised slavery and practiced the kind of personal economy and plain living commonly upheld as the American way, was scorned as an aristocrat who, if he could, would enslave the common people.
It was indeed a weird twist of irony!  Meanwhile, Abigail Adams continued to speak out against slavery and even defended African Americans as a better people than low class whites:
But it is true Republicanism that drives the slaves half fed, and destitute of clothing...whilst an owner walks about....The lower class of whites are a grade below the Negroes in point of intelligence, and then below them in point of civility idle.
There is so much to love about John and Abigail Adams because they did live simple lives and were strong advocates for the middle class as well as ending the contemptible institution of slavery.  They helped the needy and devoted their lives to peace and justice.

When I think of a "Man of the People", I think of John Adams and Ron Paul, two extraordinary men who truly shunned power, fame, glory and fortune for the good of their countrymen.   John Adams wasn't appreciated in his day anymore than Ron Paul is appreciated today.

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