July 5, 2020


The Most Endearing Of The New Englanders Who Won Our Independence: a review of The Education of John Adams by R. B. Bernstein (KEVIN R.C. GUTZMAN, 7/05/20, American Conservative)

Two accounts of John Adams are current among Americans today. The first, purveyed by popular historian David McCullough in his mega-bestselling John Adams, focused on the Massachusettsian's peculiar--though appealing--personality. Reading it, one might think that Adams had been a mere character. The other, developed by academic historian Gordon Wood in a chapter of his seminal The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 entitled "The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams," makes Adams an out-of-place if powerful thinker. Richard Bernstein's new book joins the personality and political science of the Colossus of Independence. 

Bernstein, the first lawyer to write an Adams biography, notes in his preface that "Adams lived with books at his elbow and a pen in his hand." He early set himself the task of "teach[ing] his contemporaries and posterity what he had learned." Bernstein's account would be filled with "clashes of personality," yes, but also with "principled intellectual disputes about political theory and practice." As the second president put it in a famous missive to his beloved wife Abigail:

I could fill volumes with descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelaine, &c. &c. &c.--if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.

Adams's earnestness strikes one as his most appealing characteristic. His devotion to the needs of posterity ranks a close second.

Posted by at July 5, 2020 7:03 AM