IX.2: John Adams, the Almost Forgotten Founder

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John Adams, the Almost Forgotten Founder

Most Americans know very little about John Adams, the second U.S. President.

Mount Rushmore contains colossal carvings of America’s first and third presidents, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And our fourth president, James Madison, holds the honorable title of “the father of the Constitution”. But our second president, John Adams, is the almost forgotten founder.

Adams must have been extremely popular in 1788, when America made him our very first vice president. This made him second in command to the great General George Washington, who had carried the nation to victory over Great Britain. And what’s more, in 1796 when Washington retired, America elected Adams to take Washington’s place as President. So why has America never honored Adams at the level of those other presidents?

Unlike those other three presidents, Adams failed to win a second term, due to widespread misunderstanding of his views. He was a devotee of a concept called “mixed government”. That concept originated in the government in the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta that produced eight hundred years of stability and freedom, the longest in history. It achieved stability by balancing three parts of government, dividing power between a monarchy, an aristocracy (presumably wise men), and a democracy, the common people. If one of those three parts of government tried to dominate, the other two would join forces and stop it.

Great Britain at the time of America’s War for Independence had its government based on the mixed government concept. It divided power between the king (a monarchy), the House of Lords (an aristocracy), and the House of Commons (a democracy).

John Adams believed America needed a three-way balance similar to that of Sparta and Great Britain.

In fact, Adams implemented this idea much earlier when he almost single-handedly wrote the Massachusetts State Constitution. Today, that is the world’s oldest constitution still in operation. In it, he designed the governor, though elected, to operate somewhat like a king, the Senate, also elected, somewhat like an aristocracy, and the House of Representatives like a democracy.

And that state constitution greatly influenced the writers of the U.S. Constitution. Also, Adams’ multi-volume book about state constitutions, “A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America”, greatly influenced the U.S. Constitution as well. That is, the writers of the U.S. Constitution designed a president, senate, and house to operate just as Adams designed for Massachusetts’ governor, senate, and house.

John Adams is the almost forgotten founder because his political enemies grossly misrepresented his views.

His enemies, who wanted Thomas Jefferson to replace Adams as president, falsely led many voters to believe that Adams wanted an actual hereditary king and aristocracy for America. They distorted Adams’ words and cost him his popularity, his re-election, and his legacy as an American founder.

Years later, Adams clarified his views to Jefferson:

If You suppose that I have or ever had a design or desire, of attempting to introduce … an hereditary Executive, or an hereditary Senate, either into the Government of the United States or that of any Individual State, in this Country, you are wholly mistaken. There is not such a Thought expressed or intimated in any public writing or private Letter of mine…. (Adams, [1791] 1959, 249)

Today, few textbooks mention the contributions of John Adams, the almost forgotten founder, though his contributions are numerous and monumental.

According to Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ fiery speeches in the Continental Congresses, more than anyone else’s, drove Americans to declare independence. And it was Adams who proposed a continental army and nominated George Washington as general. He also fought harder than anyone to adopt Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence.

Adams obtained huge loans from Dutch bankers to bankroll the War for Independence. And he convinced France to provide even more ships and money, on top of what Benjamin Franklin obtained from that country. In addition, he helped negotiate with Britain at the end of the war, and afterward he became America’s first ambassador to that country. That’s why he was not in America during the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

Later, as President, Adams commanded the building of our first navy. And his tactful negotiations avoided war with France, at a time when America was still exhausted financially and physically from her War for Independence. But he lost his second term re-election because he was too busy being President to play the political game.

Do you think President John Adams, the almost forgotten founder, deserves more recognition than he has received?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Adams, John. [1791] 1959. Letter to Thomas Jefferson on Jul. 29. In The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, ed. Lester J. Cappon. Vol. I. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

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