The vanity of John Adams


As I’ve mentioned before, my favorite Founder was John Adams. This attachment on my part dates from my college days in the early 70s, when I more or less inadvertently earned a second major in history (I had not planned it thus; I suddenly realized, with one semester to go, that I was within six credit hours of such a major, so I took two more courses. Up until then, I had merely taken as many history courses as I could as electives.)

The last week or two, I’ve been watching — gradually — the HBO series based on the Pulitzer-winning McCullough book. I was reminded by the book, and am reminded again by the excellent series, that one of the things that endeared Mr. Adams to me was his all-too-human frailty. It brings him down to a level where I am able to identify with him. The airy aloofness of Jefferson is not my way; nor is the lofty unattainability of Washington, with his natural leadership ability.

But almost every time I read of, or see portrayed so well by Paul Giamatti, the crabby vanity of Adams, I have to laugh, because I see myself. Tonight, my wife and eldest daughter joined me in recognizing his touchiness as he complained mightily of having come in second to Washington in the first presidential election.

Adams was of course right to feel that he had done much — perhaps more than any man — to earn the affection and electoral support of his countrymen. After all, HE had put Washington’s name forward to become commander of the Continental Army so that he could rise to greatness, and HE was the one who insisted that Jefferson write the Declaration, after HE, Adams, had nagged and argued and fought independence into being adopted by Congress. And then there was the matter of being the first ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, etc….

But even the lamest modern political consultant could have explained how much more attractive as a candidate Washington was. And Adams’ protests that he should have done better in the election, when you see them portrayed by the brilliant Mr. Giamatti, are comically unbecoming. He was SO vain, so quick to be affronted. And when I noted I would have been the same, my wife and daughter nodded. (You know, they COULD have argued with me just a little, but they didn’t.)

As explained in the series (by way of Abigail reading a letter aloud), Washington got 69 electoral votes, and Mr. Adams only 34, which wounded him deeply. But the guy who came in third (John Jay, no slouch himself) received only nine. Adams received as many as all the rest put together (a field of 8 or 10), and yet he is so put out at getting fewer than half as many as Washington that he pouts to Abigail, "I consider such a showing a stain upon my character!"

This is why I could never offer for public office — I’d be just as petulant, were I to lose, which I probably would, being the way I am.

Far better to suffer such mortification vicariously, through studying (and seeing portrayals of) the life of Adams — and joining Laura Linney’s Abigail in being affectionately amused at his humanity. Far less painful than living it.

Of course, Abigail gets him over his tantrum by calling him "Mr. Vice President," thereby puffing him up a bit. The office had not yet been compared unfavorably to "A warm bucket of spit."

And yes, I realize that seeing myself in John Adams, a great man, is also very vain. See what I mean?

One thought on “The vanity of John Adams

  1. penultimo mcfarland

    You’re so vain
    You probably think this post is about you.
    Don’t you? Don’t you? Don’t you?
    (sorry, Carly, but I let my piano tuna get off the hook)
    Washington was quite the president, from what I understand, thanks to his leadership abilities, making the Constitution work when the Articles of Confederation hadn’t.

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