The Education of John Adams
John Adams will never be the most popular of the Founding Fathers. He did not have the commanding grace of Washington, the elegant pen of Jefferson, or Franklin’s way with a coonskin cap. Paul Giamatti is a compelling actor, but does not lend himself to rap musicals. Adams was, however, a great man, having many qualities that were underappreciated in his day — and are underappreciated in our own. Many of these qualities were specifically what made him a great lawyer, qualities that R. B. Bernstein highlights in his new biography of Adams qua attorney.
Bernstein’s biography, The Education of John Adams, suitably begins there. Adams completed undergraduate studies at Harvard and thereafter apprenticed himself to a local attorney. Reading for the law, he was impressed with its historical nature, devouring Coke and the rest — enabling him to bring to the Continental Congress a command of the British constitution and common law tradition.
Adams’ intellectualism matched his courtroom demeanor and commitment to the rule of law. Although at first annoyed by the self-taught pettifoggers, he learned to emulate their low-brow tactics, as employed by one of his mentors, James Otis, in the Writs of Assistance cases. Adams made his name by defending the unpopular British soldiers after the Boston Massacre. For Bernstein, this lawyerly commitment was responsible for some of Adams’ failings. On diplomatic mission, Adams was too rigid to engage with Versailles’ hypocrisy. Later in the constitutional debates, Adams was attuned to the issue of separation of powers, when the question presented was how to balance factions and regions into a federal republic — Madison’s forte.
This legal-mindedness contributed to Adams’ out-of-step views in other areas too. Although the Sedition Act is today generally reviled as an example of an overly censorious government, sedition as defamatory criticism of government was, as common law, a crime. For Adams, its prosecution, therefore, could not violate the Constitution, and was a legitimate mechanism to defend the fragile federal republic. Only the anti-federalists thought the First Amendment barred such prosecutions. Adams’ commitment to law produced generous results as well: The participants in the Fries Rebellion were found guilty of treason; Adams promptly pardoned them for the very simple reason that they hadn’t waged war against the United States.
Adams bequeathed a legacy to generations that followed him. He did this in appointing Chief Justice Marshall to the bench. But he was also the first defeated president. Losing to Jefferson stung, but Adams did not cling to power. For Bernstein, Adams was fundamentally law-minded. While not a magisterial biography, the book is a helpful perspective on Adams that lawyers and historians — and the considerable overlap between the two — can enjoy and engage with. Law-mindedness brought a sense of fair-play, a commitment to pre-established rules, and a mind attuned to justice, which, in Bernstein’s opinion, caused Adams to fail when his law-mindedness was not valued. True enough; but it should surely be noted, we should be thankful such people exist and certainly wish for more of them.