John Adams, our first vice-president and second president, is remembered for many things. He was the leading patriot in the Continental Congress, being the most outspoken advocate for independence. It was John Adams who nominated George Washington to be commanding general of the Continental Army. John Adams was the chairman of the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence. But not much is remembered about John Adams personally. He was not an easy person to like.
Anyone who has seen the Broadway play or hit movie “1776” knows the running joke about John Adams being obnoxious and disliked. This was very true. Alexander Hamilton said Adams was “petty, mean, erratic, egoistic, eccentric, jealous, and had a mean temper.” Adams called himself “puffy, vain, conceited.”
One of Adams’ cabinet members said that in personal relationships, Adams was a born loser. “Whether he is spiteful, playful, witty, kind, cold, drunk, sober, angry, easy stiff, jealous, cautious, close, open, it is always in the wrong place or to the wrong person.”
Adams entered Harvard at the age of 16. After graduating, he became a master of the grammar school in Worcester, Massachusetts. He did not enjoy teaching, and found it barely tolerable. He had in his class fifty boys ranging in age from five to fifteen. Adams referred to them as “little runtlings, just capable of lisping A, B, C, and troubling the master.” He called his classroom a “school of affliction.”
While courting his future wife, Abigail Smith, Adams sent to her a “Catalogue” of her “Faults, Imperfections, Defects, or whatever you please to call them.” In his Catalogue, he said she was not a good card player, and held her cards awkwardly in her hands. She was too prudish, and blushed too easily when she heard other people speaking frankly. She had not learned to sing, and she had not developed a “stately strut” but instead walked with “toes bending inward.” He also stated that she often sat with her head hanging “like a Bulfish” and her “Leggs across.”
Abigail responded with good humor. She answered him by saying “I must confess I was so hardened as to read over most of my Faults with as much pleasure, as another person would have read their perfections. Lysander must excuse me if I still persist in some of them, at least till I am convinced that an alteration would contribute to his happiness.” She also told Adams in reply, “You know I think that a gentleman has no business to concern himself about the Leggs of a Lady.”
Abigail’s father was a well-to-do Congregational minister who did not consider Adams, the son of a small farmer and a lawyer, good enough to marry his daughter. Rev. Smith shared the contemporary New England prejudice against lawyers, and treated Adams with scant courtesy. When John and Abigail got married anyway, Rev. Smith preached a sermon for the occasion based on the text, “For John came neither eating bread nor drinking wine and ye say, he hath a devil.” Although Adams said nothing about it, Abigail was highly amused by the choice of text.
After the war, Adams served his country as minister to the Court of St. James (England). This was a tough assignment, since most people in England considered him a traitor who should be hanged for his role in the American Revolution. His reward for his many years of service was to be elected as the first Vice-President of the United States.
Adams wrote Abigail, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” His main duty as Vice-President was to preside over the Senate and listen to their debates.
Adams once said, “I have reached the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress.” Now Adams was the presiding officer of the upper house of Congress. He took his role very seriously.
Adams worried a great deal about the formalities of government. His time in the Court of St. James had made him appreciative of pomp and pageantry. He thought this was a vital issue to be decided right at the beginning, and asked the Senate for advice. Should he address the Senate standing or sitting? “Gentleman, I am possessed of two separate powers—the one in esse, the other in passe [Vice President of the United States but President of the Senate]…when the President comes into the Senate, what shall I be?”
Senator William Maclay’s answer was, “Who cares?” Maclay kept a journal of these times. He wrote that Adams was fond of official titles without which “governments cannot be raised nor supported.” He also wrote that Adams may go and dream about titles, for he will get none.” Maclay and the other Senators did compromise and give Adams an unofficial title of “His Rotundity.”
Adams was not the silent Vice President we are used to seeing in the Senate today. Adams felt it necessary to instruct his charges in the proper performance of their duties. Maclay complained in his journal “that before debate on any issue could begin, the Vice President insisted on addressing to the chamber a lecture on the constitutional responsibilities of the Senate. During debate, he was arbitrary and prejudiced in his decisions regarding who could and who could not participate. Before a vote could be taken, he would, like a schoolmaster talking to children, summarize the issue, or his own interpretation of it, and unhesitatingly instruct the Senators how to vote.”
Maclay wrote other similar entries. “The Vice-President, as usual, made us two or three speeches.” “The Vice-President made a speech, which was to me unintelligible.” “The Vice-President made a harangue on the subject of order.” “God forgive me for the vile thought, but I cannot help thinking of a monkey just put into breeches when I see him betray such evident marks of self-conceit.”
Adams’ feud with Thomas Jefferson, started during their election contests against each other, was finally resolved after they had both left office. In spite of their renewed friendship and lively correspondence during their final years, Adams’ sense of rivalry continued. His last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives!” Unbeknownst to Adams, Jefferson had died a few hours earlier at his home in Monticello, Virginia.