When President Obama ponders tough decisions at the White House, he may join the cadre of presidents who have sought inspiration in the Truman Balcony’s stunning vista, gazing at the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, which commemorate our first and third commanders in chief. But there’s a man missing from this presidential panorama.
Where is John Adams, our feisty second president and lifelong American patriot? If George Washington was the sword of the revolution and Thomas Jefferson the pen, why have we neglected the voice of our nation’s independence?
Adams himself predicted this omission. “Monuments will never be erected to me . . . romances will never be written, nor flattering orations spoken, to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors,” he wrote in 1819, nearly two decades after his single term in office. At his farm in Quincy, Mass., Adams worried that he would be forgotten by history, and for good reason: The temperamental Yankee could never outshine Washington and Jefferson, Virginia’s two-term presidential all-stars — one a brilliant general unanimously chosen to lead the nation, the other the eloquent author of the Declaration of Independence.
“The way the Jefferson Memorial is built, Jefferson is looking right in the center window,” President Bill Clinton told White House guests in 1994. “I go out on the balcony a lot . . . and look at it.”
It’s a shame he couldn’t see Adams, too. Still, as we celebrate July 4 — the anniversary of the declaration’s adoption and of Adams’s death — it’s high time we honored this “passionate sage,” as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis titled his Adams biography. He is the founding father most unsung in the capital’s memorial landscape.
What’s the case for Adams? Before the revolution, he was the nation’s first attendant to the American legal tradition of due process, defending British soldiers who fired on colonists during the Boston Massacre. One of Massachusetts’s representatives to the First and Second Continental Congresses, Adams was a champion of separation from England and the fiercest advocate of Jefferson’s declaration. Without his persuasive speeches in the Philadelphia chamber, the document wouldn’t have been signed. While Jefferson was silent during what he considered the convention’s editorial debasement of his work, Adams defended every clause, including an excised call for the abolition of slavery. Jefferson called Adams “a colossus on the floor” of the Congress.
Then, during the war and in its aftermath, Adams assured America’s birth and survival with diplomatic missions to Paris and London. He helped secure a line of credit for the new republic from the Dutch, establishing American solvency. He also helped negotiate a treaty with Great Britain that recognized the United States as a nation.
Most misunderstood — and mistaken as a failure — is Adams’s presidency. Elected in 1796, Adams went against public sentiment to avoid an expensive and unnecessary war. Under enormous diplomatic pressure from France and England to take a side in their interminable conflict, the president refused to entangle his young nation on faraway battlefields. Instead of rallying his Federalist party around aggressive war, he expanded the nation’s Navyto fortify American borders against assault. Adams’s one blunder — signing the Alien and Sedition Acts to empower the executive to limit free speech — overshadows the agile diplomacy that may have cost him a second term.
“Losing the election was the sign he had done the right thing,” Ellis said in an interview.
“To his dying day he would be proudest of all of having achieved peace,” David McCullough wrote in “John Adams,” his authoritative biography. McCullough’s extensive work, which inspired a popular HBO miniseries, gave birth to a long-overdue reappraisal of Adams’s legacy.
“John and Abigail Adams should have been on the Mall 100 years ago,” Ellis said. “Adams was so imperfect, honest about losing his temper — he is the ultimate example of what we need to learn” from the founders.
Though no specific memorial plans exist, there have been baby steps to honor Adams. In 2001, the House of Representatives authorized a “commemorative work” in Washington to pay tribute to the president and his family. Alas, a 2003 change to the Commemorative Works Act bars further construction along the Mall or Tidal Basin, the most ideal and prominent locations. Bill Line, a National Park Service spokesman, has said the Mall is “a completed work of civic art.” For Adams to secure a location there, the law might need to be amended.
Ben Adams, a descendant of the president and head of the Adams Memorial Foundation, is committed to getting approval from the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission to honor his family’s patriarch. He may even pursue a Mall location, despite the ban. “Anything’s on the table, until we have a site,” he said in an interview.
But of the 20 or so locations that Adams and his fellow trustees have contemplated, none would be in plain sight of the White House. That’s too bad. When calling the shots, the next 44 presidents should remember Adams just as much as Washington and Jefferson. After all, a stoic general and a reserved political theorist didn’t create America alone. They needed a spirited man from Boston to speak up.
Alexander Heffner, a Washington Post intern, has written for the Boston Globe, Newsday and RealClearPolitics.