Washington business people engaged in international economic matters and in search of a historic hero might give some attention to John Adams, who initiated the process of diplomatic recognition and commercial treaties about 200 years ago this spring.
Near the end of the American Revolution, Adams, who became the second president of the United States, was recognized by the Netherlands as the fledgling nation's first representative abroad, setting in motion the United States' entrance into the world of nations beyond the French alliance forged in 1778.
Adams, however, was not an easy man to admire. He was intense and downright offensive on occasion, as for example when he lectured his children on the books they should read. "What should be the Cause of (your) Aversion to Demosthenes," he wrote to son John Quincy Adams, "I know not, unless it is because his sentiments are wise and grand, and he teaches no frivolities. If there is no other way, I will take you home, teach you Demosthenes and Homer myself."
After the formal break with Britain in 1776, Adams was unable to find sufficient outlets for his energies. And so he was a fidget until Congress decided to ship him to France as an American commissioner along with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee. But Adams was uncomfortable in perforning diplomacy via a three-man team and was especially insecure around Franklin. As early as 1776, when the two men shared a room one night in a New Jersey inn, they clashed. Franklin was insistent on leaving the window open as a health measure, Adams was equally insistent that Franklin's theory was nonsense. They went to sleep arguing over the matter--and the window remained open, a harbinger of other settlements of conflicts with Franklin.
Adams also lost his cool in France after he arrived in early 1778. There was little to do, Congress vacillated, and Adams wasn't one for sightseeing. He returned home in May 1779. But his homecoming was short, for Congress lured him with the impossible dream: to negotiate peace and commercial treaties with Britain. When Adams left again for Europe in the winter of 1779 with sons John Quincy and Charles, he had little appreciation of the obstacles before him.
Everything seemed to go wrong: the ship sprang a leak and Adams' party was forced to land in Spain and experience a miserable journey via donkey to France. The intrigues of the French court (the intermediary in negotiations with Britain) and Adams' abrasiveness resulted in his losing the exclusivity of serving as the sole negotiator--a blow so stunning that Adams experienced a nervous breakdown from August to October 1781.
What was worse, he was alone. Young Charles had been sent home (his whereabouts unknown for a long time), and John Quincy was attending the University of Leyden. And by this time Adams had been given the adiitional task of negotiating for Dutch recognition of the United States and for financial assistance.
Even when the latter was accomplished, historical accounts would minimize Adams' role, giving primacy to French machinations that Adams was unaware of. Yet few accounts would deny that Adams' persistence for once put him at the right place at the right time and was critical in his pulling himself together. His equanimity was revealed in letters blending his usual parental strictures with dashes of love. He advised John Quincy not to forget his English literature as he became mired in Greek and Latin. "You will never be alone," he counseled, "with a poet in your Pocket."
To his wife Abigail, his return to normality was evidenced by his expressions of affection: "Write me by way of Spain, France, Holland, Sweden, and every other. . . . Yours with more tenderness than it would be wise, if it were possible, to express." And by his belief in himself. Malicious remarks "will never hurt your Husband, whose Character is fortified with a shield of Innocence and Honor ten-thousandfold stronger than brass or Iron."
As to the ultimate significance of Dutch recognition, Adams would keep posterity guessing. "Its Consequences," he noted, "will not be all developed for Centuries."