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John Adams

By John Patrick Diggins

Published by Times Books

 
Publication date: 6/1/2003
ISBN: 0805069372

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Perhaps no U.S. president was less suited for the practice of politics than John Adams. A gifted philosopher who helped lead the movement for American independence from its inception, Adams was unprepared for the realities of party politics that had already begun to dominate the new country before Washington left office. Indeed, Adams and the Federalists were so effectively out maneuvered by the Republicans that history has tended to overlook the legacy of the short, balding man from Massachusetts who led the country between Washington and Jefferson.

But, as John Patrick Diggins shows, Adam's contributions still resonate today. During his single term he created the Department of the navy, rallied support for an undeclared war against France, oversaw the passage of the Alien and Sedition Act, and left a solvent Treasury. More important, he identified and fought against two trends that continue to trouble domestic affairs today. Adams was keenly aware of the influence of the rich and famous over the popular imagination. Many of his policies were intended to keep the unofficial aristocracy of celebrity, including that of presidency, in heck. Adams also foresaw that Jefferson's populism, which helped the Republicans win the close election of 1800, was faulty: guaranteeing freedom and the rule of popular opinion could not ensure that citizens would respect one another's inalienable rights. The Civil War, suffrage for women, and the civil rights movement would, generations later, highlight the tension between the will of the people and the rights of minorities.

Diggins's Adams is a man whose reputation for snobbery and failure are wholly undeserved, and whose prescient modernism still holds valuable lessons for us as we strive to fulfill the Founding Fathers' vision of a fair republic and just society. He is, in Diggins's view, the president who comes closest to Plato's ideal of a philosopher-king. 

Reviews
"Diggins acquits himself well in the shorter format of the American President series. Like McCullough, he spends time considering Adams in the light of political alter ego Thomas Jefferson, who lived as an aristocrat while speaking as a radical yet unfairly accused his sober-minded, eminently democratic opponent of being Caesar in the making . . . The solid interpretation of events will interest students of the presidency and the early republic." --Kirkus Reviews

"In this study, part of the accessible series [from Times Books] on each of the country's chief executives, historian Diggins' academic specialty, intellectual history, influences his appraisal of Adams. The President wrote copiously about political philosophy, and in one chapter, Diggins closely evaluates the material. This is a wise confinement, for, except for his correspondence, Adams is a chore to read. The pace quickens in the balance of Diggins' narrative as he integrates Adams' fundamental ideas about politics into the hurly-burly story of the 1790s. Adams' presidency was, of course, vexed by the quasi-war with revolutionary France and associated turbulence in domestic politics. As much as recounting events, Diggins engages historians of this much-written-about decade, detecting pro-Jefferson bias in some, as he argues for Adams' significance as a political moralist. This examination will be of special interest to history readers with an analytical bent." --Booklist

"More than just a miniature of our second president, Diggins's slim volume offers a reconsideration of Adams, a thoughtful study of American politics of the period and Adams's legacy for today." --Publishers Weekly


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