Conversation with James Grant: Q. How is John Adams relevant to today's political environment?
A. Adams was a patriot first, a party man last. He would do anything for his country except function constructively and peaceably within a political organization-a true party of one. His type, or a variation on it, lives today.
Q. What did you hope to accomplish with this book that hasn't been done in previous biographies of Adams?
A. Two things: to bring out Adams 's financial contributions to the young American republic and to lay proper weight on the role of religion in his life.
Q. While there is much that you admire about Adams, this biography is more critical of him than any other. What do you disapprove of?
A. He could be oblivious of the needs and expectations of others. These others included his wife, the French foreign minister (whom he needlessly alienated), and many, if not, most, members of his own political party. Really, he was a party of one.
Q. How did Adams help plant the seeds of modern party politics?
A. He didn't so much plant the seeds as yank up out of the earth the seedlings of the Federalist Party, of which, as president (1797-1801), he was nominally the head. Some head! He hated some Federalists more than he did most Republicans. And when the Federalist Party presently dried up and blew away, Adams said good riddance to it.
Q. Why do you cal Adams America's first junk-bond salesman?
A. He negotiated a series of vital, life-saving loans for the United States in Europe when the credit of the U.S. government was, at best, speculative. Adams hated debt down to the marrow of his Yankee bones. But, for his country, he held his nose and did his duty.
Q. Since you are a finance expert and you studied Adams's personal finances, how did Adams manage his own money?
A. Distractedly. He delegated every household-management duty to Abigail. He hated doing his expense accounts (which he had to do in order to get reimbursed by Congress for the myriad of expenses he bore while serving abroad on diplomatic assignment). His favorite investment was land. Abigail saw the future in stocks and bonds.
Q. What special contribution did Adams's financing make to the U.S. cause, how did he accomplish so much with so little financial background?
A. Adams's loans saved the day for American public finance. Without them, the republic's credit-tenuous in any case-would have been shattered. You have to realize that Congress was writing checks against the proceeds of the financings it imagined Adams had successfully completed. It's a good thing he didn't fail. Adams was, of course, no financier. He learned on the job (though, as one of Boston 's most successful lawyers, he had had a fair grounding in basic commercial and financial practices). And he proved a suburb negotiator. America borrowed on terms-5 ½ percent or 6 ½ percent-not much higher than those paid by France and other established continental powers.
Q. You claim that Adams was the funniest Founding Father. What evidence did you find to show this?
A. Adams had a keen sense of the absurd. And he could laugh at himself. And he could write. Here are the qualifications for a very funny man. His description of sharing a bed with Benjamin Franklin and falling asleep while the great scientist explained the virtues of nighttime ventilation is a classic bit of American storytelling.
Q. Benjamin Franklin said that Adams was sometimes "absolutely out of his sense," and he was not alone in this judgment. In what ways was Adams "nuts," and how did he manage to accomplish so much?
A. Certain that he was right and determined to do right at whatever cost, Adams sometimes lost his sense of proportion. And when he did, some people wondered if he had lost his mind. But so great were his ambition and his love of country that he surmounted this personality quirk, just as he did his physical ailments.
Q. Why do you refer to Adams as a "stuffed shirt" in his postdiplomatic years?
A. Returning from a decade in the courts of Europe to become the first vice president of the United States , Adams was a little bit full of himself. He wanted to let you know he knew his way around Versailles . He campaigned to anoint high federal office holders with European-sounding titles. For his troubles, the chubby VP was dubbed "His Rotundity."
Q. Throughout the book you show a strong admiration for Adams's gift with language. What was your favorite line that he wrote?
A. Hard to pick. Young lovers "glowed like furnaces." A certain fast-talking New Yorker was a "great, rough, rapid mortal." Adams had a wonderful knack for verbal invention and a flawless ear for language. An atrocious speller, though.
Q. Did you use any sources that were not available to previous biographers?
A. All my sources are in the public domain. But I did find documents that others overlooked, or thought were unimportant. The Massachusetts Historical Society has spent fifty years working in the Adams papers and has still not come to the end of them.
Q. Some historians call Adams a secular Puritan. You seem to see him as a devout Christian. How would you explain Adams's religious beliefs and their impact on his politics?
A. Adams was descended from Puritans. And although he rejected John Calvin, he embraced the strain of liberal Protestantism that became Unitarianism. He worshiped God his whole life long. He read the Bible. He exhorted others to do the same. For Adams , the Christian God was as real as Thomas Jefferson or King George III.
Q. How did Adams reconcile his religious faith and his duty to the new republic?
A. He felt no need to reconcile one with the other; without religion, he believed, no civil society could function.
Q. What was the essence of Adams's rivalry with Jefferson?
A. The two fell out over the French Revolution. Jefferson , starry-eyed, declared it a blessing. Adams called it an abomination. Then too, Jefferson always played his cards close to his chest; Adams held back nothing. Later in life, the two rediscovered their earlier friendship. Their correspondence is one of the ornaments of American letters.
Q. What was the essence of Adams's vision of American government, and how did it differ from that of his fellow founders?
A. Adams's special fixation was "balance." He wanted government to function in such a way as to prevent the social classes from devouring one another. That meant three separate branches of government House, Senate, Executive. Each would check the ambitions of the others. Other founders- Madison , for example-accepted this doctrine, but none was so closely, even obsessively, associated with it as Adams .
Q. What drove the conservative Adams to the revolutionary cause?
A. Adams revered the British constitution and the colonial charters by which Americans had secured their liberty from arbitrary rule by Parliament or king. It was cousin Sam Adams whose Sons of Liberty performed the tarrings and featherings and the occasional dumping of tea into Boston Harbor . John was that seeming contradiction in terms, the conservative revolutionary.
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