Joseph Ellis
Joseph Ellis
Passionate Sage:  The Character and Legacy of John Adams
ISBN: 0393311333
Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams
Mr. Ellis discussed the research behind his book, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, published by W.W. Norton and Company. Joseph Ellis describes President John Adams as the most under appreciated man in American history. He spoke on his revelations about the nature of the nation's second president unearthed by his study of President Adams' writings and the writings of others, including Adams' interactions with other Founding Fathers in the later years, calling special attention to the retirement years of the former president.
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TRANSCRIPT
Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams
Program Air Date: September 5, 1993

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Professor Joseph J. Ellis, author of Passionate Sage, why is that the title of a book about John Adams?
JOSEPH ELLIS, AUTHOR, "PASSIONATE SAGE": Because he was a very wise man and also a very fiery, emotional, vituperative, sometimes angry, sometimes obscene fellow, and it's the title because I thought it captured in a way that might be memorable the kind of paradoxical character of this otherwise thought of as icon, very human but also extraordinarily wise.
LAMB: Why a book about John Adams?
ELLIS:The specific answer is that I had been given a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to do a book on late 18th-century America, which was going to be a study of a prominent person, an ordinary person in a community, that was going to study the changes sweeping through late 18th-century America. What happened was that I started with Adams, and I never got out of Adams. The Adams material, the Adams correspondence is 608 reels of microfilm, stretched in a straight line would be about five miles. So the sheer volume was really daunting. But more than the volume, Adams was just a hoot. He was just much more interesting than I had imagined him to be. I remember thinking of a book that for me still is the best biography I've ever read of an American by Justin Kaplan called Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, published back in the '60s, and I remember thinking when I read Kaplan's book, he has it easy because Clemens' Twain is just so wonderfully quotable. I had the same feeling when I got inside the Adams papers that this is a man whose words are just so memorable and so wonderful, and only about 10 percent of those letters and correspondence have ever been published so that they aren't out there in the public domain, especially the latter material. So the short answer is because I stumbled into the papers and found them wonderful. I think a somewhat longer answer is that I've always had a certain interest in Adams. As a historian of this period, I have read in Adams, read books about Adams, and I've always thought that he is perhaps the most unappreciated great man in American history, that the gap between what Adams really represents and who he was and what we know of him is perhaps greater than for any other major figure, and so there's probably a sort of personal crusade here on my part to recover and bring into our late 20th-century world a fuller appreciation of who he was. I would teach him, I would teach classes at Mount Holyoke College, where I teach, and I would ask the students to read the correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, great correspondents of their latter years. Most of the students would come into the class with a pretty clear appreciation of Jefferson. There's a monument right down here in Washington to him; he's a great figure, Monticello, etcetera. They knew very little about Adams, and what would happen is they would fall in love with Adams and, in fact, begin to think that maybe of those two men Adams was a more impressive figure. So I began to think maybe it wasn't just me. Maybe it wasn't just Joe Ellis who is regarding Adams as highly. I figured the safest place to argue on behalf of Jefferson is writing style, the great stylist, he of the felicitous style, Thomas Jefferson. But some students would actually prefer Adams' prose. One student made a gesture. She said, "Jefferson is this. Adams is this." Sort of a prose like a fist is Adams. So my interests as a historian and as a teacher probably fed my interests as a researcher and led to this.
LAMB: Where's Mount Holyoke?
ELLIS:Mount Holyoke is in western Massachusetts, South Hadley, Mass. It's a liberal arts college for women, been in existence since about 1837.
LAMB: Only women.
ELLIS:That is correct, still.
LAMB: And how long have you been there?
ELLIS:I've been there since 1972. I was recruited as a historian for whatever reason, was demoted into being dean of faculty at some point in time and served in that capacity and as acting president of the institution for 10 years. In some ways, this book is my effort to come back into the profession of historian and writer.
LAMB: Acting president of Mount Holyoke for 10 years?
ELLIS:No, no, no, no. I was acting president for only about eight months, dean of faculty, chief academic officer for 10 years.
LAMB: Where are you from?
ELLIS:I am from actually this area, Washington, D.C., born in Virginia, raised in the Washington and northern Virginia area, went to high school four blocks from this location at Gonzaga, undergraduate College of William and Mary, entered the Army after that, eventually went to graduate school at Yale. Then, after that, still owed the Army and spent three years teaching on the faculty at West Point, and I actually wrote a book about that, and then went to Mount Holyoke and have been happy there ever since.
LAMB: John Adams was born and died when?
ELLIS:John Adams, born October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Mass.; died, marvelous date, July 4, 1826, about three miles from where he was born in what then was called Quincy. It became Quincy. It was originally part of Braintree. Lived to be 91 years of age, and despite the fact that he was born and died in the same town, traveled both geographically and intellectually about as far as any American of his generation.
LAMB: I remember your saying in the book that the most important words of his life were "Jefferson survives." Explain it to me.
ELLIS:That's a story that on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration, or the supposed anniversary, July 4, 1826, both Jefferson and Adams were nearing death, and they were two of the last three of the original signers of the Declaration to still be alive and certainly the most prominent. Jefferson had fallen into a coma the preceding evening and just before that had said his last words which were, "Is it the Fourth?" One gets a sense that these men could will their own deaths and delay them a bit to make it a bit more symbolic. Jefferson lingered on until 12:20 the next day in the early noon. Adams had risen the same day, ready to celebrate "the great jubilee of independence," as he called it, and fell ill in the morning. Just about the time that Jefferson died, he was carried downstairs and fell into unconsciousness, awoke briefly in the afternoon, and his last words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives," which turned out not to be true. Jefferson had just died. They both, in effect, died on the same day, which was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, and commentators throughout the country regarded this as a providential sign, as an act of God. There was a mathematician at Yale College then named, I believe, Nathaniel Bordrich or Bodich, who estimated the probability or possibility of this occurring to be one in 125 million. Orations throughout the land over the succeeding months, and in those orations, which I try to look at in the book and assess, one gets a pretty clear sense that Adams and Jefferson were regarded by their contemporaries as roughly equals in terms of their historical significance, slightly below Washington in terms of their contribution to the cause of American nationhood, and that they were a kind of matched pair, that Jefferson was the Virginian from the South, Adams the New Englander from the North, one coming out of a Puritan background, another a Cavalier background, Adams, the great orator, Jefferson, the great writer, Adams tracing his political commitments back to the Roman Empire and Jefferson back to Greece, down the line, the kind of odd couple of American Revolutionary generation and what Benjamin Rush, one of their mutual friends called "the north and south poles" of the American Revolution. I try to make a lot of this by suggesting by remembering only the legacy of Jefferson, we've to some extent distorted the meaning of the Revolutionary legacy and of the Revolutionary generation.
LAMB: You say somewhere, and I don't think you use these words, that the painting of the signing of the Declaration is a phony.
ELLIS:Yes.
LAMB: Why?
ELLIS:It's a misrepresentation, because the document was not signed by all the people or even by very many people at all on July 4. This is a great example of what Adams would want us to talk about, as a matter of fact, that Adams believed that posterity always wants to mythologize and to remember in a kind of halo way, with a sort of gauze over the camera, the way history really happened. History, according to Adams, is always a messy and not very neat and lovely thing. So, for example, the signing of the Declaration_ Philadelphia, 1776, hot, people coming in and out of the Independence Hall, going and coming. There was not a moment when they all stepped forward to sign this document on July 4. Adams always thought the date should be July 2 when they conducted the vote. Actually, the largest number of people probably signed the Declaration on August 2, but they kept signing on until October, and so the Declaration wasn't a single moment when John Hancock stepped forward and then everybody else trailed behind him. I think Adams used to call that painting the "shin piece," too, because the painting showed the people sitting, you saw their legs more than anything else, and he thought that was kind of funny.
LAMB: Is it true that Ben Franklin and John Adams slept in the same bed together once?
ELLIS:It is, it is, and a very good friend of mine, upon reading the book, suggested that I might want to make something of this in light of the McGinnis book on Ted Kennedy that if I could suggest that there was a homoerotic relationship between Adams and Jefferson, or Adams and Franklin. The story there is that Adams and Franklin were both members of the Second Continental Congress, and in September of 1776 the war was already started. Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill had already been fought, but the British commander of the British Army, the military, Lord Howe, had sent to the Congress a request for some kind of armistice and some kind of promise of a negotiated settlement or peace. Adams did not for a minute believe that this was ever going to really work. He believed it was a delaying tactic. He believed it was something that was clearly not going to lead to an end of hostilities, but they sent him and Franklin, did the Continental Congress, as two major figures in the Congress to parley with Lord Howe, and on the way to_I think it was Long Island or Staten Island_they had to sleep overnight in a tavern in New Jersey where they, I think in Perth Amboy, and the tavern had only one room and one bed. That was very common actually in the 18th century for this to occur. It wasn't that unusual. It was a little chilly, and in Adams' autobiography, he tells the story that he and Franklin got into an argument while they were lying together. Franklin wanted the window open that would allow in air, and he had this theory of air and circulation, and Adams wanted it cold, claiming that they would leave themselves open to germs more readily. Adams claims to have fallen asleep while Franklin kept talking on, and then in his autobiography Adams says that he found out later on that when Franklin died in 1790, he died because he had left the window open in his room. This might be the only instance in which Adams sort of betters Franklin. Franklin was the kind of person who was put on earth by God to give Adams a lot of frustration.
LAMB: You refer to this man in the book_by the way, where's this painting from?
ELLIS:That is a detail from a Gilbert Stuart painting. It's the last portrait done of Adams, 1823, of him as a very old man. Stuart, the premier portrait painter of the late 18th and early 19th century.
LAMB: You refer to him in the book as toothless?
ELLIS:He had no teeth after_gosh, I don't know when he lost his teeth, but he didn't have them by the time he retired. By the time he was leaving the presidency, and he's the first president to occupy the presidential mansion in Washington, which was just being finished and was still unfurnished when he occupied it, but he's sitting there, and I have him sitting there toothless with very bad eyesight, can't read very well.
LAMB: While he was president.
ELLIS:Yes.
LAMB: Toothless, no false teeth.
ELLIS:Yes. Well, right, right. He claimed that he would have gone back to the law after he was president when he left the presidency in 1801 if he could talk, but he said he couldn't talk in public because his words were so slurred.
LAMB: How long was he president?
ELLIS:He was president for four years from 1796-97 to 1800-01.
LAMB: Who was president before him, and who was president after him?
ELLIS:This is a good history lesson here. George Washington, obviously the first president of the United States from 1788-89 to '96, and then after him, Jefferson. One of Adams' major problems as president was that he followed Washington. Whoever, it's the shadow of Washington. Whoever followed Washington was in for trouble because Washington's unbelievable reputation and his sort of sculpted serenity left him immune to criticism, although he did get some in his second term, but there were a lot of problems that were festering, and whoever came in was going to take some heat, and Adams felt that. He lost the election_he beat Jefferson in the election of 1796 by a narrow electoral margin, and then he lost by an almost equally narrow margin in 1800. There's some speculation that the reason that he lost is a scurrilous pamphlet that was not actually published by Hamilton, but it was put out by Hamilton and published by others. I think the title was "A Study of the Conduct and Character of John Adams," and it was real. It was the kind of thing today you'd see in the National Inquirer, an attack on Adams as a person who was unstable, who was unfit for public office, who threw tantrums, who shouted obscenities at his Cabinet, etcetera, etcetera.
LAMB: Do you remember how many people there were in the United States in 1800?
ELLIS:In 1790, the first census, there were 3.6 million, so by 1800, there was probably about 4 million people total. That's women, children and slaves. One of the interesting points here is that out of a population of 2.5 million in 1776, 3.6 million in 1790, roughly the size of metropolitan L.A. right now, we got this gallery of greats to include Washington and Jefferson and Adams and Marshall and Mason and Henry, etcetera, etcetera. It's a kind of extraordinary creation, if you will, of leadership.
LAMB: How tall was he?
ELLIS:In response to requests describing him physically, he would always try to write back in a funny way. His standard reply would be, "I am a man with blue eyes, one head, two arms, two legs, and am 5 foot 7 or 5 foot 9 inches tall, I know not which."
LAMB: How many children did he have?
ELLIS:He had four. His eldest was Abigail, named Nabby, a daughter. Then John Quincy, the apple of his eye, became president of the United States_John and John Quincy, the only father-son team ever to occupy the office of president_then two other failed sons, Charles who died an alcoholic in 1800 or 1801, and Tommy, who also had problems with alcohol and lived on, I think, until about 1832.
LAMB: His wife.
ELLIS:Abigail. Certainly one of the great figures of American culture and history of this time, a woman who's not formally educated but generally regarded by her peers and by subsequent historians as one of the most learned ladies in the land, a real force politically, and a partner for him in ways that would sell well in a contemporary notion of a partnership marriage.
LAMB: Where do you find the most Adams material today for research?
ELLIS:The Adams papers are on microfilm, and you can get the whole set in most research libraries. They've purchased those 608 reels, a lot of them have. The University of Massachusetts is where I did a lot of my research, but the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston is the locus of the Adams papers and the place from which they're being published right now.
LAMB: When you were there and about were many people doing the same thing you're doing?
ELLIS:No. I mean, Adams is studied, and there's some good books about him that have been published, Peter Shaw's book back in the early 70s. There's some excellent books that have been written about him. In fact, there's a new biography coming out just about now by John Ferling, a full-life biography about him. So, yes, there are people studying him. The editors there are actively moving the project along. They've only got the new edition of the Adams papers up to about the middle of the 1780s, so Adams' later career as vice president, as president, as sort of retired intellectual and American Cicero isn't there yet. The earlier edition of the Adams papers, which were published back in the 19th century, a good edition, indeed, 10 volumes, edited by his grandson, Charles Francis, who was one of the best historical editors of his day who is also, unfortunately, a kind of archetypal Victorian. That means that he felt a need to censor out those things that would be embarrassing. Some of the most interesting stuff on Adams doesn't make it into that edition. Adams' vituperative comments on Hamilton and all his peers get censored out, and that's one of the reasons why getting into the real Adams papers gives you an understanding of how colorful he was, that we had none before.
LAMB: When did you start this book?
ELLIS:I actually started to sit down and seriously research this book in 1988.
LAMB: How did you do it?
ELLIS:I have a reputation for being a kind of Luddite about machinery, and even though in my deanly days at Mount Holyoke we had computers and we had purchased all of this interconnective networks and I was in some sense responsible for making decisions about their allocation, I am only comfortable with a piece of paper or note cards and a pen, preferably a pen with black ink. I sit down and read the stuff and take notes in that old-fashioned way, and I don't necessarily recommend it for everybody, and I don't argue against the laptop or the computer. Eventually that found its way onto a disk and was reproduced, but when I'm working, whatever creative abilities I've got are best exercised when I'm sitting there with a pen in my hand.
LAMB: Where did you do it?
ELLIS:Most of it was done in Boston and in beautiful downtown South Hadley, Mass., right near my house, because I could get the microfilm, and I have a reader and could read the stuff pretty readily.
LAMB: How long did it take you to research and prepare before you started writing?
ELLIS:I'm one of those people that believes you should start writing before you think you're ready. I think that among my scholarly friends there's a library of unwritten books based on mounds of research that have been done, and I think you can err in both directions. I started writing about 1780_see, an 18th century historian goes back all the time_about 1989-90, so before I was about halfway through the research when I started writing.
LAMB: In this book, you say there's a full biography coming out. This book focuses on what aspect of his life?
ELLIS:This book attempts to assess the character and personality and thought of Adams as a whole, but it doesn't want to sort of begin at the beginning and end at the end. It begins with Adams as president, and it looks back at his early career, but its tightest focus is on his retirement years when he's himself reliving his life and his years from 1800 to 1826 as the sage of Quincy.
LAMB: You say, "My insistence that Adams' political vision speaks directly to us and our troubled times, for example, will strike some readers as ahistorical." What does "ahistorical" mean?
ELLIS:Ahistorical means that you can't translate what happened then into now, that the past is a foreign country and it speaks a different language, and, therefore, if you try and impose its values on the present, it's like a bad translation and you'll end up distorting more than you clarify. I think a good, hardcore, card-carrying, professional historian will always claim that they don't want to engage in too many connections between the past and the present. Now, to that, I say, "Right on." The job of a historian of the revolutionary years is to get us to understand the way it was back then on its own terms, but if, in fact, we're not interested in trying to make some connections, then I don't think we're being historians. I think we're being antiquarians. There's got to be some sort of connection, it seems to me. That's the reason we read. That's the reason we study these people. That's the reason Adams is interesting. He speaks to us in some important ways. So I'll be the first to acknowledge that the late 18th century is a time when we need to appreciate its, if you will, differentness, separate culture out there. There's a kind of Grand Canyon between us and them. If Adams and Jefferson were asked to run for the presidency in 1996, they would both say, "What do you mean 'campaign'?" They don't know what campaigns are. That's not part of their mentality. It would be unbecoming a national figure to engage in that kind of solicitation of public approval. So there's a lot of difference, and you've got to be aware of that. On the other hand, I really do think that Adams is a person who is speaking to us in ways that, to me at least, suggest some lessons or some important insights, and in typical Adams fashion, they're not always the things we want to hear. They're not attractive, they're not pleasant, they're not sentimental or romantic. He's a real realist, and part of what I think Adams is saying, or should be saying to us, is that history, as does human life, moves in cycles and that the job of a great American statesman in the late 20th century is to try and understand and figure out where the United States is in its own cycle, that nations, like people, have life spans, that they have limited life spans, that the time when he and Jefferson were running the country back in the late 18th century and making decisions was the youth of America, that we're past that now. We're the oldest republic in world history and that we need to come to terms in a mature way with our own maturation. What's the name of that fellow from Yale? Kennedy. Paul Kennedy's book, Cycles_a lot of what Kennedy said is relevant to Adams. Whereas Kennedy would argue that the United States, because it stretches itself too much in an imperial way and commits too much of its resources into a military budget, will eventually make the mistake that other empires have made_and we're making that; we need not to make it_Adams would not quite put it that way. Adams would say that successful people and successful countries usually create the conditions for their own decline. By being as affluent and as successful as we have become, by providing the kind of material goods that we have provided for the citizens of this republic, we have created a situation where productivity is no longer what it used to be_consumption is the desired goal_and that we are being corrupted by the success of our own economic programs and that the slowdown in the American economy that's really, from a gross national product term, has been going on since the early '70s, is a sign that the United States is on the way down economically. Certainly it can no longer claim the kind of hegemonic power that it did in post World War II and that the job of our leadership is to manage that decline wisely and ably. Now, if you were to run for president of the United States and say, "I think the main job of the president of the United States is to manage American decline," I can venture to guess that you have not much chance of succeeding, but I also venture the guess that Adams is correct there, and it can be a very gradual decline, indeed.
LAMB: You may not want to answer this question. If Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were on the ballot for president of the United States, who would you vote for?
ELLIS:Oh, I'd vote for Adams, but I would probably be one of the few people, and in that contest there's no question who would win. Jefferson would win. Jefferson was and would remain, I think, an extraordinarily beguiling creature and a person who is capable of assuming postures which are enigmatic in ways that allow the audience or the voters to read into him what they want to hear and say.
LAMB: If Jefferson were here today, what party would he belong to?
ELLIS:Democratic Party.
LAMB: What party would . . .
ELLIS:Well, that's an interesting question. Excuse me. He is the father of the modern Democratic Party, he is, but this is where the translation from the 18th century to the present is extraordinarily difficult. The person who spoke the rhetoric of Jefferson most forcefully and articulately in contemporary American politics is Ronald Reagan, i.e., government is bad, individual freedom is the penultimate good. The most important thing that a president can do is try to get the government off our backs, get it out of the way so that we can be free to pursue our happiness. That's Jeffersonian.
LAMB: Who would sound like John Adams?
ELLIS:I don't think there's anybody around right now that's quite sounding like John Adams. The one piece of modern legislation that sounds like something Adams would have written is the national service bill which is an attempt to provide young Americans the opportunity to do public service for some sort of modest compensation. It's a nice piece of legislation from an Adams point of view because it blends together our rights and our responsibilities in a way that he would like a lot. Hamilton, by the way, wouldn't get a single vote_well, he'd get the Wall Street vote. Hamilton never_I think I'm right on this_Hamilton never ran for public office. He was appointed to everything he got.
LAMB: John Adams had how many different jobs?
ELLIS:Different jobs?
LAMB: He was vice president . . .
ELLIS:Oh, he was vice president for eight years. He was the first vice president. He was the originator of all of the interesting negative things that you're going to say about the vice presidency, you know, not worth a bucketful of spit and all that stuff.
LAMB: And did he have any other jobs in the government? Cabinet officer?
ELLIS:No, because he was vice president throughout the first two terms of Washington, and then he became president right after that.
LAMB: Responsible for John Marshall?
ELLIS:Appointed John Marshall as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, for which he was hated. Well, hated might be too strong a term. Jefferson really didn't like that, and as the famous story of the midnight judges_I actually opened the book with that story, and the story is a bit of a distortion. According to the mythological version, Adams is sitting there in the Oval Office crafting the appointment letters, including the letter for John Marshall, and thereby bequeathing to his successor a series of his own appointments, appointments for the Federalist Party, which Jefferson would not really appreciate very much. Truth is, he had appointed Marshall many, many weeks beforehand, and there wasn't some sort of final moment of unbridled, spasmodic hatred for Jefferson, not so at all. He did sign some letters for some minor officials on that last night, and he then got up_he didn't even go to bed. He took the stage out of Washington, D.C. at 4 a.m. in the morning on the next day and never attended the inauguration of Jefferson. He's the only sitting president in American history not to attend the inauguration of his successor.
LAMB: And why didn't Jefferson like the John Marshall appointment? Was it a personal thing?
ELLIS:Jefferson was the head and the titular leader of what was then called the Republican Party and came to be called the Democratic Party. The party system is just beginning to develop at this moment, and there are not two clear political parties in the same way that they would be now, but they are congealing, and clearly Marshall represents a point of view which is at odds with Jefferson's basic states' rights philosophy and his view that federal power should be kept to a minimum. Marshall was a person who, in fact, makes the Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution and enhances federal power at the expense of states in ways that upsets Jefferson and, to some extent, drives him crazy, because there's nothing he can do about it.
LAMB: Did John Adams read much?
ELLIS:He read a lot. Even in his old age when his eyes were so bad, he had people read to him, and, you know, we think of Jefferson as a great reader, and he was. He was a great reader, and the Jefferson Library, which was the foundation for the Library of Congress. Adams is perhaps the only member of the revolutionary generation who was better read than Jefferson, and that's not just a special plea here. Jefferson himself said that. In a couple of letters, they would exchange notes about what they were reading, and Jefferson would say, "Heavens to Betsy, how do you do it? I don't see how you're reading all these things." And Adams didn't only read books, he tended to battle with them. He was a contrarian, a kind of dialectical temperament. The normal notion that you could look at a person's library and be able to tell by looking at the titles what the basic drift of this person's thinking and opinions were, you would be driven mad by Adams, because Adams liked to buy books that he disagreed with. He would then read these books, and in the margins he would write almost as much as was in the original text; and, by the way, many of these books are in Boston. They're in the Boston Public Library in the archival section, and you can go back there and read this marginalia. His marginalia is, in some ways, the most revealing statement of his political philosophy, because he will write things like, you know, in Rousseau, "Thou flea, thou vermin, thou wretch. Thou understandest not humankind."
LAMB: Let me intervene. Can the average citizen go into that library and get the actual books that John Adams used to write in the margin?
ELLIS:Absolutely. I don't think you can take them out, but you can go and sit and look at the marginal comments in his hand that he made in his library which has been given to the Boston Public Library.
LAMB: Many people do that?
ELLIS:I don't think they know about it. Some undoubtedly do, but I don't know how many people ever check those things out.
LAMB: Let me see, a couple of things I made. Oh, do you pronounce it Montisello or Montichello?
ELLIS:It's either one, I think. I used to say Montisello, but I'm told that the preferred is Montichello.
LAMB: Yes, I come from a state that has a Montisello so I always get it confused. Montichello versus Montizillo. Is that the way you pronounce it?
ELLIS:Montizillo, yes, Montizillo. It's a joke. Once Adams retired to his little hill, his country estate which a French visitor once described as sort of the kind of place that a third-rate French lawyer would regard as appropriate_I think it's a nice place, the Adams homestead in Quincy_he started to make fun of the fact that everybody else who was of the Virginia dynasty had their own great estates. Washington had Mount Vernon, Jefferson had Monticello, Madison had Montpelier, and he had to have something like that, so he created the term Montizillo as a kind of joke. Monticello means "big mountain," Montizillo means "small mountain," and it was a way of him sort of poking fun at himself.
LAMB: You write about all the letters that were exchanged between Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Adams. How long did it take a letter to go from Boston to Monticello?
ELLIS:Sometimes six weeks.
LAMB: Had he written any letters to Mr. Jefferson that had not gotten to Mr. Jefferson before they both died, or either way?
ELLIS:That's a good question. I don't think so. I think his last letter was sent a couple of months before they both died.
LAMB: You say he sent more by two to one than . . .
ELLIS:There were 158 letters exchanged between them in the last stage of their correspondence, the important stage from 1813 to 1826, 158 letters. Adams wrote 109; Jefferson wrote the others. Adams invested more in this correspondence, and there's a humorous moment when Jefferson writes him and says, "I'm getting two to three letters to one from me, and I feel a little bit bad about this. I'm not being responsive." Jefferson says, "I've got a huge correspondence." He had a correspondence of about 1,200 letters he sends out a year.
LAMB: Thomas Jefferson.
ELLIS:Jefferson.
LAMB: Twelve hundred letters.
ELLIS:Twelve hundred. He counted that year, it was 1,251.
LAMB: Four a day.
ELLIS:Yes. First thing he did when he got up in the morning was start writing letters. He says, "I have this huge correspondence, and I can't keep up with you." Adams says, "Don't worry. I have these people that want me to write, but I don't write back to them, so I can write to you, and I can focus my attention on the only man in America that can teach me something that I didn't already know."
LAMB: How is this book selling?
ELLIS:I think pretty well. I'm not in touch with the daily figures, but I think it was published by W. W. Norton as a book that they hoped would sell some copies, but they've been surprised at the fact that it's sold more than they thought, and that's wonderful news to an author, but it got picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the History Book Club, and American Heritage did a piece out of it. It's gotten some nice reviews, and I think by word of mouth it's making its way.
LAMB: Twenty-five dollars?
ELLIS:That's what they say.
LAMB: How many pages?
ELLIS:About 300.
LAMB: You dedicated this book to Ellen and others?
ELLIS:Ellen and my three sons.
LAMB: Their names?
ELLIS:Peter is 18, Scott, who's 13 going on 14, and Alexander who is_God help us_2 and a half.
LAMB: Have any of them read this book?
ELLIS:That's a good question. I've given it to Peter. He should be starting college at Brown University in September, and I hope he's read it by now.
LAMB: Your wife, has she read it?
ELLIS:Oh, yes, she's read it in several versions.
LAMB: When you get down to the end on a book like this, how many people read it before it goes out?
ELLIS:Six or seven or eight. Jack Diggins, Gordon Wood, Eric McKitrick, Ed Morgan_ prominent historians_so that I've got my stuff right from a professional point of view. Then, I picked some old friends who were not historians; one's what we refer to as a capitalist reptile. He plays the stock exchange on a regular basis, and the other a businessman who read it to give us a perspective from outside the academy. I'm most interested really in bringing Adams to life for a general public. While I certainly want to have my i's dotted and my t's crossed and I want this to be a critical success as a scholarly book, I'm most interested in getting it to a group of people who are not professional historians but read biography.
LAMB: What's the most interesting feedback you've got from anybody so far?
ELLIS:Oh, gosh.
LAMB: What is it that they come to you and say, "I really like that."
ELLIS:The quotations from Adams, like the one that a lot of them fasten on is the one about his reputation: "Memorials and monuments will never be erected to me. I wish them not. Panegyrical romances and flattering orations will never be written or spoken to transport me to posterity in colorful ways," and that kind of thing. They pick that kind of stuff up. The last page, people comment on, too, because I have Adams dreaming about or thinking about the future in a way, and I suggest that the one thing he might like is to have a memorial in his honor.
LAMB: I happen to have all that underlined. It's just strange that you would say that. I want to read it because I think it might help, and I'll stop and let you reflect on it because there's a lot there to think about.
ELLIS:All right.
LAMB: You say here: "Memorials will only be erected to him, according to this train of thought, when the rhetoric of Jefferson liberalism ceases to dominate mainstream American culture." Let me read that again. "Memorials will only be erected to him, according to this train of thought, when the rhetoric of Jefferson liberalism ceases to dominate mainstream American culture, when the exaltation of 'the people' is replaced by a quasi-sacred devotion to 'the public', when the cult of the liberated individual is superseded by the celebration of self-denial . . ." There's more, but . . .
ELLIS:It goes on.
LAMB: . . . what are you getting at there?
ELLIS:I'm trying to say that what has been called the liberal tradition, and it's a complex thing as I was saying earlier because both Reagan and Jefferson stand as part of it, have certain propositions and beliefs, many of which Adams regarded as illusions at its center: the sovereignty of the individual, the belief that the proper goal of society is to free that individual to be self-fulfilled, the belief that the marketplace will throw out resources in an equitable way if not regulated. I'm suggesting that it's possible that we are, in the late 20th century, moving out of that liberal set of conditions. The area of political thought that most clearly shows this, it seems to me, is the ecological movement, the environmental movement, a clear recognition that some degree of control and regulation and some role for government in the management of, let's say, health-care, the economy, the environment, is necessary, and some recognition that we are no longer in which the liberated energies of individuals can be allowed to be released onto the world without any degree of control and discipline.
LAMB: Let me read some more. You say, "Memorials will only be erected to him according to this train of thought," and then you list all those, and you say, "When national development must vie for seductiveness with conservation, when the deepest sense of personal satisfaction comes not from consumption, but production, when the acceptance of national and personal limitations seem less like defeatism than a symptom of maturity, in this sense, the time of John Adams has passed and not yet come again."
ELLIS:Not yet come again. That's right, that instead of saying that Adams is irrelevant, that the late 18th century is a time when there was a devotion to what was called "the public"_the word was not "the people," the word was "the public"; the word was not "democracy," the word was "republican"_that we have from the early years of the 19th century up until the latter years of the 20th century lived in an essentially liberal culture in America. We have been to the rest of the world the dominant example of that culture. I think that the conditions we're facing as a maturing country now with a population of 250 million, with a global economy are conditions which begin to return us to a time most like the late 18th century, as bizarre as that might sound to you, but some of the ideas which Adams was the strongest advocate for, and which we try to talk about, or I try to talk about in this book, it seems to me are becoming eerily relevant again.
LAMB: You said, "In 1943, in this town, the Jefferson Memorial was built down on the Tidal Basin."
ELLIS:Correct, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
LAMB: Right. "There's no monument in this town to John Adams except the library building.
ELLIS:That is correct. There is no monument to Adams either in the national capital here or in Massachusetts. Isn't that amazing?
LAMB: And what does Sam Adams Beer have to do with anything?
ELLIS:I did an informal survey of the taverns and watering holes of western Massachusetts and there discovered that if you said the word "Adams" inside these places that they don't think of John. They think of Sam because of the beer, Sam Adams Beer, which, I believe, has become a national beer now.
LAMB: Who is he?
ELLIS:Sam Adams was John's cousin and was a himself a prominent leader, a propagandist, kind of a Lenin of the American Revolution, but he's got a beer named after him, and I am on a bit of a crusade. I've sent copies of this book to Sens. Kerry and Kennedy to see to it that there's some thought given to the construction of some kind of Adams memorial. After all, in the end that would be a recognition of our indebtedness to him that I think would also be a sign of our maturity. I suggest there, with tongue in cheek, that it should be positioned somewhere on the Tidal Basin, that this might require the cutting down of some of the cherry blossoms, but that shouldn't be a problem because they were a gift from the Japanese, and in this day and age, I don't think we're too much worried about offending the Japanese, and have it constructed in the classical style and at such a location and at such an angle that Jefferson and Adams together take turns casting shadows across each other's facades.
LAMB: How close is John Adams to either John Kerry or Ted Kennedy in political philosophy?
ELLIS:Oh, boy. See, now, there you're really getting into a tough kind of_I'm not going to go after that one. Let me put it this way. One of the ironies is that they call Adams a conservative. He's not really a conservative, he's not really a radical, or he's not really a liberal. Adams is a kind of person who thought in the style of Groucho Marx to reach the conclusions of Edmund Burke. He's a real weird combination, but he is a liberal in the modern sense of the term in that he believed that government had a constructive role to play in the shaping of national priorities. In that sense, Kennedy would be someone you could vote for.
LAMB: What impact did the PBS series "The Adams Chronicles" in 1975 have on the John Adams image?
ELLIS:I don't know the answer to that. I got some letters from readers saying that I should have also mentioned the play 1776, where Adams is the leading character of the musical play made into a movie. I think that we are more aware than we might have been of Adams' significance. His stock within the world of professional historians has gone way up. He's generally regarded now as the most loveable of the framers and, in some ways, one of the most intellectually interesting.
LAMB: Did he write the Declaration of Independence?
ELLIS:No. Jefferson really wrote it. He was the chair of the committee, and he gave the job to Jefferson to write it because he said Jefferson was a better stylist and because it needed to be written by someone from the South.
LAMB: Was he for slavery?
ELLIS:Jefferson?
LAMB: No, Adams.
ELLIS:He was against slavery, and there's an interesting debate there. I talk about this. As secretary of the Board of War Ordnance during the American Revolution, he's a kind of one-man secretary of defense throughout the early years of the American Revolution, and he gets these letters from a lot of, a lot of people, including some black people saying, "This is the opportunity to end slavery. The values of the Revolution, the values of the Declaration of Independence are clearly incompatible with the existence of chattel slavery." Adams says, "You're absolutely right. They are, but we can't afford to divide the Union now. North, South, South Carolina, Virginia will not be able, will not be willing to support our war efforts against Britain if we raise this issue now." Slavery is a doomed institution, he thought. Slavery and that form of labor cannot compete with free labor. He presumed it was going to die a natural death. So did Jefferson, but when it didn't die a natural death and, instead, spread by the latter years of both men in 1819, 1820, when they correspond about this, Jefferson is prepared to endorse its expansion into the West.
LAMB: Slavery.
ELLIS:Slavery. And he's says, "By letting it spread, we'll diffuse it." And Adams says, "How in heaven's name can a cancer become more malleable if it spreads? This is a cancer. We need to attack it now."
LAMB: How many of the following men had slaves? George Washington, James Madison, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
ELLIS:All of them save Adams had slaves.
LAMB: Never had a slave.
ELLIS:Adams never owned a slave, was very comfortable with it. Washington freed his slaves. He's the only of those that you mentioned; he freed is slaves at his death. All the others wanted to but did not and could not for reasons having to do with their indebtedness.
LAMB: You say, "Starting in 1950, continuing throughout the next two decades, Adams became the subject of several scholarly studies that praised his performance as president." Why the 1950 time period?
ELLIS:I think it's primarily because the Adams papers are starting to get published at that time. In other words, the papers themselves become available in 1950-51 and for the first time. And so, the opening of that body of material is, I think, part of the reason. I can't think of too many others.
LAMB: And could you please explain this.
ELLIS:I don't like it either. It's not terribly attractive, but it's a bronze casting done of a life mask, that is, a mask that was done of Adams very late in his life, and it casts him as the American Cicero. There's one like that of Jefferson, too, and it's not very attractive, but it makes a point about the way he was thought of.
LAMB: You think that's the way he looked near the end?
ELLIS:I think he looked like he looks on the cover of the book. I prefer to think of him as flesh and blood rather than cast iron.
LAMB: What was John Quincy Adams, his son, like?
ELLIS:A cold fish and an extraordinarily accomplished statesman, probably the greatest secretary of state in American history, although, truth be known, that's not saying a heck of a lot. Bred from the moment of his birth to be an American statesman by his parents. There's interesting literature on who was harder on him, Abigail or John, when he was being reared. John Quincy accompanied his father to France and England, spoke five languages by the time he was 12, Harvard educated, professor at Harvard after being a senator, and then on to the secretary of state and the presidency of the United States, but a . . . .
LAMB: A one termer.
ELLIS:A one termer like his father. Adams said that politics is a game of leapfrog. It operates on 12-year cycles and that the Adams family always came in as one cycle was ending and a new one was going to begin. He was replaced by Jefferson, and John Quincy was replaced by Jackson.
LAMB: You say, "If he came back today, he wouldn't like outlet stores; he wouldn't like the malls, the visible trappings of consumer culture." Why?
ELLIS:Because they were clear examples of the degree to which we've indulged our appetites, the degree to which we've become a consumer culture, the degree to which we've become indolent, venal, lost a level of discipline. You know who he would admire a lot now is the Japanese, a culture which is extraordinarily productive but which continues to sustain levels of work and not allow their consumption to sap that productive energy. That's what he wanted. He wanted people who remained very industrious and who had not allowed themselves to be trapped by the very prosperity that their industry created.
LAMB: This is only a 242-page book, actually the content of it. You've got some stuff in the back.
ELLIS:Yes, a lot of notes and stuff.
LAMB: Who made that decision to keep it so short?
ELLIS:Me. My colleagues say I write with a quill pen. It's not a quill pen; it's a black pen. But I really think that some of these books that are coming out now that you can use as doorjambs, you can't sit them on your lap, and I think a book is something you should be able to read in a couple of sittings. And the length of this is the length that I thought it ought to be. I was under no pressure to cut it by any stretch.
LAMB: Got another book in you?
ELLIS:I hope so. I'm lying fallow at the moment and waiting for an epiphany and thought that maybe I would be working on a contemporary figure, George Kennan, but I've recently learned that Kennan, who is the architect of the Cold War, Mr. X memo of the '40s, there is a biography already commissioned for him. The likely or the obvious choice for me is Jefferson, but my wife says that I have no affinity for Jefferson and that I'd be well advised to stay away from him. I am reading all the Jefferson papers this summer and sort of seeing about that.
LAMB: Joseph J. Ellis is this gentleman's name. He's a professor at Mount Holyoke, and this is what his book looks like, Passionate Sage, all about John Adams, the character and legacy. We thank you very much for joining us.
ELLIS:My pleasure.


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