Editor’s Note: This book review was previously published in 2005 at NewsMax.com and elsewhere on the Net.
It wasn’t too many months ago when David McCullough won a Pulitzer for his biography on John Adams. And so maybe it wasn’t the best of timing that on McCullough’s prize winning heels – hot off the press – came James Grant’s, John Adams: Party of One.
Not a problem. Grant’s research is fresh, his focus and style decidedly different, the rewards for the history buff, or for anyone else who enjoys a good read, many.
Mr. Grant, who is the editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer and the author of four books on finance and financial history, has written a far more personal account then McCullough’s; and thus not a redundant read, but a perfect companion volume. There are more diary entries, more personal letters to Abigail (and from Abigail), and even extracts from notes that Adams scribbled in the margins of books he read. Taken together, there are times when one can almost hear John Adams talking to himself and to his posterity, whom he hopes will one day tune in.
Grant’s strength is manifest again in his choice of depth over breadth, giving the reader three areas of intensive focus, the religious and economic John Adams, and his unbending, go at it alone, sacrificial nature when it comes to upholding principle.
While both McCullough and Grant both drove home well the point that John Adams was a man of faith, and was as true to his faith as an imperfect man can be, Grant delved deeper into Adams’ Puritan roots, just what influence Puritanism had on Adams, just how Puritanism evolved (for the better), and just who were some of Adams favorite ministers and why (many of them were not Puritans).
And he was fair and balanced in his presentation.
For instance, Adams’ was deeply suspicious of Catholics early on in his life, a weakness – but Grant didn’t hang Adams out to dry on that defect. It wasn’t so much Adams’ fear of Catholicism but his fear of European state churches and monarchy that drove his suspicions – a typical sentiment of the era. The colonists were on guard. “Tyrants are commonly equal enemies to the religious and civil rights of mankind … and having enslaved the bodies of their subjects, they affect also to enslave their consciences,” said Reverend William Cooper, an Adams favorite.
This was the fear, a two pronged attack on a man’s liberty. Thus, the greater the tendency of monarchy or Toryism in a faith, the more unwelcome they were in the states, and to John Adams. Therefore, Anglicanism wasn’t on ‘the most favored’ list either.
And well, American Puritanism gained a state/church reputation of its own, and was looked upon with suspicion by other American Protestants.
Thankfully, Grant, unlike many of today’s ‘historians,’ was honest enough to remind the reader that this was but a phase in America, a natural protectionist reflex (to the vicious persecution that had been the Puritans lot in the mother country) that passed, with the end result being that America became the world’s cradle of religious liberty.
We shouldn’t forget that. Grant made sure we didn’t.
Adams also evolved in positive ways as he matured. There was the ever blunt Adams who declared of those who rejected his brand of Christianity, “Ye will say, I am no Christian: I say Ye are no Christians: and there the account is balanced.”
But then Adams saw beyond this impasse to the root of the matter, “Yet I believe all the honest men among you are Christians in my sense of the word.”
Here was the common ground he and Jefferson had found. Love of God and love of neighbor, manifest in moral living, made for a true Christian; and any man, of any Church, or no Church at all, could qualify – for the law was written in their hearts.
And so little surprise that Adams came to respect Catholic “liberality” in France, to describe her churches “without pejorative comment,” and that he would became the key player in liberating the Episcopal Church in America – making it so that she could ordain her own Bishops without loyalty oaths to the British Crown, and thus survive in the States.
But, perhaps, it is on the subject of economics where Grant’s work shines the most. Much is taught about Adams’ economic philosophy. He was a fan of Adam Smith and Thomas Pownall. He believed the best foreign policy for the United States was one of nonentanglement and free trade (read that fair trade). He also believed America’s wealth lay less in her hard cash, and more in her free institutions, especially in her labor market. “In Europe the poor Man’s Wisdom is despised,” but not here, in America, wrote Adams. “The poor Mans Wisdom, is not learning, but knowledge of his own picking up, from facts and nature, by simple Experience. In America, the Wisdom not the Man is attended to: America is the Poor Man’s Country.”
Adams was surely right about that, even today.
And yet the lack of hard currency was a major concern in the Revolutionary Period. The colonies and the young United States had to learn the hard way about the evils of unbacked paper money, rampant inflation, and a national government that lacked the power to tax and enforce the collection of those taxes.
Here were the facts. The Revolutionary War cost money. The Continental Congress couldn’t tax. The states lacked the integrity to pay their fair share, not just for the war, but for existing foreign debts. The short term solution was to borrow more, from France and Holland. John Adams was the key to the bailout.
One difficulty for Adams was that his Puritan upbringing was such that he was dead set against debt, personal and national, and dead set against dishonest paper money. “There is so much Injustice in carrying on a War with a depreciating currency that we can hardly pray, with confidence for success.” But Adams was also practical. He labored for a nation that was barely clinging to life. This wasn’t the moment to push his fiscal conservatism to the limit of national dissolution. His job was to convince the lender that America would eventually make good with wise national laws, and unlimited national prosperity, even as her financial folly was on parade.
And what a parade it was! Grant brings to light her every fiscal extreme, including Congress’s dishonest issuing of “bills of exchange” (checks drawn on anticipated borrowing), sometimes cut when there was little hope of those loans being secured). Even more embarrassingly, American businessmen would later show up in Europe trying to redeem those very checks, only to find out that the loans didn’t even exist!
No wonder then, Adams had such a hard time of it. No wonder then his victory in securing that aid was such a prodigious stroke.
Yet even after the war, and after Adams amazing victory, the financial mess persisted, and the respect for the United States abroad continued to falter for her inability to tax, collect, and pay. Europeans referred to this country sneeringly as the “American Republics,” rather than the United States, for united we were not, witnessed by such facts as only one state (New York) meeting her full share of the foreign debt, and by other states refusing to pay anything at all, and other problems, like the Whiskey Rebellion, a revolt over federal excise taxes. Thus England, Grant reveals, felt she had legitimate cause not to keep her end of the peace, for the U.S. refused to uphold their end.
That the Founders would finally write a Constitution that insisted on nothing but gold and silver for coin, on a federal government that had the power to tax and enforce that tax, on the honest payment of all prior debts, and that the First Congress would likewise insist on nationalizing all prior state debts, is no surprise. Financial anarchy almost buried our precious liberty forever.
Grant, remarkably, brought Revolutionary America’s financial woes to the reader’s attention in laymen’s terms, in terrific detail, and in a manner that never failed to captivate one’s interest. He captivated mine.
If there were weaknesses, Grant failed to adequately counterbalance the enormous prejudice generated against Vice President, and President Adams, with Adams own defense; and he missed a perfect opportunity to capstone his solid examination of John Adams’ religious background and leanings, with an equally thorough and thoughtful look into Adams’ soaring religious exchanges with Jefferson, in the twilight of his life.
Yet these are but gnats to strain at in this wonderful volume. In fact, the former complaint may have been a ‘by design’ feature to reinforce the author’s overarching peer into Adams commitment to stand as a “Party of One,” a man who stood above the fray of partisan party politics, and the exigencies of the moment, one who remained true to God, family and country, no matter the chorus against him, no matter the sacrifice.
And the sacrifices were mountainous. Grant details them meticulously and then gives Adams’ inspiring response to them all in a confidential letter to Abigail. “Nobody knows of it. Nobody cares for it, but I shall be rewarded for it, in Heaven I hope. Where Mayhew and Thatcher and Warren are rewarded I hope, none of whom, however, were permitted to suffer so much. They were taken from the Evil to come.”
Then wistfully he asks, “Is it not Strange and Sad that Simple Integrity should have so many enemies?”
Enemies he had, loneliness he had, personal sacrifice he had in the extreme, but John Adams put up with it all because of his faith that God had sent him to Earth to do this great thing; and he was not one to look the other way when His Providence called.
Get your copy of James Grant’s John Adams: Party of One.