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JOHN ADAMS by John Patrick Diggins


by John Patrick Diggins

Pub Date: June 11th, 2003
ISBN: 0-8050-6937-2
Publisher: Henry Holt

A brief life of the post-revolutionary president who liked nothing better than to be left alone.

And isolation, comments Diggins (History/CUNY), “while healthy for poetry or philosophy, is fatal in the sphere of politics.” Laboring in the daunting shadow of David McCullough’s massive, literate biography (John Adams, 2001), Diggins (On Hallowed Ground, 2000, etc.) 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 a Caesar in the making. Indeed, writes Diggins, when he defeated Adams in the 1800 presidential race, Jefferson even claimed that “he saved America from aristocracy and monarchy”—little realizing, the author adds, “that his utter dependence on party politics represented a defeat of his own ideals.” Not that Adams’s own ideals were left intact in the hubbub of sectarian fighting and character assassination that marked the earliest days of the republic. As Diggins notes, Adams’s questionable record in office helps us “understand American history for what it really is: a study . . . of emerging interest-driven, factional blocs struggling for dominance within a political culture of consensus.” In this struggle, the author claims Adams as the prototypical American liberal, whose championing of a strong executive branch, judiciary, and federal military force allowed the central state to take root and grow. Without that state, Diggins argues, no progressive cause since could have been realized. “Ironically,” he observes on, “the egalitarian ideals Jefferson espoused would be realized in the very institutions he opposed.”

Readers of McCullough will find little new factual information here, but the solid interpretation of events will interest students of the presidency and the early republic.