PASSIONATE SAGE by Joseph J. Ellis


The Character and Legacy of John Adams
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 In a meditative and discursive essay (mostly about its subject's long retirement), Ellis (History/Mount Holyoke; After the Revolution, 1979) ponders the distinctive personality and achievements of America's endearingly cantankerous second President. While generally accorded a distinguished place in the pantheon of the nation's founders, John Adams has never been credited with the intellect of a Jefferson or the heroism of a Washington, and his presidency usually has been deemed an honorable failure. Ellis views this as unjust but points out a possible reason: Adams's pragmatic and pessimistic philosophy (emphasizing the limitations of America and the importance of tempering freedom with responsibility) was less moving than the idealistic, celebratory outlook of Jefferson and less appropriate to a young nation about to conquer a continent. Adams's rhetoric, moreover--at best plain and uninspired and at worst vituperatively argumentative--suffers in comparison with Jefferson's majestic prose. Ellis nonetheless makes clear that Adams has much to teach modern America, which has discovered limits to its power and is beginning to doubt the myths of American exceptionalism. The author's vivid sketch of the famous Adams-Jefferson correspondence shows his subject's delightful personality, intellect, warmth, and capacity for friendship, as well as his devotion to the Union and to the Federalist cause (which came to an end with the New England Federalists' support for secession during the War of 1812). Ellis comments ruefully on what he views as Adams's unfair relegation to second place in America's memory of its founders (a ranking that Adams himself anticipated), and he proposes that a statue of Adams be erected near the Jefferson Memorial so that, ``depending on the time of day and angle of the sun, he and Jefferson might take turns casting shadows across each other's facades.'' By focusing on Adams's retirement, Ellis doesn't achieve the sweep of a full biography--but he's able to capture the man's appealing spirit, providing new perspective on an unfairly neglected Founding Father. (Photographs)

Pub Date: May 10th, 1993
ISBN: 0-393-03479-8
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1993


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