The Case of the Missing Monument: John Adams and Historical Memory

By Kaleena Fraga

The Washington Monument. The Jefferson Memorial. Washington D.C. is dotted with such landmarks testifying to the importance of America’s early presidents. But there is one founding father conspicuously absent from D.C.’s memorial scene–the nation’s second president, John Adams.

Even in life, Adams worried about his place in American history. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson written in 1815, after both of their presidencies had ended, Adams wrote:

“The essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. Then Franklin electrified him, and thence forward those two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislations, and War.”

George Washington, he predicted, and Benjamin Franklin, would be celebrated while he, John Adams, faded away into oblivion.

A few years later, the question of Adams’ place in American memory continued to gnaw at him. On top of being forgotten, Adams worried that he would be misremembered. He lamented,

“Mausoleums, Statues, Monuments will never be erected to me. I wish them not——Panegyrical Romances, will never be written, nor flattering Orations pronounced to transmit my Character to Posterity in glorious Colours. No nor in true Colours neither.”

Adams is perhaps overshadowed in American history by the presidents whose administrations bookended his one term in office–George Washington, as the nation’s first president, and Thomas Jefferson, who called his own election “the revolution of 1800.” Yet Adams played a crucial role in the nation’s founding, no less so than either Jefferson or Washington.

One of the only founding fathers who did not own slaves, Adams participated in the Continental Congress, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, served as the nation’s first vice president, and as the nation’s second president. He was a determined advocate for the Declaration of Independence, passionately defending it while the quieter Jefferson preferred to listen and watch. Although his maneuvering to avoid war with France during his one-term in office made him unpopular–and his infamous Alien & Sedition Acts even more so–Adams once grumbled:

“I will defend my Missions to France as long as I have an Eye to direct my hand or a finger to hold my pen. They were the most disinterested And meritorious Actions of my Life. I reflect upon them with So much satisfaction that I desire No other Inscription on my Grave Stone than “Here lies John Adams who took upon himself the Responsibility of the Peace with France in the Year 1800.”

Recently, the House of Representatives took concrete steps to establish such an Adams memorial, after years of lobbying by the Adams’ family and their foundation, the Adams Memorial Foundation. Previous attempts to organize a memorial for Adams failed over indecision over the location, running into certain laws that prohibit construction on the Mall or Tidal Basin, the kind of places most of Adams’ proponents would like to see his likeness.

In July 2018 the House passed a bill that would “establish a commission to plan, fundraise and build a memorial to the country’s second president.” The bill’s sponsor, Stephen F. Lynch, who represents the district where Adams was born, Braintree, Massachusetts, believes that the entire Adams’ family deserves to be honored.

“John Adams’ legacy was instilled through his entire family,” Lynch said. “John’s wife Abigail is known as an advocate for women’s rights and his son, John Quincy Adams, later served as our nation’s sixth president.”

John Adams worried that he and his accomplishments would be forgotten. With the passage of the House bill, perhaps the second president will finally get the recognition that he deserves.

The Executive and the Press: John Adams and the Alien & Sedition Acts

By Kaleena Fraga

The relationship between the executive branch and the press is often a tense one. The Obama administration received bipartisan criticism when it tried to crack down on leaks to reporters, and the Trump administration has recently subpoenaed New York Times reporter Ali Watkins in pursuit of the same goal.

Presidents back to Washington have struggled with how to deal the press. John Adams’ solution was the signing and enforcement the Alien and Sedition Acts, which forbid “False, scandalous, and malicious” writing against the government, Congress or president, or any attempt “to excite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition.”

Adams’ predecessor, George Washington, was initially met with what we might describe today as fawning coverage. He was universally beloved, and in the (brief) era before political parties, there was no concrete opposition to push back against his administration. This changed–quickly–with opposition forces coalescing around Thomas Jefferson. Partisan newspapers began to pop up around the country. Washington told Adams in 1796 that one reason he did not want to serve a third term in office was that he felt, “disinclined to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.” In a letter to a friend, Washington similarly called press criticism “diabolical” and “outrages on common decency.” But Washington kept his criticisms private.

The Alien & Sedition Acts, passed under Adams, were meant to quell criticism of the administration. Washington privately expressed support for Adams’ actions. Although Adams said little publicly of the Acts, his wife Abigail wrote her friend that many newspapers were “criminal” and ought to be brought to court. “Yet daringly do the vile incendiaries keep up…the most wicked and base, violent and culminating abuse…nothing will have effect until Congress passes a Sedition bill.”

Adams’ vice president–and the de facto leader of the opposition party–Thomas Jefferson, quietly left the capitol to go home to Monticello. He and other Republicans feared the Acts could mean the end of their republic. “For my own part,” Jefferson wrote in a letter, “I consider these laws as merely an experiment on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the Constitution…if this goes down, we shall immediately see attempted another act of Congress declaring that the President shall continue in office during life [and] reserving to another occasion the transfer of succession to his heirs…”

The Alien and Sedition Acts proved incredibly unpopular. They helped to elect Thomas Jefferson, and made John Adams a one term president.

As president, Jefferson also disliked the press. He wrote “our newspapers, for the most part, present only the caricatures of disaffected minds. Indeed, the abuses of freedom of the press here have been carried to a length never known or borne by any civilized nation.” Still, Jefferson possessed an undying faith in the common sense of the people. He acknowledged:

“The firmness with which the people have withstood the late abuses of the press, the discernment they have manifested between truth and falsehood, show that they may safely be trusted to hear everything true and false, and to form a correct judgment between them.”

All public figures faced a barrage of what Donald Trump might call fake news, although in many cases in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the news was actually fake. Adams was accused of sending Charles Coteworth Pinckney to London to procure four mistresses, two for each man. “I do declare upon my honor,” he wrote a friend, “if this is true General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two.” Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, faced rumors of a relationship with one of his slaves–rumors that were denied at the time but, of course, were later proven true.

Since the birth of the country, the American executive has struggled with how to handle the press–a struggle that continues to this day. But the importance of a free press is generally acknowledged by the executive branch. Seven years after he left the White House, Thomas Jefferson–who faced attacks, both true and false–stated: “Where the press is free, and every man is able to read, all is safe.”

 

 

Thanks to: 

John Adams by David McCullough

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham