Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams

Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams Book Cover Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams
Joseph J. Ellis
Biography & Autobiography
W. W. Norton & Company

A look at the life and work of the second U.S. president discusses Adams's mind and personality, the events that shaped his thinking, his perspective on America's prospects, and his famous disagreements. By the author of the National Book Award-winning American Sphinx. Reissue.

“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.”

–John Adams


“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

–John Adams, Argument in Defense of the British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials, December 4, 1770 


“Men who played leading roles in controversies became controversial.”

–Joseph J. Ellis

This book is a must-read, particularly with the current political controversies in the Untied States. Ellis’ insights into John Adams are a surprising journey, regardless of right or left leaning opinions. My first impression while reading this book was that John Adams was a highly educated version of President Donald Trump; highly volatile, easily antagonized and quick to react to perceived slights. The book provides an interesting look into the psychology and mental processes of one of our earliest founding fathers.

As the second president of the United States, Adams is historically a name in the pantheon of American independence. He belongs to an elite group of men who gave everything to create a government meant to last through the ages and solve the woes of an oppressed world. However, Ellis gives a profoundly different perspective of Adams – with particular emphasis on his psychological and mental character and legacy.
Ellis uses not only the surviving writings of John Adams as the foundation of the book, but those sources come from some very interesting places. Not only does Ellis use the public writings and private surviving letters – but he turns especially to marginal annotations found in Adams’ surviving library, for insights into his complex mind.

One area I found particularly fascinating, in addition to the apparent volatility of Adams, was his long and rocky relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Ellis presents a great insight into these two powerful personalities; demonstrating the magnitude of the resulting combustibility when they came together in the political sphere. Ellis uses letters between Adams and Jefferson that provide an interesting perspective on not only the political divide between them, but also the vast differences in their approach to life, and conflict resolution. Ellis clearly outlines Adams’ desire for a strong Federal government, with a “Supreme head or executive of a great nation, [which] must be inviolable, [and] the President has, or ought to have, the whole nation before him, and he ought to select the men best qualified . . . without being shackled by any check, by law, constitution, or institution.” (John Adams) Ellis juxtaposes this dangerous concept with a sharp contrast to Jefferson’s almost rabid demand for unchecked state’s supremacy, weak federal government, and unrestrained state’s rights.

Ellis explores how Adams and Jefferson overcame their differences and bridged the gap between their political and personal opinions. The book explores how both Adams and Jefferson posed not only the possibility of great advancement but also great harm to the American governmental system. Ellis further argues that the differences between Adams and Jefferson demonstrate the danger of a “hero paradox,” in which “such leaders, like banks, were both indispensable and dangerous, [and] that [their] very passion for fame and glory, once released, was also extremely difficult to control.” (Ellis, pg. 170). This paradox, Ellis asserts, plagued the founding fathers and the nation and is what ‘“nature has established in the bosoms of heroes [with] no limits to those passions; and as the world, instead of restraining, encourages them, the check must be in the form of government.’ This meant limited terms of office, checks and balances, and a constitution that explicitly precluded even the most charismatic and virtuous official from standing above the law.” (Ellis, quoting Adams, pg. 171).

Ellis argues that the American democracy is not the penultimate solution to bad government. He builds his assertion on Adams’ belief that the same corruptions that compromised other governments can, and will be found in the American Republic. “[T]he same emotional forces that propelled religious fanatics to commit unspeakable acts against humanity operated with equivalent ferocity in the political arena. . . . ‘[I]t would seem that human Reason and human Conscience, though I believe there are such things, are not a Match, for human Passions, human Imaginations and human Enthusiasm.’” (Ellis, quoting Adams, pg. 123). Ellis suggests that this tendency towards extreme passions is found in all men, and will ultimately outpace reason and lead to corruption and eventual collapse if extreme care is not exercised.

I enjoyed this book for its insightful exploration of a side of Adams not so well known. It helps flesh out some of the challenges facing the infant American Republic, through the man who helped overcome many of those challenges. I found the prose a little challenging. They are dense, and frequently convoluted to work through. It is a book that if interrupted, proves difficult to follow; the reasoning process throughout presents arguments that challenge the reader, demanding careful reflection. This makes the book a challenging read at times. But it also brings out some insightful issues, particularly meaningful for our political world today.


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