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Remembering The ‘Forgotten President’
By Jan Howard
John Adams has often been referred to as “the forgotten President.” Sandwiched between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, he certainly had a hard act to follow in the much-revered Father of Our Country and has been overshadowed historically by Thomas Jefferson.
Though she herself has used the phrase “forgotten President” during her seven years of presentations about John Adams, Beth Wolak said this week that because of a current bestseller about him by David McCullough, “the forgotten President” should now be referred to as “the remembered President.”
Ms Wolak gave a lively presentation on the life, personality, and career of John Adams, one of the most important Founding Fathers, during a meeting of the Newtown Historical Society on October 9 at the C.H. Booth Library. A resident of Hamden, Ms Wolak is a high school history teacher in the New Haven school system, a former member of the Hamden Legislative Council, and an active participant in the Civil War Roundtable.
That Ms Wolak is also a strong admirer of John Adams was definitely not a well kept secret during her presentation.
“I’ve always loved John Adams,” she said. “He was everyman in many respects,” she added, despite being a Harvard graduate. “He was someone you’d like to sit down and have lunch with. He was someone we all would want to meet.”
Despite his many contributions to the American Revolution and to this country, “No mountain bears his likeness,” she said. “Where is Adams’ national monument? Years ago a bond had his likeness on it, but it was discontinued.”
Ms Wolak said four of the great leaders of the Revolutionary period were George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. George Washington set the standard for the presidency, she said. “Franklin has Philadelphia and the $100 bill, and his years in France. The French still love him. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration, and Monticello has thousands of visitors every year. Adams got squat.”
Before the Bicentennial in 1976, the Adams Chronicles were a “great tribute to John Adams, “then he was again forgotten,” she noted. “He’s been neglected.”
Adams, a staunch patriot, was the first President to occupy the newly built White House. He was active through the American Revolution and during the country’s early years as a legislator, diplomat, and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He was a major player during Constitutional Convention debates, drafting of the document’s language, and campaigning for its ratification.
He strongly supported Washington, served as his vice president, and succeeded him in what became the first contested election under the new United States Constitution.
Â “John Adams was a visionary,” Ms Wolak said. “In 1755, he saw America before America was America.”
As a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774, Adams believed war had already begun between the colonies and England, she said. In 1775, following the battles of Lexington and Concord, he became a major proponent of independence.
He served on 30 committees in the Continental Congress, and chaired a committee on the Declaration of Independence. During his time in the Continental Congress and in his work on the Declaration, Adams “gave Jefferson the limelight,” Ms Wolak said.
He could be altruistic and magnanimous, she said, “but part of him was upset with giving away the glory. Adams felt he did all the work and Jefferson got all the glory. He felt his efforts were overshadowed by the Declaration.
“The schism melted away between Jefferson and Adams,” Ms Wolak said. “They mellowed toward each other.” Later in life, they exchanged correspondence, in which they talked of their farms and families, and avoided politics.
Adams’s last words were thanks that Jefferson survived. Both men died, however, on July 4, 1826, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence.
Adams’s personality led him to greatness as a rabble-rouser, Ms Wolak said. He seemed to court unpopularity. He was direct, and did not hide his thoughts or feelings. “He wrote to his wife, `I’m obnoxious and disliked.'”
“He was a man of the people. Was he truly obnoxious? He voiced his opinions,” she noted. “He was only comfortable in dialogue. He loved to argue a point. He could argue his point forever.”
Adams could also have fits of anger, Ms Wolak said. “He refused to suffer in silence. He admitted he sometimes swore. Adams let it all out. You knew where you stood with him.”
Adams left a large collection of letters, Ms Wolak said, and some of his words have come down to us through the musical 1776.
He loved his family, particularly his grandchildren. “He lived to be 92 and loved every minute of it,” she said.
He deeply loved his wife, Abigail. Their letters are lasting evidence of the strong bond that existed between them.
“He adored his wife. She could do no wrong. They had a great relationship,” Ms Wolak said. “I have volumes of their letters. He writes like he talked. Abigail and he knew their sense of history.”
Adams felt that people must sacrifice and work for the greater good of society. “It was a philosophy that didn’t go down well then,” she said, adding he was a simple man.
“He had a simplicity of spirit. He felt that people should help one another.”
Ms Wolak said his philosophy probably would not have gone over well with Americans of today, either, at least prior to September 11.
“As a society we consume, we don’t produce anything anymore.” She noted that when the philosophy of what’s in it for me changes to what can I do for someone else, “then they’ll have a memorial to John Adams.”
He wasn’t perfect, and he knew it, she said. He liked to drink, but worried that he drank too much. He liked tobacco. He was a spiritual man, though he wasn’t much of a churchgoer, she said. Though he is buried in a crypt at the Unitarian Church in Quincy, he was much more of a Congregationalist, though he had left the church.
“He didn’t make a show of spirituality,” Ms Wolak said. “When you read his writings, you know that God is with him all the time.”