Recently I have been listening to the audio book version of Revolutionary Summer, the 2013 book by one of my favorite authors, Joseph Ellis. The book chronicles the summer of 1776 during the American Revolution and interweaves the political and military strategies at play, while showing how intertwined they are as well as how the main actors in that time viewed events rather than how the events would be shown historically.
What has fascinated me about the book, however, is the adulation of John Adams. Ellis goes out of his way to call Adams the conscious of the revolution, and lists the visionary ways he aided the American cause. He accurately predicted the British military strategy, he stayed in Philadelphia working when his family’s health was in danger (unlike a certain redheaded delegate who constantly pined for home), and his dedication kept Anglophiles in line while arranging a successful vote on independence.
It was not that long ago that John Adams was a forgotten Founding Father; growing up in the 1980s and 1990s it was George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who were the military and spiritual/intellectual fathers of American independence. While Washington always has and probably always will remain above major reproach, Jefferson’s stock has fallen below that of his bitter rival.
What happened that forced the change? The current historical literature, I feel mainly pushed by David McCullough’s biography of Adams, shed new light on a subject that had long been derided by history. It was Adams who wanted to call the president “His Majesty”, who passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and who spectacularly failed to win reelection to the presidency. However, with decades passing and more writings uncovered about the period, a fuller picture of the period and his decisions have shown him in a better light.
The lesson all of us can take from this is that no one is beyond some historical redemption; let us hope that any of our bad decisions take less than 200 years to be understood.