Crotchety old John Adams had finally had enough.
It was bad enough that after George Washington’s battlefield victories at Trenton and Princeton, the idol worshipping of the general had already started in America. Ironically, John Adams was the delegate who introduced George Washington’s name in Congress to be the commander of the new army. But Adams had never dreamed of this – Washington’s runaway popularity. One quote in particular in the 1777 issue of the Pennsylvania Journal newspaper would’ve really irritated Adams: “Had Washington been born in the days of idolatry, he would be worshiped as a god. If there are spots on his characters, they are like spots on the sun, only discernible by the magnifying powers of a telescope.”[i]
But by 1807, eight years following Washington’s death, this “looking-upon-Washington-as-a-god-thing” was now truly getting on John Adams’ last nerves.
John Adams, the cranky, honest, and hard-working legal mind of the Continental Congress, felt unappreciated during and after the Revolutionary War. True, Adams could be vain, stubborn, intense and combative… and that’s on a good day. But he too had great moral courage and was one of the earliest vocal proponents in Congress for independence. However, Adams also wanted more in his life. He was “ambitious to excel – to make himself known.”[ii] He wanted “distinction.”[iii] But it had seemed like during the Revolutionary War he had always lived in the dark shadows of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. Adams was pretty sure posterity would never remember him, and he often poured out his frustration and jealousy in letters to a fellow revolutionary curmudgeon and Declaration signer – Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia.
By 1778 and as Surgeon General of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Rush had also fallen out of affection for General Washington, his commander-in-chief. Rush had become convinced Horatio Gates would be the best army commander and wrote anonymous letters to Patrick Henry and John Adams telling them so. Patrick Henry forwarded Rush’s unsigned letter to Washington, and Washington recognized the handwriting as that of Rush. Oops. For the rest of Benjamin Rush’s very distinguished medical career, he downplayed and back-peddled his earlier denigration of George Washington. But he still offered a willing ear to John Adams’ complaints and grumbles through their many letters for decades to follow.
By 1790 and in a particularly unappreciated moment, Adams wrote to Dr. Rush, “The History of our Revolution will be one continued Lye [lie] from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklins electrical Rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War.”[iv]
This takes us to 1807 and the Adams-Rush exchange of letters that contained the never-ending fuming about Washington’s worship by the American public. Finally, in a letter dated November 11, 1807 from Quincy, John Adams comes up with his own snarky top ten list of “Talents” that “our Hero was much indebted to… for ‘his immense elevation above his Fellows.’”[v]
John Adams’ Snarky Top 10 List of George Washington’s Talents (note that all 10 “talents” are traits of which John Adams has none):
- He was good looking. “An handsome Face” to which Adams added a quote from Madame Du Barry,[vi] “Le veretable Royaute est la Beaute,”[vii] which translates to “The true royalty is beauty.”[viii]
- He was tall. “A tall Stature.”[ix]
- He had an impressive body. “An elegant Form.”[x]
- He looked great when he moved. “graceful Attitudes and Movement.”[xi]
- He was really rich. “a large imposing Fortune consisting of a great landed Estate left him by his Father and Brother, besides a large Jointure with his Lady, and the Guardianship of the Heirs of the great Custis Estate.” To this he adds, “There is nothing… to which Mankind bow down with more reverence than to great fortune.”[xii] In true John Adams frustrated style, he adds a quote from Pope Paul IV, ca. 1560: “Si bonus Populus vult decipi, decipiatur” which translates to “If the good people wish to be deceived, let them be deceived.” But Adams added a quick disclaimer: “Washington however did not deceive them.”[xiii]
- He was a Virginian. “Washington was a Virginian. This is equivalent to five Talents. Virginian Geese are all Swans.”[xiv]
- He had good things said about him before he even appeared in Congress. “Washington was preceeded by favourable Anecdotes.” John Adams mentions a couple early glowing accounts of Washington, then adds his own: “Mr. Lynch of South Carolina told me before We met in Congress in 1774 that ‘Colonel Washington had made the most eloquent Speech that ever had been Spoken upon the Controversy with England, viz. That if the English Should attack the People of Boston, he would raise a thousand Men at his own expence and march at their head to New England to their Aid.’ Several other favourable Stories preceded his appearance in Congress and in the army.”[xv]
- He knew when to keep his mouth shut. “He possessed the Gift of Silence. This I esteem as one of the most precious Talents.”[xvi]
- He exercised good self control. “He had great Self Command.”[xvii]
- He hid his temper well. “Whenever he lost his temper as he did Sometimes, either Love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his Weakness from the World.”[xviii]
It’s amazing that John Adams could be so trivial about qualities that, in Adams’ mind, made Washington so revered before and after death. Adams never acknowledged Washington’s tenacity and modesty, political skills, good judgement in choosing competent subordinates, or willingness to set aside his ego in place of a good solution. These were the traits that made Washington trusted by Americans with the power granted to him during difficult times. Simply said, “Washington’s genius, his greatness, lay in his character… There had never been a great man quite like Washington before. Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”[xix]
Sometimes, John Adams was his own worst enemy. But even so, can you imagine his reaction if he were propelled into the future and looked up at Mount Rushmore with the mammoth faces of Jefferson and Washington looking down on him? It wouldn’t be pretty.
[i] Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, IV (New York: Scribner, 1951), 359; David McCullough, 1776 (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 290 (partial quote). [ii] McCullough, John Adams (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 19. [iii] McCullough, John Adams, 20. [iv] John Adams to Benjamin Rush, New York, April 4, 1790. Alexander Biddle, ed., Old Family Letters: Copied from the Originals for Alexander Biddle. Series A (Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1892), 55. Italics are true to the original manuscript. [v] John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair, Eds., The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805-1813, (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1966), 95. [vi] Courtesan and official mistress of France’s King Louis XV. [vii] This particular “Ten Talents” letter is in the possession of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York City. The images of the entire letter and transcription are on line. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/collections/c937ec94-4d4b-4b48-a275-240372288363?back=/mweb/search%3Fneedle%3DGLC00424. [viii] Schutz and Adair, The Spur of Fame, 95; page 2 of 4 – Gilder Lehrman document. [ix] Gilder Lehrman document, 2 of 4. [x] Gilder Lehrman document, 2 of 4. [xi] Gilder Lehrman document , 2 of 4. [xii] Gilder Lehrman document, 2 of 4. [xiii] Schutz and Adair, The Spur of Fame, 97. [xiv] Gilder Lehrman document, 2 of 4. [xv] Gilder Lehrman document, 3 of 4. [xvi] Gilder Lehrman document, 3 of 4. [xvii] Gilder Lehrman document, 3 of 4. [xviii] Gilder Lehrman document, 3 of 4. [xix] Don Higginbotham, ed., George Washington Reconsidered (Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 2001), 313.