His 7 Biggest Blunders
According to Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin described John Adams as “always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes absolutely mad.”
Here are seven of the absolutely maddest things John Adams ever did.
1. Disagreeing with Ben Franklin…in Bed
A great way to tell if someone’s crazy is to share a bed with them. In that respect, Ben Franklin was fully qualified to gauge John Adams’s level of madness.
One night in 1776 on their way to negotiate a possible peace with England, John Adams and Ben Franklin were forced to share a bed in a tiny room with one small window. Adams wanted the window closed, fearing the cold air would make them sick. Franklin insisted it stay open, spouting his previously published thoughts on how stagnant air between people in closed rooms is the real cause of sickness. Adams said Franklin’s “theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox.”
Eventually Adams gave in, opened the window, and jumped into bed to hear Franklin’s thoughts “upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep.”
Thinking cold air caused colds wasn’t so crazy – it’s how the word got its name. But Adams was challenging the scientific beliefs of the man who harnessed the power of lightning. If Ben Franklin wants the window open, you leave the window open. Then you get back in bed and listen to the old man’s thoughts on spooning.
2. Humble-Bragging from France
Before Facebook, it was harder to tell the world how awesome your life was by thinly veiling your boasts in phony humility. But John Adams found a way, through this simple process:
Step 1: Do something worth bragging about.
As a diplomat in France working to get France’s aid during the war, Adams went above and beyond his duties to procure a vital loan from Holland in 1782. This gave the fledgling United States international legitimacy and vital funds in the war effort. He had reason to be proud.
Step 2: Complain in your diary about something that really only highlights your greatness.
After his success in Holland, French officials who hardly gave Adams the time of day before were sucking up to him, trying to get inside information. In his private diary, he wrote, “French gentlemen…said that I had shown in Holland that Americans understand negotiation as well as war… Another said, ‘Monsieur, vous etes le Washington de la negociation.’ This is the last stroke. It is impossible to exceed this.”
He was basically saying, “can you believe how ridiculous it is that a silly French aristocrat said that I AM THE WASHINGTON OF NEGOTIATION!!!”
Step 3: “Accidentally” send those braggadocious diary pages to Congress.
Adams must have somehow hit Reply-All on his private journal, because those over-the-top French compliments made their way into a report he sent to Congress.
|Few people realize that John Adams invented the humble-brag.|
The “unintentional” humble-bragging backfired. Adams’s diary pages were read aloud in Congress where he was mocked. He was the Washington of vanity.
3. Pushing for Fancy Titles
John Adams thought it was crucial for the president to have a high-status honorific, or title. As vice-president, he advocated that Washington be called “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same.”
|Washington atop The Iron Stainless Steel Throne|
Jefferson called Adams’s proposal “the most superlatively ridiculous thing I ever heard of” and it earned Adams his own honorific, “His Rotundity.”
Representative John Page of Virginia penned this verse about Adams’s haughty attitude during these debates:
I’ll tell in a trice-
‘Tis old Daddy Vice
Who carries of pride an ass-load;
Who turns up his nose,
Wherever he goes,
With vanity swelled like a toad.
Fun fact: This is one of the earliest known uses of the term “ass-load.” In my previous post I lamented that there were no words named after John Adams, but I’m glad to see he inspired others to expand the English language to new depths.
After an ass-load of debate, Congress put the kibosh on flashy executive titles. This is why today the highest officer in the United States is addressed as “Mr. President,” and the judge overseeing a traffic ticket in Los Angeles must be called “Your Honor.”
4. Praising Monarchies
Adams’s critics already thought he was out of touch with American customs and democracy, so the absolute worst thing he could have done was publish a series of essays praising the British form of hereditary succession. In his Discourses on Davila published in 1790-1791, he didn’t exactly support kings but he did ponder that hereditary succession might be more peaceful for a country than divisive elections. That was enough for some to brand him a dreaded “monarchist.”
After Adams’s obsession with titles, this was the nail in the coffin for the close friendship Adams and Jefferson forged in France. When Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was published months after Davila, it included a prefatory note from Jefferson hoping it would answer “political heresies which have sprung up among us.”
Everyone knew that was a straight-up personal attack on Adams. Jefferson wrote to his old friend saying he never meant for that remark to be published, and that it was taken from a letter he wrote to the printer. I might buy that if he’d sent the letter to a blacksmith, but he sent it to a printer. Between Jefferson’s note and Adams’s diary, I’m wondering if anything back then was published intentionally.
5. Outlawing Free Speech
Nobody likes it when people talk shit about them, but John Adams made it illegal. One of the absolutely maddest things Adams ever did, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 gave him the power to imprison any journalists who criticized the administration. The rationale was to quell anti-government anarchy from erupting in the wake of the French Revolution, but really it was about silencing his political opponents.
|This is what John Adams thought of freedom of speech in 1798.|
Fourteen journalists were prosecuted before the acts expired, including Ben Franklin’s grandson, newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, who died of yellow fever before his trial. (I wonder if he took his grandfather’s advice on keeping the windows open at night.)
The acts were so controversial they helped cost Adams the election of 1800 and ushered in a dynasty of Democratic-Republicans from Virginia that lasted 24 years and was broken only by his own son, John Quincy Adams.
6. Skipping out on Jefferson’s Inauguration
One of the hallmarks of democracy is the peaceful handover of power from one person to another. Washington had been there for Adams’s inauguration, but at four in the morning on the day of Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration, John Adams rode out of Washington, D.C. and never looked back.
He was too honest to put on a show of friendliness, or too stubborn to suck it up for America. When actors or musicians hate each others’ guts but still come back for a reunion show, it sends the message that some things (like art, or money) are more important than bitter rivalries. Seeing Simon and Garfunkel together lets us know things might seem bad, but everything is going to be okay. Adams’s “morning flight” didn’t do that – it said to America everything is fucked bye-ie!
It’s not surprising given how contentious the election of 1800 had been, but it made him look like a sore, bitter loser. Of course, his actions the night before didn’t help…
7. Stacking the Courts Against Jefferson
A few weeks before the end of Adams’s term, he signed the Judiciary Act of 1801, both a much-needed overhaul to the judicial system and a last-ditch effort to protect America from the perceived threat of Jefferson’s godless anarchist Democratic-Republican party.
The Judiciary Act lowered the size of the Supreme Court from six to five judges, making sure that the next vacancy could not be filled by Jefferson. More egregiously to Jefferson, it expanded the circuit courts, further strengthening the federal government. Adams filled these new positions (mostly with Federalists) up until his very last night in office. These were his infamous “Midnight Appointments.”
This was like stepping onto a crowded elevator, farting, and getting off on the next floor. These judgeships would be filled for life with men opposed to Jefferson’s every move. Well…not exactly. Jefferson’s Republican party responded by simply repealing the parts of the Judiciary Act they didn’t like and eliminating those new circuit court positions. When it came to playing politics, Adams was no match for Jefferson. But he knew someone who was.
In his final months as president, Adams nominated his secretary of state John Marshall as chief justice of the United States. The new head of the Supreme Court for the next 34 years, Marshall was a stalwart Federalist. Adams later said, “My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life.”
Marshall was also a bitter political enemy, and cousin, of Thomas Jefferson. Over the years he caused Jefferson and his party an ass-load of headaches.
Well played, John.