To end October, the Ashbrook Center hosted a group of American history and government teachers from around the country for a colloquium on John Adams.
Participants were able to explore the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts, touring the home in which John Adams was born (in 1735); the home into which he moved as a young man with his wife Abigail (and in which John Quincy Adams was born); and the Old House at Peacefield into which John and Abigail moved in 1788 – and which was the home to four generations of the Adams family.
We also had the chance to dig deeply into the life, ideas, and legacy of America’s second president. And while the second president cannot claim to have been “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen,” perhaps Adams is justified in claiming to have been America’s first or primary advocate for independence from Britain.
Participants got to know the young John Adams, who preferred to be tilling fields than attending class under an uninspiring teacher, but who flourished when he found a teacher who challenged and encouraged him. We traced his career as a lawyer and explored his incendiary response to the Stamp Act, the (forbiddingly titled, but provocative) “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law”. In this, Adams warned his fellow citizens not to permit the British empire to encroach further on their liberties, and claimed, “The true source of our sufferings has been our timidity.”
We explored his “Thoughts on Government” and the Constitution of Massachusetts, of which Adams was the lead author. The Massachusetts Constitution has the honor of being the world’s oldest continuously operating constitution, and participants were surprised to learn how much the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 drew from this source.
Throughout the weekend, though, conversation kept coming back to the question of why Adams has not received the credit that other leading American Founders have. Some participants concluded that Adams was simply overshadowed by the aristocratic Virginians, who were born and bred into positions of authority. Others thought that Adams, a product of Puritan New England, was simply too critical of democracy and too demanding of civic virtue to be warmly embraced by modern Americans. In any event, participants enjoyed exploring Adams’s life and legacy.