Sunday, July 4, 2010

Ye, John Adams

In December 1972, the entire fourth grade class of St. John’s parochial grammar school ventured down to Radio City Music Hall to see its annual Christmas show, which in those days featured a full-length movie in addition to the leggy Rockettes. Via the Number 1 subway train, which we could spy outside of our east-facing classroom windows in the Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge, we made it to midtown Manhattan in under an hour.

The movie we saw that year was a musical: 1776. It starred, among others, William Daniels as John Adams. Portrayed in the film as strident, insufferable, and generally disliked by his congressional peers, Adams was nonetheless depicted as the chief proponent for American independence—a man of principle above all else. He once wrote: Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to record, think, speak, and write.

Sadly, Adams doesn’t get his just due as a founding father. There are no memorials for him in our nation’s capital, which by the way was not named “Adams.” He's not featured on any coins or currency. He's considered a failed president. Meanwhile, author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson is on a patriotic pedestal. And while he was indisputably brilliant, a giant of American history, and key founder, Jefferson the man was quite hypocritical, often distastefully political, and downright strange. For all of his flaws, Adams was a man of great insight, unflagging decency, and genuine courage throughout a very long life lived. Coincidentally, both he and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, fifty years after America officially bid adieu to porcine King George III and his sprawling empire.

In my opinion, one of the best biographies ever written is David McCullough’s John Adams. Not only are Adams's lifetime of achievements impressive, but his voluminous letters are frequently poignant, particularly the correspondence with his wife and children. The very private Jefferson destroyed all missives between he and his wife. I say, "Ye, John Adams" on this special day....

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