John Adams The American Presidents Series: The 2nd President, 1797-1801

The American Presidents

John Patrick Diggins; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

Times Books




224 Pages



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Perhaps no U.S. president was less suited for the practice of politics than John Adams. A gifted philosopher who helped lead the movement for American independence from its inception, Adams was unprepared for the realities of party politics that had already begun to dominate the new country before Washington left office. Indeed, Adams and the Federalists were so effectively outmaneuvered by the Republicans that history has tended to overlook the legacy of the short, balding man from Massachusetts who led the country between Washington and Jefferson.

But, as John Patrick Diggins shows, Adams's contributions still resonate today. During his single term he created the Department of the Navy, rallied support for an undeclared war against France, oversaw the passage of the Alien and Sedition Act, and left a solvent Treasury. More importantly, he identified and fought against two trends that continue to trouble domestic affairs today—specifically, the conflict existing between America's aristocratic and populist impulses, as well as that existing between the will of the people and the rights of minorities.

Diggins's Adams is a man whose reputation for snobbery and failure are wholly undeserved, and whose prescient modernism still offers us valuable lessons as we strive to fulfill the Founding Fathers' vision of a fair republic and just society. He is, in Diggins's concise and knowing account, the president who comes closest to the Platonic ideal of a philosopher-king.


Praise for John Adams

"America's second president, John Adams, was the political leader who had to face democratic politics as we know it today, whereas his predecessor, George Washington, enjoyed an unchallenged charismatic authority as the glorious hero of the Revolution. But what Washington won on the battlefield as a general Adams won at the conference table as a diplomat: a vital loan that helped finance the Revolution and the favorable peace terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1783. As president, Adams dealt with international relations, civil liberties, and domestic rebellion with a keen sense of power, fairness, and justice. He had a better grasp of where America was heading than did Thomas Jefferson, and had it not been for the political institutions Adams defended—a strong executive, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the military—America's democratic ideals would have had no means of realization. This is Adams's legacy."—John Patrick Diggins on John Adams

"[Diggins] spends time considering Adams in the light of political alter ego Thomas Jefferson, who lived as an aristocrat while speaking as a radical, yet unfairly accused his sober-minded, eminently democratic opponent of being Caesar in the making . . . [This] solid interpretation of events will interest students of the presidency and the early republic."—Kirkus Reviews

"In this study, part of the accessible series [from Times Books] on each of the country's chief executives, historian Diggins' academic specialty, intellectual history, influences his appraisal of Adams. The President wrote copiously about political philosophy, and in one chapter, Diggins closely evaluates the material. This is a wise confinement, for, except for his correspondence, Adams is a chore to read. The pace quickens in the balance of Diggins' narrative as he integrates Adams' fundamental ideas about politics into the hurly-burly story of the 1790s. Adams' presidency was, of course, vexed by the quasi-war with revolutionary France and associated turbulence in domestic politics. As much as recounting events, Diggins engages historians of this much-written-about decade, detecting pro-Jefferson bias in some, as he argues for Adams' significance as a political moralist. This examination will be of special interest to history readers with an analytical bent."—Booklist

"More than just a miniature of our second president, Diggins's slim volume offers a reconsideration of Adams, a thoughtful study of American politics of the period and Adams's legacy for today."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads




  • John Adams by John Patrick Diggins--Audiobook Excerpt

    Listen to this audiobook excerpt from John Patrick Diggins' biography John Adams, part of The American Presidents Series. Until recently rescued by David McCullough, John Adams has always been overshadowed by Washington and Jefferson. Volatile, impulsive, irritable, and self-pitying, Adams seemed temperamentally unsuited for the presidency. Yet in many ways he was the perfect successor to Washington in terms of ability, experience, and popularity.



  • John Patrick Diggins; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

  • Cited by the New York Times as "one of the liveliest and most interesting of contemporary intellectual historians," John Patrick Diggins is a distinguished professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of numerous books, including On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundation of American History, Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy, and The Proud Decades. He lives in New York City.

    Series editor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. is arguably the preeminent political historian of our time. For more than half a century, he has been a cornerstone figure in the intellectual life of the nation and a fixture on the political scene. He served as special assistant to John F. Kennedy; won two Pulitzer Prizes for The Age of Jackson (1946) and A Thousand Days (1966); and in 1998 received the National Humanities Medal. He published the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, in 2000.

  • Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Dominique Nabokov