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.