cover image Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams

Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams

Joseph J. Ellis. W. W. Norton & Company, $45 (284pp) ISBN 978-0-393-03479-0

Decreeing our second president the ``most misconstrued and underappreciated `great man' in American history,'' Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College, sets out to recover the Adams legacy obscured by the ``triumph of liberalism.'' His notable study focuses on Adams (1735-1826) in retirement in Quincy, Mass., starting in 1801. Drawing on Adams's correspondence, his journalism and his marginalia in the books he read, Ellis shows the one-term president during his first 12 years of private life fulminating over the country's direction, then mellowing. But Adams would remain oppositional and tart: ``Was there ever a Coup de Theatre that had so great an effect as Jefferson's penmanship of the Declaration of Independence?'' Ellis argues that Adams, incapable of political self-protection and with an insufferable personal integrity, internalized what he viewed as the nation's failings--ambition, lust for distinction, etc.--and struggled to keep a check on such qualities within himself. He and Jefferson differed fundamentally on the meaning of the American Revolution; their disagreement, according to Ellis, was not about means but about ends: Jefferson made ``a religion of the people,'' Adams proposed that democratization should be evolutionary. Photos. (May)