It is revealing that after attempting to write a parallel biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson  that midbrow historian David McCullough chose to write a biography of John Adams. It is also revealing that both his book and miniseries based on it were immensely successful and have done a great job at rehabilitating the reputation of our nation’s second president. Our family has an as of yet unverified tradition that we are related to the Adams, largely on account of the fact that my maternal line of the family has some lineages going back to the days of the Puritans and Pilgrims, and given the insular nature of that society, many families were related to many other ones. Benjamin Frannklin memorably said of Adams that he was “always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” This is a sentiment I can readily relate to, being the same sort of person myself, a person of high intelligence but also highly strung nerves and a certain irascibility of temper. Like most of my favorite animals, the prickly aspects of my nature are protecting that which is sensitive and vulnerable and more than a little bit thin-skinned.
Why is it unsurprising to me at least that David McCullough would prefer to write about John Adams than Tomas Jefferson, and that our generation would feel more favorable towards the think-skinned and prickly New England Adams than the urbane and witty Thomas Jefferson? Aside from the fact that I find myself far closer to Adams than to Jefferson in my own temperament, I think the reason is that Adams, for all of his prickliness, was essentially an honest man. He had a loving and savvy wife, whom he respected greatly, and was rather candid about his flaws and shortcomings. Our generation, rather creditably, seems to value that honesty in a way that his own generation did not honor as much. In stark contrast, though, Thomas Jefferson was a man of an essentially dishonest character. Fancying himself an honorable gentleman who had promised not to marry again, he apparently carried on a long relationship with a slave in his household. Proclaiming himself to be a rational philosophe, he wrote a passionate dialogue about the head and the heart to justify an adulterous relationship while he was in Paris. Professing in public that an honorable man should be above partisan politics, he worked in tandem with sleazy and unscrupulous people to drag the reputations of his political opponents through the mud. Declaring that in farming was the store of republican virtue for American society, he long engaged in dishonest and opaque financial dealings in order to live beyond his means as a Virginia planter.
It is little wonder, then, that our generation finds Thomas Jefferson to be a sanctimonious hypocrite and Adams to be a lovable if somewhat irascibly grumpy person. Truth be told, what I have read of Adams reminds me in many ways of my late grumpy and irascible maternal grandfather, with a bit more of a reflective nature. We live in a generation that knows that people are flawed, and often revels in our own flaws and shortcomings, and that has a strong mistrust of anyone who claims to be far more virtuous than the average herd. We can fundamentally trust someone who is honest and prickly, because we can see enough of their true nature to know that they will be fundamentally people of integrity honest enough to be compassionate with other fellow sinners. On the other hand, our age has a strong mistrust of high and soaring rhetoric that wishes to place some as being on a different plane of virtue than others, which tends to lead to sanctimonious self-righteous hypocrisy and the deliberate denial of one’s own sins in order to maintain an attitude of unmerited superiority to others.
Yet in some ways we must be careful that our adoration of the prickly honesty of John Adams is not in its own way a pose of the kind that Thomas Jefferson’s was. Thomas Jefferson has long been admired for his felicity with words, for his skill at crafting evocative prose in defense of liberty, even if our generation (and plenty within his own generation) saw liberty-loving slaveowners a priori to be a contradiction in terms, or a sign of the most vile hypocrisy. The purpose of exposing hypocrisy is not to feel ourselves morally superior to other hypocrites, but rather to point a mirror into our own dark hearts about the fact that are subject to the same temptations and blind spots that have existed in all ages of the melancholy course of human history. In seeking to expose the dark truths behind the masks of others, we would be wise to be charitable, because someday the darkness of our own hearts and minds will be brought into light and we will be brought into the same disrepute that we have joyously heaped on our fellow sinners. Being people in need of charity, we would do well to be charitable to others as it is within our power to do so. And if we suffer unfairly and unjustly for our own flaws and foibles in this time, perhaps the future will be more kind to us, even if we are no longer around to enjoy it.
 See, for example: