The Eccentricity of John Adams: Its Effects on His Political Career


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D.Gettysburg College

One could say that with all the eccentricity of John Adams, he was one of the few who aspired to be the brains of the American Republic. Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1735, John Adams was a fifth-generation New Englander, son of a deacon and a town selectman, and of a daughter of the Boylston clan, which linked him to three generations of Boylston physicians and merchants.

An old pen and a sword over gray background
John Adams proved that a good pen could make up for not having an intimidating presence. (Image: Fabio Alcini/Shutterstock)

First Family of the Republic

To merely say that Adams was strictly brought up would be an injustice to New England’s pursed-lip sense of Puritan sobriety;

My parents held every species of libertinage in such contempt and horror and held up constantly to view such pictures of disgrace, of baseness, and ruin, that my natural temperament was always overawed by my principles and sense of decorum.

He was packed off to Harvard College in 1751, his father expecting that Harvard would make a clergyman of him; instead, it made him a lawyer. He married his third cousin, Abigail Smith, in 1764, a union that lasted for 54 years and produced six children who formed what might be called the first family of the Republic. 

Painting of John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams, president of the US, was the son of John Adams. (Image: RoundSquare/Public domain)

A son, John Quincy Adams, eventually served as president, a grandson served as American representative to Great Britain during the Civil War, and a great-grandson became one of the nation’s most famous historians.

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Pen Is Mightier than the Sword

Adams made his first political mark during the Stamp Act frenzy in 1765; he sat in both Continental Congresses and was a committee member appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776. 

He was not an eloquent speaker, nor did he have an intimidating presence; as an adult, Adams was five feet six inches. The portrait in the National Portrait Gallery shows Adams as short and round-cheeked, looking somewhat like a junior librarian. However, that would be to underestimate Adams’ talents with the pen. 

His first political opus, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, vividly denounced the Stamp Act officers as “missionaries of ignorance, foppery, servility, and slavery.” The 12 essays he published in the winter of 1775 argued that the colonies should be thought of as a second part of the British empire, independent of the Parliament in London and answerable directly to the king.

When Lexington and Concord cut short the essays, Adams concluded that there is no good government but what is a republic. If all the colonies possessed such forms of government, and a confederation was agreed on in Congress, they would be unconquerable by all Europe.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Eccentricity of John Adams and His Relations

However, there was an eccentricity in John Adams which put people off all too easily. He was blunt to the point of rudeness. “I have never been used to disguise my sentiments of men, whom I have been against, in public life,” he wrote, “Candor is my characteristic.” 

John Adams on a Dollar coin
John Adams’ eccentricity did not get in the way of his superior political capabilities. (Image: mattesimages/Shutterstock)

However, it was a candor that was unredeemed with the slightest trace of wit or humor, and it was larded with an almost comical degree of self-regard. “There are very few people in this world with whom I can bear to converse,” he admitted to Abigail Adams, “I am never happy in their company.”

He was sufficiently imposing as an intellectual for the Continental Congress to dispatch him to France along with Benjamin Franklin to represent the new United States; unlike Franklin, however, he made no attempt to accommodate himself to the free and easy mores of French life. “Mr. Adams has given offense to the court here,” Franklin reported, “by some sentiments and expressions contained in several of his letters written for the Count de Vergennes.” 

Vergennes, the French foreign minister, was less polite, “Adams,” he says, “has an inflexibility, a pedantry, an arrogance, and a conceit which renders him incapable of dealing with political subjects.” Franklin was exasperated by him. “He means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”

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Unpopular, but Respected Everywhere 

Still, for all that Adams was “quite vain and ambitious,” even the French conceded that he was a man “of great talent, the best politician, the best negotiator, the best legislator of the century.” Even Thomas Jefferson, who admitted that Adams was possessed “of a degree of vanity; and of a blindness to it,” thought Adams was “as disinterested as the being which made him profound in his views”.

What Adams lacked in popularity, he made up for in respect, partly because Adams had been out of the country on diplomatic missions, had not participated in the Constitutional Convention, and so had not unduly antagonized anyone in America. He snagged 34 electoral votes in the first presidential election, coming in a distant second to Washington, and was thus duly installed as Washington’s vice-president.

Common Questions about the Eccentricity of John Adams

Q: How did John Adams’s family influence his character?

The strictness implemented in his upbringing resulted in John Adams‘s having strict principles that always overruled his natural temperament. His eccentricity of being honest to the point of being rude made him irritable to some of his colleagues.

Q: How did John Adams’s eccentricity get him into trouble with his colleagues?

Although they knew he meant well, the eccentricity of John Adams could be irritable to many of the people who knew him. This eccentricity led to him being an unpopular character, although he was well respected for being a great politician.

Q: What was the main reason John Adams hadn’t antagonized anyone in America before he became the vice president?

The eccentricity of John Adams was not discovered by many of his colleagues as he had been out of the country on diplomatic missions, had not participated in the Constitutional Convention, and so had not unduly antagonized anyone in America.

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