John Adams was a founding father and second president of the United States, but perhaps his greatest acts ofwere in recommending George Washington to be president, and John Marshall a justice of the Supreme Court. In this time travel interview, we welcome John Adams.
EL: You admired Benjamin Franklin because of his early industriousness but found a different man when the two of you worked as diplomats in France. Had he become lazy or disorganized?
Adams: Franklin was a great and good man. He had wit at will. He had a satire that was good-natured and caustic. He had talents of irony, allegory and fable that he could adapt with great skill to promote the truth.
However, I am useless at such things. Incessant dinners and dissipations were not the object of my mission. My countrymen were suffering in America in 1778, their affairs were in great confusion in Europe, and to receive an answer from Philadelphia might take six months. I never had more work to do or so little to show for it.
The longer I lived in Europe and the more I considered our affairs, the more important our alliance with France seemed to me. Yet it was wasteful to have three commissioners there [Arthur Lee was the third]. Mr. Franklin himself would have been quite enough.
EL: The British newspapers had a field day with you.
Adams: The English made fine work of me, yes. But the falsest of it all was that I was disgusted with the Parisians. In truth, the French held in their hands the power to determine the fate of our country, and at the beginning, I did not speak their language.
EL: Your brand of leadership is a modest combination of competence and determination. Yet, even then, you felt that type of leadership did not lend itself to public life.
Adams: The longer I live, and the more I see of public men, the more I wish to be a private one. Modesty is a virtue that can never thrive in public. Modest merit! Is there such a thing remaining in public life?
EL: You don’t want to be a celebrity, but a leader.
Adams: Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.
EL: You were often caught between strong personalities. How did you manage it?
Adams: There are persons whom in my heart I despise, others I abhor. Yet I am not obliged to inform them of it.
This kind of disguise is a necessary branch of wisdom. Far from being immoral, it is a duty and a virtue.
EL: Any advice for young leaders?
Adams: Cultivate the manners of your own country, not those of Europe. The more decisively you adhere to simplicity in your dress and behavior, the more you devote yourself to business and study, and the less to dissipation and pleasure, the more you will recommend yourself to every man and woman whose friendship is worth having. Urbanity without ostentation will succeed everywhere and at all times.
Source: John Adams, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster. Image from painting of President John Adams (1735-1826), 2nd president of the United States, by Asher B. Durand
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