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 important, he identified and fought against two trends that continued to trouble domestic affairs today. Adams was keenly aware of the influence of the rich and famous over the popular imagination. Many of his policies were intended to keep the unofficial aristocracy of celebrity, including that of president, in check. Adams also foresaw the Jefferson's populism, which helped the Republicans win the close election of 1800, was faulty: guaranteeing freedom and the rule of popular opinion could not ensure that citizens would respect one another's inalienable rights. The Civil War, suffrage for women, and the civil rights movement would, generations later, highlight this tension between the will of the people and the rights of minorities.
Diggins' Adams is a man whose reputation for snobbery and failure are wholly undeserved, and whose prescient modernism still holds valuable lessons for us as we strive to fulfill the Founding Fathers' vision of a fair republic and just society. He is, in Diggins' view, the president who comes closest to Plato's ideal of philosopher-king.